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InfoQ Homepage Articles Great Managers Are Like Great Teachers: Q&A with Jessica Ingrassellino

Great Managers Are Like Great Teachers: Q&A with Jessica Ingrassellino

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Key Takeaways

  • Management is challenging because everybody has different strengths and weaknesses
  • Differentiated instruction strategies help managers lead teams by focusing on strengths as a means to address growth areas
  • Ask yourself, "What information, resources, or accomodations can I give each team member to help them succeed?"
  • Ask yourself, "Are there processes that I can change or improve to help every member of my team, especially members who might be struggling? How can I involve them in the process?"
  • Ask yourself, "What does success look like for each member of my team?" Recognize that it will be different, and work together with each team member to help them find their success

Differentiated instruction strategies have helped Jessica Ingrassellino to find ways for each of her team members to best grow and flourish with the opportunities available. She applies this by adjusting content, process, and outcome, approaching each individual as an individual with respect for their needs.

Jessica Ingrassellino, director of quality assurance at Salesforce.org, will give a presentation about How Great Managers are Like Great Teachers at the European Testing Conference 2019. This conference will be held February 14-15 in Valencia, Spain:

This conference is about getting experts and practitioners together to talk, learn and practice the art of testing. We’re looking into advanced new methods into making our testing more effective, as well as enrich our understanding of fundamental methods to grow a stronger community.

InfoQ will be covering this conference with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Ingrassellino about the challenges she faced when she became a manager, how she applies differentiated instruction in managing and leading her team, dealing with company policies, rules, or cultural things that apply to everyone, the benefits she has seen from the way she leads her team, and how to evaluate employees continuously.

InfoQ: What challenges did you have when you became a manager?

Jessica Ingrassellino: As a manager, I found that I was very concerned with the wellbeing of my team. At first, I felt really challenged because I worried that I didn't know how to best help my team help themselves. With each challenge, I realized I was able to look into my previous experience as a teacher, and that I was actually equipped to help/mentor/manage in a better way.

For example, when I was teaching high school music, I had a class of students of mixed ages and abilities. There were about 45 students in this particular class, so quite a large group. I had one student who had just moved from outside of the United States with her family, and did not speak any English at all. If I had continued to only teach her using materials written for a high school English speaker, she would have done poorly in my class, because she would not have had the chance to display her understanding of the material. I adjusted the inputs so that the student was able to use video demonstrations and audio recordings to learn how to play the piano. She learned to read sheet music very quickly, and actually excelled at playing the piano and displaying understanding of musical notation. My concern for the student and her wellbeing, and my decision to adjust my approach and strategy meant that my student was able to succeed in the class, learn music, and display her understanding in a way that was appropriate for her skills and abilities. Practically, this meant that she would be one step closer to meeting her arts requirement and graduating in the American educational system.

InfoQ: What is differentiated instruction?

Ingrassellino: Differentiated instruction is an educational strategy where the teacher plans instruction in ways that meet the different needs of the students in their classrooms. For example, some students are excellent readers and prefer to work alone, while other students enjoy social learning and group work. Teachers can adjust the content of their lessons, their teaching processes, or the products that the students create.  For example, when I taught students about music history, I had to adjust for the reading differences in my 40 - 50 students. Many were at or below a 12-year-old reading level, despite being 14 - 18 years in age. So, when I planned my lessons, I found easy, medium, and difficult levels of reading in each topic. Students were encouraged to select the reading that worked best for them, and the information that the students needed to learn was available in each of the readings. The only difference was the nuance and level of detail in the readings.

InfoQ: How do you apply differentiated instruction in managing and leading your team?

Ingrassellino: Differentiated instruction strategies have helped me to work with each of my team members to find ways that they can best grow and flourish with the opportunities available.  For example, I have noticed that many enterprise quality engineering organizations structure their quality teams using the exact same practices across the board, for every member of the team. I apply a differentiated approach by spending time getting to know my team members, especially their strengths, areas for improvement, and professional goals.  

For example, some members of my team are really happy working as individual contributors, and they want help in goal-setting and priorities. The meetings that I have with those individual contributors are focused on goal-setting strategies, team communication strategies, with an emphasis on how that tester will make specific improvements. In those meetings, I am like the teacher who adjusts the content/input to be focused on goal setting, and the outcome to be reaching specific goals.

For other team members, growth and leadership skills are very important. Those team members need me to adjust the input to have more strategic, open-ended discussions. The meetings are focused on idea sharing and high-level strategy, and the outcome is fuzzier, requires ongoing work, and is less deterministic than a goal-setting outcome. In fact, this outcome may even be failure, and reflecting on failure as a learning goal. It is quite different than other methods of articulating success.

