T-shaped Tester, Square Shaped Team

This is a guest post by Adam Knight who’s blog (A Sisyphean Task) is a must read testing blog.

I was pleased when Rob asked me to write this guest post on the subject of T-shaped testers. It is a subject which I have a strong affiliation with, and which is integral to my approach to management. I’d discussed the subject with Rob previously, having encountered the term ‘T-shaped’ from reading Jurgen Appello’s post on the subject.

Whilst the concept is an interesting one on an individual level, and Rob covers this really well in his previous post, what I really like about the idea of the T-shaped Tester is its implication for teams.

Not all T’s are the same

Whilst providing a simple name and model for people with broad knowledge and deep key skills, one or two important concepts are not well represented by the T model.

– the first is that, individuals can have more than one deep skill. The T shape tends to imply broad knowledge with one deep core skill. What I have found is that the best individuals possess multiple deep skills, combined with the broad skill base to ‘glue’ these together. Less a T and more like a city skyline.

– the other is that , not all T’s are the same. Each T-shaped individual can have different core skills that have arisen through their experience, interests and self learning that make them unique shapes. It is the variety of skills and shapes that, for me, presents the most important aspect of hiring generalising specialists, the ability to put the individual ‘shapes’ together and create amazing teams.

Piecing together a Team

One of my earliest blog posts was on the subject of how I felt that a Testing team worked best when comprised not multiple individuals all possessing equivalent skills, but when each individual in the team possessed specific both a general set of skills, then specific specialist abilities that benefited the team.

I presented the idea that, in the context of testing the software, the presence of a range of skills and experience in a team allows the testing operation to critique the product from a range of subjective viewpoints. If we populate a team solely with testers produced via the same training process then the testing will be limited from the perspective of insight and empathy for the stakeholder.

Beyond Testing

The benefit of having a range of deep skills in a team extend well beyond the ability to test the product more effectively.

– self sufficiency

Having a wider variety of skills contained within a team can help to make a team more self sufficient. This can be a distinct advantage in removing the friction caused by external dependencies . Testing teams can suffer being at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to internal IT infrastructure. Having one or more team members who are proficient in setting up operating systems and virtual/cloud test environments reduces this friction and allows the team to be more autonomous and less subject to organisational inefficiencies elsewhere.

– multi-tasking

In the world of small companies and startups particularly it can be a huge benefit if individuals and teams can take on additional responsibilities. In our earliest customer engagements my organisation really benefitted from myself and some of the other team members making use of good communication skills to take on the role of customer support. Other members used their diligence and management skills to maintain and manage the automation processes during periods of support activity. This allowed us to successfully progress through these early engagements and support the customers until such time as the company could expand and bring devoted support staff on board.

– co-operation not competition

One of the problems that I have seen in teams populated with multiple individuals all with the same skill set is that , all of the individuals in the team share common goals, and often the act of achieving these goals by one individual will implicitly exclude others from doing the same. When a team is made up of individuals with mixed skills and interests I feel that it is easier to build up unique personal development goals for each member which are less likely to conflict with the interests of others.

– this is how we want to work

I have never seen a film involving a team where every member of the team had the same skills. Take any famous ‘team’ movie and you’ll most likely have a story where individuals have key skills which contribute to the eventual success of the team. If art holds a mirror to life then our cultural subconscious gives us a pretty strong message that the best teams to work in are those where individuals have unique skills which are valuable to the goal of the team overall. As I wrote recently here, motivation is an important factor in work success. Feeling that your skills and contribution are valued is an important motivational factor in thought work such as software development.

Whilst extending ones own skills as an individual tester is a noble endeavour, for the test manager the implications of hiring T-shaped individuals take on a whole new dimension. By combining the unique skill sets of different team members we can construct powerful and dynamic team units that are autonomous in operation, with mutually beneficial personal goals, and can extend their remit to take on a range of tasks. Each team within an organisation may have slightly different make up but each will possess deep skills and knowledge. Each skill set pieces together to form a final picture of both breadth and depth, the Square Shaped Team.

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