Commoditization, Transformation, and Testing Skills – Questions and Answers with Matt Heusser

Recently I had the distinct honor of being interviewed for an article in by Matt Heusser of Excelon Development. Multiple conversations and parts of the interview were used to inform the article, so for what its worth, the complete Q&A is what follows. Enjoy!

MH: You’ve said in the past that the ‘old commodity’ model of testing is ‘breaking down.’  What do you mean by that, and what do you think is replacing it?

KK: A large piece of the software testing market is delivered by “test factories” that are premised on an analogy comparing testing to manufacturing, hence the desire to “commoditize” the role. Rapid deployment delivery models, risk based testing, and the increased adoption of agile methodologies strike directly at the concept of testing as a commodity, as you have to be highly skilled to operate in those environments.

As well, over the last fifteen years or so, software testing has frequently been prioritized to adopt outsourcing and off shoring extensively, and the financial models used to justify that decision are leveling out due to rising wages, cost of living increases, and currency fluctuations. Most of the improvement models used to rationalize the commoditized testing approach use strictly quantitative metrics to assess quality or measure improvement; an approach which breaks down rather quickly beyond any first order metrics.

There is an increased focus on business value and testing skills, which means you have to bring more to the table than just the ability to do it cheaper.

MH: You’ve started a test transformation process at Barclays. What does that mean, exactly? 

KK: Barclays is very serious about software testing. The amount of management support we get in the Global Test Center (GTC) is unprecedented in my nearly 20 years of working in the software testing industry. Because of that, there was a wealth of talent here to build on, so the transformation process has been more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature.

Our main concerns are ensuring that our test approach is aligned to the business we support, our tools and process are lightweight and can handle multiple project types, and that we are hiring the best testers in the industry.

Part of that transformation has been developing what we call a “culture of professional testing” which drives how we recruit and develop our testers. Our GTC University focuses our training, coaching, and mentoring programs on testing skills like heuristic test strategies, visual test models, exploratory testing, and qualitative reporting.

MH: What were you doing before Barclays? What got you excited about testing – and changing the test process in specific?

KK: I’ve worked in various quality management roles in financial services firms and software testing consulting organizations, living in the US, Europe and Asia. I’ve always felt testing has one of the most important roles to play in technology as they support their business, because we provide information that can be used directly to manage risk.

A problem with the commoditized approach to software testing is that it inherently devalues people in a creative, intellectual process and fundamentally doesn’t deliver on its responsibility to articulate risk in business terms. I think the testing industry is fundamentally changing for the better and there hasn’t been a better time to be a software tester.

MH: What are the biggest barriers, cultural, social or technical, to this kind of change?

KK: Education is one of the biggest barriers due to stereotypes and ingrained bias developed from decades of bad metrics programs, flawed maturity models, and low value testing. Testers have to take responsibility for their own contribution to the problem as well, as we can re-enforce a lot of those perceptions by how we conduct ourselves and inherently limit our value.

I believe that if you want to drive change in an organization and get congruent action from culturally and regionally diverse teams, you have to focus on what you are contributing to the problem first, articulate your values and principles to give people a lens to view their work, then develop strategies that are aligned to the business you support.

MH: Has the skill needs of your testers changed over time? Is recruiting skilled testers hard?  If you’ve been building them, what is the change like? What do you do to build them?

KK: I think the focus on specific technologies constantly changes over time as things go in and out of vogue, but I do believe there is an increase in demand for “skilled testers”. Finding good people is always the greatest challenge, and we go through a lot of candidates before we find the right ones for the GTC, especially as we are looking for people with a different skill set.

We built the GTC University to have a great training, coaching, and mentoring program to get people up to speed on the business, technical and testing challenges of our environment. One of the best benefits of the GTC has been an explosion of community support for the testers. There are thriving software testing oriented focus groups, brown bag sessions, social committees, and testing competitions; including the year-long GTC Super Tester Challenge whose finale last year was judged by James Bach!