Building a team that ticks!

putting the pieces together...

putting the pieces together...

What does it take to build a testing team which delivers 9 times out of 10,  which is high on capability and which betters itself or strains every sinew to better itself in testing projects full of challenges anew  (ha! that rhymed).  I think it takes first and foremost people and then process framework, vision, perseverance and will.

who stands strong grows tall

who stands strong grows tall

This post speaks about how a successful step was taken in the organisation that I worked with in creating and building a team which tested and ticked – a group of  thinking minds, unwavering, throbbing with energy and raring to go.

To create a successful and capable test team what one needs up front is people with the right mindset (how to test, what to test, how software works, how to deal with managers who play games and fart at work, think hatke when needed, assertive, pragmatic & so on). Indeed processes also matter but bright people come first who can do it for themselves, for the project/organisation and for you.

When I had a mandate to improve the quality of testing and reduce the invectives sprayed by the customer about quality woes suggesting lack of effective testing, I seriously had to re-jig the team besides setting right the framework. Luckily and rather quickly, without too much pain, several less accomplished resources either quit or were told to leave on completion of their contracts. As new projects kicked in and resources were recruited it was time to take the first step of recruiting right. I ensured we never made compromises due to pressure to “recruit yesterday” from the sales / delivery team. We could lose billing revenue but the impact of a resource recruited in a hurry and only as a name on the invoice would be a pain in the backside (mine) and customer abuse if not losing the relationship in days to follow. We remained diligent even as the storm blew and interviews at most times lasted many hours at times across 2-3 iterations. We used questionnaires (Q’s on testing concepts/strategy, problem solving, logic stuff) so as to first filter out the chaff from the grain. We used the scores as an input but were careful not to be blinded by it. During the interviews we focussed on live scenarios, presented problems, dug the past, asked questions which were non-intimidatory yet challenging and other rudimentary questions. I always listen a lot during interviews and check facial expressions, body language, quality and novelty of solutions provided, depth of thought, language and articulation, assertiveness, enthusiasm and curiosity, questioning skills, sense of balance say when a prickly event is brought out from the past and so forth… I think that having multi-dimensional personalities works to our advantage in general. It is accepted that knowledge of programming is a big plus to complement the testing skills, but experience (some call it non-experience which is not correct!) in marketing, specific domain expertise, hardware/network maintenance, teaching exposure for example adds a dimension of its own suggesting experience that may come handy down the road. The previous experiences of interviewees unrelated as it maybe to testing (say teaching) may give a useful twist to the personality (viz. confidence, poise).  In my book it makes lot of sense to focus on positives which every individual has and over time try and work on the negatives.

Bonding does wonders..

Bonding does wonders..

A successful team needs to have horses to take you ahead and work-horses to carry the load. Both of them are useful and deserving of attention since both will do their jobs in their own way, as long as work allocation is done properly. I employed beard-just-out but smart graduates with attitude as test trainees since they come cheap and served my long term interests in building a team.

After the hire is done, the next step is easing the recruit into the team and present the testing ethos via me and senior leads. Exposure to existing projects and the deliverables (viz. strategy document, test cases, tools, bug reports etc.) created gives the new recruit a glimpse of how-it-is-done-here. As the new tester takes in the things thrown at him, she is told to find faults in presentations, deliverables or thought process of anyone and every one in testing. Straight away thus she knows she can speak here and her voice will be heard.  Last but not the least as part of her induction – a mandatory part comprises an exercise in reading a book / excerpt / topic to study and present to a select few (me included) and if done well to the team as a whole. A senior member monitors the progress and tries to instil upfront the value of digging deep, asking questions, presentation aspects, speaking skills etc. The books we lend are courtesy the library (comprised of books on core testing, technical, soft aspects like creativity, thinking) the test team had of its own and self managed which was another bit that contributed to the capability ticking nicely.

You would have noticed that when sometimes things go wrong they do go quite horrendously in directions and ways you wouldn’t want to be part of. But then dealing with challenges is what makes life tick harder when hope seems constipated and you need to think deep and take decisions and galvanise people and explain your stand and then after all the hard work when the sun comes out – the feeling is just euphoric, isn’t it? hmmm… it all becomes worth it when the chick comes out of the egg!

So what do you do when testing is just a task rather than a meaningful contributor properly done by thinking people within context and within an ambit of processes which breathe.

Which is how it was and I invited change so that improvement sets in and there would be light.

Knowledge of self belongs to the team

Knowledge of self belongs to the team

We moved from a flat test organisation having testers scattered across projects and managed by project managers to a centralised test organisation – cohesive and differentiated by designations and a capability based hierarchy (over time) which herded people in orderly manner and gave purpose to growth, ambition and aspirations that people have. There were discussions aplenty but I was and I am clear in my mind that a centralised group of testers under the direct influence of a test manager is what works for all. The group of testers feel better since their career aspirations/growth, work allocation, training, performance reviews and grievances can be handled better. Testing is today a highly specialised field and you need a specialist to manage the work and guide the people doing the work. Testing is today business-critical and the techniques/strategy employed even more so for meeting the acceptance criteria of the customer. Since stress and sometimes conflict is a natural part of their work, a person who understands these technicalities and what causes the stress/conflicts will be far better able to influence people, explain matters conclusively and above all empathise and motivate the testers to gravitate towards achieving what the customers require – a product assured of behaviour found acceptable and delivered in time.

There were other initiatives I initiated that bore fruit over a period of time.

