In this interview, TechWell speaks with Melissa Benua, a senior backend engineer for PlayFab. At STARWEST, she gave the presentation "Integration Testing as Validation and Monitoring." She also spoke at the Women Who Test event.
Jennifer Bonine: All right, we are back with our final virtual interview of the conference here at STARWEST. It's amazing that we're already to this point, and we're almost done with our interviews.
Melissa Benua: It's crazy.
Jennifer Bonine: I know, we're going to have our last keynote wrap up, and we're getting to wrap up. It's been fun, but I'm so glad Melissa's here with us. Melissa, thanks for being here.
Melissa Benua: Yeah, excellent, I'm glad I could squeeze in at the last second to make it work.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, it's great to be able to wrap up with you, and kind of a fun story, I think, for people out there to know. We've been talking a lot today about how do people get involved, and get to come to these conferences, and get to do the networking and meet people and all of that type of stuff, and you were telling me this is your first.
Melissa Benua: It is, it is my first time here; it's excellent. I'm really enjoying it so far. It won't be my last.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, no, because it is, I mean, it's such a great experience to be here in person—and you guys get a taste of it virtually, but in person, it's just ... I mean, it's so much fun.
Melissa Benua: Yeah, yeah, to be able to talk to the speakers afterwards, and ask really pointed questions.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.
Melissa Benua: And get a little more detail, it's been really, really interesting, really valuable.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, and you were able to, not only your first conference, but for ... You spoke at the conference.
Melissa Benua: I did.
Jennifer Bonine: That's really fun. So maybe tell us a little bit about what you talked about in your talk here.
Melissa Benua: Sure. So my talk was integration testing; it's monitoring and validation—it's kind of a mouthful.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, exactly.
Melissa Benua: The premise of my talk is, I spent many years at Microsoft on Bing, and now I've spent nearly a year at a startup—a startup that's doing back-ends for video games, called PlayFab. We've got big ideas and lots of code to write, but we're a very small team, so every line of code we write has to count double, triple as much as we can work with, as we can get out of it. We found that we had this whole great suite of integration tests that were really excellent and ran really good monitoring of our services and our sandbox, and on our boxes or whatever, and I said, "Well, these tests are super great and they're really reliable. Why not go stick them out on a bunch of yams in the cloud and use those as our monitoring instead of having to go and rewrite, and put them somewhere in a third-party service?" And then you have to remember to update it, and it's extra work, so I said, "Let's make them do double duty."
Sure enough, we've got it going, it's really stable.
Jennifer Bonine: That's awesome.
Melissa Benua: We stuck a front-end on it, and now our customers can see really detailed views.
Jennifer Bonine: Wow.
Melissa Benua: If you're adding a new API, you add a test—you would test anyway, you've got to test it—that test then automatically gets deployed out to your monitoring cloud, and when your code goes to production, the test is just on; you don't have to think about it, just done.
Jennifer Bonine: Like you said, just the bang for the buck in terms of the code and reusability.
Melissa Benua: Exactly.
Jennifer Bonine: That's awesome to be able to do that. In terms of the audience, were they pretty excited about that thought of how useful that can be, given that you don't always have as much time as you want, and you don't have infinite amounts of time to do things, so being able to leverage something like that?
Melissa Benua: Yeah, they were, they were really interested in, "Well, how do I convince my DevOps guys that this is the way to go?"
Jennifer Bonine: Right, yeah, that we need to do this.
Melissa Benua: "We really need to do this." Yeah, but everybody faces this problem when you've got so many great things you want to do, and there's only so many hours in day.
Jennifer Bonine: Right, yep, exactly. Something else fun I think we should mention is, you're giving a talk tomorrow ... We had Alison Wade do an interview earlier in the conference talking about the first annual event for the Women Who Test, which is exciting, so for those of you women out there that want to get involved, we talked about—go to the website, Women Who Test—but you'll be there.
Melissa Benua: Yeah, I'm really honored to be taking part in the first one.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, I know, first conference, first speaking event, and you're part of the first Women Who Test.
Melissa Benua: Yes, huge.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, it's huge. Your talk tomorrow at Women Who Test is ... Why don't you tell them about what it's going to be about?
Melissa Benua: This one is how to be the lone voice of female reason, it's about ... In the course of my career, I've always been either the only woman in a room, or nearly the only woman in a room. For example, at a meeting, everybody's talking about, "Can we go this week? Can we go live? Can we not go live?" And especially when you're coming from test or from QA, you're the one who has to say no so often, and it's hard. You're sitting in this room with all these guys and they're ready to go, and you have to be the one to say, “No.”
