Why Testers, Developers, and Managers Need Better Communication: An Interview with Marcia Buzzella


In this interview, Marcia Buzzella, a leadership consultant and strengths coach, explains how each member of a software development team can better communicate with one another, and why testers need to understand how what they’re saying is being perceived.

Jennifer Bonine: All right, we are back with more virtual interviews. We hope you are all in the virtual audience hanging with us for the next chunk of time here to talk to some really interesting people about some neat topics.

So Marcia, maybe give the folks out there a little background on how you came to STARWEST, 'cause this is your first time. So it's always fun to get the perspective of new people coming into an event who haven't been here before of how they got here and what brought them here.

Marcia Buzzella: I'm a little embarrassed to say that I am software tester professional by nature and I've had twenty years of experience, but this is my first STARWEST, or first STAR conference at all. And what actually brought me here is last year I finished my doctoral dissertation. My research was on the soft skills of software testers. And I learned so much in that process. I felt it would be a disservice to my community to not share.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.

Marcia Buzzella: And at that point, I submitted my proposal to Lee and the folks at STARWEST, and here I am.

Jennifer Bonine: Wow. That's amazing. And you did a Lightning Keynote?

Marcia Buzzella: I did a Lightning Keynote yesterday. I just finished my one-hour presentation on The Softer Side of Software Testing, where we explored the balance between social and technical needs as professional testing.

Jennifer Bonine: That's awesome. And was there some pretty good attendance at the session?

Marcia Buzzella: I had standing room only. I was so excited.

Jennifer Bonine: That's amazing, 'cause sometimes we get so caught up in the technical side of who we are and our technical skills but forget that softer side, right? That's so important now. It's funny, I was talking to someone about how pretty soon we'll be talking about the lost art of how to communicate with people, like actually talk to them, because so much is done through devices or mechanisms other than live communication.

Marcia Buzzella: But that's okay, because if you think about it, one of our complaints as an industry was that we used to throw things over the fence. You know, development throws it over to testing. But now we have technology that helps us to communicate, so I don't see that as a bad thing. The only bad thing is not using it. If we can't figure out how to work together as a team to share knowledge and to figure out what each other needs to get to our end result, then we have problems.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Have you seen any issues, though, with people lacking the interpersonal skills at all of ... We just use technology as a way or a mechanism sometimes to not have to address an issue or talk to someone face to face. We kind of use technology as the mechanism by which we communicate information.

Marcia Buzzella: Technology is a tool for us to use, and we should use it in the right purpose. Sometimes a conversation needs to be face to face. If you're providing somebody feedback on how they did or didn't do a job well, email, Slack, things like that, probably not the best way for initial conversation. Give them the recognition and feedback upfront, either, if it's a remote situation, through a phone call, or face to face.

Jennifer Bonine: Yep.

Marcia Buzzella: It feels more personal. And you build a relationship that allows trust to form.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Absolutely. In your talk, so you obviously learned a lot through going through compiling all the data and the information. Could you possibly share with the audience and us a little bit on what you did learn and what the findings were out of that?

Marcia Buzzella: Definitely. I learned that software testers have the superpowers of communication, problem solving, and adaptability. The challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis include shrinking timelines, ambiguous requirements, and changing scope. And it takes adaptability and problem solving to overcome those and to deliver a finished product. But what I also discovered was that while we're good at tactical communication, our ability to communicate across roles and levels needs a little bit of help.

Jennifer Bonine: Hm. Interesting.

Marcia Buzzella: If you were to run into your executive in the elevator and they said, "How's the project going?" Your answer probably shouldn't be, "Oh, we have about five hundred defects."

Jennifer Bonine: Right.

Marcia Buzzella: It's probably gonna freak your executive out a little bit. And it's out of context, it's not the full story.

Jennifer Bonine: Right.

Marcia Buzzella: It might be better to say something along the lines of what phase of the project you're in and how things are going from an overall perspective. But knowing what to say to those individuals ... The flip side of that is we talk a lot about contention between developers and testing. Testing is trying to identify the errors in code that developers have delivered to them. It's a natural issue. We're QAing their work. They get defensive. I get defensive about my work. But we have to learn to communicate in a way that they are responsive to it, that we show respect, that we can build trust, and we can start sharing knowledge that allows us to prevent that particular defect or a particular situation from happening again in the future.

