Building the Right Culture Within Your SQA Team

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Summary:

The concept for development teams in a scrum environment is to be self-organizing, basically managing themselves and holding each other accountable. This poses the question: What do QA managers do with their time? For me, it’s always been about building the right culture—respecting those under you just as much as you respect those above you. It is about finding a way to manage your team without being directly involved with them.

I was once asked at a testing trade show: How do you manage a QA team within a scrum methodology? After giving it some thought, I realized it would be a good article, so here I am. Understand that when developing software within a scrum environment, the concept is for the development teams to be self-organizing. That means the teams should basically be managing themselves and holding each other accountable, right? With that said, this poses the question: What do QA managers do with their time? For me, it’s always been about building the right culture—respecting those under you just as much as you respect those above you. It is about finding a way to manage your team without being directly involved with them. I know for some it can be difficult to find your niche within a scrum environment. For these reasons, I noted some of the main items I focused on with my teams when trying to build the right culture.

First and foremost, be the support that your team needs, and be their mentor. You are their voices, and a reflection of them is a reflection of you. Be their voice when the company quickly wants to turn around another major release. It’s up to you to consider how this affects your team. Do they need to set up any new environments? Are there any high-ranking bugs that need to be closed? Is all the automation testing passing? Is there any integration testing needed to be performed by other teams? Are there any security vulnerabilities that need to be resolved? If the team has any obstacles it is up to you to voice your concerns for them. The scrum master helps self-organize the team and is responsible for removing any roadblocks that impair them, but the QA team at times gets easily overlooked, so that is when you as a manager need to step up and clear a path for them. You as a manager have to help the QA team self-organize the testing efforts. Help them stay focused on the tasks at hand, and keep them focused on what they do best— testing the functionality of the software. This can be as simple as tracking down a third-party license or sitting in a meeting for them. Or maybe the team is working on integration testing and you have to organize a meeting with different co-located teams to help explain how certain functionality works. The main point here is to be present for your team. When they need you, do your best to keep them on the task at hand, which is testing.

Second, just because you’re a manager doesn’t mean you can’t be hands-on in assisting your team. Lead by example. I’m sure we have all heard that saying by now, but it is oh so true. Yes, a manager’s role is to delegate and make sure the team is moving in the right direction and following policies and protocols that have been defined by the company, among other things. But as noted previously, you want the team to focus on testing, so you may have to step in and take on tasks that will free up your team. We recently had to get one of our software applications newly certified. Beyond the additional testing that we had to perform to get certified, we also needed additional documentation that was required to get written for the certification process. As a company we already had a certification report that QA would generate at the end of a release cycle when the software was released to the public. As part of this new certification we decided we had to update our existing certification report to include the necessary information. Instead of asking my team to add the additional information to the report, I decided I would go through the whole report and try to condense and merge information that the certification required. When doing this type of report for the first time, I knew the team would have a lot of questions and concerns, so I went through the report with a fine comb to try to simplify and easily explain to the team what was expected. Once I had a tangible report I was able to explain what is expected moving forward. This made it easier for all parties involved, and it freed up my team to allow them to focus on other tasks that needed to be completed.

As a QA manager within an agile environment, you do not get to work directly with each team member one-on-one as they are with their scrum teams. Because of this it is essential that you meet up with your team as frequently as needed. Yes, you’ll be going over the normal high-level areas of what’s going on within the team and company to update the team. But this also gives them a chance to express any possible bottlenecks or concerns coming up within their sprints. You can use this time for team members to give demonstrations on the tools they are using or discuss ways to help improve the team to become more efficient. Or maybe get the UI/UX developers involved and go over troublesome usability testing that may cause ambiguity between the developers and QA. Possibly go over what QA metrics the team would like to present during the sprint reviews. You can use this time to essentially bridge the gap between other business units of the company. Keep in mind the meeting is not only for your team, but also for you as a manager so you can see how team members are completing their tasks and how they are functioning within the scrum team. As a manager you must make sure each team member is in sync with one another, especially if you have a lot of cross-functional teams that intertwine with each other. You have to make sure that the left hand is in sync with the right hand in how they test and to make sure there are no gaps in each team’s testing. Although you generally want to keep meetings to a minimum, meeting up with the team as frequently as needed is essential to be in sync with your team and their tasks, especially since they don’t work directly with you on a daily basis.

One thing I learned with my experience as both an engineer and a manager is that you can’t necessarily treat every team member the same. I’m not saying all aspects of their duties should be treated differently. For example, when enforcing company policies or procedures that should be the same across all personnel. Or when you have to discipline a team member, they should all have the same ramification across the board. What I’m referring to is how you manage each individual. Let me explain a bit more where I’m coming from on this. When I first started as an associate engineer, I was full of energy and ambitions and was ready to take on the world and climb the “corporate ladder” so to speak. I didn’t realize it then, but I do now that I needed a sense of direction. I needed someone to point me on the right path. I was like a sponge and was willing to absorb everything and anything. As I matured and spent my years refining my craft and fine tuning where and when to exert my energy, I realized I didn’t need that hands-on mentoring any more. Where I needed a mentor when I first started, I now became the mentor for others as they started in the industry. This didn’t mean I didn’t want to learn new things, because heaven forbid in this industry if you’re not learning new things year in and year out you are falling behind the industry standards. This just meant that my mental state had changed, and I no longer needed that hands-on manager that I craved when I first started. This is why I say you can’t treat every engineer the same. Your more seasoned senior-level engineers should need less attention than your junior-level engineers. That’s why there are different titles and different salary brackets—more is expected from senior engineers, and this includes self-managing themselves. Whereas an associate engineer is still learning and needs that direction from their manager to point them in the correct direction, even though at times I know they won’t think so. I hate using this term, but they could use a little micromanaging so to speak.

As mentioned above, this industry is constantly changing, which is one of the main reasons why I choose this line of work. There is always something new to learn. Keeping this in mind, your team needs to have the ability to adapt and change with the industry standards. As a manager you need to be consistently looking for ways to educate and improve your team’s skills. This can be by updating some of the tools they use or simply by getting them some training. If your individual engineers don’t improve their skill set from year to year, your team may start to fall behind. If the team falls behind, you as a department will fall behind, and it just becomes a domino effect. Promoting and pushing for your team to educate themselves, learn new tools, and learn new skills is a mindset that needs to be embedded. This can be as easy as having them take an online training course. If the budget permits, try to send one or two team members to a trade show or conference. I think it helps tremendously since your team sees that you’re investing in them, and from my experience they come back to work reinvigorated with new ideas. Another way to improve your team’s skill set is to update the tools they are using. For example, we were previously using an outdated bug tracking system. I decided to migrate the bug tracking system to something more up-to-date that integrated with other development tools so that QA and developers could work with one tool and make life easier not only for us but also for all of the development department. There was a lot of time spent researching and migrating the data over to the new system, but once it was all said and done, it definitely helped my team become more efficient in performing their day-to-day tasks. Always look for ways to improve as a whole since this industry is constantly adapting and changing by the day.

Make yourself present by simply making a phone call instead of typing in a chat session. Or during a Zoom meeting turn on your video so that the team can see you. Little things like that make a difference and add a more personal touch with your team. QA managers have their work cut out when trying to build the correct culture within the team and getting everyone on the same page. They need to keep the team in sync so that there are no testing gaps or forgotten tasks. They need to keep the team focused on what they do best and that’s testing the software. They need to look for ways to keep the team motivated and efficient in the ways they do their day-to-day tasks. The duties go on and on, but remember, do not lose focus on what you’re trying to accomplish—and that’s keeping the quality standards high, which your company and clients expect.

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