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First month as QA Lead in a startup — 6 pieces of advice

Oct 13, 2018 · 9 min read
A Lego trooper cleaning the lens of a DSLR camera

This article is the 4th part of a 5-article series about joining a startup as the first QA.

In the previous article I wrote about 5 things to do in the first week. This time I want to zoom out and tell you about what to focus on in the first month as QA Lead in a startup.

Imagine this: after one month, you are already a well recognised part of the team. You have proven your attitude, your skills and your character. You have shown your work and you are respected for your contribution. People are keen to help you achieve your vision and they support you by executing testing tasks.

Isn’t this a QA heaven?

Below I listed 6 equally important pieces of advice which will help you shape your leadership position and realise that vision.

Let’s take a look.

Define your role

One thing is clear: you’re the QA Lead here — no one else.

But what does that role really stand for? Well, this time you have to figure it out by yourself. You need to get it clear in your mind first. It would massively help if you prepared for the leadership role.

However, the vision living in your head is not enough to completely shape your role in a new job. You have to also consider what expectations are put on you. I advise you to talk to your manager and find out how he sees your responsibilities. You can go even further and ask some engineers how they imagine the QA role as well.

The truth is, this role can be defined in many ways. It might actually be wide to the extent that it gets blurry what your responsibilities are — especially when you’re the first one. So don’t expect yourself to find out everything in a day or so. It may take some time.

Defining your role is not something that comes purely from you. It’s composed of your vision, expectations of others and the environment you’re in.

Once you sort it out, don’t wait anymore and clearly communicate to the team what your responsibilities are and what you’ll be taking care of.

Personally, I shared with the team my vision on modern QA role as part of a presentation. This is what it looked like:

My vision of QA role
My vision of QA role

Work on QA culture

This is, what I believe, the hardest part.

Why? Because QA culture is impossible to be introduced by one person. It’s a set of behaviours that all the people in your team have to adopt. You cannot control the implementation of it.

However, there’s something in your control. You can initiate it. You can influence it. You can drive it. And since you’re the QA Lead — you’re in the best position to do so. That’s why I put ‘work’ in the title of this section — it’s a process of constant work on the culture.

How can you do it? It really depends on you but I can help you with some advice of practices which I started introducing to the team myself.

Firstly, you must have a vision of how you see the QA culture growing in the team. Lead with this vision, but always be ready to react if something doesn’t work as expected. You can’t control the way it will go, but you can control your reaction.

Secondly, the vision of QA culture should be based on a combination of what you feel is best for the team, what the team is capable of, what the current mindset is and what your personal QA beliefs are as well.

Thirdly, you cannot just say to everyone: “We test this and that and that’s it.”. You have to lead them through a logical reasoning they can follow and understand. Then you have to show and teach them.

Culture is a common set of behaviours. You may be driving the bus, but you need everyone willing to go in the same direction.

Let me give you an example from my experience.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Modern Testing Principles and I based my QA culture vision on them. These principles may sound radical from traditional QA point of view — especially to developers. At the same time, I’m against sudden changes, because the first reaction is always a rejection. I prefer doing things step by step. That’s why first I presented the vision on QA culture to the team and opened the discussion.

To my surprise, the reception was positive. I was asked few questions but these were not looking to doubt in the idea, but to reassure.

Why did it work out? I bet on two things. First, I work with open-minded people who are not afraid of trying new things. Second, I’ve built a good relationship with them and they trust me.

So does it mean the culture has been all set? Not at all. It’s just a grain that we have to water every day.

Learning from that, I recommend you to look for the way that will work for your team. If you try and it doesn’t work — learn why and adapt. And remember, you’re the one responsible for driving the change.

Execute short-term, think long-term

Here I refer to the short-term vision that I wrote about in the previous article, highlighting it as the most important task that you have to do in the first week.

If it comes to the first month, you should focus on executing that vision. Whatever you defined there — now is the time to do it.

At the same time, however, you should start looking into the future. Envision how you want QA to look in your organisation. Since it’s about recognising what should be done next — let’s face it — it’s not an easy task. It all depends on many factors, such as: the priorities in your organisation, the mindset in the team, the risks and dangers coming from the people, technology, customers and product.

Hence I advise you to start focusing on the process, rather than the results.

