Ask Me Anything: Test Leadership

Butch Mayhew (@utchbe) joins us for an Ask Me Anything all about Test Leadership.

We’ll add resources mentioned during the session to this thread and any questions we don’t get to during the session.

If you miss the live session, a recording will be available on the Ministry of Testing website once we’ve edited and added captions.


Useful Items & Resources shared

Questions unanswered

  1. How do you go about successfully making changes to existing process? – Aimi
  2. How do you get constructive feedback from your team? – @simon_tomes
  3. If offered a QA manager position in a new company, how you manage your learning (new product, new tools, new process) and assure adding value to the project on going? – @emna_ayadi
  4. What tech and/or soft skills are most crucial for someone looking to move into test leadership? – Gavin
  5. How do you go about drawing the line between guiding your direct reports and leaving them to it? – @melissafisher
  6. What are some red-flags to look out for when interviewing a Test Lead? What questions can be asked to find these out? – Paul Farrell
  7. Can you describe the most important things that first time test team leader should take care about especially when it’s a new position, in a new company? – @emna_ayadi
  8. During this pandemic and work from home culture, it is difficult to complete personal development goals as planned. Balancing time between release work and development goals seems to be difficult. Any suggestions how to overcome this? John Buccholz
  9. What as QA manager you always suggest to add In a QA team to improve process?
    – Ashish Goel
  10. I am planning to goto leadership role like Principal Engineer. How do you envision this role? – John Buccholz
  11. In your leadership how you manage test plans? test scenarios? - John Buccholz
  12. As a manager how to keep abreast with latest tools and technology? – Anon
  13. How do you build a development plan for your reports? – Ali Asif
  14. I am new to the manager role and have been asked to provide a test strategy for our small team. I have never formally put a strategy together in the past and was curious if this is something you can relate to when you transitioned to management? How did you shift from doing the work to planning the work and learning these skills that seem to be expected in leadership? – Andrew
  15. How to test AI based Solutions? – Vivek Tripathi
  16. Is leadership only for those in management? What would you do if you wanted to be a leader but weren’t being give the opportunity? – @lgibbs
  17. How to work with difficult personalities (does not adhere, not aware of the limits, in the challenge, creates bad atmosphere in the team…etc) – @gtmaxime
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  1. How do you go about successfully making changes to existing processes? – Aimi

First off, answer the question of why does the process need to change. Once you have that work with your peers (more than likely development managers), to get their feedback and buy-in. If they are bought in, it’s just a matter of rolling out the change with the team. I’ve found it’s also helpful to pitch the process change as an experiment to the team, and have them poke holes in it. Let it run for a time period and re-assess, make any adjustments and then make it official, ‘This is the way! <insert_mando_here>’

My favorite Empowerment questions I tend to ask in individual 1:1s

  • If you were leading this team what would you do different?
  • What are some things we are not doing that we should be doing?
  • What could we be doing different/better? *Is there anything that your team is working on that isn’t providing value to <insert_current_company>?
  • Is there anything that you are currently doing that isn’t pushing <insert_current_company> forward?
  • How do you think ________ went? - a situation that you want feedback on.

Outside of this I’ve also found it important to remind the team that our processes/way we do things, are not set in stone (Keep an open mind), and can be challenged at any time. If there is a better way, let’s do that!

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Depends on how big the team, is and what is your scope.

I have a list of questions I ask when joining a new team as a leader (I’ve been thankful to do this at the same company, as we have acquired companies)

  1. Find out what’s the most important thing in the product your supporting. Make sure strategy around testing/delivering this
  2. Find out where the gaps are for new team member onboarding (by going through it yourself) - commit to making this smooth
  3. Process, Product, Tools ← I would prioritize this way

You will not have everything figured out in your first month, that is OK. (it may take 3-6 months)

In your first few weeks, you may want to put in extra hours to get ahead of the curve (think of it as an early investment, that will pay dividends with your team). *NOTE this is my approach (not for my direct reports) and I only take on this approach when I know I have extra time during my work/life blend.

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For this, I would more point to resources I’ve found valuable in my leadership journey (below). You as a leader, don’t have to look like every other leader in the organization. I do think it is important that you have been involved with teams that have successfully delivered quality/value to customers. Knowing the ins and outs, and risks with that lifecycle will help you think bigger picture and connect dots, unblock teams, and deliver on time. Knowing these will help you as you start looking for bottlenecks, ways to improve the team. Where is the process bad. I tend to live by ‘Blame the process not the people’. If we have good clear processes in place the team will likely succeed!



