Becoming, Being and Building a Leader

Becoming a Leader
In addition to the innate traits, you will also need to have strong technical knowledge in your area. Some may argue that a manager does not need to have technical knowledge, but in my experience, if you don’t have the necessary technical knowledge, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to earn the respect of your people and your peers. We work in a technical environment where technical skills are revered. You have to be able to participate in technical discussions, make decisions based on technical materials and be able to determine what matters. You have to earn respect – it won’t be granted to you based on the title on your business cards.

Given the traits we have to have, and knowing that there must be lot of people out there with those traits, let’s look at some of the finer points of managing a technical testing team. Let’s start by looking at some common, painful and sometimes career-ending mistakes that managers (particularly inexperienced ones) make. Sadly, all these are direct quotes from managers I’ve had the misfortune of encountering somewhere in my career.

"I already know everything." Really? Do you really know everything? If you’re a technical lead, you might get away with this for awhile, but eventually the people working for you will mutiny or your manager will catch on, because no one knows everything. Not in the software industry anyway. Things change too fast. Management is the science of adaptation to continuously changing circumstances. The moment you know everything comes right before the moment you discover that there is indeed something you didn’t know.

"I’ll solve all the problems." As was recently observed by our President, the easy problems have already been solved. If the problem was readily solvable, unless you have a staff of dolts, they would have solved it. So, don’t come into a new job and expect that you can immediately solve all the problems. The problems are probably hard – maybe impossible – to solve. It’s insulting and disrespectful to assume that you will be able to solve everything that has remained unsolved until your arrival. Do your research before you make the commitments.

"I make all the decisions. You do what you’re told." That works great if you are managing a bunch of robots, but we want our testers to be independent thinkers who take great responsibility in what they do. By deciding that you know better and you can dictate what they should do, you are indicating that you know more than they do in all areas. If that’s true, you have some serious staffing issues. If that’s not true, we are back to that respect issue. Value your people. Take their input. Chances are they know stuff you don’t.

"I’m here to build my career." People aren’t stepping stones. If you have selected the right folks for your group, some of them will be better than you are at what you do. That’s a good thing. But
be aware, the person you walk on today may be your boss tomorrow!

"Who are you again?" People need to feel valued and respected. Learn their names. Learn what matters to them. If you truly value and respect them, it will show in your regular interactions. How much respect would you have if your manager couldn’t remember who you were? If you are new to the job, be sure to take the time to talk to each individual and get to know them. It matters.

"All vacations are cancelled so we can meet my deadlines." People have lives. If you cannot offer balance, you cannot keep people long term and your training costs will be astronomical. People need time off which means that time must be built into the schedules. Don’t commit to schedules that will force attrition in the team.

"We need more people! Hire anyone! Now!!" Warm bodies are not the only requirement for testers. Adding unqualified and ill-suited people to the team will dilute the talent pool to the point of frustrating the competent people. You’ll soon end up with a team full of what you hired in a panic – warm bodies that couldn’t test their way out of paper bag.

"I know I said that yesterday, but today is different." Sometimes you have to change directions based on changing management requirements, but minimize it. Frequent direction changes make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing and have no ability to plan. This leads to insecurity in the team and questioning of your leadership ability. Also, if you find people sending you your own email in which you said something you later contradicted, you have a big problem!

"And let me explain that again… and again… and again." Some people love to hear themselves talk. But, there’s a time to close your mouth and listen. This is part of valuing people’s time as well as providing them an opportunity to communicate with you. If you are always talking, you are not listening.

I could go on, but I’m sure you have your own list of management flaws and unforgettable quotes. You get the idea. Most of these go back to the single point of respect, or, more correctly, a lack of respect. New managers often say these things (or worse) out of insecurity or a mistaken attempt to prove their fitness for the job. It’s a mistake for sure, but one that needs to be considered by anyone in a management job. It’s very hard to take back what has been said and undoing a poor impression can take a very, very long time. Whether you are a manager now, are building new leaders or want to be a leader, please consider this list carefully. Understand the motivation that might cause someone to say these things so you can be sure that you don’t fall into these traps.