Jennifer Bonine: Any particular techniques that you've found work well? So if someone out there is listening and saying, "I have a lot of contention with this particular individual in my organization," or "We just don't seem to come to a good conclusion when something occurs between the two of us," like there's an issue, there's a defect, it gets contentious ... Anything or suggestions you would give to people around that?

Marcia Buzzella: Those are always tricky situations because they're not comfortable. And one of the things that an introverted software tester does not like to do is go outside of their comfort zone. And those conversations sometimes require help from a manager to give you a little bit of guidance on what to say or what not to say.

Jennifer Bonine: Mm-hmm.

Marcia Buzzella: But the reality is that the onus is on the tester to take the first steps. Don't immediately punt it to the manager. Take responsibility and have a conversation with that individual. It's quite possible that individual has no idea how their actions are being perceived or received by the individuals.

I've had situations in my past where, thankfully, a software tester stood up and said, "Hey, you know, you're not coming off the way you think you are. And this is what we're hearing. Is that what you meant?" And the answer was, "Good grief. No." And maybe they don't know that. So always start with having a conversation with that individual. If that conversation doesn't go well, then definitely get more feedback from your manager, especially if you're not comfortable. But if you are comfortable, then you have to take additional steps, which could include escalating and talking to others.

Jennifer Bonine: Good points, I mean, just for some strategies on how to handle that. How important do you feel ... Obviously you gave a talk on soft skills ... How important or what importance should people place on addressing and honing their soft skills along with their technical skills?

Marcia Buzzella: It's really important to strike a balance. We know that technology changes every day and we have to keep up. But keep in mind that software testing is a sociotechnical system. That means that people want software to do things for them.

Jennifer Bonine: Right.

Marcia Buzzella: And software testing is the same. We use tools and processes and software to help us achieve quality. We have to be able to embrace that technology. But to be able to pick what technology works best in a particular situation, we have to be able to talk to the people around us, we have to be able to align the goals of our projects so that we can align the testing steps to meet those goals. If there's a misalignment, then success is never going to be achieved. Because success is also socially constructed.

Jennifer Bonine: Mm-hmm.

Marcia Buzzella: Everybody has their inputs about how long it should take, what the scope should include, what the schedule should be. And if one person deviates from the perspective, you have a misaligned objective, and now no one knows who they should put their work behind and what they will achieve at the end of the day.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. No, great points. And in terms of what if you have a ... So there's one thing to address your own skills and to have some self-awareness about where maybe you could improve. Any suggestions for folks out there who say, "Okay, that great. But I have a leader or a manager who lacks good social skills in how to deal with situations or problems." Any advice for how to tackle that when it's actually your leader or manager who may be the problem?

Marcia Buzzella: First thing I'll say is that it's also a manager's responsibility to maintain their social skills. They are the ones who are mentoring, teaching, and guiding their team members.

Jennifer Bonine: Mm-hmm.

Marcia Buzzella: They're not the ones that do the work. So they have to help enable and to remove obstacles. For them to do that, they have to be able to communicate their expectations so that we as individual contributors know when we're meeting and exceeding their expectations. Part of that is providing recognition and feedback to the employees. Recognition, both good and bad, in the sense that if I do something wrong, we want to recognize that it was wrong and potentially share a story with the team so that we don't repeat past mistakes.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.

Marcia Buzzella: At the same time, we have to do that in a way that's constructive, that doesn't undermine me as an individual, and promotes the well-being of the team. It's also an individual contributor's responsibility to step forward and say, "Hey, Mr. Manager and Mrs. Manager, you're not quite in the right vein, I think," or "Do you know how this is happening?"

I once had an individual come to me, and I really thank everyone that she had the confidence to say this ... She said, "I have something to tell you, and I don't think you're gonna like it." I said, "Try me." And she said, "Do you understand that we don't think you're approachable?" And I was floored, because I'd never received that feedback before. I had no idea. But I thought about it and listened to the examples that she provided and I said, "Wow. That is not the way I intended to be perceived or to come off to my team members." And I immediately started working with them to change how I was behaving. And one of the things I did, I put like an attitude meter on my door, am I having a good day or a bad day, so that they knew how to approach me. That lasted for a few weeks and it was funny. But we were able to get past that. And I suddenly knew that I needed to change.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.

