A lack of inspiration in the workplace can leave you lost at sea, reaching for any scrap of driftwood. On the other hand, having an effective role model can make you a better-prepared and more successful tester. In this article, Alan Page offers an alternative to real-life role models in the form of tester personas, which can help guide you and your team along the right career path.
Do you or the testers on your team have an idea of what your career may look like in five years or more? Will testers who accumulate years of experience lead to better and broader testing? Do the testers you work with have role models who encourage them to learn and grow as testers?
Experienced testers who have made a career out of making software and software teams better not only are a boon for software quality but also provide inspiration, leadership, and role models for testers in their organizations. But, there’s a bit of a paradox with this scenario: In order for many testers to want to grow into senior positions where they become role models for an organization, they need role models themselves. When a tester doesn’t have a role model, he may look for a role model in a different profession or just stagnate.
In The Inmates are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper introduced the idea of using personas as a design tool for addressing customer needs. Data from a variety of sources, such as user research, marketing, and direct customer interaction, feeds into the creation of a persona, but the characterization of the persona—a rich description of motivations, goals, and experiences of this reality-based fictional character—is what makes it so powerful. Personas enable a team to have a common understanding of the customer or a customer segment. A lengthy description of characteristics and motivations of the persona enables the team to empathize with the persona and make product decisions that accurately reflect the needs and desires of the customer.
One intriguing method of creating tester role models where no human role models exist is to produce tester personas that act as a proxy for role models in an organization. Tester personas can provide inspiration and guidance for tester growth and can provide a plan for how the test team will take on bigger testing challenges in the future.
If a test team doesn’t have experienced testers, a team can create a persona that describes the types of tasks testers may perform, the roles they fill, and the value they bring to the team, basing the description on solutions for real testing problems and on real testing roles. Give the description a name (and perhaps a picture), and before you know it, testers will be talking about what they need to do to become more like “Ashley, the expert tester.”
One persona is likely not enough. A team may have a flesh-and-blood, highly experienced, human tester with loads of experience on the team but may not want everyone on the team to grow into this exact role—and it’s just as likely that not all of the testers on the team want to grow into that exact role, either. This makes a great case for creating multiple personas. It’s good to have a few different personas, but it’s a good practice to keep the total number to three or four in order to keep a reasonable amount of distinction between the roles. Also, keep in mind that a tester’s role may span more than one persona.
Choosing and Creating Personas
A good way to start creating tester personas for your organization is to think about current and future testing challenges for your organization. Will testers with more technical depth be of value? How about testers with a huge breadth of testing knowledge, competitor products, or project management skills? Every organization and context is different, so first invest some time in thinking about the skills and roles your product will need in the future. Once you decide on the roles you want experienced testers in your organization to fill, you can begin to map out the basics of tester personas.
If you have experienced testers in your organization (or if you work with fantastic testers outside of your organization), consider basing tester personas on real people. The persona doesn’t have to be an exact model, but matching a real person to a persona—even if it’s only a partial map—adds an extra degree of realism to the persona.
Finally, make the personas inspiring yet achievable. Leaders in the organization need to see the value in testers’ growing into these roles, and testers need to see a role that they can see themselves growing into.
The canonical testing persona may be the “testing expert.” The expert has a breadth of knowledge in testing and may coach and mentor many testers on the team. Making testers better is one of the biggest motivators for testing experts, but they also are innovators and provide leadership for the testing team.
Another persona to consider is the “domain expert” or “technical expert.” This persona doesn't have the same breadth of testing knowledge as the testing expert, but instead has deep technical knowledge of the product under test (often more than the developer who writes the component) or is an expert in a specific testing methodology such as security testing or performance testing.
A third example to contemplate is a “customer advocate” or “customer connector” persona. Most testers strive to be customer advocates and the voice of the customer, but customer connectors leverage years of experience and product knowledge to accomplish much more. They may engage directly with customers in newsgroups or forums, or they may blog about their product and how they test it. They work closely with product support to take customer concerns and issues and ensure that test design and approaches reflect deep customer insight.
Getting Started With Tester Personas
These are just a few short descriptions of tester personas and do not represent all potential tester personas, but they do represent some experienced tester roles. It’s important that the personas a team or organization uses represent roles and challenges relevant to the team’s context. Also, keep in mind that these are just descriptions; useful personas will contain information about roles, experiences, and motivations—information that will take the description from words on a page to an almost-real person whom testers can empathize with and aspire to become.
It's perfectly OK to add personas over time, and it’s OK to tweak them a bit, too, as needed. Be careful, however, about removing personas (“Yikes, did my role model just get fired?”) or changing the persona too much (“How can I be inspired when my role model is a moving target?”). Unless (or until) you have great tester role models in an organization, tester personas are certainly an interesting approach to inspire and retain great testers.