Just What Is A Quality Engineer? Part 2

Picture of `Batman`_

The last time I wrote about Quality Engineering, I mentioned that some of the reasons why people are not familiar with this term are, in no particular order:

  • 'Quality' is usually something that is added as an after thought and doesn't really come into the picture, if ever, until the very end of the release process
  • Nobody outside of a QA team really knows what they do. It has something to do with testing...
  • Engineering is usually identified with skills related to writing code and designing algorithms, usually by a developer and not by QA

A quick search on Google shows the following results:

  • 104,000,000 hits for "Software Engineer"
  • 86,900,000 hits for “Quality Control”
  • 83,100,000 hits for “Quality Assurance”
  • 5,390,000 hits for “Quality Engineer”

As you can see, it is no wonder that whenever I say 'quality engineer' people always think that what I really meant to say was 'quality assurance' or 'quality control'. The term is just not that well-known! So in order to clarify what the difference is between these professions, today I'd like to talk a little bit about quality assurance and what I usually think whenever someone tells me that they either work in QA or have a 'QA team'.

Wikipedia tells us that the terms 'quality assurance' (QA) and 'quality control' (QC) are often used interchangeably to refer to ways of ensuring the quality of a service or product.

Furthermore,

"Quality assurance comprises administrative and procedural activities implemented in a quality system so that requirements and goals for a product, service or activity will be fulfilled. It is the systematic measurement, comparison with a standard, monitoring of processes and an associated feedback loop that confers error prevention." -- Wikipedia

That is quite a mouth full (the emphasized words are mine), but I feel that it does a good job at stating the following ideas:

  • Quality Assurance and/or Quality Control is used to assure the quality of a product, but there is no clear distinction as to when in the release process it should be used. In my experience, it usually happens when the product is close to being shipped!
  • Used to make sure that requirements (the what) are fulfilled (the how)
  • Used to measure, monitor and compare results against a standard
  • Used for error preventions (which to me denotes a reactive mode compared to a proactive mode)

In other words, those who do quality assurance for a living are involved in verifying that the final version of the product being tested delivers exactly what was designed with the expected behavior and outcome. It requires that the QA person fully understand what is being added to or changed in the product and, most importantly, what the end result should be. Testing is definitely a big part of the 'day to day' activities for someone in QA, which does provide useful information to create a positive feedback loop and hopefully increase error prevention.

Here's what I don't like about this whole business though:

Quality is something that must be part of all phases of a product and not at the very end of the process. A good QA person is usually so familiar with the product being tested that one could say that QA is the first customer a company has! If you have someone in your team who can fully understand how your product works, where the pain points are, knows at a glance if a new feature or a fix does not follow the existing standards, and has the ability to tell you if something doesn't feel right, would you want to hear this type of feedback at the very end? By then, can you really afford to put things on hold and re-design your product??? In my experience, the answer to this question has 99.99% of the time been 'No'.

Quality is the responsibility of everyone involved with a product and not only of those in QA! Everyone, document writers, translators, user experience (UX) experts, product managers, you name it, everyone should be in the business of delivering and assuring the quality of the product! If you bought something, would you be OK with accepting mediocre user experience, documentation, features and translations? I doubt it.

Monitoring and measuring how a product compares against some set of standardized benchmarks is definitely important but as customers request more and more new features and the product's complexity increases, are your benchmarks also keeping up with all these changes? More importantly, since you are the one using the product day and night, do you have any input into updating the benchmarks? I certainly hope so.

Lastly, if your job is to make sure that no product 'goes out the door' without a thorough validation, that it works as expected and that all known issues have been fixed, aren't you forgetting something? What about the issues that are not known yet? You may be thinking that I'm joking, but seriously. If all you do is prevent errors from being shipped to your customers, how about detecting them as early as possible to give all major stake-holders enough time to make a decision as to what should be done with them? Again, if you're catching them at the end of the release cycle, it could be too late.

