Sunday 19 February 2017

Test Manager vs. Test Coach

I've been working as a Test Coach for almost two years and I will soon be seeking to hire people into the role. One common attitude that I hear is:

"Test Coach. Oh, that's just the agile name for a Test Manager."

It's true that if you work in an organisation that uses a traditional delivery model with separate design, analysis, development and testing teams, then you are more likely to see the title Test Manager for the person who leads testing. If you work in an agile model with cross-functional teams, then you are more likely to see the title Test Coach for the person who leads testing. But the two roles are not synonymous; it isn't simply a rebranding exercise.

Here are some key differences from my experience.

A Test Manager has a team of testers who report directly to them. They are responsible for hiring the team, determining and recording individual development goals, approving time sheets and leave requests.

A Test Coach has no line management responsibilities. The testers will be part of a cross-functional team that is managed by a team leader or delivery manager. A coach has a limited ability to lead through authority, instead their role is a service position. The Test Coach can influence hiring decisions and support testers to achieve their individual development goals. The language of coaching is different and it requires a different approach.

A Test Manager leads a group of testers who primarily identify as testers. If asked what they would do, the tester's response would be that they're a tester. The testing community is inherent, created by co-location and day-to-day interaction with testing peers.

A Test Coach leads a group of testers who primarily identify as contributors to an agile team. If asked what they do, the tester's response would be that they're part of a particular delivery team. They might mention that their main role in that team is testing, but to identify their place in the organisation it's often the delivery team that is mentioned first. The testing community must be fostered through planned social and knowledge sharing activities for testers who work in different areas, which are often activities lead or championed by the coach.

A Test Manager has ownership of the testing that their team undertake. They are likely to be accountable for test estimates, test resourcing, the quality of test documentation, and may be involved in release governance or sign-off procedures. 

A Test Coach has none of these responsibilities. In an agile environment they are owned by the delivery team who estimate together, review each others work, and collectively determine their readiness for release. The decision making sits outside of the Test Coach role, though they might be called on for counsel in the event of team uncertainty, disagreement, or dysfunction.

A Test Manager drives their testers. They're active participants in their day-to-day work, with hands-on involvement in tracking and reporting testing activities.

A Test Coach serves their testers. They usually won't get involved in specific testing activities unless they are asked to do so. Coaching interactions are driven by the person who needs support with testing, which is a wider group than only testers. The coach is proactive if they identify a particular need for improvement, but their intervention may be with a softer approach than that of a manager.

The Test Manager will know the solution under test inside-out. In order to properly meet their accountabilities they need to be involved in some degree of detail with the design and build of the software. Test Managers are also adept in identifying opportunities for improvement within the processes and practices of their team, or the products that they work with.

The Test Coach is unlikely to be an expert in the product under development or the wider system architecture. They will have some knowledge of these aspects, but as they are removed from the day-to-day detail their understanding is likely to be shallower than the testers who are constantly interacting with the system. A coach generally has a more holistic view for identifying opportunities for improvement that span multiple teams and disciplines.

A Test Manager is the escalation point for testers. Regardless of the problem that a tester is unable to resolve, the Test Manager is the person who will support them. The issues may span administrative tasks, interpersonal communication, professional development, delivery practices, project management, or testing.

A Test Coach is an escalation point for testing-related problems only. The types of issues that come to a coach are generally those that impact multiple delivery teams e.g. refactoring of test automation frameworks or stability of test environments, or those within a team that require specialist testing input to solve e.g. improving the unit test review process or fostering a culture where quality is owned by the team not the tester. These issues may not be raised by a tester, but can come from anyone within the delivery teams, or beyond them. A Test Coach might also be asked to contribute to resolution of non-testing of problem, but these discussions are usually lead by another role.

A Test Manager will identify training opportunities that are aligned with the development goals of their staff and arrange their attendance. They will be abreast of workshops and conferences in the area that may be useful to their team.

A Test Coach will do the same, but they are more likely to identify opportunities to deliver custom training material too. The coach has the capacity to create content, the knowledge to make the material valuable, along with some understanding of teaching to engage participants effectively e.g. learning styles, lesson planning, and facilitation.

Both roles are leading testing in their organisation. The roles are different because the context in which they operate is different. In a nutshell, a Test Manager leads testers and a Test Coach leads testing. The focus shifts from people to discipline.

I hope that this explanation offers clarity, both for leaders who are looking to change their role and for testers who are working within a different structure.

These observations are based on my own experience. If your experience differs, I would welcome your feedback, questions or additions in the comments below.


  1. Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    As per the very first line of the post, there is value for me in making this distinction as I'm about to hire Test Coaches. I think this article will be useful during my recruitment effort.

    I also mentioned a couple of times in the post that these are observations from my own experience. I don't claim to be defining this for the industry. I just wanted to document what I see and invite comment, such as yours, about what others see.

    The generally positive reaction that this post has received via social media makes me believe that what I've captured is reflective of the experiences of many people. This is valuable feedback, as it lets me know that my organisation is aligned with others so the skill set that we are looking for should exist in the market.


  2. I've held multiple positions of a "test manager" and I've always still been a test coach. I have not had hiring (or firing) power, as in most organizations I've worked in, a test manager is a test project manager and has had similar responsibilities over testing (not testers) as project manager has had over the delivery part of the project.

    The idea that there could be a growth support only role that provides value is great. You call that a test coach. Others call it test manager (a good manager tends to have coach in them).

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. They differ to mine, but you've made me wonder whether the reverse of what you've seen can also be true. I'll ask by flipping some of your phrasing. Do you think a "Test Coach" is always still a "Test Manager"? Do you think a good coach tends to have manager in them?

