Key Skills Modern Testers Need: An Interview with Janet Gregory

In this interview, Janet Gregory, an agile testing coach and process consultant with DragonFire, explains what skills testers need to succeed in today's industry. She talks about how the testing role has changed, what communication skills testers need, and the importance of trying new things.

Josiah Renaudin: Welcome back to another TechWell interview. Today I’m joined by Janet Gregory, an agile testing coach and process consultant with DragonFire. She’ll be a keynote speaker at this year’s STARCANADA conference covering key skills and attributes for everyone who tests software. Janet, thanks so much for joining us today. First, could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry?

Janet Gregory: I started as a programmer right after university in 1991, and moved into testing six years later. I took my quality manager’s certification from American Society for Quality, and studied everything I could on testing. Of course, after a few years, I moved from waterfall to agile projects and had to relearn how to apply all my testing skills to that context. I enjoyed my first agile team so much that I helped several teams I worked on over the next few years, transition from waterfall to agile. After Lisa Crispin and my first book Agile Testing: A Practical Guide for Testers and Agile Teams was published, I started doing more consulting and training. I have continued that since then working with both small and large organizations.

Josiah Renaudin: Let’s start here: What’s your definition of a traditional tester, and do you think this group is the most impacted, compared to the rest of the team, by the rapid changes happening in software?

Janet Gregory: I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a traditional tester anymore. When does a term change its meaning? However, the term has generally been used for testers who followed a scripted test that someone else wrote. In agile teams, I don’t see that happening much anymore because products change far too frequently to be able to maintain those types of test scripts. I’m sure there are still some- especially those organizations using off shore testing companies, but it is definitely less frequent than before.

The sheer amount of time needed to maintain those types of test scripts would outweigh any benefit they may have in frequently changing products.

Josiah Renaudin: With many nontesters being asked to do some testing, do the testers who you’ve worked with feel like they’re being phased out? Do they almost see the number of new skills they need to adopt as being unfair?

Janet Gregory: The testers I work with understand their role (at least I hope so), and don’t feel that they are being phased out. There is significant value for having testers work with agile teams. In my opinion, the skills they are being asked to adopt are unfair, unless the whole team works with them. Teams that use their strengths and are willing to help each other learn new skills are the ones that succeed. I think it is exciting that whole new worlds are being opened up for testers – if they are willing to take that jump. There is so much testing to do, with all the interactions between applications, software and hardware, etc., that it takes the village to do all the testing that is needed.

Josiah Renaudin: How difficult can it be to just change your mindset as a traditional tester and learn how to test earlier and more often? People assume you can just flip a switch, but with some of these skills being so ingrained, what has to change about your mindset to be more prepared for modern software testing?

Janet Gregory: I once had a fellow tester tell me that she didn’t think that all people were able to think abstractly, so what I was teaching was unfair. The idea of testing early is to ask the questions that a tester would normally have asked the product in the form of tests, to the product owner before development. The purpose would be to clarify what we want before we start coding. I don’t think that is unreasonable, and I have not yet to found a tester who can’t do it. However, it can be a struggle for some to develop that skill. I encourage those people to try to visualize – perhaps in the form of a mind map or a paper prototype, or perhaps going up to a white board and drawing boxes and ask about relationships between roles.

Josiah Renaudin: What sort of communication skills do testers now need in order to stay relevant within their agile teams?

Janet Gregory: There is a difference between communication skills and collaboration skills, and both are important. Communication skills that are required will depend on the context. For example, if you are working on (or with) an off-shore team, you likely need to develop your written communication skills so you can put issues/answers into easily understood words. If you are working within a co-located agile team, then you need to be able to actively participate in any discussions, ask your questions fearlessly, pair with other team members, and articulate risks. You also need to find ways to make your testing results visible.

Josiah Renaudin: How can creativity, flexibility, and tenacity make team members better at product testing?

Janet Gregory: These are three completely different characteristics, but intertwined and important ones I think.

Creativity: being able to look at a problem from different angles. For example, perhaps brainstorming testing ideas with people from different specialties can help overcome their own personal biases.

Flexibility: being able to listen to other’s opinions and perhaps adapting your thinking. Or perhaps being able to try a different tool than the one you normally use. There are lots of examples where flexibility is important. It does not mean adjusting your interpretation “just because” someone told you to.

Tenacity: sometimes called persistence. I sometimes annoy people when I keep asking questions when I think there is a misunderstanding. I try to rephrase the question, or give their answer back in a different way to show how I understand it? This tenacity usually pays off because we didn’t have a shared understanding of the problem or solution. It might be that I had a different connotation of a specific phrase, or perhaps they didn’t understand my concerns. I think it is better to find out early than after the code has been written.

Josiah Renaudin: What are some automation tools that you’ve found to be most useful and user-friendly for traditional testers who are trying to modernize their skillsets? Should they start with a certain tool, or does it just depend on the situation?

Janet Gregory: I’m going to pull the consultant’s answer on that and say “It depends.” What are you trying to automate and why? Different tools work better for different contexts. For example, if you were trying to get some idea of how you might be able to test with a scripting language, I might suggest downloading Ruby and getting Brian Marick’s book, Everyday Scripting with Ruby and work through his examples. That would give you some idea of how it worked. If you wanted to try using one of the BDD given-when-then styles of tools, I would suggest you look at Jeff “Cheezy” Morgan’s Cucumber and Cheese or one of the ones by Seb Rose (et al), or even ATTD by Example by Markus Gaertner. All are good.

Josiah Renaudin: More than anything, what central message do you want to leave with your keynote audience?

Janet Gregory: That’s easy. Read, and listen and watch. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Grab on to new opportunities or make your own opportunities to learn something new.

Janet GregoryJanet Gregory is an agile testing coach and process consultant with DragonFire Inc. She is the co-author with Lisa Crispin of Agile Testing: A Practical Guide for Testers and Agile Teams (Addison-Wesley, 2009), and More Agile Testing: Learning Journeys for the Whole Team (Addison-Wesley 2014. She is also a contributor to other software development books. Janet specializes in showing agile teams how testers can add value in areas beyond critiquing the product - for example, guiding development with business-facing tests. Janet works with teams to transition to agile development, and teaches agile testing courses worldwide. She contributes articles to publications and enjoys sharing her experiences at conferences and user group meetings around the world. Her peers voted as the Most Influential Agile Testing Professional Person in 2015. For more about Janet’s work and her blog, visit or You can also follow her on twitter @janetgregoryca.

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