If your company has a QA team, then you're already ahead of the game, since it is only when customer dissatisfaction is very high and the final numbers for the quarter start to look gloomy that people start paying attention to delivering quality. But it is not enough if you're only kicking the can down the road only to find yourself facing the same scenario later on! Quality, good quality, is what everyone in your team should be striving for... not some times, but all the time!

If you are in a QA team, do you ever feel like you're ahead of the game or feel like you're constantly playing catch up? Do you wish you could have a chance to catch issues as early as possible? Wouldn't you want to stop racing against the clock to get issues verified and have a shot at doing more exploratory testing and identify problems early on? Would you say 'no' to an opportunity to provide some insight into how the product could be improved and perhaps how some work-flows could be simplified to increase the usability?

It should be clear by now that quality is something that should be something systemic for any project or company who takes their customer satisfaction as their top priority! Sure you can test the product as much as you (or your QA team) can handle, but you'd be only treating the symptoms. Maintaining a 'quality first' mentality and improving existing processes to make sure that quality is an integral part of everyone's day to day activities is primordial if you really want to make a bigger impact!

This is when a Quality Engineer comes in! A Quality Engineer is someone who can actively and continuously keep driving improvements to the release cycle process and are in the unique position to help the entire team adopt these improvements so that everyone is using the same methodologies.

Next time I will then talk about quality engineering (QE), what it is, what it isn't, and how you should be either hiring more QE or, if you're in QA, how you should be working to become a QE!

As always, please let me know what your thoughts are on this topic as I'd live to get some constructive feedback!

Disclaimer: The opinions contained within this article are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of any entity whatsoever with which I have been, am now or will be affiliated.
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Just What Is A Quality Engineer? Part 1

Picture of `Batman`_

Whenever I meet someone for the first time, after we get past the initial niceties typically involved when you meet someone for the first time, eventually the conversation shifts to work and what one does for a living. Inevitably I'm faced with what, at a first glance, may sound like a simple question and the conversation goes like this:

  • New acquaintance: "What do you do at Red Hat?"
  • Me: "I manage a team of quality engineers for a couple of different products."
  • New acquaintance: "Oh, you mean quality assurance, right? QA?"
  • Me: "No, quality engineers. QE."

What usually followed then was a lengthy monologue whereby I spent usually around ten to fifteen minutes explaining what the difference between QA and QE is and what, in my opinion, sets these two professions apart. Now, before I get too deep into this topic, I have to add a disclaimer here so not to give folks the impression that what I'm talking about is backed by any official definition or some type of professional trade organization! The following are my own definitions and conclusions, none of which were pulled out of thin air, but backed by (so far) 10 years of experience working on the field of delivering quality products. If there are formal definitions out there, and they match with my own, it is by pure coincidence.

Why the term 'Quality Engineer' is not well known I'm not sure, but I have a hunch that it may be related to something I noticed throughout the 10 years that I have spent on this field. In my personal experience, 'quality' is something that is not always considered as part of the creation of a new company, product or project. Furthermore, the term 'quality' is also not well defined or understood by those involved in actually attempting to 'get more' of it.

In my experience, folks usually forget about the word 'quality', whatever that may be, happily start planning and developing their new ideas/products and eventually ship it to their customers. If the customer complains that something is not working or performing as advertised or it doesn't meet their expectations, no problem. Someone will convey the feedback back to the developers, a fix will eventually be provided and off it goes to the customer. Have you ever seen this before? I have!

Eventually, assuming that the business is doing well and is attracting more paying customers, it is highly likely that support requests or requests for new features will increase. After all, who wants to pay for something that doesn't work as expected? Also, who doesn't want a new feature of their own either? Depending on the size of the company and the number of new requests going into their backlog, I'd expect that either one of the following events would then take place:

  • More tasks from the backlog would be added to individual's 'plates', or
  • New associates would be hired to handle the volume of tasks

I guess one could also stop accepting new requests for support or new features, but that would not make your customers happy, would it?

