The Test Lead’s Job

Last time, I wrote about the Tester’s job, so when I got the following request from James Waletzky, a Development Lead colleague, friend and fellow blogger (though, it’s been nine months, James. We miss you.), I felt it was a perfect follow-up:

Hey guys,

What resources would you pass along to a new test lead outside of MS? Assume the guy is quite green and has focused on manual testing all along.

Some initial suggestions that perhaps you could add 2-3 of your most influential books, blogs, websites, etc to.
– Alan’s book – how we test software at Microsoft (



Resources and References

In my opinion, most of what a test lead does can be broken down into the categories below.  I have given some information that I find the most valuable today in the test lead role.


It’s important that you learn to understand the needs of your team, peers, customers, etc.

  • Please understand me – Learning to understand why people think and act a certain way is key to working with them.
  • Four Steps to the Epiphany – Gain skills in understanding *actually* what your customer wants.  Do not rely on your PM.  Do it yourself.
  • HTWFAIP – Not just a catchy name.    This stuff really works.  And you don’t feel Machiavellian afterwards.


You will still need to understand the product and deeply.  I like to read up on the competition as well as try to find universities that are researching similar technology (or pieces of the technology).   They often end up being great places to recruit, but almost always end up being a source of great whitepapers.


You need to understand how your product engineering executes and/or how it should execute.

  • The Lean Startup , Kanban, and Implementing Lean Software Development are my choices for Agile books.  They are fantastic!  
  • I do not like the Agile Manifesto.   I have seen it be used wrong far too often to recommend it to the general populace.
  • You need to understand the Waterfall method as well.   It does have its place in the world.    Accountability and predictability are what it offers.  If your team is trying to defend a position in the market or simply needs to execute, deploying agile is going to be expensive.  If you are trying to iterate realtime and get the right value to your customer every N weeks, Agile is a no-brainer.
  • Anything by Alan Shalloway and his team is great.  I could have put this in product or people.   The folks at .NetObjectives are doing fantastic work and deserve your attention and money.
  • Influencer – if you take the time to master this, you will be able to change darn near anything that needs to be changed.  Highly recommended!


Test Discipline

You are a test lead.  Not a PM lead.  Not a Dev Lead.  Not a release manager.   Make yourself a part of advancing the science within your own team.

  • Start with my blogroll.  All of those authors are there for a reason.  Not all are test, but all are there to help you build quality.  Follow them on twitter.
  • Poor Man’s Test Conferencing – I like to find curriculum for Test conferences and track them for latest advances.   Seeing what people want to teach is a great way to make sure you are staying on top of the discipline.

More (hopefully) helpful advice

Unlike the Tester’s Job, I don’t have a clever 7 word description to sum it all up…


Until then, I would start off the discussion by congratulating them. Moving into a lead role is acknowledgement of solid skills and a lot of hard work. Something to be proud of, for sure. I would share that having been a manager of testers for more years than I care to remember, I can vouch that this is the single most important Rite of Passage for someone choosing to try out QA management. Good luck!

Three Most Important Things

These are the three most important things, imho, to master as a Test Lead.


You will need to manage work; you need to get things done.    You now need to focus on getting the best out of your team, not just out of yourself.   Managers focus on tasks, assigning people to them in order to benefit the business.  Leaders focus on people, assigning tasks to them to benefit the business and to benefit the person.  Be a leader.

It may be a subtle difference, but here’s a very important litmus test you can use to tell if you are being a leader or just a manager:

Leaders have followers.

I can’t believe how many people seem to forget this simple characteristic.  You can not be promoted to leadership.   People have to choose to follow you.

My advice:

  •          Learn Active Listening Skills  – Understand your peoples’ concerns.
  •          Get your people to like you. 
    •    Why?  Human psychology – It’s impossible to follow someone who you do not like.
    •    How?  The easiest way to get someone to like you is to like them first. 
    •    Dale Carnegie offers courses you can take to improve, but his signature book is still fantastic



Moving to become a lead is hard.  Unless it happened due to the Peter Principle, you got to this position because you are awesome at something.   But now that you are here, you will need to get good at teaching your team to be awesome at that same thing. 

When I look back at my career, the people who were my best managers were the ones who were actively helping to guide my education in my job. 

My advice:

  •    Constantly look for ways to help your team grow and encourage them to do so.
    •  Each of your employees should have a stronger resume once they complete being on your team.  Help them get there.
    •  Your team is stronger if you put each of them into roles that enable them to emphasize their strengths, but work on their weaknesses.
    •  Learn yourself.  Lead by example.   Share it with your team and ask for their advice on how to make it better.  Blog about it.
    •  The Socratic Method – Learn it, live it, love it.



