Now that the Worse than Worst Case Has Happened

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Summary:

QA professionals get paid to envision bad things happening and to make others aware of risk. But the terrorist attacks and all that has followed illuminate what truly horrific things can happen to any of us. As a New York resident and QA professional, Patricia Ensworth shares her perspective on coping and positively focusing on QA issues that can help secure a project, organization, and the community at large.

Airplanes turned into suicide bombs. Skyscrapers falling down. Invisible airborne death particles. And then...well, we don't know what.

Who's doing QA for the American dream?

The company where I manage software quality assurance wasn't in the World Trade Center, but close enough that six weeks later we were still operating out of disaster recovery sites while we waited for our high-speed telecommunications lines to be repaired. Now we're back in our building, looking out over a mass grave and breathing the smoke from the still-smoldering ruins.

QA professionals get paid to imagine bad stuff happening. We envision everything from an invalid data type being entered into a field, to a replication link failing, to a natural disaster causing servers to tumble down off their racks. We take a sort of mischievous pride in coming up with scenarios that scare end users and senior management. Yet the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the anthrax infections, and the subsequent threats of more mayhem to come have been far, far worse than anything our most flamboyant Y2K prognosticators ever conceived of.

Software testers and QA engineers in New York's financial district are still struggling to cope with the horrific events that have engulfed us. We never were a particularly close-knit group¡Xour companies compete fiercely with each other, and we work long hours¡Xbut since 9/11 the ordeals we've endured have motivated us to reach out to each other more through professional associations and online discussions. (At least it helps pass the time and calm the nerves when we're evacuated from the subway again for a ¡§police investigation¡¨ by those guys in hazardous materials suits...)

There are many people who work in quality assurance for whom it's just a job. They execute test cases, record the results, collect their paychecks, and then go home and sleep peacefully. Then there are a few for whom it's not just a job, but more of a calling. On some profound emotional level, they really care about keeping the systems they monitor working properly.

I'm not a mental health expert, but in the weeks and months after 9/11, I noticed among my professional acquaintances throughout the U.S., that it is these dedicated, zealous colleagues who seem the most severely distraught. As time passes and bad news and hardships become routine, they continue to suffer from anxiety, depression, self-doubt, or a sense of futility. They're asking themselves "What's the point of testing release 3.24b when the simple tasks of everyday life could put me in mortal danger?" Or, "How can I go on designing worst-case tests when reality turns out to be so much worse?"

As many QA gurus have noted, QA engineers can't put the quality into a product if it wasn't designed well in the first place. Nor are we likely to be asked to formulate U.S. foreign policy or military strategy. Yet as we confront the probability of future attacks by a wily, ruthless enemy, we can calm our nerves, strengthen our sense of purpose, and truly serve our country if we remember who we are and what we have to offer.

QA professionals are trained to assess risk analytically and methodically. We know how to devise plans that probe for weaknesses and defects in critical systems. We routinely create procedures to close gaps in communication and ensure reliable, repeatable performance of complex tasks. When something goes wrong, we investigate thoroughly and base our conclusions upon data, not nervous speculation. We have the skills and experience to help transform free-floating paranoia into a focused, disciplined defense effort.

Among other things, Ground Zero

About the author

Patricia Ensworth's picture Patricia Ensworth

Patricia Ensworth is the author of The Accidental Project Manager. She is a Vice President of Systems Development and manager of software quality assurance at a global financial services firm. Ensworth holds a Masters' degree in anthropology from Columbia University, and specializes in cultural issues affecting the usability and internationalization of technology. Her articles about software engineering and other subjects have appeared in many technical and general-interest publications.

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