Tech Entrepreneur Stacy Kirk Speaks on Diversity in Tech
For over 20 years Stacy Kirk, CEO of QualityWorks, has steadfastly advocated for, and facilitated quality and process innovation in software development, ensuring the delivery of progressive web, mobile, and enterprise applications.
Stacy Kirk heads the Hire Diverse Testers project and has built a pool of talented testing professionals with a makeup of over 80% Black, 75% women, and 12% Latinx. After 2 months of intensive training and continuous mentorship, the newly-minted testers have pulled in great interest from corporations that are committed to diversifying their tech teams. Stacy is now calling for more companies that have open testing positions to move beyond performative action by filling their roles with highly qualified candidates from the program.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was fortunate enough to be offered a few internships in college. One in particular was going to offer me what I thought was the most money I could ever imagine for myself: $15 per hour. It was doing something called software testing. At the time, I was striving for a path in development, so this opportunity wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do but I didn’t care what I was doing as long as I could make that much money.
The first week of the internship I was given a massive binder of over 500 pages of test cases to run through. I was thrilled to have the chance to show how quick and efficient I was, determined to get through that entire binder in less than a week. I was so excited to tell my boss I was done and ready for a new task. I’ll never forget his response: “There is nothing new. You’re going to keep going through that same binder over and over again for your entire summer.”
I remember thinking this was terribly tedious and incredibly inefficient. Right then and there I decided I wanted to see how I could use my development skills to be more innovative with how testing was done. From the age of 19 onwards, I aimed to use my development abilities in software testing and quality to improve processes. Now, I’ve been doing that for over 20 years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
About six years ago I had an idea that was almost a joke between my friends and I. The idea was that I should expand my company to Jamaica. It was a joke because I didn’t know anyone in Jamaica and would be going in somewhat blindly with no connections. The premise of thinking of Jamaica and technology is generally not something people think about but I was crazy enough to say, “Let’s test my hypothesis!”
I made some assumptions: the outsourcing that I had done was painful because I had to wake up at 5am or stay up until midnight to meet with people around the world. There was immense frustration in communication and I was often getting results that were not what I expected because of communication barriers. I wanted to see if it was viable to find great talent in the Caribbean, which I don’t think too many people had done before.
The Aha! moment was going to a college campus and setting up 15 interviews. I asked these college seniors the same interview questions that I had asked to hundreds of Quality Assurance folks over my 18 years in the industry – understanding and identifying great testing talent is one of the things I’m great at.
I asked them the same exact questions that I would have asked someone with 10 years of experience. That group of college seniors from the Carribean answered my questions better than any group of people I’d interviewed in my entire career. I was absolutely floored that they could take an area of technology that they essentially had no idea about and answer these questions about testing in a way that totally blew my mind, completely unlike any other interviews I had experienced over my career.
When it comes to talent, it is in every part of the world.
I was so excited because I could tell I may have the opportunity to provide opportunities to excellent and raw talent. Five years later, that’s what we’ve been up to.
There are many different reasons that expanding my business to Jamaica worked, but one big influence was the natural Jamaican culture we appreciated so much. There are certain parts of the culture there that I thought would go very well with the analytical structure of being a tester. I found that it is also a culture that is very entrepreneurial. That was precisely what I wanted in my consultancies; people that were able to see a problem and look for many different ways to solve it. Not to mention, Jamaica is the third largest English speaking country in the Western Hemisphere so communication is fluid.
In my opinion, Jamaica is the best location for outsourcing: high quality communication with a painless time zone. The opportunities there have been overlooked for a very long time, so I was really fortunate to have the connections from my Jamaican American friends to advise me on how to go there and expand my business.
What was the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson did you learned from that?
To be an entrepreneur, you automatically have to be a hopeful person. Oftentimes, entrepreneurs are called risk takers. I recently heard a gentleman entrepreneur say that we’re actually calculated risk takers – but still – we must take risks. I remember seeing such strong growth in the first few years of my company. I decided, based on seeing 10x everywhere, that the next year my company would 10x. I verbalized it time and time again. It became expected.
It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to do it. What I learned is that you can’t just say 10x and expect it to happen. You actually need to begin to lay the foundation for growth that rapid, and sometimes you have to prepare many years in advance to get to a 10x year. There definitely is a point where you can have that massive scale, but what I’ve learned now from fellow entrepreneurs and from my own team is that there is no overnight success. Very often you’ll see someone in a magazine or article that went from zero to 100, but what you don’t see is that they’ve probably been paving the way for many years.
Looking back, it’s funny to imagine myself in front of my team and advisers saying, “Next year we’re going to 10x our revenue!” without understanding that 10x is only possible with a solid foundation years in the making.
Now, I’m excited because we’re on our way to 10x. It’s kind of wonderful.
What are three reasons why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?
1. Your team has to be as diverse as the market you are going after. It is important to be able to see that over the next 10-20 years, this country will only continue to be more diverse. a. Diversity is part of the quality of product and its value. You can’t have a quality product without diverse points of view.b. Diversity enables the company to respond to the market more effectively. 2. It is not possible for one person to see the perspectives of every person.3. The more diverse your executive board is, the more equipped you are with the unknowns of the future. a. Companies that want to be competitive and able to address the needs of the diversity of this country and this globalized world, need to be able to have a voices at the executive level to help with strategic planning
More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?