As a Lead, you live and die in your career, by the success of your people, peers, and managers.  You are now a big part of the business.  If you cannot get the respect of your peers as example, you will not last long on that team in a leadership role.  Note: this may be okay.  Sometimes the culture of the team just simply may not be a fit for your leadership style.  If you realize you do not have the respect of your peers, you need to fix it ASAP.  If you can’t, you need to consider going to a culture that is more your style.

The only advice I will offer you

  • You have to work this out yourself.  It is a Trial by Fire.   To earn respect, you have to do what you think is right.  You cannot follow the words of me, your boss, anyone or thing and expect people to respect you.  They will be respecting that person or thing.
  • I used to share the following with people I was teaching to be a Lead:

In the dictionary, there are 2 definitions of respect.  The first: awe and amazement.  The second: fear.  I do not care which definition you use.

 I rarely share this with folks nowadays.   Depending on the circumstance, I have more tools in my toolbox and don’t need to resort to using the second definition.  BUT…  It DOES work…  Warning though:  if you have any sort of heart, it will make you feel dirty to keep doing it.  

Oh Yeah… One Last Thing

As a Test lead, you will need to be ready to answer the following question:

Why wasn’t this found before?  

My current favorite answer is Michael Bolton’s:   “Because it was buried so deep that not even the developer could find it.”

However, that answer will get you crucified in the middle of the likely heated triage discussion in which the question gets raised.

It’s best to be prepared, calm and thoughtful instead.  My 2nd favorite answer (perhaps more productive):  “I agree we need to understand that.  After the current emergency is behind us, let’s sit down and find out.  We can fix it together.  I will schedule the meeting now.”


Good luck!  Hope this all helps.



9 thoughts on “The Test Lead’s Job

  1. Brent,

    Really good collection of sources, thanks for publishing it! Looking forward for “clever 7 word description” of Test Lead’s job though 🙂

    My current favourite answer to that dreaded question is yet another masterpiece by Michael Bolton (it’s very close to your 2nd favourite):

    “Why didn’t you find that bug?” Poor answer: excuses. Better: “I can help find bugs like that; here’s what would help me help you.”

    • Thanks, Ilya. I was thinking of you in no small part when I wrote this. Though, I would be surprised if you hadn’t already read many/most of these.

      RE: 7 word description. What do you think of? “to serve your team while building value”

      • Brent,

        I’m really sorry for a delay. I struggled to come up with some definition of Test Lead’s job. It appeared to be very hard for me. Actually, I failed to construct my definition after 2 months of conscious and subconscious thinking.

        This made me think “Why on Earth I can’t grasp it?” Introspective highlighted copla reasons:
        * I never worked on a team with a Test Lead. True, I worked with people having this job title. On a closer look, though, they were just generic line managers. So, I am sort of handicapped on the topic.
        * Looking through the list of resources you assembled and at “Three Most Important Things” I really feel they don’t exclusively (or to greater extent) belong to Test Lead. Rather I feel that *every* tester should strive to master them. Probably, these are among those things that differentiate good testers from the great ones.
        * When we officially designate someone as a Lead(er), the message being implicitly sent is “nobody else leads”. This is not the best thing to do.

        All this being said, these days I believe we don’t need Test Lead, rather we need Test Mentor. I’d humbly propose this change to your 7 word description: “to *tend* your team while building value”.

      • I totally understand your conundrum, Ilya. We have a LOT of testers at my company. So much so that it warranted a management specialization. If you haven’t read it yet, read The Starfish and The Spider. It’s about how to help folks learn to lead each other.

        I agree that that is what makes a great tester. The problem, though, is it is a *LOT* harder to learn to be a leader, if you aren’t first a manager. it can absolutely be done, but again, it is a *LOT* harder.

        Thanks for circling back, Ilya. I love your feedback. Keep it coming.

  2. Nice list of resources and shows what all-round skills you need. I was also flattered to find myself on your blogroll and a recommended resource ( nice reminder to myself to keep working on my blog )

    One book I would recommend ( I also found Please Understand Me very useful ) is Becoming a Technical Leader by Weinberg

    Interesting that you dont find the agile manifesto useful – a future blog post ?

    • Thanks for the book referral. For some reason, I think I may own that book already (not read though)… Think it’s at work. Will need to double check it and add it to the queue.

      I bet a post titled “The Agile Manifesto is Evil!” would capture some attention. Though, maybe a bit too much. If I could think of enough content, I’ll consider it.

      I do think the Agile Manifesto is useful. My problem with it is that it encourages Intellectual Laziness. Far too often (!!!), I’ve encountered people who’ve only read the listing of the four “we favor” principles. They treat them like the 4 commandments and go off in the wrong direction. Almost religiously. “Agile Manifesto says no documention, so we aren’t writing it down.”


      Better would be to read Mary’s book first, THEN use the Agile Manifesto as a resource to dive in deeper.

      Lastly, thanks, Phil, for being an active part of my blog, your blog, and the Test Community at large. You definately deserve to be on many peoples blogroll!

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