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Janet Gregory: Agile Consultant, Trainer, Advisor, Writer, Speaker

A discussion on the agile testing list got me thinking about titles and authority and how they related to a culture in an organization, or on an agile team. To make it more real, let’s talk specifically about testers, although it could apply to any role. If a tester has a title of ‘Senior’, does that make them a leader, or does it just mean they have more experience than someone who has been designated as ‘Junior’.

Many organizations have a strong culture using titles to differentiate between levels of authority. For example, a director gets the corner office – a very visible sign of authority while the manager gets a 10 x 12 sq ft office, and a team lead gets a better cubicle than the rest of the team. We are seeing less of this as organizations realize it hinders communication and collaboration.

I was recently in an organization where titles were closely guarded. Senior testers were the ones who got to go to the requirements meetings, or the project status meetings, etc. They were to pass the information to the rest of the testers they thought was important. We looked closely at this structure and although we couldn’t change the titles because they were tied closely to pay grades, we did examine the reasons behind the ‘rules’. Mostly, it was legacy from the days they were practicing waterfall. The titles didn’t change and some of the rules stuck around without questioning.

We changed things up a bit. Instead of the senior tester always going to talk to the meetings, the tester who had the most knowledge in the area to be discussed would go. One of the side effects was that all the testers became better at their jobs because they had more knowledge about the needs of the customer, and they became more effective at the iteration planning meetings because they could share their knowledge. They didn’t wait for the ‘senior’ to do all the talking. The stories were better because the input was more diverse and the meeting was more animated. An unanticipated side-effect was the requirements sessions with the customers became more effective because we needed an agenda to know who to send.

In his book “Becoming a Technical Leader”, Jerry Weinberg talks about organic change and how people may chose to lead in different ways. In his recent PSL (Problem Solving Leadership) course I was on, Jerry showed us how we each have the opportunity to affect change and be a leader in our own right.

In agile teams, we try to level the playing field. We try not to get hung up on titles because everyone has an important part to play. We let team members try new things so that everyone develops new skills and have the opportunity to take a leadership role – no matter how small it may be.

So, when you ask me who are the senior people on a team, I will answer “They are the ones to whom the juniors ask the questions”. Sometimes it might be you asking me, but sometimes it might be me asking you.


2 comments on “Titles, Roles and Leadership

  1. My “title” is written on the employment contract I signed with my current employer but that’s where it stays. When I meet clients, I’m just a tester. When I talk with programmers and project managers, I’m just a tester. My business card does state my title or role; something I’ve made sure of for the last 5 years.

    It’s amazing how differently people treat you when they can immediately put you in a box.

    Thanks for article, Janet. I’m going to check out Jerry’s book!

  2. +1 on what James said – and “just a tester” should not be taken as minimizing the contribution! My business card says “Tester”, although my official title is more fancy – Director of QA even though I don’t manage any people. Companies feel they have to justify a salary or whatever with a big title sometimes, but we need to be who we are!

    If people prefer a particular title it’s fine with me. The important thing is that everyone on the team is valued equally.

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