Sunday 17 September 2017

How to start a Test Coach role

I received an email this morning that said, in part:

I've been given the opportunity to trial a test coaching approach in my current employer (6-7 teams of 4-5 devs). 

I had a meeting with the head of engineering and she wants me to act almost like a test consultant in that I'm hands off. She expects me to be able to create a system whereby I ask the teams a set of questions that uncover their core testing problems. She's also looking for keys metrics that we can use to measure success.

My question is whether you have a set of questions or approach that allows teams to uncover their biggest testing problems? Can you suggest reading material or an approach?

On this prompt, here is my approach to starting out as a Test Coach.

Avoid Assessment

A test coach role is usually created by an organisation who are seeking to address a perceived problem. It may be that the testers are slower to respond to change, or that testers are less willing to engage in professional development, or that the delivery team does not include a tester and the test coach is there to introduce testing in other disciplines. 

Generally, the role is created by a manager who sits beyond the delivery teams themselves. They have judged that there is something missing. I think it is a bad idea to start a test coach role with a survey of testing practices intended to quantify that judgement. You might represent a management solution to a particular problem that does not exist in the eyes of the team. 

Your first interaction will set the tone of future interactions. If you begin by asking people to complete a survey or checklist, you pitch your role as an outsider. Assessments are generally a way to claim power and hierarchy, neither of which will benefit a test coach. You want to work alongside the team as a support person, not over them.

Assessment can also be dangerous when you enter the role with assumptions of what your first actions will be. If you think you know where you need to start, it can be easy to interpret the results of an assessment so that it supports your own bias.

But if not by assessment, how do you begin?

Initiation Interviews

Talk to people. One-on-one. Give them an hour of your time and really listen to what they have to say. I try to run a standard set of questions for these conversations, to give them a bit of structure, but they are not an assessment. Example questions might include:

  • Whereabouts do you fit in the organisation and how long have you been working here?
  • Can you tell me a bit about what you do day-to-day?
  • What opportunities for improvement do you see?
  • What expectations do you have for the coaching role? How do you think I might help you?
  • What would you like to learn in the next 12 months?

I don't ask many questions in the hour that I spend with a person. Mostly I listen and take notes. I focus on staying present in the conversation, as my brain can tend to wander. I try to keep an open mind to what I am hearing, and avoid judgement in what I ask.

In this conversation I consciously try to adopt a position of ignorance. Even if I think that I might know what a person does, or what improvements they should be targeting, or even where they should be focused on their own development. I start this conversation with a blank slate. Some people have said "This is silly, you know what I do!", to which I say "Let's pretend that I don't". This approach almost always leads me to new insights.

This is obviously a lot slower than sending out a bulk survey and asking people to respond. However, it gives you the opportunity as a coach to do several important things. You demonstrate to the people that you'll be working with that you genuinely want their input and will take the time to properly understand it. You start individual working relationships by establishing an open and supportive dialog. And you give yourself an opportunity to challenge your own assumptions about why you've been bought into the test coach role.

Then how do you figure out where to start?

Finding Focus

When my role changed earlier in the year, I completed 40 one-on-one sessions. This generated a lot of notes from a lot of conversations, and initially the information felt a little overwhelming. However, when I focused on the opportunities for improvement that people spoke about, I started to identify themes.

I grouped the one-on-one discussions by department, then created themed improvement backlogs for each area. Each theme included a list of anonymous quotes from the conversations that I had, which fortuitously gave a rounded picture of the opportunities for improvement that the team could see.

I shared these documents back with the teams so that they had visibility of how I was presenting their ideas, then went to have conversations with the management of each area to prioritise the work that had been raised.

What I like about this approach is that I didn't have to uncover the problem myself. There was no detective work. I simply asked the team what the problems were, but instead of framing it negatively I framed it positively. What opportunities for improvement do you see? Generally people are aware of what could be changed, even when they lack the time or skills to drive that change themselves.

Then asking for management to prioritise the work allows them to influence direction, but without an open remit. Instead of asking "What should I do?", I like to ask "What should I do first?".

Measuring Success

The final part of the question I received this morning was about determining success of the test coach role. As with most measures of complex systems, this can be difficult.

I approach this by flipping the premise. I don't want to measure success, I want to celebrate it.

If you see something improve, I think part of the test coach role is to make sure that the people who worked towards that improvement are being recognised. If an individual steps beyond their comfort zone, call it out. If a team have collectively adopted and embedded a new practice, acknowledge it.

Make success visible.

I believe that people want to measure success when they are unable to see the impact of an initiative. As a test coach, your success is in the success of others. Take time to reflect on where these successes are happening and celebrate them appropriately.

That's my approach to starting in a test coach role. Avoiding assessment activities. Interviewing individuals to understand their ideas. Finding focus in their responses, with prioritisation from management. Celebrating success as we work on improvements together.