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What Makes a Good Tester

By Adam Osburn | Principal Test Consultant

INSIGHTS // Articles

3 Feb 2012

#Agile|#Careers|#Training

INSIGHTS // Articles

#Agile|#Careers|#Training

By Adam Osburn

3 Feb 2012

ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the common personality traits displayed by experienced, successful professional testers to help you understand what makes a good tester; to help you structure your testing team and for evaluating new possible recruits.

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to put forward valid ideas about what makes a good tester, as professional software testing has changed dramatically over the last number of years, and changed for the better. The days of ‘anyone can do testing’ have thankfully long gone. Businesses are no longer entrusting the quality of their product to someone without the relevant testing skills set or personality types. This does mean that not everyone is or can become a high quality professional tester.

Test professionals who consistently worked to a high level of excellence all demonstrate a similar set of traits and these personality traits are what make them good at their job. Therefore, identifying these characteristics is key to evaluating a person’s testing ability and their potential to be a test professional.

High-level skills of a professional tester

Before getting into more detailed personality traits, there are a number of generic skills and characteristics that a professional tester should have. Many of these are not specific to a professional tester but to many professions. These include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Strong analytical skills. A professional tester needs to be able to logically break down a problem into its constitute parts and create a test plan around that. To put it simply, a professional tester needs to be smart.

  • The ability to communicate effectively to a wide audience. Whereas software coding is sometimes seem as an isolated role (a guy in a darkened room hacking away at his keyboard – an old and incorrect stereotype); a professional tester must to be able to communicate, verbally and in the written form with technical staff such as developers; with business stakeholders to discuss requirements; with end users to ensure the system is fit for purpose; with Project Managers; the list keeps going on and on. A high-level, expert tester must have the ability to communicate at all levels of the business.

  • To understand the bigger picture. It is all well and good being able to test a certain area of code/system but to be an expert in the testing field, a tester needs to thoroughly understand the company’s overall business strategy. This enables an expert professional tester to understand where a certain part of the system under test fits into the overall system. It is common sense that a tester who understands the business at multiple levels is going to be better placed to assess the quality than someone who can only operate at one level.

  • A passion for analysis and testing. The key to success in any job is having a true passion for what you do. The quote “Do what you love, the money will follow” may be overused but it is still holds true. A passion for analysis is innate; it is something you are born with. According to behaviourists, behaviour, for example how one deals with conflict, is not innate but can be learned. Being passionate about something, such as analysis, is a different matter; this seems to be something that you are born with rather than something you can learn.

  • The final characteristic listed here is up for much debate; Technical Skill. The initial school of thought is a great tester must have significant coding skills in order to understand the system under test, communicate with developers, and write test scripts. With this I disagree. Software development and software testing are two different skill sets. A tester needs to have the analytical skills to understand what should happen to a particular system and what could happen to that system; the coding logic is not so important to a tester, the business and functional requirements are. This is not to say that a person of one discipline cannot move over to the other discipline but one is not a pre-requisite of the other.

Now this details at quite a high level some of the desirable characteristics of a professional tester – being analytical, passionate, and strategic with good communication. The following section goes into more scientific detail regarding personality traits for a professional tester

Findings

There were a number of findings and these have been split into the following section to highlight certain aspects.

Definition of the big five personality traits

In 1990 Lewis R. Goldberg (Ph.D) proposed that a person’s character can be broken down into five personality traits. Since, these five traits have been widely accepted by the scientific community as the personality benchmark and have come to be known as ‘the Big Five personality traits’. The big five are Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism and Openness to experience. Goldberg states that we all display each of these five personality traits but to a different degree.

A study in 2007 (“An Improved Assessment of Personality Traits in Software Engineering” by A. S. Sodiya, H. O. D. Longe, S. A. Onashoga, O. Awodele, L. O. Omotosho) theorised that for someone to do a certain job well, certain personality traits are required. The study focused on software engineering to include Project Managers, Developers, Business Analysts and Testers.

As part of the study, the level (high, medium, low) of each of the five personality traits to be a successful, professional tester was calculated.

The following section details each of the personality traits; what is required to be a good tester and how to spot it in someone. Hopefully this will give you an idea whether that person is, or can become, a high quality professional tester.

Agreeableness

Definition:This is the tendency to be compassionate towards others and not antagonistic. Its components include pleasant, tolerant, tactful, helpful, trust, respectful, sympathetic and modest.

Rating for being a good test professional: High

As a professional tester, being able to discuss and communicate with the whole project team and business is vitally important. A good tester needs to be able to create professional relationships at all levels of business based on sound skills and a mutual respect. Agreeableness is a tendency to be pleasant and accommodating in professional and social situations.

