Start Up Series: Beyond T-Shaped People

Reading Time: 9 minutes

2041 EuroSTAR Start-Up Series Dark

Each month we publish a new post from someone who is building a business with a software testing background. In this post, Gordon discusses the recruitment process and the T-Shaped tester.



Over the last 6 months my start up, Quast, has been heading a different direction to the one I expected when I started. It’s been an interesting journey in terms of developing my own skills. I’d heard a lot of discussion about concept of T-Shaped Skills and this has become very real and practical to me. So for my latest Test Huddle blog I wanted to talk about T-Shaped skills, hopefully extending the concept based on my own recent experience, and giving some examples of how this can affect those in Testing roles.


T-Shaped People

To begin with let me introduce T-Shaped Skills and People, for anyone that hasn’t heard the term, or as a reminder for those who have. Maria Doyle gives the following explanation in her PTC Blog (

“The idea of T-shaped skills was first mentioned by David Guest in a 1991 article discussing the future of computer jobs, and then championed by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO design firm, as an approach to hiring the right talent in order to build interdisciplinary teams that can come together to create new ideas.


“Essentially, the T-shaped concept is a metaphor for the depth and breadth that an individual has in their skills. The vertical bar on the ‘T’ represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar represents a breadth of skills and the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.”

Before I’d ever heard the term I’d considered the two dimensions as necessary in good QA or Tester professionals. I’m a strong believer in Shift Left, or building quality in to the process rather than relying on ‘inspecting it in’ at the end. A good Tester is best able to influence other functions to adapt their process to avoid future defects if they have some understanding of the processes throughout the delivery lifecycle and can make sensible suggestions on adjustments to them that will avoid similar defects occurring in future. I think there’s more of an onus on Test than many other functions to be T-Shaped as we seek to influence quality across the whole delivery process and defects we find can have their origins anywhere. Other teams can focus more on immediate neighbours, relying on their neighbours to pass further back in the lifecycle if the origin of the problem isn’t with them.

I considered myself a T-Shaped Person. Over 10 years I’d specialised in QA and Testing, managing large teams in these areas. By being a manager the horizontal in my T extended to at least a shallow knowledge in disciplines like Marketing, Sales, HR, Finance, Recruitment.


A Change of Focus

When I started Quast the idea was to provide the same QA and Test service I was used to delivering internally to one company as manager of a function, except now it would be externally to many companies as a supplier. I expected Quast to focus on building a pool of consultants and placing them with companies on a daily rate or to delivering a defined service. I recognised that sometimes companies would want to recruit and direct their own employees or contractors but still value assistance in finding people so we offered a Recruitment service, but I thought this would be a limited focus.

Over the last six months I’ve found our opportunity to be the opposite of what I expected. My previous roles have been as Director of QA and Head of Testing at large Technology focussed companies, and so my network tends to be with people in similar companies. What I’ve really found is that it’s very difficult for a small company to get through the sales cycle at this sort of company, even with a good relationship in the customer team. Sales cycles are long and a difficult investment for a small company to make, and procurement departments like to see services bought from other large organisations whose capability to deal with the demand and financial stability is seen as more assured. On the flip side, I’ve found much more opportunity in being a specialist Recruitment Agency than I expected and found there to be far more openness to using smaller, boutique companies to support recruitment. The result is that right now most of our income and opportunity is as a Recruitment Agency, and currently I’m a Recruitment Consultant more than anything else.

So far our recruitment service is doing well. We have a big opportunity in having got on to the Government’s framework for helping find contractors (or Contingent Labour) for Government Departments. As I write we have contractors placed at the DWP, Home Office, MoD and DSTL. The way the framework is managed makes it difficult for me to get comparative information against other agencies but from what I can glean I’m confident we’re getting more candidates through screening, more then to interview, and more from interview to offer stage than the average agency. Candidate feedback from those who’ve applied for roles through both us and other agencies suggests the same.


Beyond T-Shaped

It’s interesting to consider this change of focus in terms of the T-Shape model. My prior T-Shape was characterised as depth of knowledge in QA and Testing with breadth of knowledge, to a shallower level, in wider IT delivery roles (through an interest in all elements of the delivery process as a QA professional), and in the range of business management functions (having been a team and cost centre manager). My current focus on Recruitment sees me still relying on the same breadth of knowledge, (albeit in different ways), with an understanding of all the different functions in IT delivery helping me recruit for each role with more knowledge than recruiters who haven’t worked in any delivery role before, and my understanding of business management functions helping me understand the different roles and stakeholders in getting a role approved, onboarded and paid for. I’m having to develop a new depth of understanding around recruitment practices.

Moving from Functions to Competencies, you can see examples of elements in the Horizontal part of the T applicable to both Testing and Recruitment. There are boundary crossing competencies like Communications, Networking, Perspective and Critical Thinking. Generally, both roles need a range of soft skills around building relationships and interacting with people.

I think you could argue that someone who’s performed any IT delivery role has better opportunity to develop a greater understanding of all the disciplines around about them, through real delivery interactions on projects, than someone who’s a career recruiter and so understanding the concept but not practicing it. I think this means someone coming from a delivery role in to recruitment has a thicker horizontal line to their T than a career recruiter. This may help compensate for a lack of depth of recruitment knowledge, but you’d still expect need to build depth of knowledge to be as effective as a career recruiter. And this was always going to be the question or challenge for me. Could I effectively ‘career change’ and build depth of understanding in recruitment?

