Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quality...the early years

The term quality itself has certainly gone through some changes within my professional lifetime. 

 If you’d asked me 6 months ago, I might have told you that I understood what it meant.  And experientially I probably wouldn’t have been particularly wrong but what I’ve learned in the past few months is that while I understood quality on a number of intellectual levels, I had never really tied them together in a sort of lattice work of interconnected ideas.   In essence I’d never really grokked it.

This all began to change about 3 months ago.   But before we get there, maybe we’ll add in a bit of professional history so we can see my evolution.   15 years ago, in 1997 I was working as a supervisor in Operations at BC Rail, a Class 1 railroad spanning the province of BC.  I had left university a year and a half before and had taken this ops job back to pay back some of my school debt.  My unfinished Materials and Metallurgical engineering degree wasn’t getting my anything, nor was the philosophy degree I moved into from there.   But playing with trains was a very interesting job mentally and it made each day a new and challenging hurdle.  I didn’t mind so much that it was hyper stressful either.   Having trains heading at your terminal from 3 different directions at the same time and a local yard crew to factor into the mix just made things that much more interesting.   What I didn’t like as much was living in small town northern BC (in spite of the fact that I grew up in such towns) and working with so many guys that were determined to do as little work as possible and whine, wheedle or negotiate their way out of even a 6 hour day (paid for 8) let alone those striving for a 4 hour quit.

I decided at the end of 1997 to head for Vancouver, look at going back to school and just be out of small towns.   Somehow between leaving the north and arriving in Vancouver I ended up with two new jobs at BC Rail down here.  One was quite similar to what I did up north and the other was in special projects.  In special projects I did a number of things.  I took on owning the business requirements for a rail car usage metric system, I became a trainer in the field of the same system and travelled around BC teaching all the yard people how to use our systems.  I also became a user tester for BC Rail IS department for the same project.  After a few months of that, the IS dept, so amazed by the difference that someone who was analytical, could repeat their steps and could understand the software could make in tracking down your issues decided to take me on.  
Taking a bit of a pay cut i was hired from operations into IS.  Actually hired into the computer operations department because they were happy to maybe have someone that knew the outside operations but i never actually worked for them.  I was their headcount but i instead started up BC Rails first QA dept.  
I learned on the job, set up some documentation and test standards, made testing much more rigourous and made people get it.   Over time I became the test lead but wasn't reduced to just that.  after a few years the dept did some salary and skills reviews and my title was changed to Systems Analyst.  This was because i was spending about 40% of my time doing QA lead, 40% BA work because i understood rail operations and how to talk to railroaders and could translate back to geekese and 20% 2nd tier support.  I could figure out where problems were coming from to target the best dev support resource faster than most. 

During my time at BC Rail i started to get some pretty strong ideas about quality.  I knew bugs sucked, i could find them like i could find a mosquito on my nose but that wasn't enough.  Figuring out ways to let fewer bugs through to me became important to me.  Getting the guys to write code to stop having so many bugs was a giant hurdle that i never really accomplished.  Still haven't really accomplished.  But it didn't stop me from pursuing theories about mocking developers heavily enough to make them really take stock of their work before they pushed it out the gate.  Early nibbles at controlling quality through process.  i knew that i was the final gate before we could ship something without quality.  It was met with limited success. 

That wasn't the only start i had though...i also got my first real taste of the power of process. We had a great PM come in and run a project for us.  She taught us what a trained and useful PM could really accomplish.  What true cross team standardization of process and documentation could be used for.  That started me down the path of becoming a bit of a process junkie.  More on that later. 

it was pretty sweet but by the time CN took over and closed down BC Rail i was ready to move on. 
next time we'll talk about the summer of no pants and my foray into the world of licensed music distribution. 

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