Marcia Buzzella: And if you have a manager who's not listening to you or not working through those situations, be sure that you're really clear, because that's not an easy conversation to have. Don't come in and say, "I just can't talk to you." Say, "I don't feel like you're listening to me," or "I've said this and you haven't heard it." Be very specific so that we can actually act on it as managers.

Jennifer Bonine: Well, I think you made a really good point there, too. So besides coming to you with the feedback, she came with examples, right?

Marcia Buzzella: Right.

Jennifer Bonine: So just like a lot of individuals prefer specific examples to be able to understand, digest, and then alter, if need be, the behavior, you need to provide some context around it to help them, 'cause otherwise you're basically just throwing out criticism without any constructive feedback.

Marcia Buzzella: And the examples undermine my defensive response. They make me pause and say, "Wow. She's right. I need to think about this a little bit more." Step away from the conversation, think about it, and then figure out your next steps.

Jennifer Bonine: Mm-hmm. And like you said, pretty brave though, 'cause again, instead of coming in an email or some other format, she ...

Marcia Buzzella: Face to face.

Jennifer Bonine: ... came to you face to face and said, "Here's my challenge." And you could adapt and adjust and hear her and that individual. And suggestions, if you have—and I'm sure we've all run into these people in our work situations ... Leaders who you've attempted that, and they're not responsive. Like, they basically are always right, they're never in the wrong. What do you do then?

Marcia Buzzella: That is such a tough situation to be in because there's no right answer. If you've tried to confront the ... Not confront. But if you've tried to address the situation through tactful means, through logic and reason, and there's just no response, I think then you have to start looking internally. What is the situation that you're in? How much are you willing to put up with on a day-to-day basis? Are there other advocates that may be able to help you? You have to start looking at other choices. And I hate to say that. But the reality is, as much as you love your team and love your job, you need to love you first. And if you don't put yourself first, then you'll never be happy.

Jennifer Bonine: Right. And I think that's a good message too, for folks to know there's steps you take to attempt to alter or change the situation you're currently in if you're not happy with it, or if you have a leader who maybe is not responsive to your concerns. But at some point, you have to decide, is it worth maintaining in that situation if they're choosing not to adapt, right?

Marcia Buzzella: Right.

Jennifer Bonine: And they may not, right? So I think that's a good point too, of address how much ... 'Cause again, when we are not happy or in a situation where we don't feel respected, honored, and heard in our profession, that can really impact your ability to deliver.

Marcia Buzzella: You won't deliver to your full potential. And that is not a great place to be.

Jennifer Bonine: Right. Exactly. So for folks out there, good things to think about. Is there anywhere where they can find additional information? Or do you publish any of the research that you've done, where there's additional documentation they can reference?

Marcia Buzzella: I have a website. It's MarciaBuzzella.com. I have a blog out there as well as the publishings that I have in place today.

Jennifer Bonine: Awesome. So a great reference for those out there watching that say, "Hey, I really would love to find out the research that you did and get more information," since they couldn't attend your session. Any other things you're working on or next things that you kind of have in the works?

Marcia Buzzella: Right now I'm working on workshops for team growth and development, looking at it from a strengths perspective, being able to leverage natural talents and figure out what each team needs to be composed of and how to work together.

Jennifer Bonine: Very good. That sounds fun. Exciting new stuff. Great new adventure in the career.

Thank you so much for being here with us today. And we appreciate it. And we are so glad that you came here and we all got to meet you at your first STAR conference.

Marcia Buzzella: Thank you for having me.

Jennifer Bonine: Great to have you today. Stay tuned for our next interview up next in our interview block.

Marcia BuzzellaWith almost twenty years of experience in the testing industry, Marcia Buzzella enjoys using her knowledge, attention to detail, and inquisitive nature to collaboratively solve problems, set objectives, deliver results, and help others be successful or improve. Marcia’s favorite aspect of her job is coaching software test professionals on how to build relationships and improve interactions with project stakeholders regarding testing tasks. Her doctoral thesis research focused on understanding the required soft skills for software testers and how those capabilities influence IT project success.

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