Not everybody is going to like you but that is ok.
If you don’t have a diverse team, you are going to struggle.
The investment of quality over speed is essential. You will sleep better and you will inevitably reduce a lot of waste.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacy Kirk.
For over 20 years Stacy Kirk has advocated for and facilitated quality and process innovation in software development as a tech entrepreneur. She is currently conducting the QualityWorks’ Agile Testing Bootcamp with the goal of providing job opportunities to Americans who exist within marginalized communities, particularly African-Americans, by training and placing talented resources in companies looking for software testers; helping close the gaps of disparity and increase representation and diversity in the technology industry.
In addition to holding a degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, Stacy is able to recognize opportunities, and boldly shoulder the inherent risks associated with capitalizing on them with keen insight and daring excellence.
In 2010, Stacy founded QualityWorks Consulting Group, a global leader in software quality innovation and delivery, based in Los Angeles, California. In 2015, she expanded offices to Kingston, Jamaica to service clients in the United States, the UK, and the Caribbean.
Fueled by the discrimination she experienced as a Black woman in tech, she leads a 45+ and growing team of brilliant technologists and innovators, including over 46% women of color.
Her company does more than just write and test code. They offer solutions that have saved their clients thousands of dollars and decreased their time to market. Their latest product, Posture, helps enterprises drive compliance regardless of their level of in-house knowledge. An AI-powered platform simplifies the process of gaining and maintaining cybersecurity compliance. This solution provides integration, automation, and the visibility to ignite a culture of accountability across the enterprise while cost-effectively removing roadblocks.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was fortunate enough to be offered a few internships in college. One in particular was going to offer me what I thought was the most money I could ever imagine for myself: $15 per hour. It was doing something called software testing. At the time, I was striving for a path in development, so this opportunity wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do but I didn’t care what I was doing as long as I could make that much money.
The first week of the internship I was given a massive binder of over 500 pages of test cases to run through. I was thrilled to have the chance to show how quick and efficient I was, determined to get through that entire binder in less than a week. I was so excited to tell my boss I was done and ready for a new task. I’ll never forget his response: “There is nothing new. You’re going to keep going through that same binder over and over again for your entire summer.”
I remember thinking this was terribly tedious and incredibly inefficient. Right then and there I decided I wanted to see how I could use my development skills to be more innovative with how testing was done. From the age of 19 onwards, I aimed to use my development abilities in software testing and quality to improve processes. Now, I’ve been doing that for over 20 years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
About six years ago I had an idea that was almost a joke between my friends and I. The idea was that I should expand my company to Jamaica. It was a joke because I didn’t know anyone in Jamaica and would be going in somewhat blindly with no connections. The premise of thinking of Jamaica and technology is generally not something people think about but I was crazy enough to say, “Let’s test my hypothesis!”
I made some assumptions: the outsourcing that I had done was painful because I had to wake up at 5am or stay up until midnight to meet with people around the world. There was immense frustration in communication and I was often getting results that were not what I expected because of communication barriers. I wanted to see if it was viable to find great talent in the Caribbean, which I don’t think too many people had done before.
The Aha! moment was going to a college campus and setting up 15 interviews. I asked these college seniors the same interview questions that I had asked to hundreds of Quality Assurance folks over my 18 years in the industry — understanding and identifying great testing talent is one of the things I’m great at.
I asked them the same exact questions that I would have asked someone with 10 years of experience. That group of college seniors from the Carribean answered my questions better than any group of people I’d interviewed in my entire career. I was absolutely floored that they could take an area of technology that they essentially had no idea about and answer these questions about testing in a way that totally blew my mind, completely unlike any other interviews I had experienced over my career.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
To be an entrepreneur, you automatically have to be a hopeful person.
Oftentimes, entrepreneurs are called risk takers. I recently heard a gentleman entrepreneur say that we’re actually calculated risk takers — but still — we must take risks. I remember seeing such strong growth in the first few years of my company. I decided, based on seeing 10x everywhere, that the next year my company would 10x. I verbalized it time and time again. It became expected.
It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to do it.
What I learned is that you can’t just say 10x and expect it to happen. You actually need to begin to lay the foundation for growth that rapid, and sometimes you have to prepare many years in advance to get to a 10x year. There definitely is a point where you can have that massive scale, but what I’ve learned now from fellow entrepreneurs and from my own team is that there is no overnight success. Very often you’ll see someone in a magazine or article that went from zero to 100, but what you don’t see is that they’ve probably been paving the way for many years.
Looking back, it’s funny to imagine myself in front of my team and advisers saying, “Next year we’re going to 10x our revenue!” without understanding that 10x is only possible with a solid foundation years in the making.
Now, I’m excited because we’re on our way to 10x. It’s kind of wonderful.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Growing up in a small suburb of Fort Worth, I was one of two black students in my entire elementary and one of six black students out of a class of 600 graduating from high school. I faced traumatic victimization from teachers who shoved me, coaches that told me I should run faster because I’m black and I saw my name in the school newspaper telling me to go back to Africa.