Again, there are no silver bullets. But you can always get a shotgun. Here’s one:

  • What are the biggest risks you have to tackle next?
  • How do you see QA process in the team in 6 months?
  • How do you see the function of QA team?
  • How do you see your role?
  • How can others help you achieve that?

Answering these questions should make shaping that long-term vision much easier for you.

Support the team

In the first month, you have to make sure that the team can rely on you and they trust you.

This is because you’re going to benefit from that — I’ll tell you about this in a minute.

To support the team, first you have to assure them that you actually can do it. Show your attitude, show that you deeply care, show that you’re there to help. Listen to their problems, analyse them and try to find solutions. Be open to give a hand whenever asked. If you don’t have time at the moment — just say it and let know when you will likely be able to help.

As a QA Lead, supporting the team is one of your main responsibilities.

Put yourself in the loop of observing, giving feedback and improving. By the end of the first month you should already notice what’s working well and what’s not. The best time to flag these things up is a retrospective meeting, and you’re in a great position to lead them. If they’re not part of the culture yet — introduce them. Every two weeks is a good schedule.

Remember that the goal of the retrospective is to highlight things that work well, things that could be improved and any other ideas. Celebrate the good things but put the most focus on things that could be improve and try to create an actionable task with an assignee for each of them. It’s a good practice to keep track of these things and review them at the beginning of the next session.

So how will you benefit from this? Now I can tell you: Support the team…

Delegate testing tasks

…so they can support you, too.

Being a sole QA doesn’t mean you have to do everything by yourself.

Once the team knows they can count on you and they understand what the vision of QA culture you have, they’ll be more keen to help you achieve that.

So don’t try to do everything on your own. In the startup world — or should I rather say — in the agile world, it’s about we, not I. Use the power of the whole-team approach and delegate testing tasks. You’ll be surprised what the team members can do with them (I was).

This can be defined as part of the QA culture, but even if you don’t explicitly specify it, nothing is really stopping you from leveraging delegation. However, it might be worth informing everyone upfront that you’re going to do it.

There’s a risk that you may face some objections. It’s not that people are not keen to do a testing task — it’s just they get frustrated when they don’t understand the importance of it or they don’t know how to perform it. One of the reasons might be that they haven’t done it yet. This is why supporting the team members and building relationships proactively is such an important responsibility of your role.

What you should do then is to empower others to test efficiently. For instance, you can pair with each team member and go through the first testing task together. This way you enable others to contribute to the improvements you’ve initiated.

Finally, remember that you’re in charge of starting and pushing the QA machine, but at some point there’ll be time to ask others to help you to keep it going. And you better prepare everyone for that.

Show your work

Last but not least, you need to show your work.

Why is it important? The work of a QA might be hardly visible at times, so it’s crucial to proactively share with the team. When you show your work, you make things transparent and visible to everyone. You build trust not only in the team, but also in yourself.

To do that, I recommend you to simply keep track of:

  • things you’re planning,
  • things you’re doing,
  • things you’ve achieved.

Showing your work is so little but yet so much that you can do.

If you want to see an example, here’s the QA knowledge space where I keep documentation of all projects and their outcomes:

Current list of my documents about the QA process
Current list of my documents about the QA process

Also, I encourage you to go one step further and set personal goals for yourself. Whether or not there’s a performance review process in place, think of 3–4 things that you want to achieve this quarter and write it down. It’s best if you define goals that not only help you grow professionally but also contribute to the success of the team.

Then regularly share your progress with your manager on 1-on-1 meetings. You’ll not only show your work but you’ll also keep yourself focused on right things. And when stuck, your manager will be able to help you get through the roadblocks.

However, be humble and know where the line is. Don’t boast, don’t show your ego — simply show your work.

Finally, here’s an example of my personal goals for this quarter:

My personal QA goals
My personal QA goals

And here we are with 6 things that I recommend you to do in the first month as QA Lead in a startup. Let’s sum it up:

  1. Define your role
  2. Work on QA Culture
  3. Execute short-term, think long-term
  4. Support the team
  5. Delegate testing tasks
  6. Show your work

In the final part, I will tell you about what I’ve learned after 30 days as QA Lead in a startup.

Author's profile picture

Dawid Dylowicz

Founder of More Than Testing