What makes testers successful on agile teams? What skills do agile testers need to enjoy an exciting career and how can they learn those skills? In part one of our "Learning for Agile Testers" series, we explain what a well-rounded agile tester ought to know–and it goes way beyond technical skills!
What makes a “good tester”? Many testers are unsure what skills they should learn to obtain their desired positions. Some testers just give up and resign themselves to sticking with what they know.
In this series, we answer questions like:
- What do testers need to know in order to add value in software development projects?
- What skills will help them obtain the most rewarding jobs?
- Where can they go to learn what they need?
In part one, we recommend skills that any well-rounded QA professional needs. In part two , we’ll delve into more specific technical skills that help testers add value and suggest some ideas on how testers can grow professionally.
In our experience, the best testers can quickly pick up new specific skills, such as creating test plans or writing up bug reports because they have a good foundation of what Isabel Evans calls “thinking” skills . These skills are not tangible in the sense we can say, “I’ve learned that, I can practice it perfectly now.” Some of them are often called interpersonal or “soft” skills. The ability to collaborate is a requirement for agile testers. On traditional teams, often the only people testers talk to are other testers. On agile teams, a tester works closely with customers or the product owner to elicit requirements and uncover hidden assumptions. This is why concepts such as systems thinking—How did we get here? and What changes impact other parts of the system?—are so critical.
Testers collaborate with stakeholders to define acceptance tests and examples of desired system behavior and mis-behavior for each new feature or user story. A tester who knows when and how to get the right people talking can prevent misunderstood or missed requirements. Knowing how to facilitate a specification workshop  or a brainstorming meeting when there’s no business analyst or other specialist available is a bonus. Testers must feel comfortable working closely with developers to ensure that testing and coding is a seamless process with adequate test coverage.
“Soft” doesn’t mean “easy” when we talk about nontechnical skills. For example, how many of us really know how to use problem-solving skills? It is one of those transferable skills that can be applied to test design, debugging, coaching, or teaching.
Janet’s story: When I first took my exam for the ASQ Certified Quality Manager, I failed the written part, which was how to address two specific problems. I believe it was because I didn’t remember how to apply my problem-solving skills. I first learned those skills when I took Physics 101 at university, but I didn’t apply them on a regular basis. When I failed my exam, I sat back, figured out the root cause, and went back to basics. I retook my exam and followed the principles of problem solving and passed. I then presented what worked for me for the next group of people wanting to take the exam, which reinforced what I had learned.
Providing feedback is a tester’s most important function, and it generally needs to be done in a constructive manner. Knowing how to keep the focus on the work, not on the person, is essential. Bug reporting is one way to provide feedback, but there are more important ways. It takes time and practice to learn how to engage colleagues in a positive exchange when talking about negative issues. Learning empathy is essential—think about how would you want to receive unwelcome information? Skills such as the speech evaluations taught by Toastmasters International are transferable and can be essestial to providing feedback on software teams.
Coaching skills enable testers to