Always Advocate for the Customer

The role of a software quality assurance professional is kind of an interesting thing. It is hard for a lot of people, even those we work with, to really understand the position. It can even be hard for us. I often used to find myself defining the job by saying what we aren’t.

We aren’t usually software engineers, but most of us can (and should) do some basic programming and understand simple algorithms.

We aren’t on the business side of things, even though our role very much affects the bottom line, both in terms of cost and revenue generation.

We aren’t the product owner or primary stakeholder, but our decisions affect the direction our products take.

Sometimes it seems from the outside that we don’t really do anything, but we are responsible for everything.

Before I go any further I want to give you a couple of definitions so my point doesn’t get lost in semantics (as so often happens on the internet). You don’t have to agree with these definition, but it will hopefully give you some context for where I am coming from:

An advocate is one who supports or promotes the interest of a cause or group.

A customer, as I am going to define it for the purposes of these articles, is someone who gets value from the products we design and build.

Everyone in the company/organization should have a focus. The focus for the business side of the company is usually to generate ideas which bring in value and revenue for the company. The software development side is focused on turning those ideas into a “product”. An app, an api, a service, whatever. The quality team’s focus should always be on the value this product brings to the customer’s life.

We get pressure from the business to roll out this new feature in order to meet a deadline, the devs are anxious for their code to be in production, sales really wants to sell it. In a fast-paced agile environment it’s really easy to fall into the routine of just being “AC-Checkbot”. Verifying the acceptance criteria is absolutely an important function of the job, but it should really just be the starting point. Hopefully your devs made sure that the ACs were met, at least in their own local environment. Proper QA is expensive, both in terms of time and resources and your organization might not always willing to fully invest in it unless you prove the value of being a customer advocate.

“I’m sold!” you might be saying now. “How do I become that advocate?” Well, read on and I will give you a few things you can start on right away.

First up, get involved as early as possible in the process. QA typically comes near the end of the SDLC. Ask to be invited to some of the earlier meetings. If you can get in before development has even begun that is the best time to start asking questions on behalf of the customer. While the devs/architect will be asking the how questions on the implementation of it, you should consider asking some of the why questions. Understanding these will really help when it comes to the actual testing. “Why are we changing this?” “Will it save time?” “Will it save money?” “Does this actually help the customer or is it just something we are doing because company X is doing it?” Some of these questions from the customer’s POV might be uncomfortable to ask, but you need to do it anyway. You can’t advocate by being silent. This doesn’t mean you should be rude – remember that literally everyone at the company is ultimately YOUR customer.

Next up, I’d recommend coming up with customer personas if your company doesn’t use them. If they do, then always strive to keep them in mind when doing your testing. There are some great resources out there on creating the persona, and I would recommend you do some research. To get you started if you have never seen these, I would recommend the following as a bare minimum.

They should have a name. It can be helpful if you think about. There should be an idea of how often they use your product. You should have an idea of their level of technical expertise. You should know what their desire in using your product is. It shouldn’t take too long to create this basic skeleton. I’ll drop a couple of hypothetical examples for a customer for a blog creator and if there is interest I can go more into this in a future article.

Customer persona: Jo is a twenty-four year old college dropout who wants to start blogging. She’s used computers her whole life but isn’t a programmer nor does she want to. She wants to make money selling her cat hat crochet.

Customer persona: DeShawn has been a php developer for the last three years. He wants to build up an online community of competitive dart players.

Understanding these basic customers you can identify what is important to them from the app. When you are in those early product meetings and there is talk about maybe rolling out a new shopping cart option you can start thinking about what would be important to Jo and ask questions on her behalf. “How many steps is it going to take to set up the cart?” “How are we going to make sure the payments are secure?” “Are we going to collect shipping information?” “Why are we changing this?”

