The Role of the Test Manager in an Agile Organization


If you're a test manager—or any sort of manager, for that matter—in a company that's transitioning to agile, you might be curious about where you stand in the new environment. Many of the traditional management roles are gone, but managers still have their place. As Johanna Rothman explains, it's time to think about coaching, removing obstacles, providing career development, and building relationships and organizational capacity.

What do test managers do? In traditional organizations, they assign people to projects, oversee the testers' progress, provide feedback, and maybe offer some coaching to people who want it. They are the go-to people when you don't know how to do something—not because they know, but because they should know who does know. Test managers build trusting relationships with their staff and build the capacity of the testing group.

Building capacity in the testing organization has two components: hiring more people when appropriate and providing a forum for education and training. Sometimes that training is cross-training in the group, and sometimes it is a form of expert-led training.

How does that change with a transition to agile? Do we still need test managers? Or development managers? Or any kind of functional manager?

Yes. The problem is that we need test managers and any other functional manager to do different work. We still need them to build trusting relationships with people and to build capacity in the organization, but which people and what kind of capacity?

How Agile Changes the Organization
As organizations move to agile approaches, the project team members learn from each other and take a more generalist approach to product development. Developers learn more testing approaches, testers learn about nifty developer tricks they can try to exploit, and business analysts learn what that user story really means from an architectural perspective, not just a user perspective.

In agile, managers don't shuffle people among projects; they assign people to a team for a long duration. Managers don't check in on a given person's progress; the team commits to each other and tracks progress themselves.

And, the project team members still need a manager with whom they can build a trusting relationship. That trusting relationship is key to retaining people [1], [2]. In addition, managers need to be on the lookout to build capacity in the organization. Is it time to hire more people? Do the current project team members need some form of training?

The functional manager now has these responsibilities: build a trusting relationship with everyone in the group, remove organizational obstacles, provide coaching, do career development, and help build the capacity of the organization. It looks as if it's less work, doesn't it? It's not. Mangers can't hide under the "I have too much project work to do my management work" excuse anymore. Managers now have to manage.

Agile Managers Are Generalists, Too
Let me propose a radical departure from the traditional matrix manager. Just as the capabilities between developers and testers blur, so do the capabilities of the managers. It's time for functional managers to become generalists, much like we have asked the team members to become.

This means an agile manager, who is the champion for the entire agile team, builds trusting relationships with the team members, regardless of their functional skills. The manager also removes organizational obstacles and provides coaching and feedback. And, the manager is ideally placed to see how to build capacity strategically—to see when more people are needed and what skills people need to develop as the products change.

Sure, the manager would have to understand the issues of development, testing, business analysis, user interface design, database administration—any function represented on the team. But, remember that the manager doesn't have to have all the answers—she needs to know who to ask.

I cannot think of a time when a good functional manager didn't need to understand those functions to manage capably in a single-function group. I haven't met your group, so maybe you have an exception to my rule. But, when I've seen and worked with functional managers who understood the issues across the organization, the teams worked better and the product was better for that understanding.

User Comments

Vikas Mahajan's picture
Vikas Mahajan

What is the role of QA director once testers are embedded in agile teams and they are delivering efficiently? What opportunities can test managers create for agile testers even though they are now reporting & working under their agile team managers?

February 5, 2012 - 11:08am
Ken Robinson's picture

Great article Johanna! It'll help me a lot as I begin a QA Manager role at a company here in the Denver area which is moving to pure (well sort of) Agile.


Vikas, I see the role of the director of QA or Dev as being one of monitoring results and providing feedback to the activities of the managers. Thye have to make sure we're building those trusting relationships and doing what we can to kick down roadblocks and other impediments.

Remember it's still a matrix-management situation. The testers' results have to be monitored by the manager and coaching or feedback provided as necessary.


February 1, 2015 - 4:45pm

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