Make Your Point—Without Pointing a Finger


When errors are not detected during testing, somewhere down the line someone has to take responsibility. In this column, Linda Hayes shows you when and how to do so—and you might even be able to turn the situation to your advantage.

If you manage a test group, you are going to fail sooner or later. By fail I mean that an error is going to escape your most diligent efforts and wreak havoc in production. I know this because I have never met a test manager who had all the time, resources, and necessary information, and I have never seen a perfect software release. So the question is not if it will happen, but what you can do when it happens.

Picture yourself. You are in a meeting with your manager who wants to know—how did you miss this? As I see it, you have three options. You can tell them:

I didn't miss it, someone else did. You didn't even know you needed to test it because you didn't get thorough requirements. Or, it was an obscure coding issue (the maximum size of an array, for example) that only the developer would know about and so it should have been caught in a unit test. Or, it was caused by the production environment itself, through a faulty configuration or installation. Or…you get the idea.

The advantage of this approach is that these things are probably true, and you can deflect the blame to where it really belongs so that improvements can be made. The disadvantage is that you are going to end up unpopular with whoever ends up receiving the blame. No one likes a snitch.

I did miss it, but it wasn't my fault. You would have caught it, but the software was so late that you had to cut your testing short. Or the test environment was so unstable that you couldn't run all of your tests. Or your headcount request was slashed so that you were too understaffed to do a thorough job.

Again, the upside for this response is that your reasons are likely to be true, and management needs to be realistic about what you are up against. The downside is that you are going to be cast as a whiner.

I did miss it, but it won't happen again. You accept responsibility for the quality of the product and you will take steps to ensure that it does not happen again. These steps include reviewing your test plan with the users to be sure all requirements are covered, for example, or reviewing the unit test plans to be sure you understand what is being tested in development. You might also propose that you either get crunch time reinforcements from other departments when the schedule is tight, or that you get the discretion to cut less critical tests from your plan in order to make up for lost time.

The obvious drawback to this option is that you take the blame, which is somewhat risky. You don't want to become a doormat. On the other hand, you are perceived as someone who takes responsibility, and the best part is that it allows you to make the same points as the first two options but in a positive way. You not only identify the issues without casting blame, but you also suggest solutions.

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