This is an art. The more junior the team member is the more guidance you should provide, and IMO the less you should expect of them. Set the bar at the right level for them to be challenged, but for them to have an opportunity to succeed. Delegation is an important part of being a leader, as you can’t do ALL THE THINGS. For Senior team members or managers, the bar should be higher for them.

Reflecting back on an experience that really shaped my leadership beliefs, was a Developer brought a problem to his manager, explained the problem thoroughly, and asked how should I proceed. The manager responded with ‘What do you think?’ :boom: BOOM, This put the ownership on the team member to come up with the best solution in is opinion, and articulate it. From here a leader can guide, ask further questions to poke holes in the solution. As a leader if you take this approach, if the answer isn’t what you would do, but it is a good solution, it’s your job at that point to keep your mouth closed and send the team member on their way (empowering them) to implement their solution. I’ve been amazed with this approach where the solution my team member brought to the table was better than the way I would have recommended. Win Win situation!

It all depends on your strategy. But if I’m hiring a test lead or senior tester, I’m going to look at how long they have been with their previous companies. If it’s less than 8 months or a year, I’m going to dig in there, as my strategy doesn’t include managing/maintaining test cases.

  1. Have they successfully completed projects? - Ownership/taking responsibilities on.
  2. What obstacles did they face, and how did they solve/deal with them. -
    • Describe the most challenging project that you have worked on. What made it the most challenging?
  3. What do you do to convince a reluctant developer to listen to your advice?

Ask, Ask, Ask! - Asking and Listening to the team is the path to understanding

Don’t talk too much or too soon

Get to know your team - The first 1:1 with your new team members is important to get to know them (take notes, come with prepared questions getting to know them, and just as you are nervous, know your team member is more than likely more nervous

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As an Individual Contributor, don’t leave your learning and career progression up to your manager. Take it into your own hands. As all of us have certain project, priorities and deadlines, in our day to day, it is important to budget/schedule some of your time dedicated to learning/growing. This could be 30min a day before standup, or a blocked off time on Tuesday afternoon every week. What’s important is prioritizing and scheduling that time. Once you have a schedule or a proposal, run that by your manager, and get approval/buy-in to be one of your priorities. I realize there may be certain times during a project typically closer to the end, where you may have to put a pause or decrease dedicated learning times, just be sure when that time is over that personal growth becomes a priority again.

As a Leader - make time for your team to learn/grow. This could be encouraging them to budget that time, work with the developers/product owners to identify the best time in a sprint on in the day to schedule that time. As a leader you can also create learning journey’s or paths for your team, or work to get training budget for the team to attend a Test Bash and/or invest in a Pro MOT membership.

A typical way I’ve justified this with my leadership, is the more we invest in our team, the more value, they will bring to the company, and the more job satisfaction they will have . When the budget isn’t there get creative with how you can provide some of these learning paths.

This question is very context-specific, and I’m not sure if there is something that I would always add to improve the process. Something I tend to lean towards adding is documentation around things that are not straightforward. This could be ‘How to Test’ documentation that allows any other tester, product manager, developer insight into how a feature, job, utility, works, which allows anyone on the team to pick up testing, or atleast have a shared understanding of how something works. Along the lines of documentation, I am a stickler for working with my teams to provide a good ‘readme’ on any code repos the test team owns. These repos will consist of tools we’ve built to use Automation in Testing, Test Automation Frameworks, etc. The important thing there is anyone sould be able to get the tool, framework running by reading the readme.

One thing I try and always ‘remove’ are the bottlenecks in the process. How many back and forths does a peice of code take before it’s delivered to production. Reduce this as much as possible.

This role will be different for every company. Some companies don’t have this as a role, while others do. In my mind a Principal Engineer is a step above a Senior Engineer, and I’ll describe a few things I expect from my seniors.

1.Find ways to increase productivity, efficiency, speed, and reliability of the team through tooling (constantly raising the bar for the team).
2. Be go to contact (rather than manager) for technical challenges
3. They should be taking on mentors and training team members in best practices.
4. If working with Automation, they should be able to guide multiple product teams in helping determine what needs test coverage and at what level (unit, integration, end to end)

I would not expect a Principle Engineer to have any direct reports, but would be a ‘technical and thought leader’ amongst the group, and someone respected by both developers and testers.