Building a Leader
OK, enough of the bad stuff. Let’s talk about what the traits we want to see in someone who can and will become a leader. These are somewhat obvious, but you might not be watching for them. If you want to pick your best leaders for the future, look for these traits.

  1. The person shows a desire to provide direction. This leader-candidate sees areas where direction is needed and works to fill the void. They may come up with a short term plan, make a schedule, divide up the work, document process or any other organization-oriented task. This is a great sign that this person not only recognizes the problem, but works to fix it.
  2. The person doesn’t settle for the status quo. There is always room for improvement. Always following the usual processes can become a form of laziness. Your future leader is one who is always looking for ways to improve, but isn’t making changes just to be making changes. Improvement is the focus for the leader and the time frame is long term.
  3. The person supports and encourages co-workers. I recently received this email (unedited) from one of my blossoming leaders. He had just received an automated email from a co-worker who was working on some new API automation testing. He has never actually met this person and, in fact, they work on different projects, yet he took the time to send this email:

    Hi Radhika,

    This is good work. Running functional testing through SoaTest in automated manner.


    Maybe not the most grammatically correct email, but look at the message it sends. He took the time to write a quick note when he noticed the progressive testing she was doing – even though it’s not directly related to his project. He recognized and affirmed a good idea.

  4. The person is willing and able to train others and to share knowledge. In some organizations, knowledge is power and the more knowledge you keep to yourself, the more power you have. That’s not a trait you want in your leaders though – they should want to share their knowledge so they can delegate tasks and take on new challenges. Training others builds your own knowledge and builds a stronger team. A cross-trained group is able to handle priority shifts, absences and challenging schedules.
  5. The person reports accomplishments, but doesn’t brag. Someone who sends you email for every little thing they’ve done isn’t someone you want in a leadership position. Your leaders should report their accomplishments in a matter-of-fact way. You expect them to accomplish tasks, innovate and advance. It’s great to have a status, but it shouldn’t bog down with trivia that is an obvious attempt to escalate one’s own importance over the valuable contributions of others.
  6. The person performs consistently. People who have flashes of brilliance followed by hours of darkness are probably not the basis on which to build your group. Leaders are consistent performers that you can count on.
  7. The person identifies problems and proposes solutions. There are always problems, but it really helps when someone also brings some possible solutions. It shows they care. It shows they are working to build a future with the group. It also shows that you don’t have to come up with all the new ideas! It’s also very telling if the person takes input on their ideas. This will show you if this is someone with whom you can work.
  8. The person provides valuable and well-considered input on candidates. You may need to prompt for this input. I had a situation where I was getting a checklist of the candidate’s technical capabilities, but when I asked my potential leader what he really thought of the candidate, only then did he tell me he thought the person was a bad fit. And then he thanked me for requesting his input. Sometimes you have to offer the encouragement to get the information you need. Since this time, this person has hired some truly excellent people and has personally trained them and promoted their capabilities to me.
  9. And this brings me to my last point. Your leader candidate will thrive on your encouragement. They want to grow. They want to be good. You need to encourage them and help to build their abilities. Remember, leaders are formed.

Growing a leader requires time and patience. Determine their strengths and emphasize those by providing opportunities for success. Remember to recognize their efforts, even though not all efforts will be successful. Determine areas for growth as well and be sure to explain the growth needs. Set achievable goals for the person and provide the support they need. Don’t hover, but be there when you’re needed. And, provide praise as warranted. It also helps if the praise doesn’t always come from you. Get your manager to also provide praise and re-inforcement. Tap the developers for some helpful and encouraging words. The highest praise my developers have for the testers is when they refuse to release something until their tester has OK’d it. That’s an affirmation of the tester’s ability as well as their importance to the quality of the released product.

It’s important to be accessible and available. Your growing leaders will have questions and will need help. They need to understand that you are there for them and will provide the guidance they need (sometimes even when they don’t ask for it). We’re all busy. Be sure you make time in your schedule to build the future of the group.

