Why Shutterfly’s Director of Quality Engineering Thinks Outsourcing Will Never Die
My team talked to Alex, who is a very cool development expert.
Alex Todortsev, the Director of Quality Engineering at Shutterfly, has nearly 30 years of experience in quality assurance and software testing. He knows the nuances of each process, understands the technical details that make or break software, and recognizes the value of skilled and experienced professionals when it comes to ensuring the flawless performance of a good software product.
He was born in Ukraine but has been building his career in the Silicon Valley for 24+ years. When he needed to find a trustworthy and reliable outsourcing partner for Shutterfly, he opted for working with QArea.
We had a short conversation with Mr. Todortsev to get his take on the future of the outsourcing industry in general and the future of QЕ outsourcing specifically. In the end, the most important conclusion is that outsourcing will never die, and it’s up to the service vendors to keep up with the trends and stay viable and competitive in the growing IT market.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“You never see the full picture until you start working with a specific partner.”
QArea: Let’s start from the past and take it from there. How did you start working in IT, and was the transition to the States difficult?
Alex: I’ve been in the US for 26 years now, and before that, I worked in an IT-related position in Ukraine. What I do here is very different from what I did in Ukraine.
When I first started working in Ukraine, there was no split between “quality engineering” and “programming”. I had to write a program, upload it, and test it. So, when I moved to the US there was a learning curve, but I got into quality assurance and with my previous experience the transition wasn’t too difficult.
Since then I’ve worked for both startups and big companies like Canon and Symantec. If you’re looking for a pattern in my career you won’t find one. It all depends on the specific job, the project, and the people involved.
QArea: Over the years, you’ve had plenty of experience working with an in-house and outsourced team. What’s a significant difference between these types of teams?
Alex: The way different people and teams communicate and coordinate present one of the biggest differences and difficulties of working with distributed teams. With outsourced teams, you have to work with different time zones and account for cultural differences between teams in various parts of the world.
And when I say “culture” I mean the culture of developing software, not the national cultures of our partners.
But the patterns and processes are what’s relevant. There are different patterns around the world when it comes to development and testing — different paces, different approaches to complicated problems, different ways of handling emergencies. So it’s really difficult to tell whether a given partner will work out in the long-run and whether their reaction to a specific type of problem will fit with your company’s in-house culture.
QArea: So, when you’re looking for a partner, do you search for a perfect fit or for someone flexible enough to meet your needs?
A little bit of both, really. You never see the full picture until you start working with a specific partner. You don’t know their working culture and can’t predict whether they’ll have any communication problems.
I generally ask around to test the waters. I also always run a pilot project to see if the people are responsive, if they go the extra mile, if they’re able and willing to follow the processes and patterns that American companies use when working on a project.
So, when I’m choosing a partner I usually look for recommendations and ask for references, run a two-week pilot project with one or two engineers, and make further decisions from there. I realize that I’m probably working with the best engineer on that given team, but that’s still enough to see if the people will fit our development process. And if everything works out, we can always train the rest of the team and have a good long-term partner.
“The main reason why American companies outsource anywhere is the cost of development in the United States.”
QArea: What goals are you looking to accomplish when outsourcing?
Alex: It’s not a secret — the main reason why American companies outsource anywhere is the cost of development in the United States. That’s the main driving force behind Silicon Valley outsourcing, and that was also the main reason for me.
QArea: Shutterfly is the second project you’re running with QArea. What specific goals are you trying to achieve when working with us?
Alex: Well, for both projects we were looking for people who can deliver good quality work at a pace that fits our development process.
For the first project, we needed someone who could test our application and work with our two-week sprint models. We ran a pilot project with seven different vendors, and QArea’s performance was in the top 3 amongst them. So, by the time QArea began testing that company’s software, the application was out for 8 months. With the help of the outsourced QE, we were able to shorten our release cycle from one month to two weeks — the common release cycle in Silicon Valley.
The story with Shutterfly is a bit different. In Silicon Valley terms, Shutterfly is a pretty old company. They started in 1999, so they’ve been around for 20 years. They’re an international company, and when I joined Shutterfly as their QE Director, they have already been working with several outsourcing vendors.
I was given several goals. The first of them was, again, to shorten the release cycle. The second was to optimize the QE process and resources.
Having had a great experience with QArea before, it made sense to try to work with them again. QArea’s team was already in the same timezone as one of our other development centers, so logistically working with QArea did not create any complications. We ran a pilot project, and both sides were happy with the process and results. So that’s how that partnership started.
“I’m always up-to-date on what people are doing, who’s working on the project, the attrition rate, and so on.”
QArea: I’ve heard from colleagues that you sometimes visit our offices. Do you think it’s mandatory to travel to your offshore partners, or is this a personal preference?
Alex: Both. Each company has its own policy, and since it’s Shuttefly’s policy — I do it. But more than that, I also think it’s just the right thing to do. It allows people to talk to you directly, to “skip” a level of management and talk to the manager who is above their manager. It’s often a good practice.
It brings morale up, allows people to have a face-to-face discussion, and gives me a lot of information that I probably wouldn’t see if I was sitting in my office far from where the real action is happening.
Right now we have 17 people working with us at QArea, and while I periodically talk to the project manager, I also try to visit the office in Lviv once or twice a year. I talk to the engineers, hear their concerns, answer questions directly, etc. But I do this for all other outsourcing vendors as well. It’s a standard procedure at Shutterfly.
I’m not involved on a day-to-day basis, but I’m always up-to-date on what people are doing, who’s working on the project, the attrition rate, and so on.
QArea: Let’s talk about the future. What are some of the changes and trends that you see in the industry?
Alex: The main direction that everyone in Silicon Valley is going towards is pushing people working in QE to move from manual testing to software in testing engineers. This means that they should know the code base, be able to debug, and know how individual parts of the whole system interact with each other. Plus, there is a further emphasis being placed on automation and using machine learning in the QE process.
And finally, companies in Silicon Valley continue to strive towards shortening the release cycle even further. There is a lot of emphasis placed on being able to bring new features to customers quickly and to make sure the time-to-market for new products is as short as possible.
“There will always be a need for certain parts of applications to be tested manually.”
QArea: Do you think companies are more likely to train their in-house testers or outsource these complex developments in testing processes?
Alex: Don’t get me wrong — manual testing is never going to go away. There will always be a need for certain parts of applications to be tested manually. But companies are looking for people who are willing to grow and get to the next level. If someone can do automation or debug, manual testing most likely won’t be a problem for them. But for a manual tester it would take time and effort to learn automation and debugging.
So, as the cost of development is going up all the time, offshoring and outsourcing aren’t going anywhere. If outsourcing vendors can provide people that can automate testing and work closely with development in testing — companies at Silicon Valley are going to be more than willing to work with them.