In 9th grade, I insisted on switching from private to public school. Some of my teachers were biased against girls, and specifically against African American girls. They refused to enroll me in AP classes, even though I was top 10 in my class. Even though it was seen as a ‘prestigious’ place, it meant nothing because the programs didn’t support young women.
In high school, when counselors were supposed to inspire me and support me, they discouraged me from going to college. If I’d listened to them, I would never have known that attending Stanford on scholarship was not only a possibility, but my destined future.
I could have let the doubt destroy me, but instead I used it to fuel my fire. I graduated from Stanford in Computer Science, rose through leadership, and created two successful tech companies employing over 45% women of color with the goal of paving the way for many young Black girls like me to follow in my footsteps.
I fought every step of the way fueled by those who doubted I could do it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Hundreds of different segments from hundreds of different people have helped me get to where I am today.
If I had to promote one person, it would be one of my cherished advisers, Dereck Johnson. He was a solo-entrepreneur and allowed me to bounce ideas off him along the way about how to grow and scale a consulting firm. He has a wealth of knowledge and has worked with some of the best consulting firms in the world with a business background that pushed me to think bigger and be more confident about what I am doing as a business owner.
I owe him many thanks for supporting me along the way and highly encourage anyone involved in this field to aim to secure similar mentor-mentee relationships.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote comes from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
Even though I have lived tragedy and have been mistreated and marginalized, I have not lived a single day as a victim.
Even though I was told many times that I shouldn’t bother going to college, that I was too ambitious, or that I don’t need to come to these executive meetings anymore, I persisted. There is something in me that is unconquerable. There is passion within me that I probably got from my mom pushing me for so many years to be my own person. I cannot and will not blame anyone but myself for my success or my failures. I will not blame anyone for where I get to in life, nor for how I learn to define success and happiness. Those are the things that I own.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Accessibility. Diversity. Innovation.
QualityWorks does more than just write and test code. We offer solutions that have saved our clients thousands of dollars and decreased their time to market. Our latest product, Posture, helps enterprises drive compliance regardless of their level of in-house knowledge. An AI-powered platform simplifies the process of gaining and maintaining cybersecurity compliance. This solution provides integration, automation, and the visibility to ignite a culture of accountability across the enterprise while cost-effectively removing roadblocks.
Via these platforms, we aspire to become the “H&R Block of software testing and security.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First off, there is no one leader who knows it all. In order to do great things, you have to be surrounded by a great team. I pride myself on my team of diverse brilliance. I give them the opportunity to become the best that they can be, which allows me as a leader to be successful based not just on my own individual knowledge and expertise, but rather the collective diversity.
Secondly, we are dedicated to finding long-term solutions rather than quick-fixes.
Through collaboration with the Fandango team, we were able to assess peak traffic on the production environment and calculate a load of 85,168 concurrent users and an average of 2 Million page views per hour. Using this data, our team was able to:
- Replicate that same load at a reduced cost based on strategic load tests
- Prepare proof of concept performance scripts
- Understand how the system would perform and react under different kinds of pressure
- Identify six major performance bottlenecks affecting critical applications and database servers.
Our team also created an internal performance test environment that significantly reduced the dependency on their more expensive tool. This solution was not only effective but sustainable as it became a part of their continuous performance testing pipeline, allowing them to easily test the performance of their system before future new movie releases.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am currently conducting QualityWorks’ Agile Testing Bootcamp, a 6-week free training program in software testing. The goal of the program is to provide job opportunities to Americans who exist within marginalized communities, particularly African-Americans, by training and placing talented resources in companies looking for software testers; helping close the gaps of disparity and increase representation and diversity in the technology industry.
Participants will not only learn the foundation, tools, and techniques of software testing but they will also receive support in finding jobs that match their new skills. The program offers job sourcing, job placement as well as ongoing professional development mentorship after graduation by professional coaches.
We recognize that there is a ton of potential in this industry: the average starting salary for a Quality Assurance Tester is $40,000 — $60,000 per year. Software Testing is one of the most in demand jobs in the tech market. There are currently over 9000+ unfulfilled jobs in the US alone. Our six-week immersive software testing bootcamp is designed to teach software testing from scratch for individuals without a tech background. It is fully virtual with weekly live sessions, all absolutely free.
It is a lesser known fact within the non-technical community that learning software testing has a substantially shorter learning curve than learning to code from scratch to become a software developer. While coding bootcamps have gained significant popularity over the last few years, the market for accessible training in software testing remains virtually untapped. The Agile Testing Bootcamp takes advantage of this opportunity to address this training gap.
We have successfully concluded two installments of our Testing Bootcamp, training over 70 individuals, 90% of whom did not come from a technical background. We’ve proven that the model works and so we are super excited to be able to extend the program to support black and minority communities by providing them with the skillset to land good jobs in tech.
After the completion of the 6 weeks of training, participants will receive career guidance and placement opportunities for the several following months. We really want to make sure they feel supported in the transition and have everything they need to pursue a successful career in Software Testing.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Of course I am not satisfied with the status quo regarding women in technology!
The solution is straightforward: hire more women. Recruit more women in their first years of college and give them more opportunities to develop their collegiate experience around the skills necessary to succeed in technology. Provide them mentorship that will help them push past the challenges of being one of very few women in the tech realm.
