Looking back, Looking forward

Reminiscing about days past and experiences of those “Yippee” moments of achievement & personal glory fills me with a sense of nostalgia, pride and happiness. Sometimes delving into the past is particularly invigorating especially in  torrid times like these… Looking back from from time to time makes looking ahead an event filled with purpose and positivity. I seek wisdom from my experiences and draw from it because it has worked for me in the past. It further reinforces my value system ingrained within me by my parents and few seniors who mattered & made a difference. The fire to march on also gets stoked in the process & burns brighter…

So what have been the spots of glory in my life across the assignments I handled in my working life (otherwise relatively workmanlike & routinesque, full of struggle)… Read on – I have listed the assignments in chronological order & provided the context for ease of assimilation with the intrinsic glorious moments. Every assignment had its moments of glory and I may have missed many due to ravages of time.

<<1987-88>> I was made the man in charge of computer operations & it felt good. The company I worked with generously paid for the the training I underwent to learn computers & programming. Being a very young, shy & reticent accountant with modest means and even more modest dreams, the sponsorship meant a lot to me & a harbinger of hope & a turn for the better – computers then being so mysterious an object. Both learning how-to program with Basic, DbaseIII+, later C/C++ and managing the Accounting application was an experience which gave me the first whiff of how-those-damn-things-work. Programming was fun and I thought I was up to it right from the word go.. I remember standing first in my class for Dbase & the project presentation done with a make-believe story (about a dull chief accountant & his sexy secretary-accomplice) kept everyone amused & engrossed. The computer operations exposed me to niceties(besides those related to UI which always matters a lot to me) of how best to work with a program/application, developer coordination aspects, issue resolution & so on… If I look beyond the mundane and sheer slogging put in the learning was deep and steadily sucked in – the value of which I sub-consciously utilised whenever I tested an application. It was a slog since I used to travel a distance every month to do data-entry in a closed room for 8 solid hours for a complete week with no disturbances. During those 8 hours spread across many months, I learnt the value of minimising the user pain by ensuring correct form design, smooth keyboard functioning, screen design, informative error messages & so on…  I worked in our factory premises & worker folks were simply not supposed to enter the room “lest they know about the financial transactions etc.”. The world was different then… but I exchanged pleasantries & learnt the value of humility while dealing with the worker classes when I bumped into them here & there.

<<1992-93>> Using a macro created in Quattro Pro (which was a decent spreadsheet package then along with Lotus 1-2-3 before the advent of MS-Office) improved my Sales processing task time by a day (from 1.5 days to 3 hours). It was a macro which automatically generated various email templates comprising accounting data… The thrill it gave me in reducing the mundane into a quick affair was something to cherish for days thereafter. So much for an accountant getting a whiff of what technology can do for you.. Nothing makes my day when productivity climbs a notch or two.

<<1995-96>> As a Systems Interface who oversaw the successful setup of Financial Accounting Systems with interfaces to Sales Invoicing & Payroll Systems was another moment which pleased me like punch. The experience of providing requirements with screen drawings at times, understanding the system via testing, training, conducting parallel runs, coordinating with the development teams for defects, queries, & so on set a foundation for what was to follow and from which I borrow quite a lot. Even today when I recall the successful migration I heralded in the finance department from a legacy Fincon system on its knees (green screens, cluttered UI et al) on a Prime hardware which crashed ever so frequently (making rework a routine rather than an exception. Groan!!) to a client-server system with a slick UI and sleeker reports (80 col laser printed as against 132 col line printed) we could easily carry and display with pride gives me a high even now after so many years…

How I like the gift of development which reduces hardship, looks good and squeaky clean and heralds a better tomorrow whether it is an online railway system, a simple excel tool, a revamped Software Change Form system or a pavement with shiny new tiles.

<<1998-2003>> There were many moments of glory as I journeyed on across different frontiers…
An enriching experience and my first in the software world after the one filled with debits & credits was the chance to manage a support desk of bright upstarts to ensure quick turnarounds of software problems reported by users of our Company’s flagship product from across 35 locations around the world. It was new, overwhelming & tough-going for me and more so since I was also driven very hard by the Group Head into ensuring timeliness in responding and ensuring minimal escalations. My first lessons of leadership & customer relationship management were learnt in this assignment and I relied then a lot on numbers based analysis – turnaround times/meeting SLAs, who closes how many problems, aging & so on… Excel skills came in handy but I needed to delve much much deeper with a team in tow. The support I received from a few peers & colleagues was also outstanding teaching me to help those who need it being a good trait of a professional.

The QA experience thereafter was where I think I came into my own. As a QA, I tried to be pro-active and participative as much as possible. While I had to ensure compliance across projects (plenty of them in a dynamic group of 100+) I did audits (never used the word much though) on the go and I got several opportunities to note the shortcomings & get the process on track in time whether the non-compliances/observations were noted in a review meeting, team meeting, discussions with affected stakeholder, scheduled audits, analysis based on data & so on.. With fantastic support from the Group Head who hammered the value of best practices at every occasion, my education & job carry-out became easier though it never was a cake-walk. The P-word was hated by many even in those days with the team culture as prevalent in a CMM level 5 company and it needed persuasion, logic talks laden with common sense to drive the point home. Above all I learnt to remain apolitical, sincere & straight when dealing with people from Project Managers to Developers to tell them about the shortcomings and the value of processes. The Tools used (for problem and change management) and its in-depth understanding helped matters say when talking about poor turnaround times & so on… The data summarised via pivots substantiated my claims and the argument subsided before gathering much heat substantiating the value of being prepared. QA role (in those halcyon days) also meant testing before the releases were sent to the customers. And testing was both fun and a teeth-gritting affair (desperation for a worthwhile defect does that!). The installables, the documentation and the application working sometimes flunked and required last minutes fixes… I was exposed to the mentality of development team tired and worn and wanting to just kick the animal out. I understood, appreciated & empathised but never gave in without justification! Getting into the user psyche while I tested ensured that I did justice as much as possible by even going through the dev team’s test results, asking questions and validating at random before I nodded my head & consented to “go, ship it”.

