This article describes four low-cost ways to provide training to your testing group. It does not encourage ignoring or eliminating traditional methods of training (e.g., in-house, tuition reimbursement, conferences); rather, it encourages test managers to explore how they can effectively increase their team's value to the company by using these methods as an adjunct to the more traditional methods.
Recently, my manager gave me the task of researching the cost of training for our team of ten software testers. Our testers are some of the best and brightest in the field, but as with any group, there is always room for improvement. Over the past few years, our company has moved in the direction of continuous process improvement, especially in the area of software development. We wanted our team to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to contribute to our company's effort and perhaps to the perfect process (a topic for another article).
So I set off, perhaps in blissful ignorance, on a journey to find the most cost-effective way to bring training to our group. I contacted some on-site training companies and was hit with a cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. I looked into sending a small group of testers and the test manager to a conference or two and found the combined cost to be almost as high as the on-site training. I looked into the universities and schools in our area, to no avail. They provided plenty of programming courses, but very little in the way of software quality or process improvement. Eventually, I was faced with the reality. If we wanted to increase the knowledge of our testers, we would have to pay dearly.
Then I thought, why not leverage the knowledge we have before spending large sums of money? Conferences and on-site training can be effective and they have their place, but why not use what we already have at our disposal? All of our testers are highly talented, but some are talented with programming, others with process, and still others with project management. Our talents and experiences are diverse, and each of us has knowledge and resources in areas that no one else on the team possesses. I came up with four practical, low-cost methods to increase the overall knowledge level of any test team, each one using resources that we either already had or could easily afford to obtain. None of these methods is new or groundbreaking, but when combined, they can provide a cost-effective way for you to expand the knowledge of your team.
These methods are
- develop a shared "library" of learning materials
- start a series of lunchtime learning sessions
- encourage certification and study groups
- encourage professional groups
Shared Library of Learning Materials
Like many people who work in the IT industry, I have a bookshelf at home that contains dozens of dusty, under-used books just waiting for someone to make use of them. Most of them I have read, some I have not, but the bottom line is that the vast majority of them are serving no purpose other than taking up space on my shelf. I decided to bring them to the office and make them available to other members of the team. I encouraged others on the team to do the same. The result has been a sizeable collection of books, white papers, magazines, and reference guides on topics that span the IT field from testing and communication, to process improvement and customer support. At first, the books were a little slow coming in, but with the enticement of small token rewards, people remembered to bring their material in. We now have dozens of books available in our "Test Team Library" for our testers to borrow and learn from at their leisure. So far the library has been very successful and we have received very positive feedback from both management and the testers. We are even looking into opening our library to the rest of our IS department soon. Who knows, at some time our library could even serve as a companywide resource.
Some companies offer a book purchase policy that will cover the cost of books or periodicals related to the business. Our team is in the process of establishing a metrics program and so decided that a book on software metrics would be a valuable addition to our library, and our company purchased it. Each time you add content to your library, you very affordably increase the knowledge of your team, contribute to their individual professional development, and increase your team's value to the company.
Lunchtime Learning Sessions
"Lunch and Learns," "Brown Bag Sessions"…whatever you call them, lunchtime sessions can be a very effective and inexpensive way to broaden the knowledge of not only your testing team, but anyone else in your company who is interested. The concept is simple: once a month (or however often you decide), someone presents a thirty- to forty-five-minute presentation on a specific topic, with the goal of having the attendees gain a better understanding of that topic.
For example, one member of your team may have expertise in automated test design-more so than the rest of the team. If you can convince that individual to present the topic of automated testing to the test team over one or more lunch sessions, then that knowledge can be effectively distributed to the rest of the team. My employer, for example, has a QA core department with individuals well versed in process improvement. These individuals could provide a valuable presentation (or series of presentations) on how to improve processes. Often, the biggest challenge is to convince the employee to make the presentation. This is where token rewards can be helpful. Offering to buy the employee lunch or a gift certificate can entice the otherwise unwilling participant to present a topic. Spending fifty dollars for a gift certificate is still much cheaper than bringing in a consultant to present the topic. Furthermore, in some cases you may be surprised how willing team members may be to demonstrate their advanced knowledge. Often, there are individuals within your company (other than the test team members) who would be more than happy to make a presentation on their area of expertise.
Certifications and Study Groups
Over the past few years, a number of testing- and QA-related certifications have ppeared in our industry. QAI's CSTE (Certified Software Test Engineer) and CSQA (Certified Software Quality Analyst) certifications are just two of a growing number of industry-recognized QA certifications. These certifications not only enhance the employee's value but also the value of the team itself. An individual who is certified has proven his or her knowledge in a specific subject area. By encouraging (and paying for) an individual's certification, you can affordably increase the employee's knowledge level and morale. Additionally, certification study is generally self-directed and can be done on an employee's own time, limiting the resource constraints often faced during work hours.
One way to augment the value of a certification is to encourage groups of employees to become certified together and participate in study groups. By gathering a group of employees with different backgrounds and knowledge levels together to study toward the same goal, you will witness an incredible exchange of knowledge and ideas. I have found it very educational and enjoyable to "teach" other testers what I know about testing and QA and have found that I learn as much from others when I'm teaching them. Certification study groups can be done during lunch, after work, on weekends, or whenever it is convenient for the employees. Study groups increase the overall level of
knowledge on your team, improve interpersonal relationships, improve morale, and increase the level of teamwork in your group.
Encourage Your Employees to Join a Professional Group (or Start One)
Professional groups are a great way for people with a common professional interest to learn, network, and promote their profession. Generally, professional groups charge a small fee for membership and provide regular meetings with topical speakers, as well as periodicals of interest to the group. They may also support certifications and classes in the group's area of interest .
There are a number of active groups that exist solely to promote quality. Some of these groups, such as the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the Society for Software Quality (SSQ), have local chapters in various areas of the United States that are free or very inexpensive to join. As a member, you are entitled to attend the meetings and receive the periodicals at no extra cost. The Delaware chapter of the Society for Software Quality, for example, has had a wide variety of speakers on topics such as software testing, project management, and test tools. Each of the speakers is an expert and many are professors, directors, or consultants.
What if there are no professional groups in your area? Start one! Many of the groups, including SSQ and ASQ, encourage QA professionals to start local chapters. What better way to demonstrate your leadership and get your employees involved in the industry then to start a local chapter?
Training and educating your testers does not have to be expensive. By being creative, you can find many ways to increase the value of your employees and your testing team. Your employees will appreciate the effort and you are likely to learn a thing or two yourself. Sure, send them to conferences, provide them with tuition assistance, and bring in outside training, when necessary, but don't overlook what you already have. The best source of training may be right in front of you. You just have to look around and recognize it!
Other Certification References:
"Benefits and Risks of Tester Certification", By Dave Gelperin