Regardless of the outcome, the influx of new tasks is dealt with and if things get out of control again, one could always try to get an intern or distribute tasks more evenly. Now, notice how the word 'quality' has not been mentioned yet? It is no accident that to solve an increase of more work, most often than not the number one solution used is to throw more resources at it. There's even a name for this type of 'solution': The Mythical Man-Month.

You see, sadly, 'quality' is something that usually only becomes important as an afterthought. It is the last piece added to the puzzle that comprises the machinery of delivering something to an end user. It is only when enough angry and unsatisfied paying customers make enough noise about the unreliability or usability of the product that folks start asking: "Was this even tested before being put on the market?"

If the pain being inflicted by customer feedback is sharp enough, a Quality Assurance (QA) team is hastily put together. Most of the time in my experience, this is a Team of One usually made up of one of the developers who after being dragged kicking and screaming from his cubicle, eventually is beat into accepting his new role as a button pusher, text field filler, testing guy. Issues are then assigned to him and a general sense of relief is experienced by all. Have you also seen this before? I have! I'm 2 for 2 so far!

The idea is that by creating a team of one to sit in the receiving end of the product release cycle, nothing would get shipped until some level of 'quality' is achieved. The fallacy with this statement, however, is that no matter how agile your team may be, the assurance of the quality for a product somehow is still part of a waterfall model. Wouldn't it be better if problems were caught as early as possible in the process instead of waiting until the very end? To me that is a no brainer but somehow the process of testing a product is still relegated to the very end, usually when the date for the release is just around the corner.

Why is the term Quality Engineer not well known then? I feel that the answer is comprised of several parts:

  • 'Quality' doesn't come into the picture, if ever, until the very end of the game;
  • If there is a QA team, nobody outside of that team really knows what they do. It has something to do with testing...
  • Engineering is usually identified with skills related to writing code and designing algorithms, usually by a developer and not by QA;

No surprise that quality engineering is something foreign to most!

OK, so what is a Quality Engineer then? Glad you asked! The answer to that I shall provide in a subsequent post, as I still need to cover some more ground and talk about what 'quality' is, what someone in QA does and finally what is a QE!

My next article will continue this journey through the land of Quality and Engineering, and in the meantime, please let me know what you think about this subject.

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On Reading and writing

Picture of 'On Writing'

This week I started reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, a book that has been mentioned a few times by people I usually interview for my weekly podcast as something that is both inspiring and has had a major impact on their lives and careers. After the third or forth time someone mentioned I finally broke down and got myself a copy at the local bookstore.

I have to say that, so far, I am completely blown away by this book! I can totally see why everyone else recommended it as something that people should add to their BTR (Books To Read) list! First of all, the first section of the book, which Stephen King calls his 'C.V.' (and not his memories or auto biography), covers his early life as a child, his experiences and struggles (there are quite a few passages that will most likely get you to laugh out loud) growing up with his mom and older brother, Dan. This section, roughly speaking around 100 pages or so, are so easy to relate to that you can probably be done with them in about 2 hours no matter what your reading pace is. I am always captivated to learn how someone 'came to be', the real 'behind the scenes' if you will, of how someone started out their lives and the paths they took to get to where they are now.

The next sections talk about what any aspiring writer should add to their 'toolbox' and it covers many interesting topics and suggestions which, if you really think about it, makes a ton of sense. This is where I am in the book right now, and though it isn't as captivating as the first section, it should still appeal to anyone looking for solid advice on how to become a better writer in my humble opinion.

Though I one day do aspire to become a published writer (fiction most likely), and I am enjoying this book that I'm having a real hard time putting it down, the reason why I chose to write about it is related to a piece of advice that Stephen King shares with the reader about the habit of reading.

Stephen King claims that, to become a better writer one must at least obey the following rules:

  • Read every day!
  • Write every day!

It is by reading a lot (something that should come naturally to anyone who reads every day) that one learns new vocabulary words, different styles of prose, how to structure ideas into paragraphs and rhythm. He says that it doesn't matter if you read in 'tiny sips' or in huge 'swallows', but as long as you continue to read every day, you'll develop a great and, in his opinion, required habit for becoming a better writer. Obviously, based on his two rules you'd need to write every day too, and if you're one of us who is toying with the idea of becoming a writer one day (or want to become a better writer), I too highly recommend that you give this book a shot! I know, I know, I have not finished it yet but still... I highly recommend it!

