Seven Kinds of Testers (James Bach’s Blog)

On July 5, 2013, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing

Most of my work is teaching, coaching, and evaluating testers. But as a humanist, I want to apply the Diversity Heuristic: our differences can make us a stronger team. That means I can’t pick one comfortable kind of tester and grade people against that template. On the other hand, I do see interesting patterns of skill and temperament among testers, and it seems reasonable to talk about those patterns in a broad sense. Even though snowflakes are unique, it’s also true that snowflakes are all alike.

So, I propose that there are at least seven different types of testers: administrative tester, technical tester, analytical tester, social tester, empathic tester, user, and developer. As I explain each type, I want you to understand this:

These types are patterns, not prisons. They are clusters of heuristics; or in some cases, roles. Your style or situation may fit more than one of these patterns.

  • Administrative Tester. The administrative tester wants to move things along. Do the task, clear the obstacles, get to “done.” High level administrative testers want to be in the meetings, track the agreements, get the resources, update the dashboards. They are coordinators; managers.  Low level administrative testers often enjoy the paperwork aspect of testing: checking off boxes on spreadsheets, etc. (I was a test manager for years and did a lot of administrative work.) Warning: Administrative testers often are tempted to “fake” the test process. This pattern does not focus on the intellectual details of testing, but more the visible apparatus.
  • Technical Tester. The technical tester builds tools, uses tools, and in general thinks in terms of code. They are great as advocates for testability because they speak the language of developers. The people called SDETs are technical testers. Google and Microsoft love technical testers. (As a programmer I have one foot in this pattern at all times.) Warning: Technical testers are often tempted not to test things that can’t easily be tested with the tools they have. And they often don’t study testing, as such, preferring to learn more about tools.
  • Analytical Tester. The analytical tester loves models and typically enjoys mathematics (although not necessarily). Analytical testers create diagrams, matrices, and outlines. They read long specs. They gravitate to combination testing. (If I had to choose one category to be, I would have to say I am more analytical than anything else.) Warning: Analytical testers are prone to planning paralysis. They often dream of optimal test sets instead of good enough. If they can’t easily model it, they may ignore it.
  • Social Tester. The social tester wants you! Social testers discover all the people who can help them and prefer working in teams to being alone. Social testers understand that other people often have already done the work that needs to be done, and that no one person needs to have the whole solution. A social tester knows that you don’t have to be a coder to test– but it sure helps to know one. A good social tester cultivates social capital: credibility and services to offer others. (I follow a lot of the social tester pattern. My brother, Jon, is the classic social tester.) Warning: Social testers can get lazy and seem like they are mooching off of other people’s hard work. Also, they can socialize too much, at the expense of the work.
  • Empathic Tester. Empathic testers immerse themselves in the product. Their primary method is to empathize with the users. This is not quite the same as being a user expert, since there’s an important difference between being a tester who advocates for users and a user who happens to test. This is so different from my style that I have not recognized, nor respected, this pattern until recently. People with a non-technical background often adopt this pattern, and sometimes also the administrative or social tester pattern, too. Warning: Empathic testers typically have a difficult time putting into words what they do and how they do it.
  • User Expert. Notice I did not say “user tester.” User experts may be called domain experts or subject matter experts. They do not see themselves as testers, but as potential users who are helping out in a testing role. An expert tester can make tremendous use of user experts. Warning: User experts, not having a tester identity, tend not to study or develop deep testing skills.
  • Developer. Developers often test. They are ideally situated for unit testing, and they create testability in the products they design. A technical tester can benefit by spending time as a developer, and when a developer comes into testing, he is usually a technical tester. Warning: Developers, not having a tester identity, tend not to study or develop deep testing skills.

When I’m sizing up a tester during coaching. I find it useful to think in terms of these categories, so that I can more efficiently guess his strengths and weaknesses and be of service.

Do you think I have missed a category? Do you think I have de-composed them poorly? Make your case in the comments.


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