  3. Katrina, I praise your effort of defining a role that in my opinion is fundamental for the future of testing and testers.
    I became a test coach when I found a situation where that was the right answer to the needs of the teams I was serving. A test coach as you are defining it, works extremely well with agile teams, keep up the good work!

  4. Hi Katrina,
    thanks for your reply. What probably hasn't come across is that yes, I also see that there is value in looking for distinctions and as I mentioned we made similar observations, no argument there. Especially as you're looking for that skill set.
    An observation is looking at the status quo (which is a necessary first step), to me it's interesting how that understanding leads to an improved role that is needed for a particular context. In other words, now that the differences are understood, how do we mix and pick out the best parts?
    Same as Maaret I've had job titles of 'test manager' while doing test coach tasks. And that's OK too.
    I'm sorry if my previous comment came out wrong, hopefully this one explains it a bit better.


  5. Hi Thomas,

    This post intentionally illustrates and highlights differences, but if I were to look around my organisation there are gray areas of overlap too. You asked "how do we mix and pick out the best parts?". I think individuals who are working in test leadership are doing this all the time, in a way that is appropriate to their context.


  6. >>>> As per the very first line of the post, there is value for me in making this distinction as I'm about to hire Test Coaches. I think this article will be useful during my recruitment effort.

    Might be good to highlight that as the purpose of the post (use bold?). It makes more sense in that context. I'll comment on my concerns later.

  7. Hi Katrina,
    I really relate to the comparisons you make between roles.
    A structure change within the company I worked for saw my 'Test Manager' role and responsibilities become more 'Test Coachy'.

    As I love a good metaphor, I once described the two roles in an Army context (our srum teams were called squads... so I was stretching a metaphor)
    * A Test Manager is the platoon leader. On the battle front, fighting alongside the troops and working with them to conquer the beach head.
    * A Test Coach is the quarter master at the barracks, training, equipping, and inspring the troops so they are prepared to take on whatever they faced in the field.

    I agree with your list of activities and I think it paints a clear distinction between the roles. I hope people don't view a manager as better than a coach, or vice versa. To me they both meet important and different needs within teams.
    Some situations will call for more coaching, some for more managing.
    I think an important skill for people in the role, and those who work with them, is to know when the each is needed.

    1. Thanks for your comment Sean. I like your analogy, though I'm familiar with a quarter master from GirlGuiding rather than the army :)

      I also hope that people don't view one as better than the other. I agree that each role is meeting a different need.

  8. Coming back to this one again :) I have included it in the chat on the MoT Club: and my blog regarding shift-COACH

    It's interesting because it sets a clear distinction between the two. That being said, I'm used to Test managers with no staff responsibility (as Maaret). So in context the actual tasks may swap or merge. And that's how it is.

  9. Hi, great thoughts! Being called a testmanager and doing a lot of the above I would always also thrive to be servant manager and also be a test coach. Using your definitions I would think that a good test manager should embrace being a test coach. And as that is a very responsible role, she might need some projectmanagement and or team leading support, just for timing reasons. But the slightly negative touch to your description of testmanagers also clarifies something to me: someone has to do the work you describe, and it is definitely better if a person with some affinity to testing does it.


  10. No, I don't agree with your discernments. Not all Test Managers are responsible for hiring their staff; some don't even have direct reports.

    Test Coach sounds like the fluffy name for Senior Test Analyst.

  11. Hi Katrina,

    I really liked this blog, I think I can definitely see how this will work and like the clear differentiation between the two roles. Personally I think I would really like to work along side a Test Coach when my role is that of test manager. Often I feel the balancing act between two roles is a struggle and hence I can clearly see the value test coach would bring as it will help share the creative,bouncing off ideas and help creating test solutions to real problems piece of the TM role.


  12. Nice thoughts of you. For my until now, Test Manager and Test Coach was the same.

    Best regards

  13. Katrina this is brilliant and well-timed for me. I have (and have had) both Director and Manager titles, but they never adequately described the relationship I've had with my fellow testers (I say fellow despite what the org chart shows). I'm very happy to be at a company now that is adamant about supporting independent cross functional product teams, and I constantly reinforce to other testers that while I'm very happy to dispense test-related advice, it is their team that should collectively develop their processes. At times I have a nagging voice that tells me I'm shirking responsibilities doing that, but it feels right. It also encourages testers on these Agile teams to be more than just someone who tests, but to be a team member with equal input.

    It's a constant challenge to figure out exactly how much to ask if folks need help without feeling like I'm interfering in their team's organic development, but I love it, and getting it right(-er) is valuable and valued.

    One note: I would hate life if I were in this coaching role but not able to be a decision maker on recruiting and hiring. Having these independent teams doesn't allow me to be an expert on each product, as you point out, and this means I have to be able to get people who are curious and able to communicate with tact and courage, as well as the typical more technical/analytical focused skills.

    Great write up, and thanks!

  14. Excellent post Katrina, thanks for sharing it.

  15. Great change of paradigm ... thanks for sharing

  16. It is exactly my experience! My organization has decided to pass to Scrum Agile framework and give me a role of Design Office of Quality Assurance. I've decided to be a Test Coach to better help people of the new teams to approach to the testing in the "Agile way", to improve the quality attention shared on the team not just on the ex-QA members! I'm organizing workshops with all teams members where people will share his experience and give his support to the community, approaching a "Lean Change Management" way to learn. It's really fews days that I'm working in this way and your post is very useful for me, thanks really a lot!