Realizing the Value of Testing: An Interview with Iain McCowatt


We sat down with Iain McCowatt, a program test manager at CGI in Halifax, Canada, in order to learn more about the role that testers play in making their worth known to the world around them.

Iain McCowatt's experience is not simply limited to being a software tester and automator; he has also dedicated himself to making sure that testers and their customers know the true value of the work that testers perform. We learned more about how that worth is realized by all parties in this interview with Iain.
Noel Wurst: Your bio mentions that you specialize in "building teams that place an emphasis on the skill of the tester." How is this different from how teams would've been built in the past, and what was the reasoning behind building them that way?
Iain McCowatt: A lot of organizations focus on building processes and tools, hoping that this will serve as a substitute for skill. The results are seldom pretty. I've been learning that by emphasizing skills, the process and tools are generally taken care of as a byproduct of good people doing amazing work.
NW: I love in the abstract for your upcoming STARCANADA session where you describe the "perverse incentives" that looking only for the cheapest testing option provides companies. How do vendors put a stop to this trend, in order to convince companies to look at a vendor's value and not just their cost.
IM: Vendors can differentiate themselves. In fact, this trend represents an opportunity for the smart vendor who can develop testing capability that their more price oriented competitors can't. It's not just vendors who can influence this trend though: customers and testers can exert influence as well. I've recently seen evidence of customers who are fed up with commodity testing, who are looking for something more, and are willing to pay for passion and skill. But most important of all are individual skilled testers: by their very existence, and by doing good work, they can prove that testing isn't a low skilled commodity.
NW: I recently listened to a podcast where you discussed how the commoditization of testers doesn't just bring down the value of a testing team's work, but it can also demotivate the team. Can you share a little about how that can happen, and how harmful that can be?
IM: If you are viewed as a commodity, something easily replaced, and you are not valued for your skills, that itself can be demotivating. And those who see you that way invariably see themselves as your betters. This kind of master/slave relationship kills any hope of collaboration, and invariably starves testers of information.
NW: You've also discussed the need to know for what exactly testing "is." How did we, anyone, even testers, lose sight of what all testing encompasses, and is it solely the job of testers to make sure their work is universally understood?
IM: Testing is, well, whatever it needs to be - to provide useful information to a project. Somewhere along the line, a lot of people got hung up on the how—methodology—and lost sight of that goal. Amongst other things, I'm going to discuss a quality model that I've found helpful in refocusing conversations about testing back on our real output: information.
NW: For the testers that are able to attend your upcoming session, who know that they're on a team that is struggling to be motivated, struggling to convince others of their immense worth, and value—what is a great starting point for breaking this trend once they return home after STARCANADA wraps up?
IM: Well Noel, whilst I was preparing this presentation and reflecting on the kinds of behaviours I've observed, I found myself getting quite depressed. But I do see signs of hope—not industry shattering change—but islands of hope here and there. So, a first step? Have hope.
Iain McCowatt is a context-driven tester, test manager, and automator whose experience and passion for testing spans multiple industries over more than a decade. As a test practice lead and program test manager with CGI in Atlantic Canada, Iain specializes in providing clients with innovative solutions to difficult testing problems and in building teams that place an emphasis on the skill of the tester.

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