How to spot someone with a high agreeableness rating:

  • They are interested is other people’s problems. People with a high agreeableness rating are good listeners as well as talker. In an interview, such as person will listen intently to a situation or problem, and then offer an answer or solution. They are someone who makes an interview flow like a professional conversation could have a high level agreeableness.
  • They have an equal amount of time and respect for someone, irrespective of the position they hold within the business.
Conscientiousness 

Definition: This is the tendency to show self-discipline, to be dutiful, and to strive for achievement and competence. Its components also include self-discipline, consultative, competence, order, dutifulness and thorough.

Rating for being a good test professional: Medium

This medium level surprises a few people. A tester certainly does need to be thorough, ordered and disciplined but they also need to be able to think creatively, unimpeded by orthodox constraints. Each system or piece of software is different; each project’s budget and timeframe is different. Therefore, although a standard test methodology can be used, testing often requires the tester to think differently, from a new perspective. How can I test for something unexpected? A tester has to foresee the unforeseen.

How to spot someone with a medium conscientiousness rating:

  • They are able to talk through the various different testing methodologies but also give examples of creative thinking to solve unexpected problems.
  • They understand the need for processes, timelines and structure but also have the flexibility to deal with project issues such as delays, budget constraints and resource issues.
Extraversion 

Definition: This is the tendency to seek stimulation and enjoy the company of other people. Its components include warmth, sociable, assertive, energetic, adventurous, and enthusiastic.

Rating for being a good test professional: Medium

A professional tester needs to be able to communicate with a number of different professionals to ensure a quality outcome, but does not need to be the centre of attention (we can leave that to the Project Managers!). People who are a medium in extraversion are often called ambivert – a person who is intermediate between an extrovert and an introvert. Fortunately for our search for high quality testers, about 68% of the population fall in to this ambivert mid-range.

How to spot someone with a medium extraversion rating:

  • They come across as personable but not as if the world revolves around them.
  • They are normally comfortable with groups and enjoys social interaction, but also relishes time alone and away from the crowd.
  • According to one study, extraverts tend to wear more decorative clothing, whereas introverts prefer practical, comfortable clothes. An ambivert will be somewhere in between.
Neuroticism 

Definition: This is the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions relatively easily. Its components are anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, and impulsiveness.

Rating for being a good test professional: Low

I am sure this result to not a surprise. Although I am not sure which jobs require someone to have high levels of neuroticism to perform well!

How to spot someone with a low neuroticism rating:

  • Essentially, they are someone with a sunny disposition!
  • They see the shades of grey. This is someone who can see the possibilities in the middle of two extremes. Someone who understands the bigger picture. All-or-Nothing thinking or Black-or-white thinking with no middle ground is a sign of high neuroticism.
  • They don’t over-generalise; they are someone who understands the importance of past experiences but doesn’t extrapolate out a poor outcome as a blanket rule. Someone with the tendency to inaccurately generalise a single negative event such as “I gave a poor speech; therefore I am a bad public speaker” could have a high neurotic rating.
Openness to experience 

This is the tendency to enjoy new intellectual experiences and ideas. Its components include imaginative, curious, unconventional, broadminded and cultured.

Rating for being a good test professional: High

A tester must be capable across numerous methodologies, experiences, companies and problems. The world of testing is constantly changing, so to be an expert test professional requires keeping up with the times by being open to new experiences. A tester must be able to welcome new ideas and enjoy a new intellectual challenge.

How to spot someone with a high openness to experience rating:

  • They have a number of varied interests outside of testing.
  • They have worked as a tester in a number of different professional domains. This is not someone who repeatedly changes careers or jobs though.
  • They have worked in a number of different locations.

An expert test professional is a balanced individual, both professionally and personally. To summarise the five personality traits discussed; an expert, professional, effective tester should have the following:

Swipe to see more
AGREEABLENESS
High
CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
Medium
EXTRAVERSION
Medium
NEUROTICISM
Low
OPENNESS TO EXPERIENCE
High
Conclusion

In conclusion, a test professional requires a complex set of skills and personality traits. It may be difficult to find someone with all the desired skills and traits but that does not mean that person would not make a good tester. Skills can be learnt and although personality traits cannot be fundamentally changed, they can be modified.

Assessing someone’s test profession suitability is not an easy task and trying to judge where someone fits in the big 5 personality traits spectrum is a skill in itself. By engaging that person in conversation, armed with the personality traits to look out for, you should be able to ascertain the level of each 5 personality traits and make a decision whether they would make a good test professional.

If you can find someone who is enthusiastic and open; disciplined but not inflexible nor dogmatic; wanting to become a test professional, they would certainly seem to have the desired foundation to become a successful tester. If that person is also analytical with an understanding of test processes and methodologies, you could well be onto a winner.

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