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One proven way to boost software quality: Increase your QA team's diversity

Michael W. Cooper Head of Quality Engineering, Transamerica
Improve software quality by increasing your QA team's diversity

In my career as a QA leader, I have worked with test teams on every continent except Antarctica. I’ve learned that testers come in all shapes, sizes, genders, identities, affiliations, and beliefs. I’ve worked with people from backgrounds that were completely different from mine, who spoke different languages, brought dishes to potlucks with names I could scarcely pronounce, dressed in (what appeared to me to be) outlandish attire, and celebrated the most unusual festivals and holidays.

But despite our differences, we always found ways to work together, with each team member bringing individuality and uniqueness to the team. Good testers also have plenty in common: I found that to be successful in the testing profession, one must have an inquisitive mind, stellar intuition, and somewhat of a thick skin to be able to ask the tough questions and stand up for the right things.

In my experience, the most successful testing teams are the ones that thrive on celebrating traits that their members have in common and finding ways to embrace the uniqueness and diversity of each individual member. This article will describe why that diversity can improve the software you create.

The rise of diversity awareness

The topic of workforce diversity is getting a lot of attention these days. Technology giants such as Google regularly publish reports on diversity and inclusion, news articles examine the reasons behind gender and racial bias in IT, and organizations such as CODE2024 strive to increase awareness of the lack of ethnic diversity and support initiatives to increase minority hiring in the technology space.  

Quality assurance is often seen as a subset of the bigger IT team, and I tend to think that, when it comes to diversity, QA has fared somewhat better than the core engineering teams. In my years as a QA leader, I had the privilege of working with people from all walks of life, and my most successful experiences were with teams representing different genders, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, ages, and experience.

But diversity is not just about hiring equal shares of male, female, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic professionals. Real, meaningful diversity requires a collection of individuals with unique perspectives based on their backgrounds, knowledge, past experiences. and environments.

Diverse testers better understand diverse end users

Your applications are supposed to work for a variety of users: young, old, new language learners, people with disabilities, etc. So who better to test them than people from a wide variety of backgrounds?

What’s intuitive for a teenager may not be so easy for a person not as comfortable with today’s fast-changing digital realities. A recent college grad will look at her health care provider page differently than a parent researching ways to treat a child’s condition. You can’t foresee all possible scenarios, but having a team of testers of different ages and backgrounds increases your chances of catching a problem that a more homogeneous team may overlook.

The many shades of language

We’ve all heard of the legend of the Chevy Nova, a car that supposedly didn't sell in Latin America because it's name in Spanish roughly means "doesn't go." Although that story isn't true, there are plenty of instances where a mistranslation caused a major embarrassment to the company. At T-Mobile, we were getting ready to run a Mother's Day promotion when one of my team members pointed out that the way the ad was written, while linguistically correct, meant something entirely different in a South American slang. It’s probably a good thing that my Spanish is so poor and I can’t remember the exact words that we used. But because we had a bilingual tester on the team,  we were able to change the wording before the promotion.

Lucky colors and cultural symbolism

A tester on my team once pointed out that the color scheme that we chose for our website was composed of colors considered unlucky by a Chinese audience, which the site was intended to reach. In all honesty, I had never even heard of unlucky colors before, so I was extremely grateful to have a team member who could point it out.

No one person can know everything, and in today’s global world, it is important to be aware of cultural issues and symbols. You don’t want to offend your customers!

The value of mentorship

Great testers come in endless combination of shapes, sizes, genders, colors, nationalities, and yes, ages. I have built teams made up of interns in their teens and QA directors in their 70s. There’s no substitute for an atmosphere of learning and trust, where employees see each other not as competition, but as mentors, companions, and colleagues.

Older people are often frowned upon in technology, but nobody can bring as much life experience, patience, and common sense as someone who has had a long and successful career and is willing to share knowledge with the younger generation of testers.  

Year-round productivity

Some companies have the luxury of shutting down for the Christmas season, but in my experience in health care and retail, December and January can be the busiest months. Throughout my career, I have been lucky to have teams of people of different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Some take off at Christmastime, while others prefer to take their vacations during Chinese New Year or the Japanese Golden Week.

Similarly, some parents on my team appreciated the flexibility of being able to come to work early and leave early in the afternoon to be there when children came home from school, while recent college grads would arrive late when given an option but stay late into the evening.

Different skill sets for different types of testing

In my recent TechBeacon article on specialists versus generalists, I talked about diversifying your team to include both narrow technical specialists and broad generalists to focus on the entire user experience, as well as requirements analysis, exploratory testing, and other general disciplines. This, too, is a form of diversity that’s important on the testing team: Different skills and perspectives lead to better test coverage.

Personalities matter

There are people who work best under pressure and people who prefer to take their time to finish a project in a meticulous fashion; there are those who constantly come up with new ideas and others who run with those ideas and see them to fruition.

By building a team that has diverse personality types, you can assure that your workplace is fun, a place where people can bounce ideas off one another and things get done.

Diversity drives innovation

A Harvard Business Review article provides an excellent overview of how a diverse environment promotes “outside the box” thinking. In my experience, having people with different perspectives helps reduce groupthink and promotes original ideas, new solutions, and innovative approaches.

When you are sitting across the table from potential job candidates, it might be natural to gravitate toward people who are more like you and share the same background. But remember that by missing out on diversity, you might also miss out on original thinking, unique skill sets, or just someone who might have a fresh view of the world and the potential to poke holes in established routines and practices.

Bringing diversity into your team might take some adjustment initially, but the results will speak for themselves though better culture, innovation, and productivity.

Your thoughts?

Because this is an article about diversity, I would love to hear your unique thoughts. Please share in the comments section below how diversity brings value to your testing team.

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