T-Shaped Testers and their role in a team

Stick with it….it’s a rambling long essay post.. and I may be way off the mark.

I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of a separate test team and associated “phases” of testing. I spent about 8 years working in these environments and kept struggling to answer questions like:

  • “Why are we involved so late in the project?”
  • “Why are there so many obvious bugs or flaws?”
  • “Why does the product not meet the spec?”
  • “Why do we always follow these scripts and assume the product is good?”
  • “Why don’t we use the questioning skills of tester’s earlier in the process?”
  • “Why are the tester’s skills in design, organisation and critical thinking not valued at the end of the cycle?”
  • “Why do we have some specialist testers, like performance testers, but a load of other testers who just do ‘any old functional script’?”
  • “Why does everyone keep complaining about this way of working, but do nothing about it?”

And a whole load more questions along the same lines.

These questions are common in the industry, check out any forum or conference and you will find many similar questions being asked, and a plethora of tools, services and consultants willing and able to solve these problems.

It’s taken me many years and much analysis to come to an idea about testing that I feel more comfortable with, and in truth, it wasn’t even my idea, but I’ll get to that bit.

The more people I speak to about this, the more I realise that others feel comfortable with it to. Comfortable because they are operating in these contexts, or, more crucially, would love to operate in a context like this. Of course, some don’t agree and many simply don’t care…but that’s another post.

I believe that finding bugs is just one aspect of a testers role.

I don’t think finding bugs is just the responsibility of the tester either.

I also believe that testers should use their skills in other parts of the project cycle, whether that cycle is two weeks or two months or two years.

The idea I am presenting here is the T-Shaped people idea. It’s not mine, I believe Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO) coined it in the 1990s to describe the new breed of worker.

If you imagine the letter T being a representation of a person’s skills (or as a role as I like to use it). The vertical part of the T represents the core skill or expertise. In testing I would naturally suggest this is the core skill of testing (of which there are many variations, and sub-skills). The horizontal part of the T represents the persons ability to work across multiple disciplines and bring in skills and expertise outside of the core skills.

The more I talk to people about T-shaped testers the more I hit a nerve with people. It really does seem to sum up the growing number of testers in the community. Those who are skilled testers, yet are skilled in a number of supporting domains.

Many of my peers in the community are T-shaped testers. They excel at their specific element of testing yet they bring in skills from other areas, or they use their skills to fulfill other roles within the business.

In start-ups or fast moving companies the ability to work across multiple disciplines has some obvious benefits.

One person capable of fulfilling a few roles reasonable well seems like good value and a good asset to delivering value. Even in traditional environments with more structured roles T-shaped people can be found serving multiple roles.

However, a lot of the time people don’t see themselves as contributing to something outside of testing (i.e. fulfilling other roles), or bringing other skills they have to the role. Some simply don’t have the opportunity.

Some great testers in the community fulfill other roles within their business. For example, without naming names:

  • There is a great test manager I know who is also a support manager.
  • There is a great tester I know who is also a product owner.
  • There is a great tester I know who is also a scrum master.
  • There is a great tester I know who is also responsible for market research for the company.
  • There is a great tester I know who also does all of the hiring interviews for **every** role.
  • There is a great tester I know who also runs conferences, sells advertising, builds his own product, markets his own product and consults to big clients. (how many different skills do you need to achieve that?)

These are just some examples. There are countless others.

Then there are those who are testers but have supreme skills out of work that aren’t utilised in their main role. We have musicians, artists, designers, writers, mechanics, engineers, carpenters, social media advocates, printers, net-workers and anything else you can think of that someone might do out of work. Could a company not utilise and encourage the use of these skills to help solve business problems? Of course they could.

Sadly, many people (not just testers) are pigeon holed in to their role, despite having a lot more to offer.

As a short side story I was ready to leave testing a few years back, mainly due to being unable to answer the questions I posed earlier. I was thinking “Is This It?”. What about the skills I had and the passions outside of work? Why can’t I use these? What job could I get that does use them? Would I have to re-train? Why are my other skills ignored in the work place? Then I found blogging, consulting, agile coaching, systems thinking and ultimately people management and it all fell in to place…..Anyway – I digress.

I believe that testers, actually – anyone, can contribute a lot more to the business than their standard role traditionally dictates. The tester’s critical and skeptical thinking can be used earlier in the process. Their other skills can be used to solve other problems within the business. Their role can stretch to include other aspects that intrigue them and keep them interested.

With Acceptance Test Driven Development, Test Driven Development and a whole host of other automation approaches comes the need for testers to be involved earlier but crucially, not so tied down later in the cycle running confirmation checks. Exploration, curiosity and intrigue are what drives testers in these environments. The checks are taken care of, what remains is to understand what the product actually does and provide insights in to risk, uncertainty, user experience and the markets (customer, end user, competition, industry) expectations of the product, plus the stuff we might not have thought about earlier.

They can help to discover what the product is meant to be, not just give judgment on whether it meets the requirements or not.

Finding bugs is what we do, but I don’t believe that this should be an end goal. Bugs are a side effect of discovering more about the product…maybe.

