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It Takes Two

It Takes Two

Combining your quality assurance program with training efforts can give customers the high-quality deliverables they demand Implementing quality assurance (QA) processes in any organisation is difficult. Everybody agrees that, whether a company produces widgets or software, it's the sine qua non of the working world. Trying to find the funding to implement a comprehensive QA program is sometimes even harder than getting the money for that boondoggle conference in Honolulu. Like QA, training is vital to a company's future success. But as soon as the belt tightens, training programs get axed because their impact on the bottom line appears only as a cost. We at DMR Consulting Group have found that combining forces for these two critical functions often provides strength that is otherwise unavailable. It provides measurable results in a reduced number of defects, increased skill levels for new IT positions and knowledge based on practical experience, all of which occur during the delivery of productive work.

The strength of a well-trained team increases because a good training program combined with QA results in multiple people cross-trained in several positions, significantly reducing the impact of a team member leaving. In fact, merging a QA process with a training program can allow an organisation to implement both with minimal investment, resulting in tremendous benefits to the company.

A case in point: DMR's year 2000 services team in its Business Solutions Center in Atlanta is required by the needs of a diverse customer base to solve a wide variety of technical tasks in a dynamic and ever-changing environment. The year 2000 field is evolving rapidly, with the frequent addition of new or enhanced products and tools for analysis, conversion and testing. Customers' needs constantly change, and there are frequent modifications in the ratio of mainframe to client/server code in-house. The technical staff is asked to respond quickly to these requests and to develop a number of skills on the fly.

The work itself is quite exacting, requiring multiple QA checkpoints and diligent, painstaking manual verification of tool-produced output. In addition, the demand for qualified technicians creates a highly competitive job market in which attracting and retaining employees is a key factor in long-term success.

An innovative approach to our QA and training challenges has helped us to address our business needs while providing our employees with career-enhancing training.

Our solution: to combine the QA and cross-training functions, using the same staff members who are performing the Y2K work. We've developed a fluid organisation with a minimum of formal structural hierarchy, loosely grouped by employee skills into core teams of mainframe and client/server specialists. In addition, the team members are further distinguished by a primary expertise in a phase of the Y2K process (inventory, assessment, planning and so on). Every team member is initially trained in the entire Y2K process. The training curriculum covers introductory Y2K concepts; our proprietary Y2K methodology; products and other software tools used in the Y2K factory; and an overview of project phases, with the tasks, sub-tasks and deliverables associated with each. This is followed by specialisation training determined by the employee's skills and experiences, continuing with on-the-job training. In the beginning, each specialist or group of specialists works in their areas of expertise. Each step of the process is verified by another team member who is familiar with the work done but who has not yet participated directly in its completion. In this way, each team member learns every phase and task of the Y2K process in depth.

The QA process was developed by senior staff members (a process manager responsible for process definition and adherence, training and methodology, and a senior team leader with years of QA, programming and management experience).

They refine the process and checklists on an ongoing basis in close interaction with staff members, who are encouraged to recommend process improvements.

Missed items and new ideas are incorporated into the QA process as they're identified. The QA function, with its processes, procedures and checklists, affords an excellent way to provide staff with hands-on experience in a new area without requiring at the outset a deep level of expertise or subjecting a project to undue risk. Using the QA process in this way accomplishes two goals: a high-quality product and a more knowledgeable cross-trained team member.

Many of the team members are intent on acquiring other skills, but most mainframe assignments don't provide much opportunity for staff members to acquire client/server technology skills. The Y2K factory, on the other hand, lets mainframe and client/server specialists work side by side, performing similar or identical functions -- often on the same application.

The proper combination of formal training, computer-based training (CBT) and mentoring will give a mainframe technician sufficient expertise in the C language to be a productive member of a client/server Y2K team. The practical experience begins with a QA role: knowledge gained during the QA process enhances the "book" training and enables the staff member to grow into an analyst position. Due to the nature of Y2K analysis and conversion tasks, this approach provides an excellent training ground for a later production support or full development position on a client/server project. It's a solid career progression.

There are three primary advantages to this approach: - Low cost.

It is possible to implement comprehensive QA and training programs with little or no incremental investment. It may be necessary to acquire some training materials and to allocate staff time, but the incremental costs will prove to be negligible.

- Practicality.

The training employees receive is enormously practical and, unlike many "pure" training programs, it addresses existing needs.

-Win-win.

A synergistic result is produced: The project receives extensive QA, while at the same time the employee enhances his or her career, learning new skills while fulfilling a meaningful role on the job. Of course, this approach can present a management challenge or two. It is no small feat to coordinate such a program, and the larger the group, the more difficult it becomes. The optimal size of an organisation for this approach, to be managed as a single effort, is probably in the 10- to 50-person range. Any larger than that and it would be best to implement the program in a smaller group, extending its scope as the affected staff make the adjustment. The process can be managed in the smaller groups, with a coordination function at the higher level to allow for a bird's-eye view and to allow employees to move from group to group as needed.

In addition, it's important to regulate the movement of employees from one group or technology to another. If it happens too fast or with too many people involved, it will adversely affect the project's goals and outcomes. One solution is to use the program to identify leaders and others who are ready to move on and extend the option to them as an incentive in recognition of superior performance.

While this application focuses on a Y2K factory operation, the approach is valid and workable for all software development. The key to success is the identification of opportunities to address employee training needs (as well as the staff's personal career goals) by making QA an integral part of the training process. By combining the path to both delivery and employee career growth, and making QA an undisputed and indispensable step on that path, QA and training will rightfully be recognised as providing significant cost savings.

The major cost savings accrue because the team members are productive while they are being trained and the product delivered to the client is of high quality. Combined correctly, QA and training can go a long way toward ensuring long-term profits and success.

Jack Bucsko is director of Year 2000 Services at DMR Consulting Group and Pat Delohery is principal director of DMR's QA and Testing Competency Center, both in Atlanta. They can be reached at jack_bucsko@dmr.ca and pat_delohery@dmr.ca

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