Insurance and Education & Workforce Development and Government and Technology

Pocket-protector crowd to preach quality: Group plans first conference to promote better practices in information technology

September 19, 2005

Because of them, people stocked basements with food, guns and ammo. Others fell prostrate on hilltops and sang Kumbaya.

There was fear software developers would inadvertently destroy the world with the infamous Y2K computer glitch, in the opening hours of 2000.

These days, however, it is the developers who are worried-about things like how a glitch can give hackers access to customer credit card and Social Security numbers. Or get companies in trouble when software doesn't capture information required by regulators.

With the stakes still high, a newly formed group of information technology professionals plans to hold its first annual "Quality Enrichment Conference" Oct. 7 at the Legacy Fund Community Foundation, in Carmel.

Members of the Indianapolis Quality Assurance Association include some of the brightest bulbs from local companies such as Conseco Inc., Eli Lilly and Co., Interactive Intelligence, Roche Diagnostics Corp. and WellPoint. They range from business analysts to software developers and anyone else involved from initial concept to the production of software.

In just a year, the association has signed up more than 250 members from 39 companies in central Indiana. That's a lot of pocket protectors.

Indeed, it's not a conference the gregarious gang from Sales would likely flock to-with such topics as "Domain Specific Language for System Automation," "Developing an Architecture for Non-Functional Requirements" and "Magic Pixie Dust."

OK, maybe Sales would be interested in that last one.

Behind the buzzwords, quality assurance is a broad approach that includes designing secure databases. Just earlier this year, for example, hackers gained access to 1.4 million credit card numbers and check account numbers of DSW shoe-store customers.

"What Y2K was in the late 1990s, security is today," said Sherry Valenti, president and co-founder of the association, and quality assurance manager at Pearson Education, in Indianapolis.

Quality assurance also has become an issue with the rise of government mandates. New federal laws, such as the corporate-scandal-driven Sarbanes-Oxley Act, require companies to beef up internal controls and require reporting of even more information, such as electronic filing of stock transactions.

Software has to be reliable and accurate, preaches one of the conference's scheduled speakers, Rand Lennox, a partner of Ohio-based Entara Technology Group.

"There's a lot of need for information on, 'How do we install this or that in the software? How do we meet some of the new demands of regulation?'" said Michael Osburn, co-founder and vice president of the association and team leader in global computer systems at Eli Lilly and Co.

"There's a lot of financial reasons for catching some error in code development vs. catching it in production. The cost is exponentially higher" in production, he said.

Applying QA principles helped locally based Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance avoid errors in a number of software packages it produces and distributes to insurance agents, accounting firms and human resources offices. The insurer now involves company business analysts in the earliest stages of software development.

"They say, 'Does it do this or does it do that?'" said Becky Refice, quality assurance technical team leader at Indiana Farm Bureau.

For example, one piece of software was written to produce a report every week instead of every day, as was required.

"That's something we caught even before testing got started," Refice said.

"The major players in the information technology field [in the late 1980s and early 1990s] were developers and system analysts," Valenti said. The industry "did not recognize software testing or quality assurance as a profession."

The Y2K scare was a driving force in validating new applications and improving quality assurance, she added.

"This is how many testers and quality assurance professionals got into the information technology market and began the trend of creating a professional career," Valenti said.

Another reason Valenti and Osburn founded the IQAA was to help IT-related professionals exchange information on emerging issues and to more easily obtain certification. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, many companies cut back on their travel budgets.

Rather than traveling to Chicago, Dallas or Orlando, IT types can attend IQAA sessions in Indianapolis to earn their CSQA (that would be certified software quality analyst), their CSTE (certified software testing engineer) and other acronyms that made for dandy business cards.

Employers "have started making quality an actual department in their company," Valenti said.
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