I believe everyone has the capacity to do a lot more towards the goal of shipping great products outside of their stereotype role. It’s something we’ve embraced here at NewVoiceMedia.

We have testers who write product documentation, are scrum masters, are building infrastructure to support rapid release, are taking ownership for security and compliance to standards, are presenting the development process to customers, are visiting customer sites to research how people are using the product, are writing social media content, are devising internal communication strategies, are doing agile coaching, are creating personas and are using their natural skills and abilities where they are best suited to help move the business forward.

We’re still working on the balance between roles and expectations, and the balance shifts, typically in response to the market.

Don’t get me wrong. Many people don’t have this opportunity but if you’re in a position to make changes then utilising your wider skills and the skills of those in your team could be a great approach to solving problems.

This is clearly not restricted to testers either. Programmers, product owners, support, sales, accounts etc etc – everyone is a T-Shaped person, or at least has the potential to be T-Shaped.

I think the future of testing is going to be a future of both specialists and generalists. There is always a need to have specialists in security, performance, accessibility etc, but there is also a need to have generalists; testers who can fulfil a number of different roles across the organisation whilst still maintaining a core skill of testing.

Being a T-Shaped person means having skills that can be useful across other domains. Having T-Shaped tester roles means encouraging testers to fulfil a number of roles. Learning the skills needed, or already having the skills in place (i.e. already being a T-Shaped person) means people can either slip straight in to the role, or they may have to seek out learnings, coaching and mentoring. And that’s where good management, teams and community engagement can come in.

I’m exploring around this idea right now, but I know already that T-Shaped people gives me a really good model to describe the testing and testers I feel comfortable with. The testing that I feel suits me, the companies I seek out and the markets I work in.

I believe testing is more than finding bugs; it’s about exploring the product, discovering what the product needs to be, discovering the market needs (i.e. A/B Testing), discovering what the product actually does, working out whether the product is suitable for the context of use, questioning the process, improving the process, helping to design the product, improving the product, helping to support it, helping to promote it and ultimately working with the team to deliver value.

And all of the above might explain why myself (and those peers who appreciate or demonstrate the T-Shaped model) find it so hard to recruit great testers (for our contexts), yet other managers I speak to can find “good” candidates at every street corner.

We demand more than just testing skills. We demand many other skills that complement a testing mindset. Skills that help us deliver value.

Of course, these are just my thoughts based on testing in my context. You’ll work in another context and appreciate other skills. At the moment this is just an idea, and like all ideas, it might be wrong. But I thought I would share it anyway.


Image courtesy of : http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisinplymouth

22 thoughts on “T-Shaped Testers and their role in a team”

  1. Great read. This speaks to me! I’ve moved around in IT. Coding, business analysis, project management, test management, computer audit, information security management. I always felt that gave me a great understanding of other people’s problems instead of just having a silo vision. That’s been great, and I wouldn’t change anything, but it’s not the best way to build a conventional corporate career. It is, however, hugely valuable for a tester.

    1. Great to hear your experience of this same thing. I think diversity brings a really strong sense of creativity. Creativity is something lacking from most testers, yet it’s such a valuable skill. I also think that the economy is demanding more diversity from people in the team, and testers (just like anyone) can help to fulfill a number of roles really well. It also keeps people motivated, engaged and using their passions in the work place.

      You’re right though – it’s not a conventional corporate career plan. I think that’s why I hoofed the corporate world in to touch and found my place in startups and rapid development teams. 🙂

      How do we encourage others to experience more though? I’ve always said to people, including my own team, that it pays to move companies every two years! That advice isn’t helpful to all though.

      1. “How do we encourage others to experience more though?”
        That’s a tricky one. Some people have a natural urge to broaden their horizons. They hate sticking around and getting bored.
        Others will just never shift, even internally, unless they lose their job.
        There’s a middle ground of people who will move if they see the opportunities and get encouragement. Unfortunately most organisations are structured, and shape careers, in a way that actively discourages switching about and getting a variety of experience.
        When I worked as a test manager for a big consultancy my audit and security experience (even my development experience) were seen as irrelevant. While I was a security manager the other experience wasn’t valued; I was relatively inexperienced in the only specialism that mattered.
        So long as organisations think T shaped people are “jacks of all trades and masters of none” the middle third will decide to play the game and stick in their silos.

  2. Excellent post Rob, Am currently in the process of answering the above questions and more myself, going off here there and everywhere, but I to am sure I will find my answers eventually.
    I would fit exactly in your T-Shape tester, in my current company and previous company I have implemented / updated the SCRUM tracking tools we use amongst others exploits.
    I believe it has something to do with Testers mentality, the need to fully understand how everything works, because I believe you can’t test something properly if you don’t (other’s would disagree) but I do this in the company level also, I can’t fully understand my role if I don’t understand everyone elses roles, and more importantly how do they impact things that arrive with me or i am involved in. Then because we are good at analysis, i try to solve issues that I find. This can lead for the testers you speak of doing multiple roles. Its a hard balance to get right, but a company willing to allow this will only benefit in my opinion.