Back to the habit of reading and the purpose of this post, I remember back in 2008 my own 'struggle' to 'find the time' to read non technical books. You know, reading for fun? Back then I was doing a lot of reading, but mostly it consisted of blog posts and articles recommended by my RSS feeds, and since I was very much involved with a lot of different open source projects, I mostly read about GNOME, KDE, Ubuntu and Python. Just the thought of reading a book that did not cover any of these topics gave me a feeling of uneasiness and I couldn't picture myself dedicating time, precious time, to reading 'for fun.' But eventually I realized that I needed to add a bit more variety to my reading experience and that sitting in front of my computer during my lunch break would not help me with this at all. There were too many distractions to lure me away from any book I may be trying to read.

I started out by picking up a book that everyone around me had mentioned many times as being 'wicked cool' and 'couldn't put it down' kind of book. Back then I worked at a startup and most of the engineers around me were much younger than me and at one point or another most of them were into 'the new Harry Potter' book. I confess that I felt judgmental and couldn't fathom the idea of reading a 'kid book' but since I was trying to create a new habit and since my previous attempts had failed miserably, I figured that something drastic was just what the doctor would have recommended. One day after work, before driving back home, I stopped by the public library and picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Next day at work when I took my lunch break, I locked my laptop and went downstairs to a quiet corner of the building's lobby. I picked a nice, comfortable seat with a lot of natural sun light and view of the main entrance and started reading... or at least I thought I did. Whenever I started to read a paragraph, someone would open the door at the main entrance to the building either on their way in or out, and with them went my focus and my mind would start wandering. Eventually I'd catch myself and back to the book my eyes went, only to be disrupted by the next person opening the door. Needless to say, experiment 'Get More Reading Done' was an utter failure!

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Podcasts I've Been Listening To Lately

Podcasts

For someone who has run his own podcast for several years (albeit not generating a lot of content lately), it took me quite some time to actually start listening to podcasts myself. Ironic, I know, but I guess the main reason behind this was because I was always reading code at work and eventually, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't pay attention to what was being said! No matter how interesting the topic being discussed was or how engaging the hosts (or hosts) were, my brain would be so focused on reading code that everything else just turned into white noise.

Well, fast forward a couple of years and I still am reading code (though not as much as I used to due to a new role), and I still have a hard time listening to podcast while at work... so I decided to only listen to them when I was not working. Simple, right? But it took me a while to change that for some reason.

Anyhow, I now listen to podcasts while driving (which I don't really do a lot of since I work from home 99.99% of the time) or when I go for walks, and after a while I have started following a handful of them which are now part of my weekly routine:

  • All The Books which provide me with an up to date list of suggestions for what books to read next. They're pretty regular with their episodes, so I can always count on listening about new books pretty much every week.
  • Book Riot for another dose of more news about books!
  • Hack the Entrepreneur to keep up with people who are making something about what they are passionate about.
  • Wonderland Podcast which I only started listening to a few weeks back but it has turned into one of my favorite.
  • Science Vs another new addition to my list, with entertaining takes at interesting topics such as 'the G-spot', 'Fracking', 'Gun Control' and 'Organic Food'.

Today I was introduced to Invisibilia and though I only listened to the first 10 minutes (I was giving the link during working hours, so no go for me), I'm already very interested and will follow it.