We need to show up for young women.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I see a lack of advancement of women into leadership roles inside of software development in the more technical side of software delivery. Our biggest challenge is to grow in the technical career path as directors, CTs and CTOs of engineering. Oftentimes, as women, we pivot to go into product and project management.
One thing many of us women need to do is be more selfish about how we shape and mold our careers. I’ve found that if you’re in a room full of men and there are tasks that need to be assigned, oftentimes the women employees will take on the crappy tasks that won’t advance their careers. They won’t fight for the tasks that will give them the most prestige and pose as a technical challenge because they want to be team players.
When it comes to technology, you want to be a team player, but you need to show the value and worth in your work, and that means that sometimes you need to push for the projects that other people in meetings often shout for or demand. We as women may not want to be so demanding to say “I want this. Give it to me to show my abilities and capabilities,” but the reality is that we need to be more forward.
As a woman, no one will advocate for your success except you. Be a good ally to yourself and be demanding in those meeting rooms filled with men. Assert yourself and claim the projects that will demonstrate your abilities.
Women: Stop volunteering to take notes! Let someone else take the notes so that you can do the talking.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Fresh minds. Fresh perspective. More diversity.
You hit a plateau because you are using a singular mindset — the mindset you used to get you there. This is the value of having diversity: diversity of mindset. You need to find people within your organization, or add advisers and members, that have gotten to that point within your company’s growth where they’ve hit a wall. At that point, it is time to think differently about how you are going to scale to the next level. And for that, you need diversity.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
When it comes to talent, it is in every part of the world.
I was so excited because I could tell I may have the opportunity to provide opportunities to excellent and raw talent in Jamaica. Five years later, that’s what we’ve been up to.
There are many different reasons that expanding my business to Jamaica worked, but one big influence was the natural Jamaican culture we appreciated so much. There are certain parts of the culture there that I thought would go very well with the analytical structure of being a tester. I found that it is also a culture that is very entrepreneurial. That was precisely what I wanted in my consultancies; people that were able to see a problem and look for many different ways to solve it. Not to mention, Jamaica is the third largest English speaking country in the Western Hemisphere so communication is fluid.
In my opinion, Jamaica is the best location for outsourcing: high quality communication with a painless time zone. The opportunities there have been overlooked for a very long time, so I was really fortunate to have the connections from my Jamaican American friends to advise me on how to go there and expand my business.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Start with the customer first. Don’t build upon your great ideas, build upon a need that you can solve for your customers.
- Don’t make it theoretical. There’s nothing like true human feedback. Do actual primary research.
- Throughout finding problems, solving them, and then validating your work through that process, you must continue that behavior change. Keep noticing the evolution — it’s an essential part of building out, improving and updating.
- Don’t underestimate software testing and the power of having a software tester from the beginning. That tester is representative of the customer as you build. You are getting so much more than just someone who finds bugs. Get them involved from the beginning. Get a champion for your customer. Get someone that will deeply understand the business and add value as you build so that the end result and delivery will be closer to what the customer expects, if not exactly what the customer expects. The user needs change and continual behavior change. Keep them at the heart of their need as they improve and update.
- Don’t underestimate the power of having a tester from the beginning. That tester is the rep of the customer to find bugs from the start. They are the champion for the customer.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Be real. People can see through B.S. They don’t want sales talk. Customers want to work with real people that are likeable.
Ask this question to yourself often: are we exceeding expectations? If not, where are we missing? Be okay to hear the honest good and the honest bad. Be swift and quick to address any negative feedback.
A big contributor as to why our clients stick with us and continue working with us is that we are highly communicative and very responsive. They deeply value that.
Business leaders need to avoid focusing all their attention just on their bottom line. Instead, they need to think of their customers and always put them at the front of their minds: continue to add value even if it is outside of your original arrangement.
Set expectations at the beginning of the relationship so that there is a level of transparency on both ends. That way your customer won’t feel like they’re being cheated or that they aren’t getting real value because you weren’t aligned on what the expectations were from the start.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Not everyone can be a leader. You can spend a lot of time trying to develop someone into a leader and it’s simply not their mission, purpose or calling.
- You will hit a point in the growth of your team and company where everything will change. What was a startup mentality will then become too big for that startup culture. You will have to redefine your culture for scale.
- Not everybody is going to like you but that is ok.
- If you don’t have a diverse team, you are going to struggle.
- The investment of quality over speed is essential. You will sleep better and you will inevitably reduce a lot of waste.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Fairness and equity. Rather than treating people how you want to be treated, treat people how they want to be treated. The way we treat others also stems from our own bias. Sometimes we don’t understand enough about how people want to be treated.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have the opportunity to meet with MetricStream CEO, Shellye Archambeau. She was named one of the 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology. She is the former CEO of a company like Posture, if we were able to do it times a billion and is a true inspiration.
She had an incredible career in technology and business. She has really defied the odds and become a successful CEO of a billion dollar company. Now she has moved into thought leadership around breaking barriers and taking risks.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!