The Software Detective

QA is a more than a job for Kim Powers - it's a lifestyle. Her work overseeing a team that helps ensure bugs are squashed in the software used by millions of customers is merely an extension of her personality.

Written by: Dan Kaplan

When Kim Powers got engaged to husband Courtney in 1997, the first thing she did was create a wedding planning list. Three months later, the pair got hitched.

“I’m sure some people thought it was a shotgun wedding because we got married so fast,” Powers recalled.

Two years later, when she gave birth to her first daughter, Hanna, who was born eight weeks premature, Powers showed up at the hospital at 3 a.m. to ensure she was being properly fed. (Hanna wasn’t, so Powers relentlessly relayed her grievances to the nursing supervisor – and eventually, the nursing supervisor’s supervisor – until the problem was corrected).

About a decade later, the family – which grew to include second daughter, Lauren – moved into a new home. During a walk-through, Powers inspected every nook and cranny of the home, uncovering the smallest details that needed fixing, including tiny spots that the paintbrush missed. Outside, she observed a bigger eyesore: The fountain in the front yard stood too tall – not noticeable enough for most people, but plenty visible to Powers. She was right. The owner had a landscaper re-grade it. “I was probably the most hated person he ever met,” she admits now, laughing.

Powers, 51, doesn’t mince words. She will be the first to admit she is “structured” and “super anal,” always analyzing the why and how of everything she does and oversees. It is the type of personality that can be exasperating at times – count her two teenage daughters in that camp – but if you’re a customer of Trustwave, there is no person you’d rather have in charge of software quality assurance.

One thing you quickly learn after spending some time with Powers, who lives near Denver, and talking with her colleagues is that she is usually right. And you’re better off spending your time embracing her style and winning her trust than butting heads with her. If you do, you’ll come to quickly admire and appreciate her, even if your patience is tested at times.

“Kim is like the sister I never had and the sister I never wanted,” joked Eric Woerner, vice president of product engineering at Trustwave and a longtime co-worker and friend of Powers. “It’s to the point where I can get totally annoyed with her sometimes. But she lives and breathes QA. She is just a stickler for the process, so we deliver the best product to our customers.”

You need to be a private investigator... You need to think: ‘I’m going play detective today. I’m going to explore and see if there’s anything I can break.’

QA is short for quality assurance. Powers heads a team at Trustwave who tests the functionality of Trustwave TrustKeeper, a cloud-based portal that connects more than three million customers to the company’s managed and cloud security platform. Most heavily used by small merchants – but also used by larger businesses, including Fortune 500 enterprises – TrustKeeper was conceived as a simple-to-use, built-to-scale gateway that provides all users, from neophytes to master tacticians, with clear visibility into and control over their security and compliance. The platform has steadily expanded over the years to accommodate many new products and services, a growth mirrored by Powers’ progression through company ranks and the swelling of the tester team. She began as the only tester supporting a multitude of developers, and now she has a large number of direct reports because of the sheer amount of QA that needs to be done.

TrustKeeper has become a linchpin for organizations wanting to streamline processes, track their security and validate compliance. From vulnerability management to PCI compliance to endpoint protection to chat support, the portal is critical to the operations of businesses around the world. If the portal architecture contains buggy code or some other flaw that limits its intuitive design and degrades the customer experience, Powers and her team have failed.

“You need to be a private investigator,” she said. “You need to think: ‘I’m going play detective today. I’m going to explore and see if there’s anything I can break.’”

The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was well known for believing that the user experience was the only thing that mattered. Start with the customer experience, he would say, and work backward to the technology. Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg agreed, telling NBC in an interview in 2012 that many companies can learn something from thinking that way.

For Powers, who recently celebrated her 10-year anniversary at Trustwave after joining the company following an acquisition, this attitude was not something that needed to be taught to her. In a world where organizations are being taken to the cleaners by cyberattacks, “Customers need to have faith that the data displaying for them is accurate and current,” she said. “This allows them to do their jobs and not cause frustrations.”

Make no mistake, ensuring quality of the TrustKeeper portal is an exercise in rigor and rapid collaboration that culminates with monthly updates for most applications. Containing 30+ apps, many of which integrate with other applications in the portal and feed data to outside sources, the portal requires consistent testing as part of an “agile development” process, especially as the development team makes design and coding changes. The last thing Powers wants is a customer to run into an error message or data that doesn’t display everywhere it should.