I do have other podcasts that I am still subscribed to, but these listed here are the ones that I am still following every episode. Maybe if I had to drive to work every day or went for walks more often, maybe then I would listen to more podcasts? Trust me though, I rather continue listening to only a small set of them than drive to work every day. Don't get me wrong, I love going to work, but that's 2 hours/day of my life that I rather spend at home :)

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End of Year - 2015

Review of 2015

Another year has gone by and I guess it is time to review the things I set out to do and grade myself on how well (or poorly) I fared. Here are some of my goals for 2015:

Read 70 Books

Grade: PASS

Even though I had a very, very busy year at work, with many releases of Red Hat Satellite 5 and Red Hat Satellite 6 shipped to our customers, I managed to surpass my goal of reading 70 books, finishing the year with a whopping 79 books read! You can see the books I read here: Year in Books

This year I also spent a good chunk of my time looking at old, used books, and my personal book collection increased considerably. At one point I had so many piles of books lying around the house that I had to buy 4 new book cases to store them. At first I wanted to have them custom made, but the estimates I got from 3-4 different people were way out of my budget. In the end I went with 4 Billy Bookcases from Ikea, which cost me about 10 times less!

If you want to see what I'm reading or want to recommend a book which you think I might enjoy reading, please feel free to add me on GoodReads.

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Books - August 2015

Books - August 2015

This August 2015 I took a break from work and spent about 6 days enjoying some R&R down the North Carolina shore with my family. I managed to get through some of the books that were waiting for a long time for me to get to them, as well as try some new authors.

Read

  • The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke

    I forgot where I read about how the short story "The Sentinel" was the inspiration for "2001: A Space Odyssey", but being that I have always considered the latter a great book and movie, I managed to grab a copy of the anthology "The Sentinel" just so that I could read the short story by the same name and see what else Arthur C. Clarke "had to offer." Interestingly enough (to me), most if not all the other short stories included in this collection could easily be published today and still feel just as futuristic as they probably were back when they were first published! This was yet another one of the books that I read by the beach this Summer and though it didn't blow me away, it was still a very relaxing read.

  • A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

    This last June I got from my family for my birthday "John Carter of Mars" containing the complete series and I was just itching for a good opportunity to start reading it. That chance came up this week as I started reading some of Melville's short stories and found that I needed a bit of a "break". First off, I have never read Edgar Rice Burroughs before but I do have a copy of "Tarzan of the Apes" also awaiting for a chance, so I had an idea about what to expect from his style. Sure enough, reading "A Princess of Mars" felt like a taking a trip down memory's lane, back when it was easy to tell who the good and the bad guys were, and there was always a damsel in distress somewhere waiting to be rescued. I have to confess that it took me a few chapters to get re-acclimated with this style, but once I got into it, it was easy reading, which is exactly what I was looking for any how.

    John Carter, the main character, shows all the expected, cliché virtues one would expect from a "hero" but one thing that bothered me a bit was the language he used to describe those who were different from him (which was mostly everyone in the story, since they were all Martians) and the way he treated them. It felt a bit abusive and even a but racist? I don't know if someone could get away with writing in the same style today, but then again I remembered that back then people were not as politically correct as we are today... or maybe I was reading too much into it? Anyhow, it was a fun read and I think I will try to add the next 4 books of the series in the coming months so that I can hopefully get a better opinion formed about the author.

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Books - July 2015

Books - July 2015

This July 2015 I travelled to the Red Hat office in Brno, Czech Republic to spend some time with my teammates there, and I managed to get a lot of reading done between long plane rides and being jet lagged for many nights :) So I finally managed to finish up some of the books that had been lingering on my ToDo list and even managed to finally read a few of the books that together make up the Chronicles of Narnia, since I had never read them as a kid.

Read

Out of all the books I read this month, I feel that All Quiet on the Western Front and The October Country were the ones I enjoyed reading the most, closely followed by Cryptonomicon, which took me a while to get through. The other books, with the exception of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, helped me pass the time when I only wanted to be entertained.

All Quiet on the Western Front takes the prize for being one of the best books I have ever read! I felt that the way WWI was presented through the eyes of the main character was a great way to represent all the pain, angst and suffering that all sides of conflict went through, without catering for any particular side or having an agenda. Erich Maria Remarque's style had me some times breathless, some times with a knot on the pit of my stomach I as 'endured' the many life changing events that took place in the book. Is this an action-packed book about WWI? Will it read like a thriller? In my opinion, even though there are many chapters with gory details about killings and battles, the answer is a very bland 'maybe'. I think that the real 'star' of this book is its philosophical view of the war and how the main characters, all around 19-20 years of age, learn to deal with its life lasting effects.

