Q&A with Michele Playfair

Welcome once again to Q&A. Each month we catch up with someone (from the testing community or beyond) with an interest in quality in software development and technology.

Some guests you may know well, and others might be less familiar. I hope you will learn something new about each of them, and something new from each of them. Each will bring their own perspectives and insights on quality and testing.

The format will be the same each time:

  • a little information about this month’s guest and what they are currently up to
  • some questions for them to answer
  • some answers for them to question (the ‘Jeopardy’ section where I will provide the answer and ask the interviewee to give me the question)
  • finally, the ‘Pass it on’ section with a question from last month’s participant and the opportunity to pose a question for next month’s guest

This month’s guest is Michele Playfair. Michele works for Xero in Melbourne as an Agile Team Facilitator.

In Michele’s own words:

I’ve worked in the industry for… longer than I’d like to admit and I have been lucky enough to work in different countries and experience a wide variety of roles.  With each different role I try to bring “good consultant” habits: hit the ground running, find out how to contribute to the team, share what you know, work towards making yourself redundant.

First of all Michele, would you like to tell us about anything interesting you’ve been involved in recently, any exciting upcoming ventures, or just what you are working on at the moment?

I’ve recently started a new role as Agile Team Facilitator at Xero where I get to help teams work together to deliver beautiful cloud-based accounting software.  I’ve had some great conversations with our test manager around how we can get our testers involved more in upfront collaboration which is one of my favourite topics, so I’m excited about making improvements in that area.

If you encountered a version of yourself from earlier in your career, and talked about how you approach your work, what would you disagree on?

My first job was with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and in those days we were all trained to adhere strictly to Processes and Standards. So Previous Me was likely to be found thumping people over the head with a giant binder of Best Practices whereas Current Me is much more flexible and aware that the best way to do something will probably depend on the context.

When you look back at your career so far, what do you consider to be the highlight(s)?

I’ve been a part of many high-profile and successful delivery projects and I have always seen my job to be creating software that helps make other people’s job easier.  So in general, any time I get to hear from an end user how much they love the system and how much it has helped them do their job, is a highlight for me.

Being offered the role of “Senior QA Manager” at Sandstone Technology introduced me to the wonderful testing community both here in Melbourne and around the world.  The level of support and advice I received from so many people was unexpected and massively appreciated.  

I was encouraged to speak at the Australian Testing Days conference and have gone on to talk at two more conferences which I’ve really enjoyed.  I’ve tried to pay it forward by organising a meetup in Manila (where the Sandstone Technology test team is located) and encouraging others to speak at conferences; my last talk was a shared one with a former colleague and first-time speaker (she nailed it! – so proud).

When you think back to these highlights, what were the most important lessons you learned?

Don’t underestimate the effect of making people feel like they’re part of the journey; not just your immediate team but other stakeholders and end users too.  The process of change that is required to adapt to a new system is so much easier when people feel as though they have had the opportunity to provide input and their voices have been heard.

When you consider technology and software development around the world, can you pick out an example of an organisation who really focus and deliver on quality?

I think this is a difficult question because from a consumer perspective, it’s usually easier to identify quality by its absence: if things are all working swimmingly, that’s expected, and people tend to notice only when things break.  

I haven’t been an Optus (Australian Telco) customer since I moved away from Sydney 10+ years ago and into a rural area they don’t service. However during that 5-year window when I was a customer, I remember noting that they were on the very short list of ‘Companies That Haven’t P*ssed Me Off’, because everything just worked.  So at least during that time, I reckon they were doing a good job on the quality front.  

What do you think is the most common misconception about testing?

 “Anyone can do it – testing is an entry-level job for people without many skills.”

Regardless of your take on the “checking vs testing” nomenclature, identification of the distinction was a real “a-ha” moment for me and one that I have used often to try and dispel the above misconception.  The dedicated professional testers I have met and been exposed to (via their writings) are without a doubt some of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered, and there is so much more to “testing” than “checking”.

And now, the Jeopardy section. I’ll provide you with some answers and ask you to give me the questions…


What is the first thing to disappear when you squeeze resources like time and money from any product development?


What is the aspect of product development that is noticed more by its absence rather than by its presence?

Lastly, the ‘Pass it on’ section. The question posed by last month’s participant, Patrick Prill, was “What would non-context-driven testing look like?”

I think we can still see many examples around the place, where people are taught that there is only one way to test and you should use these templates and these processes because this is Best Practice.  It’s a cookie-cutter approach which mandates how to work regardless of what you’re trying to test, when and for whom.  This is how I first learned to work (refer the Previous Me vs Current Me question) and given all the time that has passed, it is really weird to me that testing in many places hasn’t advanced in the same way that coding has.  And yes , you could argue that no “testing” is actually being performed here but mostly or entirely “checking”.

And finally, what question would you like to pose for next month’s participant?

There’s a lot of debate about certification in the testing space.  If you were to devise a way to certify or otherwise identify good testers, what would that look like?

I am very grateful to Michele for taking the time to participate in Q&A… see you next time!

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