Since the beginning of my software development and testing career, I've strongly advocated that quality is a shared responsibility throughout an organization. I mention it constantly in articles on this site. I genuinely believe that every single team member needs to do their part for a company to deliver the very best work they possibly can provide. It doesn't matter if they're heads-down in the work or indirectly involved — quality belongs to everyone.
Even with my strong beliefs, there's one thing I haven't directly mentioned relating to this shared obligation. While everyone should bear some of the responsibility, that doesn't mean that everyone should equally share the responsibility. There's a distinction between being a part of the resulting quality of a product and being one of the leading forces that drive the quality of the end result.
I recently read the book Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact by Liz Wiseman. The book discusses lots of research done by the author throughout her career about Impact Players. In the context of the book, a brief description of an Impact Player is an employee of an organization that generates the most positive effects across their team and their company. These are the people who make everyone's work better and boost the organization's output as a whole.
The book got me thinking about how testers worldwide can become an Impact Player — or how I prefer to call it, an Impact Tester — in their own right. At first glance, it sounds like a daunting proposition. But it's a lot easier than you think to become an Impact Tester. It's not limited to just a few hand-selected people. It doesn't take years of experience or sacrificing your work-life balance either. Even if you don't think you're not in a position to have an impact on those around you, this article will show you that you can.
The problem with most approaches to testing and how Impact Testers help
In most organizations, the direct approach taken relating to the quality of a product is having one person in charge of everything. Usually, this takes shape in the form of a QA manager. In larger companies, additional managerial layers like team or project QA leads exist. This approach can have a detrimental long-term effect on the product's lifespan since everything associated with quality runs through a very narrow, limited path. It creates a reliance on those managers and leads and prevents other team members from expressing their opinions on improving the work for everyone.
Smaller teams, particularly startups, often take the opposite approach of not having a single person in charge of quality. Typically, it's because they can't or won't hire QA specialists early in a company's existence. These teams attempt to spread the quality workload across the board, making everyone on the team chip in. While this sounds like an ideal plan, it often backfires. Too many voices make great ideas challenging to stand out. It also opens up individual members to think others will handle the responsibility, ending up with no one doing anything — when everyone's responsible, no one's responsible.
As with almost everything in life, effectiveness in testing a product requires a balance across the team. When the scale tips too far in one way or another, your organization will find significant gaps in the overall quality. If the responsibility lies on too few people, you'll soon run into bottlenecks. If there are too many people involved, it drowns out everyone's voice, and no one will become willing to tackle the problems at hand.
That's where Impact Testers come into play. These kinds of testers can help balance out the issue by playing both sides of the scale. An Impact Player lightens the load for managers and team leads because they find ways to push their work forward, not expecting a single entity to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility. They also know that this kind of work is essential, so they take matters into their own hands. Most importantly, they do this not because someone told them to do the task but because it's the right thing to do for the sake of the overall quality.
Ways you can become an Impact Tester in your organization
As a tester, you've likely experienced some of these problems in your workplace. You may feel like no one listens to your voice, or the work isn't progressing well with obstacles along the way or a disconnect among the team. If this is the case for you, it's an excellent opportunity to become an Impact Tester. Your experience or job title doesn't matter — anyone can step up and help everyone succeed. Here are a few things anyone can do to transition into an Impact Tester.
Take the lead instead of just doing what someone tells you
One of the first tasks to do when I'm helping any organization as a consultant is to talk with team leads or managers about the existing products. It allows them to provide the lay of the land, explain their current processes and the areas where they're seeking improvement. During these initial talks, the manager or team lead will mention a few contributors and their work. These are the organization's "Impact Players" — whether they realize it or not.
It's good to know the main contributors for any project, but these are the team members I'm the least interested in talking about. If a manager or team lead mentions a specific team member and goes into the details of their work, it's likely because they're doing their job well, and they're probably not part of the issues they're having. However, there's always a group of team members who don't get any mentions or specific attention from the manager or team lead. Here's where I lean in because it's where potential problems likely lie in wait.
When I ask managers about the rest of the team, I invariably hear responses like these:
- "I wish he'd speak up more during team meetings. He has some great ideas but doesn't share them with the broader team."
- "She does her work very well, but I'd like to see her take on more challenging projects — I know she has it in her to achieve so much more."
- "When it comes to test automation, he delivers excellent results. But I just can't get him to help the more junior members of the team."
