What is the Difference Between a Test Manager and a Project Manager?

November 3, 2011

The 31st Test Management forum took place in the UK last week. For those of you based in the UK who have a fascination with this area of our discipline this is well worth attending. Attended by a number of prominent test mangers and consultants it makes for some very stimulating discussions (and in some instances quite heated debate). One of the topics that struck home in this latest session was a simple question about the difference between a project manager (PM) and a test manager (TM).

On the surface a simple question. Dig a little deeper though and this question is more interesting than it would at first appear. For example what stops a test manager becoming a project manager? Or from the other direction what attributes would a project manager need to bring to the test management role in order to be successful? Why does a test manager end up focusing on the testing aspects? Why do very few test managers move across into the project management arena?

The fact that very few people seem to migrate between the roles would suggest that there are significant differences between the roles. I would argue that three key points differentiate the two roles:

1. The PM has more responsibilities relating to the budgets and making sure the project comes in on budget. Whilst the TM does have to think about costs and budgets this is not usually the primary focus.

2. The PM has the responsibility of making sure the project comes in on time. If the quality isn’t right the TM can be found actively working to make sure the project doesn’t come in on time.

3. The TM has the responsibility of making sure the quality and features of the deliverable are going to meet the customers needs. So not so much focus on cost or time scales more the features and quality.

The analogy of a ships pilot was the best point put forward. Whilst big tankers and cruise liners have a captain they always make use of a pilot to bring the tanker into port. The captain knows the tanker inside out and is responsible for getting from point A to point B safely. Now the pilot may not know this ship inside out but he or she knows the port that they are docking in back to front. It’s this experience that makes the pilot invaluable for successfully bringing the ship into the port and birthing on the quay.

Well it’s the same argument for the test manager. He or she is responsible for bringing the software product to the point where it meets an acceptable level of quality. Whilst the PM is responsible for getting the product in the vicinity of the port it’s the TM that is responsible for overseeing the balance between quality, features and time as we birth the ship (or rather release the software).

Whilst this analogy breaks down a little bit in places (i.e. the test manager doesn’t just join the project in the last few weeks of the project to help out) it does help us understand some of the important aspects of our roles. That is, the importance and judgement of the test manager grows as we get closer to release. And whilst the PM concerns him or her self with the high level picture of the project (mainly the cost and schedule), it’s the test manager that ultimately focuses on ‘what we deliver’.

It’s this difference in focus that demands different skill sets and different points of focus between the two different roles. Maybe it’s even more clear cut than this. Perhaps it’s that the project manager is concerned with the product and everything else. Whereas the test manager is concerned just with the product that is delivered. Or is that too simplistic?

Like I said this test management forum does throw up some interesting points for discussion.