Hey there, reprobates and iconoclasts! Sorry I’ve been away for a while but I’ve been busy with work and playing a very interesting video game, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The video game itself is interesting after a fashion and I logged more than a few hours inside it when it first came out on PC. I went back to it because the PC version has this amazing symbiotic relationship with their customers. Bethesda Games released a creation engine (basically a rich set of level design tools) for free. These tools were released for several very important reasons. Allowing gamers access to design their own experiences and (more importantly) share them with their peers creates a rich set of downloadable content at zero cost to the production studio. This “DLC” greatly extends the life of a game oftentimes by years. The peer review nature of these downloads generates a lot of really valuable user data for the production company. By watching what’s popular, what’s being discussed, and what’s being downloaded they can more easily design a richer and more rewarding gaming experience the next time they want to release another installment or even a brand new intellectual property. The final things they gain are an instant hiring pool from which to draw and a free set of dedicated and very intense testers. Some of the first DLCs produced by the people using these tools are usually what are called “unofficial patches,” which means they went through and fixed all the bugs and weirdness and outright insanity left in the game by the studio. Of course after those you’ll start to see the usual nudity and chicken guns (this is the internet after all) but soon enough a lot of visual enhancements, physics tweaks, skeleton models, and even entire side quest worlds are submitted and essentially voted on by your customers. The most successful of these designers are now working at Bethesda or were at least offered a high paying job if they wanted it. So that’s why I’m back playing this game after a three year(ish) hiatus. The mods and DLC I can now download have made it into a gorgeous, rich, engaging, and altogether brand new experience … and it only cost me the time it took to download the content and tweak out the conflicts.
So what does this have to do with test managers, you may well ask? Ha ha … you must be new.
Video game companies are notorious for treating testers poorly. Thankfully that has been changing for a lot of the new kids on the block, but at the old guard it’s still very much a job reserved for teenage monkeys who would rather follow a written script in a dimly lit room than work at the Hot Topic again this summer. The other thing they have not usually done all that well is design games for someone else since “the customer” is some vague notion of a blob that sort of resembles them since they like to play games. This is one of the reasons girls didn’t start gaming until relatively recently. A giant majority of the people making games were boys and man-boys and they liked to design games they’d want to play. This is why most video games have giant men with bulging muscles and strange satires on women who could never exist in nature even with surgical help and a team of assistants helping them get dressed. To combat this problem of myopia, video game companies began creating open spaces for anyone who wanted to join. These were originally places where people could post their game hacks but some smart people decided to nurture them by assisting them to make things. They essentially backed off and admitted they might not know everything there was to know about gaming and gamers. Rather than forcing their market into conformity with their assumptions, they stepped back and let their market tell them what to do.
This is why you need a software manager even if you are one of those full stack team organizations companies seem to love these days since everyone wants to be sexy and lean startups are sexy. The almost universal hierarchy of a software development company has developers and architects at the top with everyone else following behind them. If you want to get seed funding for your startup, you’d best be a developer or be partnered with a developer. If you want to rise above a management role you’d best have the last few stints as a developer in your CV if you started out in a different profession or discipline. Usually this is not a bad thing, but it does cause conflicts when this person attempts to manage other professions … by which I mean testers. The average software developer/coder does not really know anything about software testing. It’s not their fault. Software testing does not excite them. They don’t read articles on software testing unless they feel they have to since they’re now managing testers. They don’t attend software testing conferences. They don’t follow software testers on Twitter. They don’t attend software testing meetups or participate in weekend testing events. In short, they have zero qualifications when it comes to helping drive the direction and practices of the testers working under them. They are also horribly unqualified to advise these people on their long term professional growth should they want to stay in software testing. In places with this sort of setup and expectation the testers will usually find themselves either managed and directed as if they were software developers or worse, ignored and simply told what to do when the time comes to tell them.
There is a different way and it’s the same way some video game houses have followed. The software Sr Director/VP/Major Domo can simply let go and admit they don’t know everything there is to know about all things software related. They can find the person or people in their company who are deeply engaged in the professional knowledge they lack and let them pursue their passion as they see fit. Even in a self-sustaining team there is a lot of cross team interplay at healthy companies. Someone needs to nurture that interaction and keep the momentum going when people stumble onto something awesome. That person is usually called a “manager.” It’s their primary job. They make sure the people they’re nurturing have the tools, resources, and backing to pursue the things their experience and passion say are worth pursuing. They help get people to understand when something is just a little failing and when it’s a flaming disaster. They make sure people feels safe to do so. You cannot accomplish this if you lack the authenticity of actual interest.
Let me say that again. You cannot inspire passion in people if you do not feel passionate yourself. Period. Mike drop.
If testing is important to you and you want passionate testers, you need someone with just as much or more passion leading them. When you get that you’ll soon see a massive return on your investment, just like the makers of Skyrim found out when they went against industry canon and helped people hack their game.
That’s a software testing manager and that’s why you need one.