Bad stuff happens. Even the best tester lets a bug get through now and then. That’s the reality of our business. Remember, if it was easy it wouldn’t be any fun! When this happens, particularly to your growing leader, back them up. Everyone messes up now and then. Help them fix the problem and be sure they understand that you make mistakes too. I sent an email to one of my new people asking why we had missed a bug. He sent back an explanation of what had happened and how it had been missed in a well-constructed email that he probably sweated over for an entire day. When I read it, and realized that he had interpreted my question as a challenge to his ability as a tester, I responded back with "I would have missed it too, if that’s any comfort." I received a relieved email from him in response and an email from his lead thanking me for the empathy. It’s so easy to forget that we all make mistakes – some are just more visible than others. A little humility goes a long way.

As your leader grows, allow them to have more say in hiring decisions, let them organize the training for new hires and work with them on the structuring of the group and the responsibilities. Let them grow. Let them determine the level and frequency of reporting that will make everyone comfortable. Offer communication opportunities that go beyond weekly meetings, including email and instant messaging. Oh, and it’s nice to just stop by their desk now and then to see how things are going.

People want different levels of control and can handle different levels of control. Unfortunately, "want" and "can" are not necessarily equal, so be sure you hand off the right levels and monitor carefully. You don’t want to throw over the reins to someone who isn’t ready as it is likely to lead to failure. Conversely, you don’t want to control the reins when you have someone who is ready to take them. It’s a fine balance and is different with every individual – and that’s why management is an art, not a science.

When you’re building your leader, treat them as a partner. Share information freely, work with them as an equal and give them opportunities to grow to be at your level. The better your leaders, the easier your job becomes.

Being a Leader
I’ve found eight important traits that are common to good test leaders. There are probably more and there are certainly situations that require additional traits, but these eight have held constant for me over jobs across multiple industries.

  1. Learn. Our industry is constantly changing. Technology changes, processes change, new practices come and go. If you are always interested, you will always be learning. Sometimes a different way is a better way. Sometimes not. But if you don’t consider the options, you might miss out on a very effective new process. Remember in our industry, out of date frequently equates to out of work.
  2. Listen. You might learn something! Also listen for silence – it doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. You hired smart people, let them talk and hear what they have to say.
  3. Respect. It shows. Treat everyone with respect, or, at the very least, courtesy. Say thank you when it’s warranted; it buys good will.
  4. Know your people. Invest some time in getting to know them. Ask about their kids. Ask after their health when they have been sick. Show that you care. Know what they want to do long term and how you can work with them to accomplish their goals.
  5. Promote balance. Ridiculous hours are, just that, ridiculous. People need to have lives and time off. You will get more new ideas and have a happier staff if you respect their personal time.
  6. Hire carefully. Get the right people to start with and keep them. Hiring the wrong people or hiring desperately just to fill a position usually results in a long term headache. Training time is expensive; make sure you will get an adequate return on your investment.
  7. Be consistent. Let people know what to expect from you and provide a consistent demeanor, attitude and work ethic.
  8. Be honest. Earn people’s trust and tell the truth, both good and bad. In case you were wondering, I’m convinced that I would have missed the bug my guy missed. I didn’t just say it to make him feel better. Don’t forget to empathize. One of the problems with long term managers is they forget what it’s like to have to write a test case and run a test without adequate data or with an unstable test environment.

Being a leader is a continuous process. You have never reached the pinnacle because our environment is always changing – our management changes, our staff changes, our projects change, our peers change and our technology changes. As a leader you must always adapt but remain true to the traits that will make you successful. If you concentrate on building the careers of your people, your own career will build itself. Remember the eight traits of success and watch carefully for the quotations that indicate you have de-railed somewhere along the way. Being a leader means being in a constant state of evaluation. You’re never going to be perfect and everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, but if you are always working to grow and be better, you will succeed.

Leaders aren’t born. They are formed from hard work, patience and the guidance of those who have gone before them. Good leaders are always in the state of becoming better and building the careers of those around them. If you need one way to check your progress, ask yourself this question:

Would you like to work for you?

Are there other attributes that make for a great software testing leader? Let us know your thoughts at

Judy McKay has spent the last 20+ years working in the high tech industry with particular focus on software quality assurance and software testing. She has managed departments encompassing all aspects of the software lifecycle including requirements design and analysis, software development, database design, software quality assurance, software testing, technical support, professional services, configuration management, technical publications and software licensing. Her career has spanned across commercial software companies, aerospace, foreign-owned R&D, networking and various Internet companies.