Arguably most challenging of all is keeping in mind the diverse audience of enrollees who interact with TrustKeeper, from the technically challenged proprietors of mom-and-pop grocery stores, to the highly regulated acquiring banks and payment processors that use the portal to monitor the compliance of their merchant customers, to the advanced and proficient security teams working at Fortune 500 businesses who track vulnerabilities and threats on a near-constant basis.

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“To retain our customers, we must give them software that is usable and intuitive and working as intended,” Powers said. “If we lose customers, we’re going to lose money. At the same time, if you’re a customer – everyone has gone onto a website that you can’t figure out. Everyone gets frustrated. We don’t want you to be frustrated.”

To accommodate a user base featuring such wide-ranging sets of skills and needs, Powers enlists members of her team who aren’t subject-matter experts on a specific application to provide feedback. Powers also stresses the importance of training a team that can think critically. This starts by having her employees communicate with members of the product teams and Trustwave Advanced Security Operations Centers, a front-line network of command hubs throughout the globe, to understand how Trustwave customers are using various Trustwave technologies.

For example, Powers references Trustwave Secure Web Gateway Cloud, which provides distributed enterprises with real-time protection from dynamic malware and ransomware attacks.

Delivered as a cloud-based service, it is meant to be easy to use – and Powers and her squad seek to enable that by learning how the product “is used in the real world so we can do realistic testing on it,” she said. “We may not be able to test everything the end-user might come back with, but at least we’re going to protect the user from themselves.”

Quality assurance wasn’t always a calling for Powers – in fact, she obtained licenses in real estate and cosmetology before settling on the career when she began working in a bank data center in the late 1990s, coincidentally in the same Denver location as her office is now. Since then, she’s tested it all: from medical devices to aviation equipment.

But QA has always been a lifestyle, ever since she was a child.

“Because inquisitive minds want to know, I’ve always asked ‘why,’” she said. “I’ve never taken things as the way you have to do it. I’m always analyzing how something can be improved or done better.”

As one can imagine, that assiduous disposition often bleeds over to her family life as well. For her two teenage daughters, it means staying on top of them as they pursue their studies and extra-curricular activities on their way to collegiate careers. For her husband, it’s fun-loving critiques of his handy work, such as when he incorrectly measured the doors for a new doggie house. “We ended up using car mats for the doors,” she said. “That’s how we fixed it.”

When Powers isn’t QA’ing Trustwave products and services, she is keeping a close eye on the actions of her two daughters and husband.

When Powers began at Trustwave, joining as the sole tester, she quickly learned that QA had no detailed procedures and strategies in place. So, she did what came natural: She QA’d the quality assurance program to find out exactly what was missing. Her assessment turned up an important discovery. No process existed to show what was being tested and how it was being tested. Absent, also, were guidelines to help ensure what was delivered to production had actually been tested. Her findings ended up engendering the very QA process that the company follows to this day.

Nowadays, Powers’ time is largely spent guiding, mentoring and brainstorming with her staff, versus doing any testing herself. Making her employees the priority also allows her to see more clearly the product of her contributions at Trustwave, which, she said, is the growing collaboration and encouragement that allows the QA team to see the bigger picture. And it will need to leverage that mindset as it embarks on Powers’ biggest project to date: the next iteration of the TrustKeeper portal will include new underlying technology, necessitating the retesting of everything in the portal.

And while the cutting-edge platform will welcome more automation and streamlined testing, manual QA will remain critical because of how it important it is for humans to tinker with software that security and compliance professionals use.

“Automation is very helpful for repetitive tests that are run multiple times, tests that are impossible to perform manually, and tests that run on different hardware or software platforms, as well as tests that take a lot of effort and time to execute manually,” Powers said. “Manual testers will always be needed for usability, new functions that are evolving, and complex functionality with multiple integrations – which is a majority of our portal.”

Woerner, the vice president of product engineering, has known Powers since around 2000, when they worked together at a web conferencing start-up. He remembers one time she walked into the break room, and there was a problem with the coffee maker. “She’s like, ‘This probably wasn’t tested correctly.’”

He leads the development team at Trustwave, which is charged with building TrustKeeper. In a sense, he is the ying to Powers’ yang. He may not always agree when the QA team turns up an issue – such as if it flags a trivial procedural error – but Woerner always respects the debate.

“Kim and I get into different arguments and points,” he said. “Sometimes it gets heated. Sometimes it’s friendly banter. But it’s because she wants to make the best product we can make.”