Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Manage People, Not Roles

Alan Page wrote recently wondering where the innovative thoughts in software testing really were (I'm paraphrasing; go read the blog post). In a comment, he mentioned that "The way we manage test teams (entire engineering teams, really) has to change."

He's right. We have to learn how to manage better.

I, like many managers, worked in my discipline (software test) and was promoted up to being a lead, then to being a manager. This makes me a technical manager; I understood the discipline of test very well. I understood the discipline of management rather less well.

Fortunately, I've learned a lot since I was first a manager. The single biggest lesson:

Manage people, not roles.

If I'm a Test Manager, there's a tendency to read it exactly that way: test first, manager second. When this happens, it's easy to approach every problem as a test problem. After all, test is the comfort zone, and manager is the new and slightly mysterious stuff. Things like team makeup become a matter of "ensuring coverage" by hiring different types. Things like correcting a team members behavior become "logging a bug" and "verifying the fix", which often translates to saying, "here's a problem. Let me know when you've fixed it." That might work when logging a bug for dev, but it isn't likely to work when you're dealing with someone who is frequently late on deadlines.

The better way is to realize that a Test Manager is a manager first. You happen to manage people who test. A Development Manager is a manager first, too; she just happens to manage people who develop. I'll give you three guesses what an Engineering Manager is first!

I don't manage testers. I manage people who happen to test for a living. People have different quirks than tests do. People need reinforcement and guidance and praise and correction and freedom to fail and encouragement to learn and a chance to succeed. This is true for developers, for testers, for support engineers, and probably for accountants and writers, too. (I'm guessing on those last two, but it seems reasonable).

My first responsibility is to the people who need to get the testing done, not to the tests that the people have to do.

If I can get the right people and give them the right environment, the testing will fall from there. Don't worry about the roles. Worry about the people. Get that right and everything else will follow.


  1. Catherine,

    Thanks for a good post that refocuses the leadership on the people. I really enjoyed Jerry Weinbergs's "Becoming a Technical Leader" book which speaks directly to the situation of technical folks being promoted into leadership roles.


  2. Brilliant, as usual. Check out this short series of articles from Yishan Wang (Facebook) on how they approach engineering management in general: http://algeri-wong.com/yishan/engineering-management.html

  3. I found this article very interesting and agree entirely with the points you raise. However I feel it raises other issues. Should our leaders/managers not be the people who are passionate about leading and managing and not necessarily the next person to be promoted.
    Let me re-phrase that, I find that within the testing community there seems to be a bit of a divide, we have the highly technical testers, who are generally good at performance/automation testing etc and we have those with ‘soft skills’ who are still skilled testers but not always technically and may be more focused on procedures etc. We need both equally. Often we find the highly technical people in leadership positions, this is fine but sometimes they don’t have the people management skills to deal with this, or indeed do they want to they are happy to progress technically, which means that actually we lose a number of good testers to development.
    What’s missing is a way for testers to progress technically allowing them to achieve the same level and job satisfaction of a promotion to something like Test Manager without having to worry about the management side. This allows the testers with the soft skills to develop into the management role which they are likely to be more suited to and who will enjoy that position