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What makes a good QA process manager?

The job title “quality assurance manager”—in short “QA manager”—may suggest that the job is boring, ambiguous and uncreative. One particular species of QA manager, however, deserves particular attention: the “process quality manager”.

Ever since the Japanese auto industry nearly annihilated their once proud US American counterparts, quality management has become a driven force to reckon with. Total Quality Management, popularized during the 80’s of the past century, has become a much-hyped term. Interestingly, while the term quality management has been popular for many years, the job title quality assurance manager has not been defined clearly. The reason for it may lay in the term “quality”, which can be roughly broken down into two distinctions:

  • product quality manager, and
  • process quality manager.

Product quality manager focuses on ensuring that related products adhere to their specification. In that regard, the test manager may be viewed as an equivalent job description.

Process quality manager, on the other hand, is not so easily defined and thus particularly interesting. Adhering to standard processes would imply that processes are standardized and that the relevant “best practices” are well-defined and their adherence is easy to verify.  That’s where theory and reality often clash. In my favorite industry, the automotive business, process quality is emphasized by the requirement to follow the Automotive SPICE standard on system and software development. The complexity of this standard poses a challenge, to say the least. But what does it take to be a QA process manager? This is an important question since I saw QA process managers come and go at a high pace, and I was often stunned by the hiring process. Drawing on my own experience as well the experience of automotive projects I was involved in, I would like to share some advice on how to survive and thrive as a QA process manager (I like using “QAM” for short).

A) Experience

The most important thing is experience, experience, experience. Did I already mention experience? And not just any experience: you need to have been actively involved in software and system projects for many years. I recommend asking for different assignments and accepting even tough projects in order to learn as much as you can. Remember that you can learn the most from failed projects. Experience needs time to mature. If you have served as a software developer for three years, project manager for one year, test engineer or test manager for three years, configuration manager for two years, lead engineer for three years and requirements manager for two years, you are perfectly prepared to be a QAM.

B) Educational background

The kind of formal education is important. A degree in computer science, in particular software engineering, is paramount to understand all aspects of a system developing organization. Electrical engineering is also very closely related, especially in the automotive sector. Mechanical engineering is a very different animal, however, and professions like economics or sociology will not help much.

C) Memorize the relevant standards

If you have the aforementioned mix of project history, formal training is mostly waste of time. The truth is that most consultants don’t have the practical experience needed to help trainees translate information into practical knowledge. Practical project experience is the key to understanding complex standards like Automotive SPICE. One or two books on your standard will give you all training you need.

D) Respect your engineers

The so-called soft skills are even more important than hard skills such as knowledge, formal education or the IQ. If you don’t genuinely love engineers, you will not have the patience and the persistence required for the job of a QAM. Mutual respect is the only way to do this business since, after all, the short-term requirement by the management is to deliver on-time, while quality seems to be automatically implied. This is a common mistake that often leads to irritations. As a QAM, you are often put between the rock and the hard place – succumb to the deadline or uphold the process definition. There is no standard solution to this dilemma: you need to train yourself in rhetorical skills (see next point). As a QAM, you need to understand the essence of the engineers’ motivation. Think about it: 99% of all engineers have not paid tens of thousands of dollars in tuition feels and suffered years of hard work to become rich. What makes an engineer tick? What is the source of their passion? It is worthwhile to contemplate this. Once you understand this point, you will be able to align your job as QAM with the management needs.

E) Know your authority and independence

Independence of the QAM is a crucial aspect of quality assurance. In a project organization, the QAM must not report to the project manager, otherwise the objectivity of the process quality will be compromised. That poses some social challenges since you are formally part of the project organization but are, in a way, excluded from the team dynamics in several ways. Loving your engineers has its limits, obviously, when the project organization is under critical pressure and is expected to deliver important milestones. The tension that stems from such situations are a natural consequence of an independent QAM. You will have to develop thick skin since quality goes first for you (and not the deadline).

In a way, functional safety responsibility (safety management) is exposed to similar challenges, and it would be natural for a QAM and a safety manager to be the same person responsible for a project.

F) Develop some serious negotiation skills

Communication is a crucial skill of a QAM. In addition to the tension between the management and the engineers, multiple stakeholders are involved, some of them critical, such as the customer and the external assessors/auditors. Often—if not in the most cases—the customer—typically the customer’s project manager—has different goals than the customer’s process quality manager. There are multiple aspects to the automotive business, including development costs, revenue per unit sold, standard quality requirements (e.g. Automotive SPICE on level 3 in HIS scope), etc. This is nothing for faint hearts.

G) Learn to listen

This is another soft skill that often gets forgotten but is crucial. True, a QAM must constantly ask questions and thus is often an active discussion participant. But if you constantly talk, you will miss a lot of verbal and non-verbal information. By just listing and actively encouraging your engineers to talk, you will learn everything about what is going on in any given project. Often, all the root causes are openly expressed during audits. Whenever possible, depending on the QA checklist, use open questions technique and keep your ears open.

H) Trust

You will learn a lot by listening to your team, but you must never abuse this information. Anonymize essential findings before discussing it with the management. If you cannot anonymize, discuss the next step with your engineers first before, then discuss it with management. Maintaining mutual respect, integrity and confidentiality is paramount to the job of the QAM. If the team thinks you are a spy of the management, your job will be ineffective, frustrating and tiresome.

I) Unmask manipulative behavior

For some people it could be said that there’s a way you can tell if they’re manipulating people: if his lips are moving. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you think about it. In a way, without manipulating others, nothing gets ever done; even a military order is just followed because of a complex set of implicit or even explicit threats and incentives. A good QAM, however, will instantly understand undesired influence factors. External factors may, for example, be a current management or methodology fad such as “V-model” or “agile development”. This is beside the point. The truth is that nothing is ever new, really; project management has been the same since the construction of Egyptian pyramids. You need to understand the common-sense aspects of everything, especially project management and development process management. The same goes for other aspects, mostly involving dialectical tricks. If you notice that you or anyone in your organization is a victim of manipulating behavior, the quickest remedy is to identify the behavior and openly verbalize it in a calm and educated way.

J) Learn continuously

I already mentioned books, but I would like to double-down on this. It sounds like an otter truism, and it may sound somewhat awkward, but from my experience, a good book is the ultimate accelerator of your career as QAM. There is no substitute for a good book on management and engineering, and no excuse to ignore them. Audiobooks will help when you commute and travel a lot. If you don’t feel stimulated by a good technical read, then maybe you should look for a more suitable profession.

As already mentioned, I believe that the name quality manager prompts somewhat misleading associations. An effective QA process manager is a complex and difficult profession. It requires a broad knowledge and a challenging set of soft and mental skills. Do names matter? I firmly believe they do. In fact, I’m going to explore alternative QAM role names in a subsequent article.

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About the Author

Roman MildnerRoman Mildner, Certified Project Manager (PMP) and member of the United Mentors Network (UMN), has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and an independent consultant and project manager since 1998. His professional offering includes IT strategy consulting, project management and process improvement. For more details, please visit his UMN page.

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