Testers Have To Learn To Talk Money

Having worked and consulted in a number of organisations of varying size and complexity, I have both experienced and witnessed the frustrations of trying to persuade an organisation to invest in test process improvement.

Perhaps the biggest frustration experienced is that there is typically a wide gap between an organisation’s exhortation to be ‘best in breed’ and their willingness to invest in improving the testing and QA functions. Unfortunately, for many organisations it’s become all too easy for the testing community to talk in terms of concepts including quality, reduced number of defects and reductions in costs.

In contrast, the IT leadership and, more importantly, the organisation’s executives are typically very well practiced when it comes to nodding sagely and muttering that these are valid objectives, while – almost without exception – allocating no money whatsoever to the budget. During my earlier career, and almost certainly as a result of inexperience and/or naivety, this became something of a puzzle.

However, after observing this behaviour for a number of years, it slowly dawned on me that this divergence between aspiration and practice most commonly arises from perspectives that were widely differing and, potentially irreconcilable between the parties involved. On the whole, the testing community is fired by an almost evangelical enthusiasm to improve the quality of the delivered product.

As a result, the testing community tend to frame their proposals in terms of increased test efficiency, improvements in quality, and other worthy but intangible concepts. However, in the majority of cases, these benefits are not quantified and are deemed to accumulate over a multi-year period.

In contrast, IT leaderships, and in particular, an organisation’s executives are usually motivated by their year-end bonuses. Hence, activities that will assist in securing or improving these bonuses are welcomed, but those that cannot clearly demonstrate contributions to this year’s profitability are not so warmly welcomed.

In the majority of bonus schemes, an individual’s annual bonus is calculated by a formula that is heavily dependent upon the organisation’s profitability that year and the contributions to profitability by individual departments and /or individuals. This is, obviously, an incentive for focusing on short-term objectives.

It’s also true that some members of an IT leadership team who are not seen to be positively contributing to the profitability of the organisation will not hold their positions for any significant length of time. Clearly, this is yet another powerful incentive for them to continue focusing on short-term objectives. Even allowing for the fact that IT leadership teams and organisations executives will have various objectives for each year, the over-riding impact of these two influences will be to focus attention on the short-term perspective of maximising bonuses.

In the context of such a short-term perspective and drivers, spending money on test process improvement where a business case is not easily evidenced, is not seen to contribute towards profitability. Even in cases where attempts have been made to quantify benefits, arguments are invariably couched in terms of benefits accumulating over a multi-year time period. As a consequence, it is not surprising that they tend not to be included in an executive’s short-term calculations.

Recognising this difference in perspective and motivation, the testing community has to adopt the language and perspective of an organisation’s decision makers if they are to ‘win friends and influence people’. To be heard by decision makers, the testing community has to move away from framing proposals in terms of ‘studies have shown that…’ or ‘this will reduce defects in live…’. Proposals should be concrete and include defined benefits, and especially emphasise the monetary savings to grab the attention and garner the backing of an organisations decision makers.

Effectively, this means that the testing community has to both talk the language of money, and learn how to present their proposals in terms of what is the tangible contribution to achieving visible, quantifiable financial returns.

A subject close to my heart is the concept of Testing Total Cost of Ownership as a technique for defining the monetary rewards to be gained from testing process improvement activities. Other techniques, such as cost-benefit analysis for example, may also be used. Having said all of this, in my mind, it is irrelevant which technique is used, as long as it is rigorous, clear and open to review.

What is important if the testing community is to engage in meaningful dialogue with an organisations’ decision makers with regards to investing in test process improvement is to recognise the motivations and speak the same language. This means explicit, verifiable business cases that state the monetary benefits that will be obtained from the proposed test process improvement initiatives.

John Cox is a Principal Consultant at Xceed Group. With more than 25 years' experience as a Test Consultant, John has worked for the likes of Price Waterhouse Cooper, The National Programme for IT in the Health Service and Cognizant. He is well versed in advising on testing strategy for critical business testing - a role he has performed with distinction for some of the biggest names in industry and some of the biggest programmes, such as the LTSB/HBOS Integration. An accomplished operator, John is an excellent communicator and is one of those people who not only 'gets it' but can translate so that everyone else 'gets it'.