Alka Jarvis has 30 years of experience in software engineering, including 19 spent in total quality management. Her background encompasses management of large-scale software systems, cloud, data science, customer experience, training, and international quality management standards.
Cisco’s first and only distinguished quality engineer (senior director), Jarvis continued her pursuit in the field of quality and became a Six Sigma Black Belt as well as a certified auditor for quality management systems. In addition, she achieved the status of a Fellow from the American Society of Quality (ASQ), received a Leadership Palo Alto Fellow award, and was elected as the first female chair to represent the United States in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for the development and maintenance of quality management standards. Over the years, she has mentored and directed hundreds of students in their careers.
Currently she is the chair for UCSC-Ext. Software Engineering and Quality program, a member of the Chairman’s Strategic Advisory Group for ISO quality management systems, served as the chair for nine years for U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 176, the chair for the U.S. Standards Group Council, and a member of ASQ’s Learning Institute Advisory Board.
In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss when she discovered her love for quality and positive customer experience, what training has meant in her career, and how industry professionals can participate in the standards-development process.
EXEMPLAR GLOBAL: How did you get involved in the quality field?
ALKA JARVIS: Quality has been a passion for me from day one. Early in my career I worked for a small company in San Francisco, where I often traveled with our marketing people to meet with clients. Inevitably there would be some missing or incomplete information on the presentations, and when we came back to the office, I was the only one who complained about the software quality. One day the president of the company called me and said, “You know, whenever you go to a demo you always come back and say that the demos don’t work… so why don’t you do something about it?” This question was a challenge for me. The company was just one block away from Golden Gate University in San Francisco, so I walked over to their library and looked up the words “Test” and “Software.” I found so many different articles on these subjects that when I returned to the office, I suggested we create a testing and a quality group, which we did. I also realized that if my company was having that many software quality-related issues, other companies were probably having similar problems.
I got together with a friend of mine and we looked through the Yellow Pages (remember, these were before the days of the Internet). We randomly picked companies such as Booz Allen, Bank of America, and others, and sent them a letter saying that we intended to start a quality assurance group. We invited them to join and gave them our phone numbers. We expected five people to attend; in fact, 40 people showed up, and that’s how the Bay Area Quality Assurance Association started, with me serving as the president for more than 16 years.
EG: Great story! Let me ask you about training because it’s so central to Exemplar Global partners and professionals. What are some of the important lessons that you learned from training courses, and how have you applied them in your career?
AJ: I think training is something we really take too lightly. Companies don’t hold their people accountable for coming back from a training and re-training somebody or maybe giving a lecture on the training that they just received. When you do that, every note that you have taken during the training resonates. It confirms your own knowledge. I think for all the training that I have taken, what I have learned is to take detailed notes, summarize that information into a few key slides, and then present it to someone else so that whatever I learned, if there are questions from other people, I will have to think back about that information and answer those questions correctly. Again, that really makes the information resonate. This is a critical activity. The other thing, as far as training is concerned, is if you are a trainer, you constantly need to make sure that your audience is with you. What I mean is that, just because your audience appears to be listening to you and watching you, it doesn’t mean they are paying attention. They could be thinking about their evening or something else in their lives, and pretty soon you have talked for two hours and somebody will just be daydreaming and not retaining anything. I think the best technique in training is to say something for about 10 minutes and then ask someone to repeat what they heard, or to say what you just said in their own words. That makes them really listen to you and stay engaged. If you are talking about quality or customer experience, for example, ask your students, “Is there anyone who would like to share a story about this topic from your own experience?” This way, when you engage your students, they really listen.
EG: So you’re really trying to foster an element of active listening where people are not just sitting there passively, but are engaged in more of a two-way conversation around the topic at hand.
AJ: Exactly. And that two-way conversation is what gets the juices flowing. Students can relate to it, they can say, “Oh yeah, I know that this happened in my company,” or, “I know that this happened with me,” and they can give examples. Another important thing is that, as a trainer, the knowledge you provide cannot be yours alone. The instructor should be citing some course, or citing some books, or citing some other subject matter expert in the industry, and saying, “Let me give you what, for example, Deming said or for example, what Tom Siebel said (who founded Siebel Systems, which he sold to Oracle Corp.)” When you are citing other people, that means you yourself have in-depth knowledge of what you are talking about and you are looking at an overall industry, you are gathering all that data, and then summarizing it for your students. If you are just using a textbook, remember it takes an author anywhere from eight months to a year-and-a-half to write a book, and then it takes the publisher many more months to bring that book to market. By that time, the ideas in that book can already be up to two years old.
EG: And this is a very fast-moving industry, so things do change.
AJ: Exactly. The students, the companies that they represent, and the dynamics of everything in the global environment are all changing very fast. It’s all changing faster than you and I can keep up with, and therefore, even if a trainer uses a textbook, you should continually add new information, because if you just follow the textbook approach, that chapter was written two years ago—at least.
EG: Very true. I’d like to ask you about your work with standards development. What is involved in that process?
AJ: Regarding quality management standards such as ISO 9001, here in the United States we have the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to ISO/TC 176. The TAG, which is administered by the American Society of Quality and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accredits U.S. standards developers (such as ASQ). ANSI provides overall governance, administration, management, guidance, authority, diplomacy, organization, and influence. The TAG meets twice annually; this year, because of COVID-19, the meetings have been virtual. Anywhere from 100 to 150 people generally attend, from different companies and different environments. At these meetings, we talk about what new standards are coming up, what suggested revisions look like, which countries are backing those revisions, and whether we (the United States) are going to support them. There is a very disciplined approach to the voting system, where any new item proposed by another country goes to different countries for voting. The way we do it for the United States is when some change is introduced, each member votes to approve or reject it. We then form a consensus and say yes or no for the U.S. as a group. It is very enlightening to be part of the technical committee that holds these meetings and have various business discussions. I was the chair for of the TAG for eight years; Alan Daniels of Boeing is the current chair.
EG: And the process is similar for other representative organizations for other parts of the world?
AJ: Yes, it’s very similar in other parts of the world. I have seen many smaller countries that have one representative and perhaps some subject matter experts from whom they get feedback but it is not as formalized. In the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and many other countries, it is a very formalized process with X number of members that meet frequently and discuss the quality management standard’s issues. But that is not the case in every country.
EG: Finally, what advice would you offer to people who are at the beginning of their career, specifically as it regards training?
AJ: When it comes to training and certification, you want a well-regarded, accredited organization. Look for entities that have been in the market for a number of years and have credibility throughout the world. If you talk about your certificate to anyone who knows the quality management field, and you say, “I’m accredited as an auditor,” you want them to immediately recognize the company from which you received that accreditation. This is very important for your integrity in any new job search and when others recognize you as a quality professional and/or a quality management auditor.