In both of these examples, I adjust content (what is discussed), process (what strategy I use to work with the team member to achieve their goals), and outcome (what constitutes success?).

InfoQ: I'm assuming that there will be things that will apply to every team members, company policies, rules, or cultural things. How do you deal with that?

Ingrassellino: Again, it's important to understand that every person is different. Each team member may have different reactions to the same company policies, and it's important to listen to their concerns and enable them to be change agents. Let's take two team members for an example. Carla, for example, may have challenges because a "no remote work" policy is conflicting with caring for a family member, or with a personal illness. I would encourage Carla to learn about the company, investigate the reasons behind this policy, and see if there is any room to change the company policy. I would work with Carla to learn how she could suggest change and give her information about how these kinds of changes happen. In this way, even if Carla does not see the situation end the way she wants, she can grow and become a strong part of the company culture, and have a greater understanding. She can also make an informed decision about her next steps (Does she want to stay? Does she prefer to leave?).

There are times when a team member will bring up an important issue with overall company culture. For example, let's say Jon is an individual with a disability requiring a wheelchair, and he feels concerned and uncomfortable about the workspace.  In this instance, it is important to recognize Jon's experience by discussing specific current policy (content) with him, helping him to create a plan to move forward using structures within the company, and allowing the employee to investigate and participate in leading company change (strategy). When an employee sees that the outcome (better working environment) has happened and they have been a part of the change, then a culture where employees are listened to and respected is reinforced.

The key to both of these situations is, again, adjusting response with differentiation. What I would discuss with Carla who has an individual concern is different than what I would discuss with Jon, who has a more global concern. The differences in discussion (content) are subtle, the actions (strategies) are similar, and the outcomes for both might look different (work from home; have best accessible workspace), but approaching each individual as an individual with respect for their needs is critical for this to work.

InfoQ: What benefits have you seen?

Ingrassellino: Perhaps the greatest benefit I have seen from this style of leadership is trust. I feel that professionally, and to a good extent personally, I know my team members. I have come to a better understanding of where they find challenges and joys. Because of this, I am able to present them with challenges and growth opportunities that are realistic stretches suited to their direct capabilities.

I feel that my team members trust me to help them move forward. I know that they have not always been happy to receive critical feedback, as it can be incredibly difficult. However, they have remained open to giving and receiving the feedback. So they trust that I can hear something I may not want to hear, and they trust that I have their professional interests in mind when I provide feedback and discuss how to move forward.

InfoQ: How can we evaluate employees continuously?

Ingrassellino: In education terms, this is called formative assessment. Formative assessment happens all the time, even when we don't attend to the practice. For example, using quite a poorly-made piece of software causes a user to become frustrated because things keep going wrong. They know the software is "bad", even if they cannot say why right away. In schools, kids base their opinions about how they are doing on their grades, and also on the way their teachers act and react to their work. In management, people generally have a sense for how they are doing, and so do their managers.  For my team members, and many software testers in general, it is so easy to get bogged down by the day-to-day that sharing feedback about great work, or feedback about areas of concern, can be easily forgotten.

Unlike summative assessments (which are the tests and yearly review types of things), formative assessment, with fast feedback cycles, provides the most value to learning because team members can improve as soon as the feedback is given, rather than only have the chance to improve once a year. However, to be a formative assessment, the feedback needs to be intentional and frequent. Managers need to provide tangible feedback. If the feedback is positive, the manager can provide more value by pointing out the actions that were positive. If the feedback is constructive, then it needs to have an actionable component so that the employee knows how to improve their performance. It is best if this is discussed with the employee so that they can become change agents.

Giving formative feedback is easier when it is done regularly. Regular feedback gives every team member the opportunity to reflect on their performance and make improvements so that they meet their goals when their yearly reviews occur.

InfoQ: If people want to learn more about differentiated instruction, where can they go?

Ingrassellino: A search of "differentiated instruction" in google will yield thousands of results, and can be narrowed based on what someone wants to know. I would recommend Carol Ann Tomlinson's How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms as a primer. One can abstract the basic principles into a management context from the classroom context.

Also, here is a paper on the application of differentiated strategies in teaching programming, which people may find interesting: Student Usage Patterns and Perceptions for Differentiated Lab Exercises in an Undergraduate Programming Course.

As for a book that talks about these principles in software engineering? Maybe I need to write it!

About the Interviewee

Dr. Jess Ingrassellino is the director of quality engineering at Salesforce.org. She is active in the education community as a member of the Industry Advisory Board for CUNY TechWorks, teaching Python and software testing at Queensborough Community College.  Ingrassellino shares her love of learning and testing with the world, speaking nationally and internationally about her experiences as a tester, teacher, and musician.

 

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