We live in a society where we are able to see a lot more than we did 30 years ago via Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Ted Talks. The visibility of people of color in the public sphere doing great things means that there are more visible possibilities for young people of color entering their careers. Visibility provides inspiration and inspiration is motivation.
When you see there are people at the executive level that look like you, that’s motivation. When you know there are people at an executive level that can help pull you through the ranks and give you feedback and guidance so that you can grow, that’s motivation. There is motivation in mentorship and sponsorship. There is motivation in opportunity.
Here’s the problem, the roadblock to equality: there is discomfort when we experience something unfamiliar. A lot of people are afraid – not necessarily just afraid of you as a woman or a person of color – but afraid of what’s going to happen in their world if there is this shift, this new factor they are unfamiliar with. They are so caught up in the fear of unfamiliar representation and diversity, that they don’t realize there is actually nothing to be afraid of. As we expand diversity, what seemed so foreign will then seem normal. What used to scare people will no longer scare them because they see it everyday.
For example, a metaphor: my son struggles with algebra. We’ve both grown to become scared of it due to its mystic adversity. My way around this fear is practicing algebra a little bit everyday. If you do it everyday, it becomes familiar and then you are no longer fearful of it. Once you get out of that fear zone and you’re not afraid, that’s when you can start elaboration. That’s when you can learn, experience and expand.
Practice makes perfect. The more we’re able to include a more diverse group, especially in executive leadership, the more we can open up the doors for people to get the opportunities they deserve.
Can you recommend three things the community, larger society, and the tech industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?
1. Community: we have to continue to keep our voice out there for equity and inclusion. Before this summer of protests, it was hard to get people of different races together to agree there is disparity and injustice. My ask for the community is that we keep that fire going. Progress is not enough until we have a fair and balanced society. 2. The tech industry: People say, “We just don’t have POC in our organization that are ready to be promoted.” That’s BS! If they are given support and mentorship, they can absolutely become industry leaders. 3. It has to be a priority that executives will identify POC to get to the next level. They need to clearly and transparently define the criteria of what it takes to be an executive. Hold everyone to that standard. When you omit the convoluted mess of bias and create a clear cut path for POC to move up the ranks, diversity will naturally follow.
These actions should be a top priority at every company. After all, businesses with more diversity in leadership perform better.
How do you define leadership?
Based on great books, I define leadership as being able to identify, cultivate, and support great talent.
There is no one leader who knows it all. In order to do great things, you have to be surrounded by a great team. Being able to bring together a team of diverse brilliance and giving them the opportunities to become the best that they can be, allows you as a leader to be successful based not on your own individual knowledge and expertise, but rather the collective diversity.
What are your top five things you wished someone told you when you first started?
1. Not everyone can be a leader. You can spend a lot of time trying to develop someone into a leader but it’s simply not their mission, purpose or calling. 2. You will hit a point in the growth of your team and company where everything will change. What was a startup mentality will then become too big for that startup culture. You will have to redefine your culture for scale. 3. Not everybody is going to like you but that is ok. 4. If you don’t have a diverse team, you are going to struggle. 5. The investment of quality over speed is essential. You will sleep better and you will inevitably reduce a lot of waste.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Fairness and equity. Rather than treating people how you want to be treated, treat people how they want to be treated. The way we treat others also stems from our own bias. Sometimes we don’t understand enough about how people want to be treated.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? How was it relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote comes from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
Even though I have lived tragedy and have been mistreated and marginalized, I have not lived a single day as a victim.
Even though I was told many times that I shouldn’t bother going to college, that I was too ambitious, or that I don’t need to come to these executive meetings anymore, I persisted. There is something in me that is unconquerable. There is passion within me that I probably got from my mom pushing me for so many years to be my own person. I cannot and will not blame anyone but myself for my success or my failures. I will not blame anyone for where I get to in life, nor for how I learn to define success and happiness. Those are the things that I own.
Is there a person out there whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Dame Stephanie Shirley, author of Let It Go: My Extraordinary Story – From Refugee to Entrepreneur to Philanthropist.
I read this book when forgiveness was an extremely relevant topic in my life. This is an incredible book for anyone that has negative feelings toward someone and needs to get through to a point of forgiveness and letting go. Her story is phenomenal – her neighbors killed her family and she reaches a point of being able to forgive them, likely a pillar of her own success.
She started a business using a model very similar to that of my own. She started a company of computer programmer women, and her business model was to provide flexibility for them to work from home. This method used a revolutionising punch card system, all before the Internet. It was a part time job for working mothers to do programing at home. She built a company of women that became a programmer’s consultancy. She made about 30 millionaires as it grew into an almost billion dollar company.
Her success is rooted in her inclusivity of her team, and having a different kind of look and feel to who normally would be doing this type of work. So I really appreciate her for not only her wherewithal, but also her ongoing philanthropy and values.
How can we keep up with you?
Guest Article: Madison Frilot