Gonzo QA III: Fear and loathing after dark

Dateline: London, June 2007

During the day stuff happens and I deal with it, but when the sun goes down and the shadows lengthen, doubt sets in. Andy Grove said only the paranoid survive. What did he mean by that? Should I read his book? What if I don’t?(1) Certainly it always worries me to have nothing to worry about. What have I overlooked? What disaster should I be preparing for rather than complacently sitting here watching a Norwegian ski down the up escalators at Angel on YouTube(2)? Getting fired, obviously. As Head of QA, it isn’t enough for my group to be more or less fully utilised testing stuff for the next quarter. I must plan for what needs to happen next! I need to lead from the front and do some real work! I need to check it’s all happening according to plan and take corrective action accordingly! I got that from Deming and he got it from Shewhart and they both seemed to know what they were talking about, so it’s good enough for me(3).

The economist in my head tells me that I’ll get fired and my department will close for ever if I over-price my services (i.e. don’t add enough value to justify the cost) or sell services that nobody wants to buy at any price. One defence against the dark might be to develop an extended marketing mix for quality assurance, so with props to Philip Kotler et al, let’s have a go at that(4).

Product. Mine is a service department offering pre-sales input into new business pitches, post-sales pre-production services such as testing CD-ROMs before duplication and post-sales post-production services such as monthly web site audits. When MRM was very young, the specification of these services used to fluctuate wildly as we fought to define and agree what we did. Things have calmed down in the past few years, thanks to the continued existence of a company engagement methodology and our gradual take up of external best practice such as PRINCE2, the W3C web accessibility initiative, ISEB software testing certification and various ISO, IEEE and BS standards in what can best be described as a great big MRM mashup. The QA Department at MRM is pragmatic and not only includes quality assurance and testing services but content management system training and bulk-email systems management too. I guess you have to be there.

Price. The price of QA services is basically the number of hours I quote in the project scope multiplied by the charge-out rate. Since the charge-out rate is fixed on an annual basis at the company level, I can vary the price only by varying the hours. I have learned that if I under-estimate in the paid-for, pre-production development and testing phases, we end up incurring a whole lot of unpaid-for costs in the post-production support phase, fixing issues I really should have found and had fixed earlier; total cost of ownership works both ways, you know. The price of my services to MRM is my salary multiplied by a constant which varies little from year to year. It is therefore quite easy to work out whether or not MRM is making any money on me and my staff (and it had better be); agency life is transparent that way. The value of what I offer is not easy to quantify. However, I have not met a member of staff who does not want to deliver quality, nor a client who does not want to receive it (who is still a client) and my group has an excellent reputation for finding defects. There is no future in not doing it properly as long as we can agree on what properly is, how long it takes and how much it costs.

Place. Although MRM QA staff are available for face-to-face consultation in the office or at the client site, most work takes the form of written deliverables such as test plans or defect reports. This tends to push QA services into the shadows, so to remain in the light, constant promotion is a necessity.

Promotion. I constantly work to inform my colleagues what my group does both face-to-face, for example during new hire inductions, and via company-wide email announcements. I then need to persuade them to use the services on offer, usually via informal case studies with a strong bottom line, i.e. what *we* can do for *you*. Front-line staff enjoy having a group behind them making sure that what they have to deliver is up to the mark. I sustain interest via company-wide email updates. To maintain visibility, I also take an active interest in wider issues not necessarily related to quality assurance per se, e.g. intellectual property ownership and international data protection law. Although clients like the reassurance of an MRM QA facility, it does not win pitches. Promotion to clients is therefore achieved indirectly via our front-line staff. I could do more of this. I have discovered that I can promote what I like, e.g. automatic regression testing and accessible Flash sites, but my customers continue to demand more mundane things like Flash banners that click-through to the right target page and bulk-email sends that go to the right distribution list. I think I need to continue to offer both.

People. MRM is a service-organisation and what is a service organisation without people? Just a few desks, computers and discarded Yo! To Go sushi boxes(5). MRM QA staff and documents come into contact with customers from time to time. This touch point is tangible. Company deliverables that have been subject to QA processes come into contact with customers every day. This touch point is intangible only until something goes wrong and someone asks ‘hasn’t this been QA’d?’

Process. Ah yes, my favourite. In my ideal world, my group is responsible only for verifying that everyone-else in the production cycle has defined their processes and is following them. Thus all groups successfully test their own deliverables and my group simply verify that it is so before retiring gracefully to the pub for the rest of the afternoon, or perhaps tending our allotments, or share portfolios, it doesn’t matter which. I have some way to go in this area.

Physical evidence. The Wikipedia says this so well there is nothing I can add: ‘Unlike a product, a service cannot be experienced before it is delivered, which makes it intangible. This, therefore, means that potential customers could perceive greater risk when deciding whether or not to use a service. To reduce the feeling of risk, thus improving the chance for success, it is vital to offer potential customers the chance to see what a service would be like. This is done by providing physical evidence, such as case studies, or testimonials.’(6) I have some way to go in this area.

It always worries me to have nothing to worry about. Looks like I have plenty to keep me up at night. I’ll just watch a few minutes of cheese on Cheddarvision(7) and then it’s time for bed.

References

  1. http://www.intel.com/pressroom/kits/bios/grove/paranoid.htm
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFqQOlYE4EE
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shewhart_cycle
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marketing_mix
  5. http://yosushi.ordertalk.net/
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marketing#Seven_Ps
  7. http://www.cheddarvision.tv/

First posted in: The Tester, June 2007, page 17.

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