All businesses exist to provide value the the customer. Often product implementation decisions are made solely for ease of development, and not for the customer. You need to stand up for the customer in these cases. Sometimes the value of dev ease will be take priority and know when to acquiesce, but do so knowing that at least the question was asked and a decision was made. So many times things happen because of inertia more than intention.

I’ve gone on longer than I expected to for this article but I really think this is the most important part of the job. As software quality professionals we need to think of ourselves as a customer first and the first customer.

Next up I will be writing about the importance of being organized (which is something I have been terrible about personally).

(all images in this article are free use from clipartmax.com)

Qualities of Quality (Intro)

I’ve had a few conversations recently both online and face to face about the role of Quality Assurance and what I think are some of the traits that will help you learn if this is a field for you, or if you are already in the field how to really get more out of it for yourself and your organization.

I had originally thought I would just send these out in a couple of short tweets but the more I worked on them, the more I realized I had more to say, so here we are in a short series of posts. I have been trying to come up with some clever and click-baity title like The “Five Essential Traits of Quality”, “The Qualities of Quality”, or the “ABCs of Decent Experience”, but haven’t decided on anything. If you have anything better, please let me know.

Also, just one other quick shout out here at the beginning – I recently read the book Show Your Work! (link to book on Goodreads) by Austin Kleon (follow him on Twitter) and that really inspired me to try and work through my perfectionism (especially when it comes to writing) and just start getting stuff out there. So if you love seeing the sausage being made, all credit goes to him, and if you hate it, lump it on me. The five qualities that I’ll be going into detail on over the next couple of weeks are: advocate for the customer, be organized, be curious, delight in what you do, and be egoless.

I hope you are as excited to see me fall on my face as I am!

Intentions Not Resolutions

Happy new year everyone! I know a lot of us are definitely ready to put that year in the can and move on. You can read lots of other retrospectives on the year, so I am not going to focus a whole lot on it but I am going to add just a few things that stand out about the year to me, and how it affected me. It makes sense to move from the past to the future in that way. Also, this post will be much longer than most, so sorry about that and good luck making it through.

I am going to start off with the most impactful, at least for me. My mom died at the end of 2019, which made it feel a bit like I had a few extra months of 2020, if I’m honest. She didn’t die of COVID-19, but it was just as unexpected. She went into the hospital for a fairly minor back surgery that was really only supposed to be an overnight stay. One complication after another saw her spend the last two months of her life in the hospital and in a great deal of pain.

I still struggle a bit with guilt – I wish I could have spent more time there. There are all the questions that one asks. If I had been there longer could I have advocated more for her? Would my presence earlier on have aided in her recovery? These things still bother me fairly regularly.

Even amongst the tragedy there are a few things I am very grateful for. We got to visit with her before she went in for the surgery and take her to visit my aunt (her sister) in Ruidoso, which is a very pretty town in southern New Mexico. My kids got to spend some time with her and it was a very happy time.

Shortly after we returned to California I threw my back out. The pain was terrible – I very nearly unable to move for close to a week and the actual recovery was closer to three. At the beginning it took me over an hour to crawl to the bathroom a mere 15 feet away from my bed.

This injury happened shortly after my mom went in for surgery. Since I was just laying there, I ended up calling her and speaking with her much more frequently than normal. The pain I felt in my back helped to give me a greater level of empathy and understanding than I might otherwise have had with her. As crazy as it sounds, I am so grateful for that injury. It sucked, but I was able to connect with her much more than I might otherwise have.

After my back healed up a bit to where I could get around some I returned to work at Ticketmaster. A short while later my mom’s condition really turned bad and she was admitted to the ICU. With both the summer vacation and extended back injury, I was pretty low on paid leave, but my supervisor and the company didn’t hesitate to tell me to go. I offered to work remote, but my boss Jon said not to even worry about it. Another thing I’m grateful and indebted for.

I headed out and spent the nights at my sister’s place, and the days at the hospital (remember, this was just pre-COVID). When I arrived they had just taken her of the ventilator and it was unknown if she would even wake up. She did. She was even a coherent and we all thought that she was maybe on the mend but then things went bad and her body just started shutting down.