At first glance, these comments are mostly positive and talk about their current strengths. But there's some subtext behind those words. Essentially, these team members do the absolute minimum for their jobs, never taking the lead on anything outside of what's in front of them. Everyone needs to take care of their responsibilities to keep their jobs. But if you're going to thrive and boost your career, you need to get out of that bubble and begin taking the lead in helping your team and organization elsewhere.
For an Impact Tester, taking the lead means having the initiative in saying and doing the things that will improve your work and the work of those around you. For instance, if your team has a severe deficiency in automated testing and you feel it can help others and the overall product, bring it up and offer to take the first steps. Another example is if your test case management tool is a disorganized mess, start cleaning things up and teach others how to tidy up their work.
All of this may sound like you'll need to pile on more responsibility for your daily work. However, it doesn't have to become an added burden. Take a close look at the work you do every day, and you can find areas to improve without putting extra tasks on your to-do list. Giving your thoughts on improving the product or organization is also something anyone can do, not just those in charge or with more years of experience. In short, being an Impact Tester means pointing out and doing the work that needs to be done, not just what you're told.
Bring others along for the ride
Teamwork is a crucial part of the formula for success in any organization. Anything worthwhile takes a group of people pulling in the same direction to get results. Even if you work on a small team and you're the sole tester for the entire organization, you'll still need to enlist the help of others if you want to make the most out of what you do best.
Unfortunately, I see many testers go the route of trying to do everything independently and isolating themselves from the rest of the team. Often, it's the fear that many humans have, where we think that asking for help is a sign of weakness and that they're not up for the task at hand. Other times, some testers want to focus on their work alone, thinking that they can accomplish things faster and that others will slow them down. In rare cases, some testers simply want all the credit for themselves.
Whatever the reason is, the choice of going forward alone won't get you far with your work or your career. It might help you start quicker, but your ride will inevitably break down, and you'll end up in a position where you still need the help of others. But by that time, others will notice you went off alone, making it increasingly difficult to get the assistance you need. If you want to become an Impact Tester, you need to work well with others at all times and from the very beginning.
In the realm of software development, one of the quickest ways to achieve this goal is by frequently interacting with team members outside of your specialty. For testers, this means often talking with and working alongside developers, product managers, and others involved in the product outside of bug reports. I'd estimate at least 95% of testers only communicate with non-testers through bug reporting tools or scattered chat messages, so just getting in touch about each other's work outside of these areas is a massive step towards differentiating yourself.
Another way of becoming an Impact Tester is to combine it with the previous point of taking the lead and finding ways to get others involved actively. For instance, the experienced test automation engineer can regularly pair with junior members to build the test suite together. Or a tester can chat with development during each sprint about upcoming features to help the QA team determine new areas of high risk earlier. Whichever route you take, combining your testing strengths with what others bring to the table makes for a higher-quality product.
More importantly, make sure to give credit where credit is due. It's not uncommon for teamwork to go unnoticed for someone involved in the process. As an Impact Tester, you should ensure everyone receives the acknowledgment for the work that needs to be done. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also elevates those around you and makes everyone's work better in the long run.
Have a plan for when problems arise
Even the most-experienced testers and teams will run into a problem with their work sooner or later. Bugs always seem to creep up out of nowhere at the worst possible moment, making us spend days putting our fires instead of doing the vital work that will push the project and organization forward. No one is immune to problems in their work. Handling them is essentially a requirement for our jobs, especially when we're responsible for quality.
The trick isn't to avoid problems since they'll always happen no matter how careful you are. The trick is acknowledging that we'll run into trouble at work, and we need to be ready for anything at any given time. Many testers inherently know this, which is an excellent trait to have in our toolbelts. But to become an Impact Tester, anticipating problems isn't enough — you also need to have plans in place to tackle any obstacle that appears in your path quickly and effortlessly.
Most testers make a note of problems when they arise and point them out to their managers or teammates. For instance, someone may mention that regression testing cycles take too long, or it takes days for development to reply to critical bug reports. That's not the issue. Testers are great at observation and noting when things aren't quite right. The real issue is when they only point out the problems without attempting to provide a solution or offer help. It's one of the primary traits that separate the Impact Testers from the rest of the team.
Most of us have known someone, whether at work or in our personal lives, that only seems to bring bad news. Going back to when I talk with managers and team leads, a leading complaint I often hear is how some team members only bring up the bad without coming up with solutions to current shortcomings. If you only mention the times when things go wrong without thinking about becoming part of the solution, you'll soon be someone your team avoids. It'll end up limiting your reach and your potential to affect the overall quality of your work.