The Tools in Excel created for estimation, causal analysis, metrics consolidation & analysis enhanced my Excel knowledge taking it close to expertise (always aware about the presence of folks like Aaron Blood, Jon Walkenbach. Miles to go, son!). The Causal Analysis Tool with its auto-updates and pretty graphs and the shout of appreciation from my Boss’s Boss still rings happily in my ear. The Metrics Consolidation Report with macros & auto-summaries (using dynamic range names within intricate formulaes) improved turnaround time from 5 days to 4 hours – 10 times faster – Yipee. The Estimation Tool (using Function points or Program Complexity Method) was another tool (after the CA tool) which became a standard throughout the company with planned version roll-outs and support managed by myself. Oh the memory of those heady days….

My involvement with Process Tools was one where development and marketing gave me many moments of satisfaction and excitement. The experience of developing a version control tool with a single programmer and then marketing it for use across the organisation took me into the realm of dealing with customers (internal this time but deserving to be taken as seriously) and their queries and expectations. Quick responsiveness and issue resolution was key to spreading its reach more because of the cost reduction that it brought about by not having to buy the more expensive commercial tools for source control. Building the features for branching preceded by lot of study across other tools was interesting. Keeping the UI simple was inherent to its success and I was mindful of it throughout the development of this tool I fathered. Another tool I got involved with around the same time was a Defect Management Tool (again used across the organisation) and I collaborated as a functional expert and even testing the tool from time to time. I eventually managed to takeover the tool under my wings and enhanced it giving much needed flexibility by offloading the admin functions to the user group. Both these tools were in the realm of SCM which is a critical cornerstone of software development & not many realise this – often tripping over it with disastrous consequences.

<2004-present> I moved on to Testing and I moved in as a part of team to resurrect a beaten banking product full of quality woes and it was one which had been not only poorly architected but was expectantly full of bugs. The task before us was to test from scratch and bring as many bugs to the fore as possible to improve the product reliability, stability and predictability in terms of expected functional behaviour (too much expected but it was a charter from the very top). We had a large room to ourselves and the developers & testers numbered 40+. My other task was to ensure build reliability and managing the version control tool myself was best to ensure this. We also decided to induct the developers into the project via testing to inculcate at a impressionable age the methodology & value of testing. An experiment that seemed noble & logical in thought but what came of it remained to be seen. We tested & brought about a semblance of predictability to it and not much could be done due to the convoluted architecture resembling a mish-mash of technologies and sub-products that co-existed in disharmony at most times. 6 months into this and the project was called off….

I moved to manage testing for other banking products before joining a group working with a prestigious UK client around a very complex cash management solution. The project was interesting & more so due to the rigourous process-orientedness of the customer. I enjoyed the stint and conferencing with the customer, creating standards for test reporting and for the defect management tool, reporting, tracking, doing bug triages and managing the testing where we traced every line of functional spec to the test case (numbering 18000+). We completed the testing in time despite key personnel (Lead & senior most) quitting on day 1 & 2 of System Testing phase and long leave by another due to a family issue. Understandably I needed to be transparent, motivate the team constantly, set goals and pepped up key remaining personnel to take up responsibilities of leading the team and becoming module leads. Though the schedule shrunk we overcame it by keeping a track of who’s where on a daily basis, met regularly but kept it short. The targets were very stiff  but sometimes challenges make the tardiest perk up if you take them into confidence and set deadlines by letting them know what is on line and the sheer dependency on them.

My next stop was in a new company with a mix of 45 odd testers where the task was to create an independent test unit. Great Job but plenty to do as I soon found out. The many scattered fragments had to be gathered and pieced together and the team existence needed a charter which was missing. Junk was discarded along the way. The team needed leadership and not just at the top. So I setup a structure, a framework and piece by piece we built the pool and their way of functioning was hammered initially but became a way of life eventually… Attention was paid to smallest aspect from how we interview, how we induct, how we build capability & so on…. With a capable bunch of people the test team began asserting themselves both in terms of what they could do & what they could not within the available time. For example I refused to give a quality certificate when demanded by Sr. Management since our context was but testing and we instead provided information about product stability based on tests carried out and our thoughts on what worked within it & what did not, supported by evidence as available! The team steadily built capabilities not only with manual testing through process diligence, common sense & domain focus but also with Automation and other non-functional testing types like performance testing, Accessibility testing, Cross-browser testing and multi-lingual testing. Designating Product Champs for different areas was effective since it gave the young turks a milestone in the horizon to run towards becoming both a challenge and a driving force. Having them share this across the team from time to time created a unseen bond within the team and the message was clear – learn & grow or be doomed! The stint here was a life-changer for me since my leadership skills matured with each passing day and the team down to the least experienced test analyst gave me lots of fodder to think, improve and move ahead with confidence.   Keeping the door open, listening, giving time and making everyone feel special were some simple things I tried.  And I think it was a happy cohesive bunch out there. Leaving this behind and abruptly at that was not easy & a heartbreaking moment for myself but it had to be done for reasons of personal pride and integrity. Good things sometimes die prematurely and a story which could have an epic was restrained to a short story.

Maybe destiny has other things in store and the world today is small anyway!!

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One response to “Looking back, Looking forward

  1. Pingback: My love affair with Excel…. « Spilling blood for Quality

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