How Leaders Can Help Software Teams Thrive: An Interview with Isabel Evans

In this interview, Isabel Evans, a quality and testing consultant, talks about the traits most often seen in effective leaders. She details different leadership styles that work best in different situations, how you can learn to lead agile teams, and what leaders can learn from the animal kingdom.

Josiah Renaudin: Welcome back to another TechWell interview. Today I’m joined by Isabel Evans, an independent quality and testing consultant and a keynote speaker at this year’s STARCANADA conference. She’ll be covering how you can help your software team thrive. Isabel, thanks so much for joining us today.

First, could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry?

Isabel Evans: Thanks for inviting me, Josiah, it’s great to be back for STARCANADA, and especially good as this is my first visit to Canada, so I am very excited.

I’ve been in the industry for a few decades. I’ve worked as a programmer, tester, test manager, quality manager, consultant, and trainer. Over the years, I have focused on quality in all my roles, and that is interesting—to me, at least—because quality means so many different things to different people. So I have become engaged in usability, user experience, organizational excellence, measurement and KPIs, people and teamwork, notions of leadership—a whole variety of additional factors that, along with technical excellence, mean we deliver what people need, in the most effective way.

Josiah Renaudin: From your experience, what have you found to be the most common quality among good leaders within the testing world?

Isabel Evans: That is an interesting question, and I have decided not to answer it directly but instead answer a similar question: What are useful qualities you have seen in good leaders? That’s a little more general and may help. Good leaders—good leadership that I have experienced—focuses on people as well as goals.

Good leaders are supportive to people, but not pushovers. What I mean by that is a good leader makes sure everyone is doing what they are able in order to support achieving a goal. They’ll be direct about people not contributing, not taking part. At the same time, they’ll be understanding about people needing coaching, making mistakes and recovering from them, learning. They won’t expect perfection. They’ll be honest, but also courteous, considerate.

Good leaders focus on goals but are not obsessive about them: They understand the difference between tactics (small moves to get around an immediate obstacle) and strategy (where we want to get and how). They’ll make sure the team understands the strategy longer term, and the immediate tactic. They’ll drive towards the goal, but not at the expense of their people suffering.

Good leaders are also open to change, realize they can be wrong, listen to others’ ideas, give credit for those ideas. They shine because they allow other people’s light to shine brightly. I have a friend—Yolande Grill, who is speaking at Women Who Test at STARCANADA—who talks about being the best version of ourselves. Leaders keep an eye on themselves and reflect about what they have done to make that happen.

Josiah Renaudin: What are some leadership and mentorship styles that teams feel the most comfortable with? What approaches work in most cases, and which have you found to be counterintuitive to how software is made?

Isabel Evans: The style that works depends on the culture, the people, the circumstances—so that is not a question for a short answer. A good leader will change their style depending on circumstance in a way that is empathetic to the people in the team and the circumstances. Think about firemen, ambulance drivers, and other people in teams that act in emergencies. The leaders behave in one way during training and coaching, in another way during an emergency, and in yet another way between emergencies.

In software projects, ops, and maintenance, we deal with issues of more or less urgency. We tend to forget to think about leadership for handling emergencies. We think, “This time, with this methodology, we will do it right.” So then we see that leaders in software projects can either put too much constraint on people and burden them with bureaucracy, or let go and overdelegate.

Josiah Renaudin: How difficult can it be to be a leader of one team, then move on to become the person being led on another? How different are those mindsets?

Isabel Evans: Julian Harty said to me the other day, “A great leader is also a great follower,” and it is true. In my presentation, I’ll mention that some people are great followers, genuinely can self-manage, and who would be good leaders, can take it in turns to lead, can work in either role. There are other followers who resent the leader and want that role for themselves—sometimes those people will not make such good leaders, and if they move into leadership, they may take a stance that doesn’t help their team.

Josiah Renaudin: Your keynote will tackle what other animals can tell us about how we interact with others. Can you give a brief example of that?

Isabel Evans: I’m not going to give away all my secrets beforehand! But in the presentation I will contrast killer whales, wolves, and chimpanzees. Who eats first? The leader, or the one who caught the prey, or the one who is most in need?

Josiah Renaudin: Can an agile team be successful with an authoritarian leader, or do you need someone who’s collaborative in order to uphold agile principles?

Isabel Evans: I guess it depends what you mean by authoritarian. Two examples: At the start of a team’s move to agile, part of the coaching role is to be quite strict; people are going to do what the coach tells them until they understand the methods, and then the coach will start to let go and let the team alone.

Culture and personality makes a difference, too. Agile is strongly about people, what is right for people. Some people are happier, more confident, with more direction and structure, and some are happier with less. So, the agile principle of thinking about people rather than process tells you to adopt the style that is right for those people.

Josiah Renaudin: Is it an individual tester’s responsibility to learn and adopt these leadership skills? Or is this something a manager should be training their team to do?

Isabel Evans: Both. For followership and for leadership, and teamwork. These are not easy things; we need to practice them, especially if they don’t come naturally.

Josiah Renaudin: What central message do you want to leave with your keynote audience? What main point from your talk do you hope they remember?

Isabel Evans: We are animals and need to remember that. We are animals who can reason and learn, so we can improve ourselves.

Isabel EvansIndependent quality and testing consultant Isabel Evans has more than thirty years of IT experience in quality management and testing in the financial, communications, and software sectors. Her quality management work focuses on encouraging IT teams and customers to work together via flexible processes designed and tailored by the teams that use them. Isabel authored Achieving Software Quality Through Teamwork and chapters in Agile Testing: How to Succeed in an eXtreme Testing Environment; The Testing Practitioner; and Foundations of Software Testing. A popular speaker at software conferences worldwide, Isabel is a Chartered IT Professional and Fellow of the British Computer Society, and has been a member of software industry improvement working groups.

User Comments

Marcia Buzzella's picture

Well said Isabel!  As technology and culture evolve around us we absolutely need to use the opportunities to hone our skills as leaders and followers.  Practice doesn't make perfect but it certainly helps us prepare and be more comfortable in new situations.

October 18, 2017 - 1:15pm
Erin Henigin's picture

Love Isabel!! Her advice is amazing for any role or aspect of life.

October 19, 2017 - 8:16am

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