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What modern test manager responsibilities entail

What does a test manager do? That's not the easiest question to answer, as responsibilities vary. Expert Matt Heusser explains the crux of the role and provides some tips as well.

Ask five people what test management is, and you are likely to get six answers. Ask five test managers what they do all day, and you'll be lucky to get past "there is no such thing as a typical day." Today we'll talk about what test managers do, what they could do and where things are headed.

If you follow a test manager around for a week, or better yet, a year, you are likely to see a variety of activities. Test manager responsibilities range from approving vacation requests to meeting one-on-one with technical staff. Managers tend to lead and have final decisions on hiring. Test managers coordinate staff availability for projects with hiring managers. When a project is late, it is the test manager who has to scramble to figure out how to staff the next project, the one that is supposed to start in two weeks.

Now read that list again and look for a single thread that combines it. There isn't one, not really. There is no governing theory on what a test manager should do. Instead, the role of the test manager is to handle exceptions, to take care of the whirlwind. That work can still be noble; a good test manager can keep distractions away from the team so they can focus. The test manager moves from crisis to crisis and even, perhaps, prevents them. The Agile movement, by and large, does not really have a role for test managers. Instead, the testers are embedded on a long-term team; projects are managed through streams of value. When one project that would use a full team is late, the next one is delayed entirely. There are no boxes to move around, no lists of tasks to manage. Communities of practice and collaboration can provide something very similar to one-on-ones.

It's no huge surprise, then, that test manager responsibilities put most of my friends in that position under pressure. It's not universal, but I am seeing more test managers leave companies without a replacement -- or managers like Jason Coutu. Coutu, a coaching test lead from Saskatoon, Sask., recently went back to more of a player and coach role at his company, Vendasta, instead of a capital-letters Test Manager role.

Assuming you want to keep the test manager role, that position needs to add unique value. Let's talk about how to do that.

Saving test managers

Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, defined the role of management in his 1983 classic High Output Management. According to Grove, the value of the manager is a combination of work of the technical staff, their value of their output, and how much the manager impacts adjacent teams. That means a manager can add value by helping when other teams are in trouble or by increasing the output of the team. One-on-ones that are status meetings don't do that, neither does deciding who gets which assignments or who sits by the window. Instead, here are a few ways to do it:

  • Getting the staff out of meetings. The old saw that the managers go to meetings so the staff can keep busy could have some truth in it. Better yet, ask what the meeting is for, and if the organization can solve the same problem in some other way.
  • Work with the staff to develop skills. One-on-ones could be a time to create a "skill snowball" that grows over time, to point it downhill and adjust. In his book, Grove talked about task-maturity, that people more skilled in an area need less supervision. The test manager can work to develop specific skills, so the staff moves from apprentice to journeyman, then coach and mentor.
  • Set expectations with other departments. If software is a machine, then understanding roles and expectations is the lubrication. Ignore it, and friction occurs. People fight over who should have done what when and what word means what. Eventually, the machine breaks, or, if you are lucky, just slows down. Technical staff members don't have time to have these sorts of debates, and when they do, the way they frame things will be just their opinion.
  • Set expectations within the testers. Outsiders with the right ideas about testing don't help much if the test team doesn't understand itself.

While these examples work for most people-manager roles, they work best for specialists. A general development manager won't be able to set the expectations for the test team, because they don't have the details of the role. Nor will they be able to provide specific advice and expertise to help testers develop skills. When a generalist manager might suggest a test conference or a development goal, a specialist test manager can provide much deeper, insightful advice -- to help build the "test snowball."

Improving the test manager role

The short list above is a start. For test managers, the key is to look at all your activities and ask if they accelerate the team. If not, can they be made to accelerate the team? If not, can they be dropped? And if they are dropped, what do you replace them with?

Coming up with the activities is the hard part. To do that, start by writing down everything you do for three weeks. At some companies, there will be big things missing that are more annual, like reviews, but three weeks of activity is likely enough to get started. Use that as a census of activities. Ask how to make the test team, and the wider delivery team, go faster.

Find an answer to that question and you'll never have to worry about having a job.

Organizations that don't grapple with that question might just find specialized managers slowly disappearing in a world of self-organized, self-directed teams. That might be okay. Some of the larger organizations I work with have a test practice manager with a larger number of reports than a traditional span of control would allow -- something between 10 and 50. The test manager does the snowball work we outlined, plus acts as a representative of testing and may do some portfolio work. Meanwhile, the testers work with a line manager and broader technical team for day-to-day work.

The right answer will vary by company -- and today's right answer might be different than tomorrow's, especially since test manager responsibilities can easily change. For now, I've given you a few ways to improve the test manager role -- if you have one -- and a way to get started.

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