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Moving toward a skills-based view of your team

Matthew Steer posted a simple yet intriguing question over at the LinkedIn Agile Testing group:

What sort of developer / tester ratios are people using in their scrum teams?

My reply was that, at some level, it also depends on the skills that the team collectively has. If “devs” are willing and able* to do activities that QA leads and testers generally have skills in, more power to them. In my experience, however, devs are more naturally drawn to other activities, and QA leads/testers should have more advanced skills in customer-level testing and exploratory testing, which many devs mistakenly view as merely ad-hoc testing. Only about half of our teams have QA leads/testers, and I think they’re poorer for it. On an agile team that takes a high view of the “whole team” approach, though, a ratio of anywhere between 4:1 and 8:1 is reasonable, in my opinion.

*Although many developers have skills in the things I mentioned are generally the province of QA leads (customer testing, exploratory testing), I’ve found that they either don’t want to do those activities or do them with a particular blind spot. That blind spot is perhaps through no fault of their own, as it is borne of their unique vantage point as developers. As the team members most responsible for writing the code that literally makes the software for a customer, they tend to view the product from that perspective. It’s a rare developer who can shift so far away from that perspective to see things as a customer might. That doesn’t mean developers can’t understand requirements or the big picture, or even correctly anticipate the details that a customer will want; merely that having a customer mindset, or a total quality view of a project, is more natural for someone not as engrossed in the production-code development. That’s where, even in high-functioning agile teams, a QA lead or tester is indispensable. The skills may — and ideally do — overlap a lot, but the mindset doesn’t nearly as much.

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A messy war room as it relates to discipline

I was reading Implementing Lean Software Development and stumbled upon this passage that rang true for me:

When we walk into a team room, we get an immediate feel for the level of discipline just by looking around. If the room is messy, the team is probably careless, and if the team is careless, you can be sure that the code base is messy. In an organization that goes fast, people know where to find what they need immediately because there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

Leftover soda cans, papers, lunch remains and personal effects don’t in and of themselves cause problems. But they are most likely reflective of and a symptom of — a smell, as it were — of a lack of discipline. The question that I debated with a colleague: Can simply cleaning up and organizing a work area infuse the team with discipline?

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Regularly releasing potentially shippable software

Brian Marick wrote a couple of years ago that “Teams that don’t produce potentially shippable software at the end of each iteration are likely in trouble.”

With more and more teams using a kanban approach to developing software, it would seem that producing potentially shippable software on a regular basis would be more common. But is it? Does your team produce potentially shippable software at the end of each iteration? Why or why not? What can we do to make it the case?

Kanban requires a rigorous dedication to building software. If your “agile circumstances” are less than ideal — and really, how often do you have an ideal situation? — such as an unengaged customer, nebulous deliverables or uncertain deadlines, you need to be all the more rigorous. Build in practices that keep the team honest, like a regular demo (even if the customer doesn’t attend). I’ve seen too many teams burn themselves by waiting until the last week of the project to create a CI build server or see if they could cut a release. If the team releases potentially shippable software starting after the first week of the project and continuing regularly, they’ll save themselves a lot of headaches and reduce the risk of a nightmare end of the project.  And they’ll focus on giving their customer something of value each week, instead of what amounts to a bunch of work in progress at the end of the project.

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What’s in a name?

At Asynchrony several teams have dedicated QA leads. These team members spend a portion of their time testing, but they also help customers write stories, and they define acceptance tests and take the lead in automating them, among other activities. I know a lot of people in the software world refer to the people who do these activities as “Agile Testers,” but, with no malice intended, I reject the term “tester.” That’s because it fails in two ways: First, QA leads do much more than merely test, and second, it implies that they are the only ones who test, when in fact, everyone on the team should test. Ultimately, the activities that the person does are more important than the title he goes by. But words are still important, and to the extent that people tend to identify activities with roles and roles with titles, I think “QA lead” is more helpful than “Agile Tester.”

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My ideal job description

In order to think more intentionally about how your career is going, I think it’s useful to think about your ideal job description. Then you can assess where you are and how far you need to go to get there. Perhaps articulating the description can even be helpful for conveying your position to your manager and having a constructive conversation about making it happen (in some cases, it may even be refreshing and welcome news to your manager). Here’s where I see the value that I bring intersecting with activities that I enjoy, in order of frequency:

  • Work in agile software-development teams doing QA lead activities. That includes pairing with developers to write automated tests and drive acceptance-test-driven development, overseeing relevant metrics and engage the team in conversation about them, working with customers to elicit requirements. (daily)
  • Facilitate retrospectives for other teams (weekly)
  • Read relevant newsgroups and articles on QA topics (weekly)
  • Spend a couple of hours a week blogging on QA topics (weekly)
  • Mentor other QA leads in the company (biweekly)
  • Be responsible for a monthly article on QA topics for company distribution (monthly)
  • Coach/consult with teams in agile transition (quarterly)
  • Teach agile QA course to QA leads (quarterly)
  • Attend industry conferences, like Agile, STARWest, CITCON, etc. (semi-annually)

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