Over the past few years I have had many questions from QA/Testing professionals asking about the ideal career path within the QA field. Most of them even question the existence of a career path within the QA or Test engineering space altogether, with a handful of them seeing no future beyond a senior role.
Those who do see the QA field as a long term career ‘home’ often have further questions around transitioning into a management or leadership role. I can go off on a tangent regarding the differences between leadership and management but let’s leave that for another post. In this blog post I will address the QA Engineering space as a career path and the key aspects around transitioning into a QA leadership role.
There is an ongoing, raging debate in the tech industry around naming conventions of QA or Test Engineers. I will not go down that path in this article, but for simplicity’s sake I will use the term QA Engineers as an all encompassing term to include both QA/Test Engineers. So let’s get on with the topic shall we?
I have seen QA Engineers go through what I call ‘mid-career crisis’. It’s not directly synonymous with a mid-life crisis, however there are some glaring symptoms which pop up across those who face it. Some of those include questions or thoughts like:
- Is there a future for me in the QA space?
- I’m just using QA and Testing as a stepping stone to something else within the tech world
- Testing is great, but where to from here?
- I will never be a VP of Engineering or even move to a CTO or C-Level
- Is growth in a test automation path enough to move me to a lead or manager role?
Whether you have asked yourself these questions or have had similar thoughts, you have come to the right place.
Although different companies have their QA roles set up slightly differently, more often than not QA Engineers find difficulty in plotting exactly where they stand on an industry level. This is another shortcoming I have observed in the tech industry regarding the QA space, that the standards across different companies and institutions often vary massively. I have seen mid level QA Engineers being classified as QA leads in some companies or even those who play a QA lead role being classified as mid level QA Engineers at other companies. Hopefully this dilemma can be solved in the future in order to create a proper global standard around QA or even tech levels in general.
Moving from Individual Contributor to Leadership
So you have completed a good few years within the QA space. You may have tried your hand at exploratory testing and automated testing. You’ve even tried changing industries such as moving from finance to telecoms to retails and everything in between.
But deep down you feel there is a greater calling, you start questioning your ‘why’ and realise you would like to aspire towards leadership or management. For some, the move away from being an individual contributor can seem daunting as firstly it removes you from your comfort zone, and secondly it requires some key added responsibilities which often needs a greater degree of time management, accountability and possibly a multi-team or cross-company participation.
Depending on your company structure or career aspirations you might feel strongly about focusing on just the technical aspects of testing like automation or architecture and are not too concerned about the process or overall test management view, or you could very easily feel that you have a knack to cover both aspects. Regardless of your choice, if you are to make the jump into leadership there are some traits, skills and behaviours that you should possess or even seek to obtain to make the transition easier.
Zooming into QA Leadership
When addressing the topic of using experience to move into a leadership role, I often refer back to this quote:
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” ~Rita Mae Brown
Racking up the years gives one first hand experiences within different contexts which prepares them for challenges that might occur in future. It allows you to build your own internal knowledge base around a host of different topics, situations and even how to deal with different people. Naturally this doesn’t come for free, sometimes you have to be brave enough to put yourself into those different situations as part of your learning as stepping stones towards leadership
Detailed but also have a strategic view
Moving into leadership requires your team to trust you, one way of building trust is for your team to have the confidence in your ability to understand the detail of their work, its limitations and its possibilities.
At the same time, seniors and managers of leaders need to trust your view on seeing the bigger picture and having that strategic view. Think about a practical example: as a QA leader, your senior management sets a broader goal of increasing customer satisfaction, but also increasing team efficiency. As a QA leader, you would need to translate this goal into all areas within your control or circle of influence, so if you take test automation, firstly your team needs to trust that you understand the intricacies of the framework, how tests are structured etc. The lower down in its implementation you go, the more trust and confidence your team has in your ability to solve test automation challenges and/or contribute to its effectiveness. So you find ways and means of using test automation effectively in your given context to drive quality checks and enhancements that both ultimately drive customer satisfaction and enhance team efficiency. The better your ability to balance a detailed view with a strategic one the better the ability to make this transition into leadership more smoother.
Fortune favors the brave
Being brave and courageous within a leadership context spans many areas, however the ultimate point here is that when you move into more of a leadership role you have to be braver compared to when being in an individual contributor role.
Sometimes saying things as it is or saying things that nobody else wants to say (even though everyone knows it) goes a long way in building this capability.
A few examples come to mind like:
- Being more vocal in daily standups or meetings regarding certain challenges or blockages from the dev or architectural side
- Putting forward suggestions around testing or even agile practices that benefits the team as a whole
- Taking charge in driving certain initiatives which usually spans beyond the QA or testing role.
There are many more examples of other areas you can focus on in your context.
The power of influence
Influence is a really important factor within any leadership transition. If you think about why this quality is key, think about a role that a leader has to play within a QA context. Together with your experience and the many ideas that you have cultivated over the years, you would like to implement these to the greater good of your team, department or organization. More often than not, it’s not something that one can do alone, so naturally you have to firstly get you team on board by influencing them positively as to why it’s important for the idea to be implemented, to make them see what’s in it for them, what the long term benefits are and so on.
The other angle is not only to influence laterally or downwards but also upwards. Influencing upward could be to now use that same idea and influence the relevant stakeholders or even management on the pros (and cons) of the idea implementation, can numbers or metrics be used to show gains from the idea etc. Understanding your audience is key in developing your influential powers.
As much as we would all like to avoid it, tough times are inevitable. Building a resilient mindset is a crucial factor in successfully conquering this. How you react in tough times and your ability to recover from setbacks or difficult situations helps drive this quality to a stronger place.
The QA and Testing discipline usually requires one to anticipate certain risks, problems/issues within a project or functional area, so in a way the QA’s mindset is usually already prepared to soften the blow of any unfortunate eventuality by mitigating risks or identifying problems areas upfront.
If you zoom up to a more strategic view, moving into a QA leadership role could see you apply similar techniques from a departmental or organization view around reacting to certain setbacks or difficult, tight situations. Digging down deep and knowing that others now look up to you to steer the ship means you have to ride the wave to get to the other side safely.
Other notable mentions
As you might have gathered there is no single formula to successful transition into leadership as there are also so many other ingredients into making a seamless switch. Some other key factors that I have not mentioned above include communication skills, motivating others, respect, integrity and so much more that can be added to the leadership mix to strengthen your all round abilities.
Go ahead, Make the transition
You could also think about adding some practical steps to better prepare you to make the transition, some of which I have mentioned above already in addition these could be some other steps or actions to consider to better prepare you to make the transition.
- Take on multiple projects, either within your company, externally, or pair with someone externally to find out how things work in their context. This can broaden your horizons and expand your thought process when tackling day to day tasks.
- Exposure to different industries, tech, teams once again allows you to have a birds-eye view across the industry to make sure all options are considered in solving problems.
- Build internal or external community presence. Whether this be physically, via social media, chat groups or any other medium that is available in this vast world, use these options to your advantage to gain as much presence as possible to learn and share.
- And finally, focus on personal areas of improvements, consider your own blind spots including learning and building leadership skills.