Now, I have been a huge fan of Ray Bradbury for a while now, and when I got The October Country for my birthday last month, I just knew that it would be time well spent reading it. For those of you who are more acquainted his science fiction works, this book will surprise you as it shows you a bit of his 'darker' side. All of the short stories included in this collection deal with death, mysterious apparitions, inexplicable endings and are sure to spook you a little bit.

Cryptonomicon was at times slow, some other times funny and, especially toward the end, a very entertaining book. Weighing in at a hefty 1000 pages (depending on the edition you have, plus/minus 50 odd pages), this book covers two different periods in the lives of a number of different characters, past (around WWII) and present, all different threads eventually leading to a great finale. Alternating between past and present, the story takes us to the early days of how cryptology was 'officially invented' and used during the war, and how many of the events that took place back then were affecting the lives of some of the direct descendants of the main characters in our present day. As you go through the back and forth you start to gather bits and pieces of information that eventually connects all the dots of an interesting puzzle. It definitely requires a long term commitment to go though it, but it was enjoyable and, as I mention before, it made me laugh at many places.

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Books - June 2015

Books - June 2015

Those of you who know me know that I am a huge book reader and spend most of my free time reading several books at the same time. One could say that reading is one of my passions, and having wasted so many years after high school completely ignoring this passion (in exchange for spending most of my time trying to learn about Linux, get an education, a job and, let's be frank, chasing after girls), I decided that something had to be done about it, and starting around 2008 I 'forced' myself to dedicate at least one solid hour of reading for fun every day.

I find it funny to say that I had to force myself, but this statement is very much true. Being so used to spending all of my time sitting in front of a computer and getting flooded with information every single minute of the day (IRC, Twitter, Facebook, commit emails, RSS feeds, etc), I found it difficult to 'unplug' and spend time doing nothing but focusing on only one thing. I was so used to multitasking and being constantly bombarded with lots of information that sitting quietly and reading didn't feel very productive to me... sad but true.

Anyhow, after several 'agonizing' months of getting up from my desk and making a point of turning off my cel phone and finding a quiet place somewhere in the building (or at home during the weekends), I finally got into the habit of reading for pleasure. I actually looked forward to these reading periods (imagine that, huh?) and eventually I realized that if I skipped this 'ritual' even one day, my days felt like they got longer and I felt stressed out and irritable for the remaining of the day. Reading became not only a good habit but my mechanism for relaxing and recharging my energies during the day!

Well, this passion and appetite for reading has only gotten bigger, and with time I have to say that it has become a pretty big part of who I am today! In a way I am happy that it took me this long to get back into the habit of reading... I mean, I feel that getting older was an important part of preparing myself so that I could really appreciate John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury and the likes of them! Would I have truly appreciated The Grapes of Wrath when I was younger? Perhaps... but it took me around 40 years to get to it and I'm happy that when it did I was able to appreciate this amazing piece of art!

These last few months I decided that I wanted to start tracking all the books that I read, buy or receive as a gift every month (see my reading progress on GoodReads and add me as a friend), and jot down some of my impressions and motives for reading or buying them. Those familiar with Nick Hornby will probably associate this post (and hopefully others that will surely come) with the work he has done writing for the Believer Magazine ... and this would be correct. My intention is not to copy his style or anything like that, but I thought that the format he chose to report on his own reading 'adventures' would fit in quite nicely with what I wanted to get across to my readers... and I'm sticking with the format as long as it works for me :)

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2014 in Book Covers

For my last post of 2014 I wanted to show, with pictures, the books I read and spent so much time with this year.

Back in January of 2014 I set out to read 30 books as part of my Reading Challenge. I wanted to focus on reading Brazilian authors early on as I felt that I really needed to learn more about Brazilian literature and this time, read books for fun and not because I was told to back when I was much younger.

books 1
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