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Financial Forum Chicago: Theron Melrose on performance testing

Theron Melrose at the QA Financial Forum in Chicago this week
Theron Melrose at the QA Financial Forum in Chicago this week

As QA Financial’s annual Financial Forum took place in Chicago earlier this week, we checked in with one of the event’s key speakers, Theron Melrose.

As a Technology Manager at State Farm, the Illinois-based group of mutual insurance companies covering all of the U.S., Melrose has been leading agile management at the company since 2015 and finds himself always looking for new ways to work efficiently and keep work moving at the speed of agile.

At the event in Chicago, Melrose focused on performance testing issues and the journey his team has taken from Waterfall to Agile delivery, and from a ‘Project Management’ to ‘Product Management’ methodology.

He covered the staffing plan and the tools and techniques that have helped product teams monitor their own performance and deliver substantial savings on the cost of performance testing across State Farm.

Following the event in Illinois earlier this week, Melrose sat with QA Financial to discuss some of the key topics he dove into.

Melrose at the event in Chicago
Melrose at the event in Chicago

Q: Your company, State Farm, the largest insurance company in the United States, has an IT and software engineering team 5,000-strong. That is enormous. What place is there for the QA team?

Theron Melrose: Quality assurance, and achieving overall quality plays a huge role anywhere, but especially in the highly competitive landscape of the property and casualty insurance, and financial services industry. I’ve been a part of achieving quality at State Farm for some time and it’s always important, it’s always an essential element of a successful IT delivery. I happen to work now in the Digital Experience Area of the IT department at State Farm, which means we play a huge role in how the insurance and financial customer sees and experiences State Farm.

Q: So, as you said before and you will say it again, quality is key.

Theron Melrose: Quite frankly, quality is more important now than ever. We can’t always be face-to-face with our customers anymore, and we must meet our customer where they are, or where they want to be. It might be in person; it might be in front of a desktop or a mobile device. No matter how we interact, the quality of the customer experience matters just as much as the level of service provided. The QA teams, whether centralised in your IT department, or de-centralised at the product team level, play a crucial role in the success here.

“Quality comes with a price tag and a strategy associated with it.”

– Theron Melrose

Q: And then testing is the keyword I suppose?

Theron Melrose: Test everything and you may achieve high quality at a high price. If you don’t test enough, it’s less expensive but quality could suffer. In a very large IT department with a large variety of priorities, finding that middle-ground is the challenge for IT product teams in an Agile delivery setting. I’ve always felt that quality matters to the paying customer, now and always. IT departments need to be able to meet the quality demands of their customers by building quality into their processes, practices, and cultures.

Q: With regards to performance testing, can you tell us a bit about the journey your team has taken from Waterfall to Agile delivery, and from a ‘Project Management’ to ‘Product Management’ methodology?

Theron Melrose: For many years, State Farm was largely delivering IT work in a waterfall delivery method. Waterfall delivery served its purpose for a long time, however as technology advanced and IT work become more complex, projects started to take longer. Project Management, where projects have a defined start date and a defined end date, also served us well for a long time.

So delivery times jumped?

Theron Melrose: As project efforts increased in scope and complexity, so did the time between when requirements were first gathered to the time a waterfall project was delivered. These long delivery timeframes often meant the project scope delivered was based on requirements that were no longer valid. Although a few agile-like efforts were run before 2015, it was then State Farm started to move the needle towards Agile, and soon thereafter moving to Product Management.

“Major shifts in delivery and ownership set the tone for where we are today.”

– Theron Melrose

Now we talk about minimally viable products, continuous innovation, fail-fast and dedicated product teams that own both development and service work. The key aspect of Product Management to me is the ownership and decision-making rights a product team has.

Q: Was that very different before?

Theron Melrose: Yes, in the past, a project team would transition to a service team and then disband. The service team would need to live with that delivery until a new project team was formed, scope was defined and delivered until quality could be improved or enhancements could be delivered.

Product teams working in an agile fashion allow the same team that owns and supports the product to decide what enhancements to make, and how quickly they are needed. Of course, the IT department works with the business which helps with prioritization, but now we can deliver changes faster, focus on shifting priorities and deliver enhancements that have a real impact on our business.

Q: What tools and techniques have helped product teams monitor their own performance and deliver substantial savings on the cost of performance testing across State Farm?

Melrose at the QA Financial Forum
Melrose at the QA Financial Forum

Theron Melrose: In a large IT department like State Farm, we have numerous tools and techniques we use to measure quality and track analytics that help us make decisions based on the metrics we feel are important to our business. Some of our tools are designed and built here, some are SAS type solutions purchased from external partners.

Without naming the external partners, we have put tools and information into the hands of our product teams to help them monitor and track their products’ capacity, performance, and sometimes availability. We now can build dashboards that track key services consumed into the hands of our product teams so in a glance they can view the performance of their product or view the status of dependent services upstream or downstream of their component.

We can also produce alerts to key product team members, so they are quickly made aware of capacity and performance trends with the services they are most dependent upon, and if necessary, dig down to the line of code that maybe causing a product to degrade, slow-down or potentially cause an outage. This is powerful when you consider product teams have total, end-to-end ownership, and decision-making rights of their IT products now.

“There have never been more tools and services available to help achieve the levels of quality and performance customers expect.”

– Theron Melrose

More and more, developers and engineers review their own code or participate in peer-reviews to achieve quality before code is pushed to production. Putting tools like this in the hands of the product teams helps them keep a pulse on the impact frequent deliveries have on a product and helps them quickly see and diagnose issues which can have a significant financial impact on the price of IT. Quicker mean time to recovery or avoiding an outage in the first place equals higher availability which positively impacts our customers’ experiences.

Q: Thank you. Any final thoughts you’d like to share with QA Financial readers?

Theron Melrose: Quality is everyone’s job, and it’s always going to be important no matter the industry. How you achieve quality, and who plays a role in it may vary from company to company or across a department. IT work is hard and complex, and customers don’t really care how choppy the water is, they demand quality in the interactions they have with your company. Customers want to know you are trying to deliver quality at the best price possible.

Our challenge is to delivery those solutions, create and perfect those experiences at the highest level possible at the lowest possible price, often while meeting the regulatory requirements many of us face. Build a culture of quality where you are. Expect and deliver quality when you can. There have never been more tools and services available to help you achieve the levels of quality and performance your customers expect. Happy testing!

Theron Melrose spoke at QA Financial’s annual Financial Forum in Chicago this week. More information can be found here.

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