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for commenting. It’s great to hear that you are a t-shaped tester. I think it’s great that you’re doing all of this good stuff and working out how things fit together. It’s a sign of a good tester for sure, and it’s good that you have a company that allows this to happen.

      I think when you say you can’t test something unless you know how it works is a useful insight. But I wonder whether that’s the reason you do test in the first place – to understand how everything works?

      Thanks again for commenting and good luck with the changes you are making.


  3. just imagine T-shaped testers working with T-shaped developers ( http://blogs.msdn.com/b/thebeebs/archive/2012/04/01/the-rise-of-the-t-shaped-developer.aspx ) and T-shaped UX designers ( http://www.disambiguity.com/whats-your-t-shape/ ) – though you’ll also find people saying that an ‘m’ shape is better – http://www.insteadofthebox.com/journal/defining-t-shaped/

    Question for you: When recruiting and you dont find a T tester, would you recruit someone with great testing skills ( vertical ) and expand their horizontal ones or one with good horizontal skills and work on a vertical skill set ?

    1. Thanks for comments Phil. Thanks for those links also – I didn’t think to search for devs and UX peeps. It’s a common idea 🙂

      I don’t think there is one single answer to your question. It depends on the person. I’ve recruited from both sides. Someone who didn’t know about testing but had domain knowledge and an aptitude to think laterally. I’ve also hired solid testers and approached it from the other side to expand domain skills. Both have worked but both are different.

      I think it comes down to context and the learning mindset. If someone doesn’t express an interest in learning then that’s a big problem. Other than that I’m of the belief that most people can learn most things, at least to a level that is valuable.

      What would you do?


  4. Rob,
    Very interesting post and I completely agree with the philosophy of T shaped person, especially in testing context. You rightly pointed out that it is well practiced and encouraged in start-ups or fast moving companies. I think there are many who would like to be T-Shaped testers, but do organizations really encourage them? Once again great post Rob and yes we do encourage T-Shaped model, including T-Shaped Tester at our organization.

    1. Hi Sudhir,

      Thanks for commenting. I don’t think many organisations encourage people at all. It’s a real shame that great talent and enthusiasm is squandered in this way.

      Glad to hear you encourage T-Shaped people at your organisation.


  5. Well put Rob. Lisa Crispin and have been trying to put out that same message – most recently at a keynote at Agile Testing Days in Potsdam, Germany. It is good to know that more than us is talking about it. I’ve put my blog on this subject on the back burner – I’ll refer people here.

    1. Hi Janet,

      Thanks for the kind words. Glad you liked it, and many thanks for referring people to the article.


  6. Hi Rob,

    Very good article! I’m a tester, and I’m having the same questions that you mentioned. I really agreed with your thought but is so difficult be a T-Shaped Tester, because many company nowadays are not prepared to deal with this type of person. Like James Christie writes in your comment, many companies simply don’t care about your others skills, they hire you to do one work and nothing else, some companies wants that you do only the basics things and don’t encourage you to do more, and pursuit other challenges. I have a problem because the skills that I learn out of the company and I know that these skills are important to my career, I can’t use in my daily work. I like to learn the theory but I like more to practice that theory and actually I’m just learn the theory. I hope that one day I find one company that I can use these other skills.

    1. Hi Allan,

      Thanks for commenting – it can indeed be tricky in some companies – companies that don’t appreciate the talented people they have. Like you say though you will one day find a company that does appreciate your other skills. That is sometimes the only way bring your other skills and talents to work – or alternatively, create a side project/business/hobby where you get to put your skills and passions in to use 🙂


  7. Great visualisation (T) of the concept we intuitively implemented in our company from the start (without knowing the T-shaped tester term)!
    Based on our experience I would add at least one additional example, which is often forgotten, but critical for us, as we made it our specialty and key market differentiator:
    “There is a great tester I know who is also a technical writer/trainer.”
    The challenge we are facing is that (as you said) there are not many people who already adjusted to the cross-functional, open-minded and always-learning test managers, testers and technical writers, especially in big companies like our customers. Which makes selling T-shaped services really difficult and time consuming…
    But as soon as you sell it and complete the project – customers love the fact that people responsible for quality of an IT solution are self-driven, energetic, open-minded and have high-level perspective.
    I’m going to use the T-shaped tester idea when talking to customers and partners – definitely useful and eye-opening article.
    Thanks a lot!

    P.S. Allan Freitas – maybe we are the company you are looking for? 🙂

    1. Hi Darek,

      Thank you so much for the comment and it’s great to hear that you’re embracing and hiring and promoting people who embrace a “cross functional” or T-Shaped approach to work. It sounds like you are having great success with it and your customers are too. Awesome to hear.

      I can see why it is hard to sell but it sounds like it’s a winner once you do 🙂

      I like your example “There is a great tester I know who is also a technical writer/trainer.” – that’s pretty much the way I talk about most testers now…a tester who does testing and is also great at ……..

      Thanks again for the comments.


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