Member Spotlight – Brian Colvin

Brian ColvinWhen I was asked to write a Member Spotlight about myself my initial thought was “what on earth could I say about myself that would be of interest to the Section membership”? However, as your incoming 2009-2010 Vice Chair of Communications it seems appropriate to…well, communicate with you and give you some insight into what “makes me tick”. As I read through previous columns for inspiration I was most interested in the various “quality journeys” described, and so I will share mine in some detail because I think it illustrates many of the quality maxims which still hold true.

It’s hard to define when I first became interested in quality, but I do know I became interested in problem solving at a young age. My mother tells a story of a toddler with a screwdriver and a partially-dismantled toaster still plugged in. Fortunately I survived that episode and since learned to define any problem before trying to fix it. I went on to have an unremarkable childhood, and through adolescence developed parallel interests in electronics and mathematics. These converged suddenly and dramatically during my senior year in high school with the introduction of an “experimental” computer programming unit (does anybody remember FORTRAN?) in Advanced Math class. I was totally hooked.

I went on to the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and earned a Bachelor of Computer Science degree, then I was off to my first few programming jobs. It was during this time that programming was evolving from art to science to engineering discipline, and from some of my own work I could see why that transition was necessary – so perhaps this was the beginning of my real awareness of quality. Out of necessity I was spending more of my time diagnosing broken software than developing it, and I was having fun! I soon realized that this passion for understanding why software didn’t work wasn’t very compatible with the priorities of my employer, so with the encouragement of a college friend I joined NCR Corporation’s newly-acquired Comten division as a software support analyst.

At NCR the software was much more complex and worked fairly well, but its mission-critical nature made even minor defects troublesome to customers. Ah, customers – another new horizon in my quality experience. I had never previously thought of my internal customers as such, but having external ones made a lasting impression about listening to their needs. Software quality at NCR was evolving from testing and fixing to process-driven development. Do it right the first time – what a concept! This was part of a division-wide project that included documenting everything we did, good or bad. This first effort was predictably unusable, but we did learn a lot about process documentation and revision control. Subsequent refinements streamlined our quality system and gave us a mechanism to do business more the way it should be done in a controlled manner rather than the way it was being done. Software quality was improving measurably. With few exceptions I felt the all-important support of all levels of management from the top down, and the troops usually responded with their own high level of commitment to quality. Ultimately we succeeded in ISO 9001 registration under the able leadership of Dave Huyink, who may be familiar to MNASQ members who have been around a few years. Dave was a great mentor and I give him credit for transforming me from a Software Engineer into a Software Quality Engineer. MNASQ past chairs Mavonne Prokop and Mike Hodges were also colleagues at NCR, and I am still inspired by their passion for quality.

Throughout the 1990s NCR’s local development organizations were absorbed into other operations around the country, leaving only the technical support organization in place. I became the “Quality Champion” for the group, and became immersed in one of the most interesting projects of my professional career. NCR Corporation had grown though mergers and acquisitions (including our own division) and had a disjointed country-by-country customer service presence in a world rapidly becoming dominated my multinational companies. Our challenge was to transform into a worldwide service organization with shared processes and systems, and I had the privilege of representing our organization in this effort. This need to harmonize processes led me to two profound realizations about processes and quality:

  • There can’t be ten (nor even two) best ways to do something. When you are in a room full of colleagues, each of whom believes he or she owns the best process in the world, it takes courage and an open mind to really listen to other ideas and agree on what is really best practice.
  • Likewise, it takes courage to stand your ground when your process really is best-in-class. I don’t remember the source, but it has been said “it isn’t enough to be right, one also has to be persuasive” – and this is so true in the quality field. As practitioners we are constantly faced with the challenge of convincing others of the (usually economic) value of our efforts when often we are dealing with intangibles, for example potential loss of customer goodwill due to inferior quality.

NCR’s closing of its Roseville facility in 2001 was the perfect opportunity for a mid-life career change, but every attempt to examine other possibilities led me right back to quality. I joined ASQ in 2002 primarily to network with other professionals and learn more about life and quality outside of NCR, where I had spent the previous 21 years. I immediately started attending monthly Section meetings and shortly thereafter joined Mavonne Prokop and Annette Borrelli on the Member Services Committee. At that time Annette was webmaster for the Section and before I knew what happened she moved on to something else and I agreed to take over maintenance. Over the next couple years it became evident that the need to create and maintain a vibrant website exceeded my capacity as an evening and weekend volunteer, so it was decided to turn this over to contracted professional web developers. I have remained active on the Member Services Committee and as I write this I am helping coordinate MNASQ booth activity at ASQ’s WCQI which is being held in Minneapolis May 18-20.

I continue to attend as many Section meetings as I can, and over the years have enjoyed many useful and sometimes even entertaining programs. Our Section also sponsors numerous in-depth quality seminars and often offers discounted rates for members. In 2005 I studied for and received my Software Quality Engineer certification (CSQE) under the auspices of the Section. In short, my participation in MNASQ has been an essential part of my professional development, and if I have one regret it is that I did not start much sooner.

A few years ago responsibility for the website, The BenchmarQ newsletter, and broadcast emails was transferred to a new Communications Committee, and as incoming Vice Chair, I look forward to bringing our members the most timely, accurate, and useful information possible.