So it's all about how to take yourself seriously, and how to be taken seriously and get your point across without having to be ultra aggressive or trying to do stuff that's not natural to you. So just a bunch of strategies, especially using a lot of data—I really like to use data—how to kind of grab what the right pieces of data are, and how to grab all that stuff and present it in such a way that you can be heard, right? And be respected.
Jennifer Bonine: Exactly. Well, it's so interesting because a lot of people struggle with ... just like sometimes we struggle with conflict, we struggle with how to say no.
Melissa Benua: Yes, it's hard.
Jennifer Bonine: It's hard, and people don't like to say no, and I think women in particular don't like to say no, right? We want to be able to be all things to all people, and just get it done, and let’s make it happen, and how do we make it work, and sometimes the reality is, you've got to say no.
Melissa Benua: Right, exactly, and in the same vein, sometimes we have to be wrong.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.
Melissa Benua: We, as women—and in general, this field—everybody feels like they're really smart, everybody is really smart, and we don't want to be wrong. But part of having to say no is that you have to be willing to be wrong. You have to come prepared as best you can, but ...
Jennifer Bonine: Yep, and maybe they'll go, "Well, you were wrong."
Melissa Benua: Right, but you know what, allowing yourself to be wrong gives you sympathy to allow them to be wrong when you're saying no to them.
Jennifer Bonine: Exactly.
Melissa Benua: Just because you're wrong doesn't mean you're bad, or you're ...
Jennifer Bonine: No, exactly, yeah, no. And how has your experience played, being at Microsoft, obviously a huge company—
Melissa Benua: Yes.
Jennifer Bonine: —huge in tech, and then going to this startup ... Have you seen dramatic differences in culture and just how things operate, from going from a large corporation to now a startup? Because there may be people out there going, "I'm thinking about leaving a big company and I want to go to a startup, but what is that like, and will I like it, and is it going to be okay?" So just maybe some words of what you've experienced in that.
Melissa Benua: Sure, yeah, so initially the power is kind of intoxicating, right? Because you can do whatever you want as long as you can justify it, especially at our startup—we're all pretty senior, all pretty advanced in our careers, so instead of getting your directives handed down from four levels above you on high—
Jennifer Bonine: Right, on high, they come down.
Melissa Benua: And it went through so many manager chains. We're only twenty people.
Jennifer Bonine: That's awesome.
Melissa Benua: So we all get to say what we think is important, and then wrangle about our competing agendas. The CEO is there and says, “This is what's important for our investors,” and the engineering team says what's important for engineering, and the sales team gets to say what's important to sales. And you get a really strong voice to decide the direction of the company; you can help steer it any which way, which is not ... The best I could say when I was on Bing was, "Well, I helped steer this part of the engine when that was blue instead of purple." Which is important, but …
Jennifer Bonine: "I helped influence blue versus purple, yay."
Melissa Benua: But it's not quite the same as saying, "We should move the whole product this way, because I think this market is important."
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.
Melissa Benua: So that power's just ...
Jennifer Bonine: Intoxicating.
Melissa Benua: Intoxicating.
Jennifer Bonine: That was a great word for it. We need to wrap up because we are going to start the keynote, and we will turn you over to the keynote. It went so fast, but …
Melissa Benua: It did.
Jennifer Bonine: Oh my gosh, Melissa, thanks.
Melissa Benua: Everything is so fast.
Jennifer Bonine: I know. Thank you so much for being here and doing this, and I look forward to tomorrow at the women's summit and getting some of that. For those of you that can't attend, go out to the Women Who Test and make sure you sign up for that to get involved out there. But thanks so much, Melissa, and thanks everyone out there for tuning into our interviews this time at STARWEST. We've enjoyed having you.
Melissa Benua: Yeah, thanks for having me, it's been great. I'll see you tomorrow.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, exactly.
Thanks for reading this interview! You can see Melissa Benua speak live at STAREAST in Orlando in May.
Now a senior backend engineer for PlayFab, Melissa Benua has worked in nearly every software development role—engineer, test, DevOps, and program management—in her career. She's created and run high-availability, high-quality services at Boeing and Microsoft on products such as Bing, Cortana, and Xbox One. Melissa discovered her love of massively-scaled systems while working on the Bing backend, where she honed the art of keeping highly-available complex systems up while undergoing massive code churn. Whether working with classic or cutting-edge testing models, Melissa isn’t afraid to mix traditional approaches with bold new ideas to make her products better, faster, and more reliable.