I miss her all the time.

This is one of my favorite pictures of her and me.

Anyway, that set the stage for 2020 for me, and I had a renewed vigor to spend more time with friends and family. Then COVID happened. Fifteen days to flatten the curve turned into nine months, and is still going on. There were ebbs and flows throughout the year where I was able to see friends, albeit often in a completely different way (wearing masks at a park six feet away). It definitely took more effort but it helped a bit to really focus on the relationships I was able to.

The kids learning at home was challenging, but their teachers have all been amazing. We were pretty impressed with them before, but seeing the amount of time and effort they have been putting toward keeping things in some semblance of “normal” while also teaching them has been remarkable. I know that not everyone has had this experience with their educators, but ours have been phenomenal.

This extra time with the kids at home was awesome though. Just spending time, watching them learn and work has been an amazing experience. Being able to sit down and eat lunch with them and just eavesdropping on their classes and hangout times was (and continues to be) great. Also have been able to take more walks with them and even focus some more individual time on each kid rather than lumping that quality time with them together.

Speaking of walks, it was pretty clear early on that COVID-19 was especially deadly for those with certain conditions – extra weight and low Vitamin D being a couple of of the big ones that affected me. Working as a writer and a software quality engineer it is easy to just hole up like some kind of hermit in a cave. Seeing the emotional effect that losing my mom had on me, I was very motivated to try my best to stick around for a while. My friend Ryan has been a multiyear success story in weight loss and an inspiration to me – you’ll hear more about him in the future.

I swallowed my pride and started asking him how he did it. He helped guide me, giving me support and tips, but not pushing me too much (which he knows I would just resist because that is my nature). As a result of his guidance, I lost close to fifty pounds over the course of 2020 (and over fifty down from my heaviest).

The first picture I could find of myself of the year (Girl Scouts Daddy Daughter Dance), and the last picture of myself for the year. I haven’t really looked at them side by side before.

Ryan is also my main gaming nemesis for both Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40,000 also called Warhammer 40k or simply 40k. These tabletop miniature games that have been a hobby of mine for years. In fact, when I first moved to LA way back in 2002, Ryan and I met via a 40k Yahoo Group (remember those things?). We became fast friends and he remains one of my best friends in the world. As we have both matured in our careers and families our gaming and hobby time has scaled back quite a bit, but we make the effort to get in a game a month along with regular weekly zoom paint nights. I am grateful to have him in my life, he has been a friend, a confidante, and a mentor.

As I was working on my physical fitness I decided to work in a more focused way on my mental health as well. There was a lot of stressful stuff going on and so I decided to start trying to meditate. I have ADHD so the idea of sitting perfectly still and not thinking was laughable. Despite that, I spent some time looking around for different very short meditations and found a few that I liked. I started out at two minutes a couple of times a week but that practice has grown to become a regular and valuable part of my day.

In addition to meditation, or perhaps because of it, I also turned more to my faith. It has been easier to spend time in prayer and I have had more of an interest in learning more about some of the saints and deciding to go deeper into it. It has also been a source of strength and comfort.

As the year passed, it became more and more obvious that the live entertainment industry was in serious trouble. Ticketmaster, and its parent company, Live Nation has had it rough. I give credit to the management for trying their best to do right by all the employees. The president, Michael Rapino, decided early on to forego his salary and many of the other executives took reduced salaries in hopes that the virus would pass quickly and things would be back to normal by the end of the year. Obviously that didn’t happen. There were several rounds of furloughs and layoffs and my number eventually came up and I found myself on furlough. For those that don’t know, basically that means that the benefits stay in effect, but the pay goes down to zero. I wasn’t (and am not) bitter toward the company. They have always been a very good place to work, and their support during my mom’s final weeks will never be forgotten. I was very grateful that over the last couple of years my wife and I had taken a much more serious view on our finances, which enabled us to get through a few months without really changing too much. Family has also been very supportive during this time.