Assessing whether or not I’ve managed to deepen my knowledge in recruitment is best done with some impartial measure rather than my own opinion. To give this, let me quickly introduce the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC). The REC are a not-for-profit organisation with the mission to make the UK recruitment industry the best in the world. The REC code of conduct defines a set of good recruitment practices, beyond the legal standards set in conduct regulation, that they propose the industry should adhere to. Accordingly to become a Full Member of the REC you need to pass a compliance test around the code of conduct and wider conduct regulations. This seemed a good test of whether I was becoming knowledgeable in recruitment good practice. I recently took the exam and managed to pass with a 97% pass rate. I don’t mean to big myself up or be immodest in saying so, but it feels a good demonstration that you can move in to new areas and deepen your knowledge fairly quickly through concerted study. I’m definitely not the best recruiter in the industry but already I’m not the worst.

To learn the REC code of conduct took a good amount of reading and absorbing but it didn’t all feel new. It felt like the context and perspective I’d gained by being curious about recruitment and working with recruiters before gave a good head start. So here’s the main proposition of the article: being a T-Shaped Person gives you the mindset and perspective to be an N-Shaped or M-Shaped person, changing career, moving in to new areas and deepening specialism in new things.


Why Should Testers Care

I’m writing the story in the Start-Up Series on Test Huddle, partly because it’s about my start up but also because I think there’s a number of relevance’s for Testing.


  • Testing is a Good Foundation to do other things

I’ve talked about thinking that Testing has a broader perspective on the whole IT delivery process. It also accentuates other boundary crossing competencies: communication, it’s not small skill to be able to suggest developers have made a mistake non-confrontationally; influencing, to get defects fixed; global understanding off how processes connect. The more you can strengthen these skills the more of a head start you have in other careers.

Most of us are used to seeing good Test people leave Testing for other roles. We can see this as a negative, people getting out for greater recognition or career development. We should see this instead as a selling point. Testing is giving a good grounding that gives helps develop some very good transferable skills.

It should also give Testers confidence that we can go and do other things and be successful.


  • We can feel confident in challenging other functions

Taking a Shift Left approach to Testing involves a broader focus than just Testing software, it is also getting defects resolved, getting the root cause of the defect resolved, and Testing the Process that lead to the software in the first place. A lot of time this is about discussing or proposing actions to other functions that could help assure quality. These can be difficult conversations. It can be easy to submit to the expertise of the person we’re speaking to believing they know much more than us. I’m suggesting we’re probably much nearer the same level of expertise than we realise and should have confidence in our ideas.


  • Self Organising Teams

Agile is part of the reason that T-Shaped People has gained prominence as an idea. One of the Principles in the Agile Manifesto ( is that: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” This has then been developed in to an aspiration that team members should be able to perform each others roles. Lots of agile teams recognise this principle in theory but see the theoretical extreme of complete interchangeability of roles as unachievable and expect it to be fairly constrained. My story gives one example of a substantial change in roles and so confidence about the level of fluidity that could be achieved in roles in agile teams.


  • Recruiting T-Shaped People

I’ve suggested that Testing is a good discipline to encourage you to be T-Shaped, and this mind set will help you do other roles. Equally then the opposite is true. If we can identity other roles that are outward looking and also have the horizontal focus that encourages T-Shaped skills to develop, these are good areas to consider recruiting people from. I’ll talk in my next blog about recent graduate recruitment we’ve done. Our new employee doesn’t come from a classic Test background but I’m confident she’d be a very capable Tester. Her background has already helped her with a broad curiosity about many disciplines. There’s lots of roles I can think of do similar and would potentially make good recruits.


In Conclusion

That pointer to my next blog seems like a good place to finish up and sum up my conclusions.

I’ve always believed that QA and Test professionals are naturally encourage to be T-Shaped people by nature of our interest in all parts of the development lifecycle. I’ve found in the last six months that the breadth of interest, represented by the top of the T, has really helped me adapt as I’ve tried to master a new discipline. I do seem to be managing to build a depth of skills in that new discipline quite quickly, helped by that breadth of perspective and context. The result is I believe I’m managing to become an N-shaped person, and I think it would be achievable again to become M shaped or more. I think my story can give Test professionals confidence in considering changing roles, challenging our peers, or as we try to talk on different roles in self-organising Agile teams. I also think this idea can help us think of good recruits from outside our discipline, bringing in good perspective and opinions that start from a different perspective.


I hope I’ve provoked some thoughts. Please do challenge me on what I’ve said, add more, or describe your experience. If not on Test Huddle do email me on [email protected]


About The Author

Gordon Baisley pic

Gordon is the Founder and CEO of Quast Ltd. At Quast, the aim is to bring together the best pool of talent in QA and software testing, and make it available to theirclients. Read more at



About the Author


I'm the Founder and CEO of Quast Ltd. At Quast, our aim is to bring together the best pool of talent in QA and software testing, and make it available to our clients.
Find out more about @gordonbaisley

Leave a Reply