Are you really a Test Coach?

For many years we have seen different kinds of coaches appearing within software development. As more and more companies strive to become agile, various types of roles are becoming obsolete or transformed into something different. The most prominent one seems to be Agile Coach. In the software testing domain it is the Test Coach or the Quality Coach.

The transformation and changes in expectations of a role have in my experience caused some identity crisis within the testing profession. Even though there is a need for testing many companies choose to remove the tester as a role. (This post is however not about testers so I will not continue down that road).

As for myself I’ve been struggling to put a label on the work that I do. For those who know me I am not a big fan of titles and labels, although they can be helpful in some contexts. My work for the last few years have focused on transformation and how testing needs to be interlaced with development. Many of the companies I’ve worked with do not even have testers.

Coaching

Last year I went through a nine day training to become an ICF Coach. During that course I had many great insights. One of them relates to the Coach in the context of Software Development. A few times I’ve labeled myself Test Coach or Quality Coach but I struggled a bit with those titles as well. I just felt they didn’t really do justice to my work. In the context of coaching a coach is an expert on the process of coaching and is someone who facilitates learning.

“A coach is an expert on the process of coaching and is someone who facilitates learning. “

The client is the expert but the coach helps the client to unlock their potential to maximize their own performance. A skilled coach knows that the individual has the answer to their own problems.

A coaching approach

Why I struggled with titles like Test Coach became very obvious during my coach training. I was presented with the following model, “The flower”, created by Polhage & Lundberg, who also run the training (the model is originally described in Swedish and this one has been visually modified by me). They differentiate between the coach as a profession and having a coaching approach. We can always apply a coaching approach whether it’s in our daily life or at work.

The flower petals represents several roles which we might step into during our daily life or at work. The Coach is one of these roles (and the one I was in training for).
You can move between these roles and decide who to be in different situations. As an example, sometimes you need to take decisions based on your responsibilities which makes you the Decision maker. The empty petal is left for you to decide what to put in there. Your flower might have many more petals.

No matter what profession or role you have you can always apply a coaching approach. This means how you act and relate to the values of coaching.

The root system represents eight characteristics to consider for constructive communication, which are used in a coaching approach.

I quickly realized why I have never been very fond of the title Test Coach. It doesn’t fully reflect what I do or who I am. I am a subject matter expert in testing trying to help an organization, a team or an individual to improve their testing by guiding them and showing what to do, how they can do it and why.

“I am a subject matter expert in testing trying to help an organization, a team or an individual to improve their testing by guiding them and showing what to do, how they can do it and why.”

But I am also a Decision Maker, a Teacher, an Inspirer and a Mentor (for those who choose me to mentor them). I shift a lot in between all of these. One role I have never used at work is the Coach. However I often apply a coaching approach. This is an approach where I ask questions, where I use my curiosity to understand where the team or individual is right now and where I display my courage to challenge and ask “uncomfortable” questions. Focusing on what works and what moves us forward is also part of what I apply in my daily job whether my title is Project Manager, Test Coach or Scrum Master.

The only time I have been the Coach and only a coach is when I am a professional Coach in an agreement with a client.

Coaching in software testing

I recently had a short assignment where I was asked to coach a tester. She needed someone to talk to regarding her own journey where she was leading a change in her organization. In the beginning I found myself struggling with who to be. Biased by my recent experiences as a Professional Coach I started off in that role but quickly understood that my client needed something different. The focus was more related to guidance around the change she was implementing at work rather than her own journey. Sometimes it was hard to separate her own growth from the approach to testing that she was implementing.

Something that is very important is the agreement that you come up with before starting the sessions. The purpose of that agreement is to build trust and set expectations. Though this situation was a bit new for both myself and my client we decided to keep an open dialogue along the way to make sure she got value from our sessions.

My learning experience here is that it is not as black and white. What title you carry is not as important as the approach you choose.

“What title you carry is not as important as the approach you choose.”

During these sessions I used a coaching approach – actively listening, asking questions, driving my client to find her own solutions based on where she and her team are right now. In the cases where she wanted me to share my experience and thoughts, I did that as well.

What are your thoughts regarding coaches in Software Development/Testing?

References

Polhage & Lundberg

International Coaching Federation

3 thoughts on “Are you really a Test Coach?

  1. Perhaps the task is spit between “testING coach” that “testER coach”, ie the object of the coaching is either the test activity or the person? I trend to the advisory and enabling (TeamTopologies) vocabulary. But there could be more ways to skin the cat.

  2. How do you feel about the title Quality Expert or Quality Specialist?
    I struggle with all these terms you’ve mentioned and their connotations but also as you said for the fact that they poorly capture the full scope of what someone in your capacity does.

    But there is a need in dialogues with clients sometimes to be able to put a label on a role in order for them to be able to get it through purchasing, so I still want to have a vocabulary that comes as close to what you do as I can.

    I myself have at times tried to differentiate different approaches to quality by calling one quality engineer and the other quality coach. But I feel unhappy with these terms.

    Maybe the field is just too broad to fry to capture it with a single term. However, Quality Specialist to me encapsules alot and allows for a good basis for further discussion on what someone like that might do in order to create value for an organization.

    Sorry if I rambled, I appreciate your blog.

    /Christian, tretton37

    • Hi Christian!
      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I appreciate your “rambling”.

      I understand the need for labeling the work that is done, specifically in dialogues with clients. I believe the key here is the dialogue. This is where you truly can capture what the client needs and what you can offer. The problem is to get to that dialogue without being cut off because of a label or title that is misunderstood.

      Depending on the person’s experience a Quality Specialist can be mistaken for a person who conducts audits and makes sure all activities complies to corporate policies. Is this what you are referring to?

      I think the only thing we can do is try to keep a dialogue and not be to quick with the title/label.

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