Every problem has potential solutions you can mention. The next time you see a shortcoming in your organization, come up with a few ways to fix them, even if you're not directly involved. For example, if you're a manual tester and keep seeing bugs slip through to production, don't just mention the bugs; think of ways that QA and development can improve the current processes to reduce the number of regressions. If your responsibilities lie in building an automated test suite, anticipate the areas that will likely break ahead of time and plan to resolve them with others.
You don't need to have a crystal-clear solution to a problem whenever they occur. Impact Testers will offer viable solutions and discuss them with the team. The thing to remember is developing an instinct for detecting problems before they happen, bringing them up, and offering to fix the issue. If you have the time and ability, you can even resolve the case yourself. Gaining a reputation as a team member who only brings up problems will prevent you from furthering your career. As mentioned earlier, Impact Testers always anticipate and take the lead, especially when things aren't running smoothly.
Be human, especially online
Most of my work involves software engineering, which has allowed me to gain some perspective on both the development and QA sides of the table. As a developer, I've worked on multiple projects and interacted with many testers during the development cycle. Out of all the projects with this team configuration, one always stands out, as it taught me a valuable lesson.
A long time ago, I began working as a web developer that had one person working as the only dedicated QA member of the organization. For the purposes of this article, let's call him Jim. I worked from an office space with a handful of product team members, but Jim worked remotely since his commute was almost two hours away and negotiated to work from home to avoid the hassle of traveling to the city.
For the first three months of my time at the company, my only interactions with Jim were work-related. Everything went through chat, emails, our bug reporting tool, and the very occasional Skype call. Jim's way of communicating clashed with me. His emails were terse, and his bug reports felt blunt to the point of harshness. It always felt like he was somehow upset at me. I always envisioned him thinking "Why is Dennis such a pain to work with, making me deal with these bugs?" It got to a point where I kept coming up with excuses to push back his emails and bug reports because I didn't enjoy interacting with him.
One day, Jim made his way to the city to work from the office with the rest of the product team. It's the first time I would meet him face-to-face and spend a whole workday with him. I was dreading the day and even considered calling in sick. But I made my way to work and found Jim already in the office by the time I got there. I introduced myself, and after some small talk and a team meeting, we got to work on something together. Guess what happened after that.
Jim was an awesome person to work with! He was absolutely nothing like the person behind the seemingly emotionless and harsh emails I read. We worked together harmoniously with no issues. We had a wonderful conversation during lunch and continued it at a nearby bar after work. His charismatic personality was nothing like the dull, grumpy persona of him that formed in my head.
By the end of the day, I felt comfortable enough to confess to Jim how I envisioned him based on his emails and bug reports. It took him aback. He said that he intended to maintain professionalism when he focused on work-related communication, which is an admirable trait. But in that focus, he failed to realize that the way he sent those messages could give off a negative, robotic vibe that could push people away. I've fallen into this trap before, so I know how Jim thought when it came to talking with our teammates at work. After that, his communications became more relaxed and friendlier in tone, and our online work conversations improved significantly.
Besides my irrational judgment solely based on electronic communications, the lesson of this story is that the way we communicate can affect the way we work. It's essential to have clear communication to avoid misunderstandings. But we're all human, and we want to feel some connection with our team. As an Impact Tester, it's not enough to communicate effectively. We also need to do it in a positive, human way to foster the teamwork required to deliver high-quality solutions.
Summary: Anyone can become an Impact Tester
Testing is a responsibility that belongs to everyone involved in a project. You can't rely on your project leads or upper-level managers to control everything. Placing almost the entirety of the accountability on just one or two individuals reduces the organization's effectiveness on quality. You also won't want to have loose responsibilities, where everyone is accountable, but no one is in charge of the final results.
To get the most out of quality, every organization needs Impact Testers — those who can do the most critical work required at any given time and make others around them better in the process. If your organization has work you know is important but no one wants to touch for whatever reason, offer to do it even if it's something you're not particularly excited about. Include other team members to help out and give them their due credit. Raise any problems you anticipate along with potential solutions. Most important of all, make sure you talk to others in a way that they want to be a part of your journey, not avoid you altogether.
Don't think that just because you lack a specific job title or enough on-the-job experience that you can't become an Impact Tester at this time. Anyone can become one at any point in their career. You have the ability to take the lead, involve your team in the tasks that need to get done and show interest and empathy towards the work and the people around you. It's all a matter of working with what's under your control and becoming a helpful resource instead of a burden to those around you.
What other traits or characteristics do you see in Impact Testers around you or yourself? Share other tips in the comments below to help others become Impact Testers in their organizations!