As we near the end of 2020, inevitably as humans we start to reflect on the past year and start thinking of the next.
Covid-19 has dominated everything this year – work life, home life, social life, how we shop, where we can exercise, who we can see, where we can or cannot travel to. No-one could have predicted that we would all spend so much time working from home, which is pretty ironic as so many organisations have been reticent to allow people to do much of this for fear that people would be less productive and company culture would suffer.
As I look back over the past 9 months, its not just the changes to working habits that have changed for me, as I’ve been lucky to have had an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and learn new skills.
At the beginning of 2020, as a Senior Test Manager, I had 10 direct reports. The testers worked within the 5 product teams, so it was a form of matrix management which I know many managers will be familiar with. The testers reported to me, but other team members reported to the Team Leads, which of course can cause confusion. One of the concerns was making sure that Team leads and I were in alignment with whatever needed to be done from a testing perspective, as I never wanted to put anyone in the position of being pulled in two different directions. I think we managed this pretty well, but it was not always easy, so in July the testers started reporting to the Team leads as it made more sense, and my role became Head of Quality Engineering a title I suggested as it reflects the different focus of the role. As Head of QE, this is more of a coaching role, looking at testing standards, our automation approach, tools etc, and additionally I also assess how teams follow the SDLC to cover all areas of delivery.
I was just getting into this when I was asked to step in and become an interim Team Lead. As a role, its quite broad, working with Product Managers to plan the delivery of stories in each sprint, so we deliver against the roadmap. When I was asked, I realised it was a stretch for me – I have had no formal scrum master training, and am not that technical, so managing developers was a concern. But I said yes, without over-thinking it and with no major concerns. The younger me would have worried, as I had a very bad experience 20 years ago when asked to step in a look after a team temporarily whilst a manager went on sabbatical – they knew he was not coming back and I was left to flounder with no support, managing testers on unfamiliar products. Since that time I’ve been suspicious of stepping in to help in case of being stitched-up, but not here, as that’s not the way we work.
The first day I came back from annual leave in August, I had a call with the Senior developer and my manager, and we shaped out how to cover the role. All the tech questions would sit with the senior dev, and I would cover the delivery side. From then on, I went into ‘Steve’ mode – wanting and needing to know everything all at once, and trying to run before I walked. Although I was under no external pressure, I didn’t want to let anyone down, and felt I had to know everything, which of course takes time. We were halfway through a sprint, so I needed to get to grips with the ceremonies, processes, what the status of the tasks were, who was working on what, meet each of the team 1-2-1 to get to know them properly, and start thinking of the next sprint. It was hard to start with – I made lots of notes, skim read the Essential Scrum book by Kenneth S. Rubin, and just dived in.
Looking back at the first few weeks, I felt like I was drowning at times. The role is big, there are a lot of things to co-ordinate, and with no formal scrum master training, I ended up using common sense to work out what to do. But, it got easier and quite quickly. With great support from the senior developer, tech lead and product manager, I was able to suggest and make some changes:
- I had noticed that the team didn’t always have stand-ups over Teams or Zoom, and often had text based updates instead. So the first change was to have daily calls with all attending, and only making a text based update if we had company meetings that took precedence.
- The next challenge was the backlog and ensuring we had stories ready to work on in the next sprint, so I introduced grooming meetings a week before the new sprint, to review candidates and select stories that were important to the product owner that had full description and acceptance criteria.
Immediately as a team we saw that this has a positive impact. Stories could be worked on without the devs or testers needing to seek clarification from the product owner. They were also easier to break down and estimate.
From that point on, life became easier, we got into the 2 week sprint cycles and to be honest I don’t know where the time has gone. We delivered some big pieces of work, one of which I am particularly proud of, but for commercial reasons will not be sharing details. The point is, I was making a difference, the work I was doing benefitted others, and as someone who like helping other people, it was a win-win.
Fast forward 4 months, and the new team lead has been in place for 4 weeks, and I’ve completed the handover piece. My next chapter is going to expand on the Head of QE role – coaching the testers, looking at improvements for 2021 and delving into monitoring.
I’m so glad that I was asked to step in, and that I had the confidence to go for it. Too much of my career has been in areas I am comfortable in, following the bad experience of 2001. But what I have learned from this over the last 10 years is that we all need to be stretched. I did this back in 2013 to 2016 in a previous role, taking on other tasks and responsibilities, and I have always come away from it with new skills, more resilience and the knowledge that I can do even more than I thought.
If I were to give one piece of advice, I’d say to go for any new experience you can, whether you are asked to do it, or whether you offer to take something on. You will find it hard, you will have doubts, you will make mistakes, but you will learn a lot about yourself, and you’ll be more resilient because of it.
Have a great Christmas and a happy new year for 2021.