As I started reflecting on the year I realized that despite common wisdom that 2020 was a dumpster fire, my own life was marked with blessings and gratitude. Yeah, losing my job sucked, but the closeness with my wife and kids is an an all time high. I am getting to watch them grow much closer. I have grown in my faith. My mental and physical health are better than they have been in years. I am happier. Yes, I know it has been a rough year for many people, but there have been so many blessings too. I have always felt that we see what we look for, and this year has really reinforced that belief. Finding the good doesn’t discount the bad. Okay that is my reflection on 2020. Now on to 2021. I promise it won’t be as long.

I have spent the last few weeks thinking about my life and what I want out of the new year. I decided not to do a resolution. To me, resolutions are hard but brittle. In the past I have found that once the resolution has been broken, I tend to just shrug and move on. “At least I tried”. Bringing in what I learned last year, I have decided to live more intentionally. So rather than resolutions, I am going to list my intentions for the new year. You might call it semantics, but as someone who works with words, I know that they have meaning. Also, beyond just the intentions, I also am working on being more intentional with time, the currency of life. It is so easy in this world of distraction to squander it.

I sat down and wrote all of the things I wanted to focus on this year and tried to schedule a sample day. Turned out I needed about 56 hours a day (64 if I wanted to sleep). I’ll write more about this process and the original things in the future, but for the time being, here is a picture of the first pages.

I love my Bullet Journal. Life changing for me. Also, page 1 of 6 of “great” ideas and ways to spend my time in the new year.

I really like all those things and want to devote all of my time to them and more. As a side note here, there is a moment to reclassify ADHD from Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder to ARD for Attention Regulation Disorder. We aren’t always distracted. Sometimes we hyperfocus on a thing. I think the combination of medication and meditation have really helped me to get a better ability to regulate my own focus.

Looking at the various things I was able to kind of narrow it down into some broad categories. Those categories will be what I focus my blogging on. My goal, as mentioned in a previous post, is to do one post from each category every week. The following paragraphs will break them down just a little bit more. Since 2021 is starting on a Friday, the new schedule will go into effect next week. I am still trying to decide the exact day for each category, but want to make it consistent so people interested in gaming can only check it one day a week, those interested in writing a different, etc. Also the list is just in alphabetical order below, not necessarily the order I am thinking for publication.

Hobby. This is where I will put all of my miniature gaming stuff. My painting guides and updates, whatever battle reports from games I play, as well as any narrative fiction that I write up in order to go along with it. I have posted some of those things in a different blog in the past, and given the current COVID situation, I will likely repost them here with some additional comments or pictures.

Pre-COVID I would never have even considered a game at the park.

Personal. This is where I am going to write about the things I am doing to improve myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, I will also write about my experiences with ADHD and the challenges and benefits it brings. This is also the likely category where I will talk a bit about my family, but I am ferociously protective of them, so they won’t pop up too much.

Professional. I will be writing here about my professional life. From software quality and product integrity, to thoughts on writing, as well as things like time management and even professional development like programming and other learning will be in this category. Also, art will either be here or in personal. I am still deciding.

Spiritually. While I considered adding this to the Personal category, I decided it was deserving of its own. I am catholic, and many of my friends only really know catholicism from movies and tv. I will be posting my own personal reflections here as well as some common prayers that we say and what they mean to me as well as exploring misconceptions that people have about us. Also, if anyone has any questions, I will do my best to research and answer. I am obviously not a priest, nor a theologian, but simply a practicing lay catholic, but I will do my best.

St. Finbar’s Parish in Burbank has truly become a spiritual home for me.

Thanks for making it to the end of the colossal post. In the future, they won’t be as long, but probably some will because I like the sound of my own typing.

I hope your 2021 is blessed and happy, and I look forward to sharing it with you all.

-Patrick