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I wrote my thoughts here somewhat recently: Create a Good Strategy Around Testing - Quagmatic | Balancing Quality and Speed

To actually document our exploratory testing, our teams use Jira Capture. It does well for what it is, and it allows me to capture all testing notes, linked to 1 or multiple tickets, (not in comments, so all in one place) on a jira ticket. This gives us a dedicated place on every ticket to track, review test sessions.

There is no possible way to keep up with everything, but I do subscribe to a few newsletters, follow a lot of developers, testers, DevOps, and security people on Twitter.

My strategy here is to review the weekly content, and save/open/email myself any links I think I want to read and make plans to read during the workweek.


For tools, I don’t have time in my daily work managing teams to get my hands on all the tools, but I do have conversations and demos/code reviews with my team to make sure I understand the pros and cons of different tools, languages, frameworks, approaches.

I have found spending 15min at Vendor booths at conferences helpful to get a demo of tools, services I’m not familiar with, even if I’m happy with my current toolset. This goes with ‘Keeping an Open Mind’ always looking for ways to improve.

I try and keep it as simple as possible. I ask where they want to grow, and come up with 2-3 objectives for the year or quarter for them to work towards.

I have 2 team members who are interested in Security Testing. I encouraged them to learn & lead a workshop for the whole testing team.

I have testers who are interested in learning more about automation, we setup expectations around adding value to our existing test automation suite (this could be 5 new tests a quarter or more aggressive depending on their schedule. Assigning a tester to review test automation results, and look into any failures is also a great way for folks new to automation to learn.

If someone is interested in leadership, I try and find places for them to lead a meeting, or take on responsibility in a meeting that I may be in, or take on a mentor.

The goal being you don’t want to set them up for failure, and it should be measurable.

Try and start out as simple as possible. If your working within a small team, there is a current strategy and processes in place, start by documenting them. Your strategy should speak to the ‘Why’ you do X process. If you can’t answer why you do something and no one else on your team can, cut it, you probably don’t need it.

For test strategy I can summarize mine in 2-3 paragraphs per product. I typically break out a 2nd document to document our Test Automation strategy, describing what level we are planning on testing and why (Unit, API, UI), along with what technologies we are planning to use for automation.

As far as the transition from ‘doing’ to ‘thinking strategically’ that is something I struggled with for a long time (always wanting to keep my skills sharp). In the end, I found that if I was not making the time to plan, and think strategically I was actually holding the team back. 1. taking on the 'challenging tasks, not allowing my team to take these on and grow from these and 2. I wasn’t setting clear direction for the team by not clarifying the strategy and the why.

Start with a conversation either the end user of the product, or someone who can speak on their behalf (product manager, etc). Identify the ‘Why’ and ‘Whats important’ and and get creative.

Also I love this blog, and in the US on Valenties, we have a candy heart with ‘sweet messages’ on each. Here is what happens when you get AI to generate those sweet messages for you . AI Weirdness • Okay GPT-3: Candy hearts!

Oh man I love this question. The answer is 100% no. Anyone can be a leader even if you are not in charge. I would also argue leaders are not born, they are made. I call it leading when you are not in charge.

If you are looking to move into a formal management/leadership role, I think it’s super important to make sure your manager knows this. Ask them for guidance, or opportunities to take on different types of leadership roles (project/test lead) or something similar. Taking on the scrum master role is another great way to get decent experience.

As far as not getting the opportunity, if there aren’t new opportunities or areas in your current company due to smaller team sizes, or slow growth, you will have decisions to make. If you feel like you are overlooked, try and get feedback and find areas where you can grow and improve yourself. I interviewed for my first manager job (not testing, but Technical Support manager) at my company, and got invaluable feedback from the interview, that opened my eyes to areas of weakness I had to work on.

I’ve found in my journey, helping others around me was one of the best ways to gain respect and trust from my peers. Rather than, hiding a new idea that will keep me ahead of the pack, share it with the team, help others by making them better. Put the We before Me. This is being a servant leader.

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As a leader it is up to you to address this problem with their team lead or if they are your direct report to deal with it. Tough conversations are necessary in this situation, and it’s possible HR may need to be involved depending on the situation.

I’ve found The Manager’s Path covered this question quite well. If you are the manager, this advise below is helpful

Simply and openly refuse to tolerate bad behaviours. One of the few instances where “praise in public, criticise in private” is upended. You don’t want your culture to mimic, you need to say something in the moment to make the standard clear. If you seem emotional, it may undermine you. Your first goal is to protect your team as a whole, the second is to protect each individual on the team, and your last priority is protecting yourself.

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Here’s some additional threads on “Principal” and “Staff” engineers/testers: