Having worked with several high performing software testing professionals, I find that it boils down to two things. A high skill level and a positive attitude.
And both are required. A high expertise but no willingness to apply it in the project would result in meager performance at best. And tons of positive attitude but a low skill level would also not translate to solid work. Having said that, attitude is the more important of the two. Why? Skill level can be increased by putting in time and effort but it is much more difficult to change a poor attitude.
I have found consistent high performers to exhibit the following four characteristics:
1. Demonstrates a higher technical knowledge
This person knows more. And it is evident in a number of ways, the things this person says or does, the questions he asks or the responses he gives.
One day we were having a team meeting. I brought up the topic of pair-wise testing to discuss whether it would be useful in the project. To my pleasant surprise, a high performer of our team already knew about this test design technique. He ably explained this technique to the team and we ended up identifying test items that would benefit from pair-wise testing.
2. Communicates more
High performers communicate more than other team members. You can see them asking more (insightful) questions when new work is being explained. They also keep others abreast of their current status and any current/ foreseen problems.
I fondly recall one high performing team member. Whenever I assigned him some work, I would definitely get a response email. The email would mention any unresolved questions and his schedule for this work. Then the work would be completed per schedule and I would get another email summarizing what had been done, the approach used and next action items.
3. Delivers more or higher quality work
By definition, high performers deliver better performance. You would find them doing one or more below consistently:
a. Finishing tasks ahead of schedule
b. Finishing more tasks than initially planned for them
c. Finishing tasks with quality better than anticipated
4. Loves challenges
All high performers love a challenge. In fact, lack of challenges may be boring or even de-motivating for them. So, it is important to raise the bar for them from time to time.
One new addition to our team faced a series of challenges. The industry domain was totally new to this person. A couple of months later, he was using the same vocabulary as the rest of us. He came from a manual testing background. He had to work on the automated testing project. Again a few weeks later, he was very hands-on with the automation tool, scripting business workflows with ease, correlating automated test scripts and even able to perform a reasonable analysis of the test results. Every time he faced a new challenge, he came on top of it.
Now you know about the characteristics of high performing software test engineers. These qualities are not different from what one may expect from high performers in any other field. Think about each of your team members in light of the above four qualities. You would know who are the high performers are. You can also develop the above qualities to increase your own performance. Good luck.