  • Effort estimates by Test Leads for testing a new project ensured that the estimate is close to realistic (hmm wish it were so but its an estimate which is comfortable to me given the methodology adopted was known to us) and does not get reduced to a random number thrown by a marketing guy for appeasing a customer or is not a percentage of development (which is sheer baloney but mature people buy this often which is surprising but amuses me nevertheless!). How we estimate has been described in this previous post.
  • I encouraged and supported the test leads to take centre stage in testing and call the shots related to strategy, scheduling, planning and resourcing of testing. I reviewed every deliverable produced by test leads and discussed strategies, planning aspects, good practices, escalations, resource feedback etc. before they went into the conference rooms, sometimes alone and sometimes with me. The empowerment is nothing new and goes with the job but one needs to prop up people and mentor them so that they can go to battle, so to speak. I have been very lucky to have some of the best minds and characters that I had in my team as test leaders. The experience taught me a lot (can you ever stop learning).
  • The test leads were avowedly driven to mirror and complement the Business Analyst by understanding the application in as much depth as possible. Since she would need to transfer knowledge to his team, review the test cases and ensure efficient risk-based testing by prioritising tests, her knowledge had to be very comprehensive via document study, interacting with internal BA and/or the customer representative. The value that the test lead (and the team she commanded) brought to table was second to none and made for good discussions especially say when we were close to releasing the software and a confidence vote was sought from the team. In-depth application knowledge really is the foundation and bulwark of focussed and efficient testing. This is common knowledge but it needed reiteration to become part of the mainstream and to get ingrained into the blood of the testers.
  • For new challenges (say language testing, accessibility testing, new tools evaluation, etc.) we formed Product Champ groups who researched and studied the topic in a thread-bare manner along with regular self-managed brainstorm and update sessions from time to time. This knowledge was even percolated to the entire team via share sessions. Subsequently when we began to market some of the capabilities having business potential – this was championed by the same people who built the base earlier. Most of the champions were young people with not much experience but chosen by me based on potential they displayed when they interacted with me. It is the person’s capability that matters and not his age or number of projects executed. One must look at each one within team as having positives, isolate them, make that person aware of it, respect him for it and when the opportunity arise, give him the chance to come out of his shell to take charge. This force of individual positivity is then sure to propel the team forward into a new higher zone of capability. Motivation, competitiveness, bonding were the other positives for the team.
  • Reward the people who deliver value by promotions, gifts and so on… I have been generous with these but even more with words to motivate, focus and thank them for their work. It always pays to be humble whatever rung you occupy in the organisation hierarchy. (Amidst the glory, I still had to deal with bloody incompetence  (interviews are not always successful) in a manner as deserving. Do not ever spare the guilty who consistently fumble despite best efforts to resuscitate. Hang the spoilers if you have to!)
  • By keeping protocol out, I ensured I gave my time to all testers to discuss project / organisation issues, ideas, thoughts, grievances and so on… Keeping the door open meant that people could come in and meet me freely, air their thoughts which made them feel light and that of making a contribution. After our conversations they did not carry unwanted baggage within them of grudges and misgivings. Happy people means shiny output.
  • Aah – I wish I had done more of this….  but we did have team workshops and periodic get-together-cum-knowledge sessions. We celebrated birthdays – cutting and smearing cake with claps and laughter all around and gathered together when people parted from the organisation with back-slaps and gifts and speeches and what have you. Fun, camaraderie and bonhomie infused life and sparkle and thawed somewhat the glazed sleepy eyes and tired minds of those who were in the grip of a project gone astray…

Camaraderie & Fun, a team's critical glue..

Camaraderie & Fun, a team's critical glue..

So to conclude – pick your team wisely and with care, nurture them, reward them, motivate them and above all guide them in directions which will achieve the goals of the projects and the team. If all goes well and other parts complement those of Testing, chances are that the customer for whom we work are happy and stay happy by keeping the relationship going…. The sun will then shine and we will beam.

And that would make us tick faster and further….

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5 responses to “Building a team that ticks!

  1. It gives me a lot of memory now when I read your post and when i see your cabin everyday which is locked(‘Memory’ can u believe?) even though my consious still have not realised that the cabin is not occupied by the same Leader who did so much to start from scratch to grow the Testing team and the individuals as a whole. There were so much of learning every day, with lots of thought process, ideas, fun, growth, the normal routine things were also done differently keeping the Quality always in mind before…. which i realise more after the cabin has now gone empty (its true i guess, u will realise the pain more when the ‘one’ is not around more the being around)… for sure ppl with talent have been recognised and have been groomed more than if at all they would have been in some other organisation with some other leadership… i am missing all those alltogether, like suddenly some storm has fallen on the top of evergreen garden which has gone dark and no greens left.

    Now after the Leader is missing – the energy level is down, there is not much of thought process, no ‘great’ job done feeling now, loose tails shaking all around with being cut & taught properly, less deserving getting more.. the only driving factor is no compromise on quality (still with the same spirit for the company, dunno how) which is what is driving the show still which is the inspiraiton from the foot steps of the leader and as a tester from inside…

    • Thanks for the heartfelt words. I am sure people have picked up the pieces and carrying on and the inspiration must come from you and other leaders still around. Remember, nobody is indispensable!

  2. Hmmmmm – mesmerising!

    This is yet another masterpiece (like one of those artistic PPTs)….
    I remember the ‘putting the piece together’ image….we discussed about it, another discussion as highlighted in team building related process.

  3. Pingback: Learning and becoming wiser… « Spilling blood for Quality

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