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How to hire true test automation craftsmen

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Bas Dijkstra, Test automation speaker and writer, Independent

As with software development and testing, test automation is a craft. You need specialized skills and expertise to create, implement, and maintain effective test automation solutions. A successful team of test automation craftsmen complements your development and testing teams and is a key asset to any software development organization.

While many organizations are investing heavily in test automation, what's not always clear to hiring managers is the kind of person who's likely to be successful as a test automation engineer, and the best ways to identify, hire, and retain those people. 

Here are some useful tips from my experience, as well as some of the common misconceptions to avoid. 

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How to find the best test automation engineers

The first step in creating a team of test automation craftsmen is knowing what to look for when you're hiring. Given that hiring is a time- and resource-intensive process, you need to look for the right people from the beginning, rather than hiring the first available applicant whose résumé matches the keywords in your job opening.

Look for people who don't want to automate everything in sight

Far more important than knowing how to automate a given check is knowing when a check should or should not be automated. Test automation engineers who automate every check they encounter won't deliver the best possible output in terms of effectiveness and value for your money.

Look for automation engineers who, in addition to possessing the development skills needed to efficiently implement test automation, know what makes a test suitable for automation in the first place.

Look beyond experience with one tool

Recruiting people simply because they have experience with your testing tools or stack won't necessarily lead to the best possible hire. Conversely, dismissing potentially suitable candidates just because their résumés don't survive your recruiter's keyword filter might rob you of a great test automation engineer—or one with great potential.

Unfortunately, this result is all too common when you leave the first round of candidate selection to a recruitment agency with little or no experience in the test automation field.

Good people get caught in the filter. For example, it's a good idea to at least interview candidates who have experience with SpecFlow if you're a Java shop in need of someone who can implement Cucumber. The two tools are highly similar, but there's a significant risk that the résumé of the person with SpecFlow experience will land in the "no" pile if the recruiter doesn't understand such nuances. 

The skills that a candidate possesses should ideally overlap with the required skills and experience the open position describes, but looking beyond a simple sequence of keywords on a résumé might just result in the perfect hire, even if you didn't expect
it.

So carefully create the job description specs and keywords, and only work with recruiters who know something about test automation, because they're the only ones who can find good matches. Such recruiters do exist!

Ask the right interview questions

Beyond the technical capabilities, you need a candidate who is a good fit for your organization and culture. To determine that, you need to ask the right questions in the interview. Ideally, you want to determine whether candidates can look beyond the obvious, aren't set on simply automating anything presented to them, and are able to acquire new skills and tool experience quickly.

To make that determination, you should target your questions accordingly. For example, instead of asking, "Do you have experience automating tests for application type ABC with tool XYZ," ask "How would you go about creating automated tests for application type ABC?" The answer to the former question is probably in the candidate's résumé, or is a simple Google search away. The ability to answer the second question, however, requires insight and experience, and that's what you're looking for.

How to retain your test automation craftsmen

Once you've built your team of test automation craftsmen, your work is only half done. To fully benefit from your hires' talent and expertise in the long run, you must have a strategy in place to retain them. Here's how to keep your team motivated and loyal when the headhunters come calling.

Give your test automation team the space to grow as craftsmen

Test automation is a craft. To become and remain as craftsmen, test automation engineers need to constantly hone their skills. As a manager, you should support and encourage your team to look further than just the project or assignment on which they're currently working.

For example, encourage them to attend and present at conferences. Conferences are the perfect opportunity to meet with peers, learn from the stories and experiences of fellow craftsmen, and discover a new tool or two.

Another great way to grow the craftsmanship of your team is through training courses. And these don't always need to be directly related to test automation to have a benefit. As a craftsman, I've learned quite a bit from courses not directly related to test automation, but covering related technical or soft skills that I applied to my daily work.

Give the team room to experiment

Projects have deadlines, and work needs to be delivered on time. But if you also make time for people to experiment, your team will be happier and more eager to learn. Encourage them to keep up with current developments in the test automation world, and give them time to try out new tools and solutions.

Who knows what your craftsmen will discover, and what their new knowledge will do for the effectiveness of your automated testing solution and your development process as a whole?

Remain focused on the right mix of development, testing, consulting, and presentation skills

It's important to keep your highly optimized test automation team happy. Your team needs the right mixture of development and testing skills. But if you're looking to expand test automation activities on a wider scale in your organization, you need to build up your team's consulting and presentation skills as well. Being able to demonstrate solutions and give advice on test automation-related issues to the wider organization makes for an even more powerful and effective team.

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Now build your team

If you're looking to hire and retain a team of test automation craftsmen, make sure you know what you should be looking for, look further than just a list of test tool keywords, and create an environment where your craftsmen can experiment, grow, and flourish. Only then will you be able to build a test automation strategy that's successful in the long term and keep your competitors from snatching away your most valuable assets: your people.

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