Integrity and quality in engineering, and leadership as an art

Software quality is like integrity - it’s doing the right thing even if no one is watching. That’s according to Merlin Quintin, Director QA Engineering at Redbox.
 
Merlin joins Ledge in this episode to discuss her unique approaches to engineering leadership as a veteran team member at a disruptive media company. Merlin says engineering is about who you are as a person, working together with other people, to make a difference.
 
This approach to leadership has guided Merlin Quintin through her time at RedBox and beyond. In this episode Ledge and Merlin discuss approaching leadership as an art, how to maintain emotional intelligence under times of stress, and how her emphasis on integrity and quality has shaped her career as an engineering leader.

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Merlin Quintin | Redbox
Director QA Engineering
Keep up with Merlin and her work on Linkedin.
David "Ledge" Ledgerwood
Client Services | Podcast Host
Your host, Ledge, is a many-time founder, with deep experience in growing six-figure startups to 8-figure enterprises. Clients talk to Ledge first when exploring a relationship with Gun.io.

“Love this podcast! Best one out there for high-level industry trends and advice. Recommended!”

Danny Graham, CTO / Architect

Transcript

 

DAVID LEDGERWOOD:  Merlin, thank you for joining us. It's very cool to have you on.

 

MERLIN QUINTIN:  Ledge, thank you so much for having me, too.

 

LEDGE:  Can you a quick two- or three-minute introduction of yourself and your work so the listeners can get to know you?

 

MERLIN:  I am Merlin Quintin. I currently work as the director of quality engineering at Redbox and I'm sure everyone is aware of what Redbox is and what it does for the community at this time offering the smartest way of entertainment at the cheapest prices. And you can't beat that.

It has been a pride being a part of Redbox for a long time now. I have been with the organization for eleven years now so I'm a longtimer. I came into the organization ─ if I'm not wrong ─ as the thirteenth person in technology.

We've grown. Obviously, it's a decade so there have been the mountains, the peaks, and the valleys ─ all of it. And I have seen all of it. That, in itself, is an experience I cherish and I will cherish for a long time. And I think that is something that I would be able to bring to anywhere I go both as a person as well as a leader.

In terms of the strength that you gain throughout the process, it's what I think I would be able to best contribute in the future world wherever I may be ─ if it continues to be Redbox or other places. There's a lot over there that I have gained.

And over the period of years before that, I have always been in the software world. I have always been in the technology world. Obviously, from the career decisions that I made early on, I did master in the computer applications and I did pursue as a software to start with and I was coding for my initial young age of entering into technology Very early in my career, I think I found my niche. I did not really feel that I was contributing writing code. Then, figuring out a couple of years after I started my career and then coming down to every step of the way I took from there, I think I kind of sparkled as a leader in every move I made. And  I found the realm of quality engineering much closer in realm to how I associate with.

You know how they describe integrity and quality means the same thing. It's doing the right thing even if no one is watching.

I think integrity is very close to my heart as a person, as a value, and I think it's just the universe that kind of aligned something in close meaning as my profession as well.

So quality and integrity is very close to me and I'm just thinking that the universe just aligned it that way.

But then early on, I owned the niche that, as a leader, I sparkled. I'm able to contribute. There is value. There is a difference and people appreciate that. Core values are very close to my heart and very important to me, and that's how I work.

I've been able to achieve a lot of high performing, highly engaged teams just with that aspect of being human and being honest and trying to get the best out of everyone.

And every step of the way from there ─ I think in a month ─ every job role, every career path I chose, I'd become the leader. And then, I thought, okay, probably that's what it is.

Weird enough, I'm an artist, too, on the creative side. And leadership is an art. Over the period of years, there's the other aspect which is the emotional intelligence and a lot of balanced IQ, EQ, and LQ, the love quotient. All put together, I think it's what makes a great leader and prepares them for a future where technology can take a lot of innovation for the future.

But what clearly will be needed for the future is a lot of that balanced EQ, IQ, and LQ personalities.

I think I'm on the right track there. I love being a leader and I love to see the teams sort of grow. I cherish the partnership that they have with me and I have proven examples of how that could work.

I have been leading a lot in the recent years and the speed of trust ─ if you have heard, I was closely engaged with that. And late last year when we had to go through a project that was strenuous, I kind of applied that in life and I saw what difference and miracle that can work.

I was like, “Yes, I just read the theory a couple of years ago. I've now tried it practically, and it works.”

 

LEDGE:  So you're using words like “leadership in motion, love” and your job title is in engineering. I don't think those are things that people hear all the time together when they're engineers.

So connect the dots for my skeptical engineering friends as to why that is so important.

 

MERLIN:   The human brain is engineered but we always talk about the heart when it comes to emotions. I think emotions still are from the brain. It's wired and it's in the mind. That's the connection.

As much of what your hands can engineer, your brain can also support. And I don't know how the concept of heart in relation to emotions came about but my personal opinion feels that it comes from the brain, from the mind. And that is an engineering aspect that you did not create for yourself. It was created for you and, therefore, you exist. You are utilizing that little bit of intelligence in that engineering that was pre-built in you to now build other things. That is the close connect.

Engineering is more about building and innovating and the one life proof example is yourself, in a way. What tends to happen is you kind of continue to pursue the new and you always want to come back to the roots.

So pursuing the new is all of this writing code, the innovative technologies that you're developing. But when you come back to your roots, it's still your mind and your brain ─ that engineering that is real. And connecting those two dots is where I'm like filling in those gaps of “It needs to come back to who you are.” And it can only come back to who you are not because of the code you wrote but because of the difference you made, because of the value you added as a person.

Anyone can write code. And I think that is what the reality is because it's a learning skill; it's a learned and a trainable skill. But in terms of the engineering in your mind, that has a lot more to do about who you are and that could make that difference in what you engineer externally.

 

LEDGE:  That's great. I love that. Tell me about some times when you have had to draw the team through some really difficult engineering times. Maybe something crashed; production wasn’t working. There are all kinds of sort of fire fighting and things aren’t always pretty in technology. And I'm curious, particularly from the quality assurance angle, that's even more important for you because you're trying to mitigate that before it happens.

How and where have you dealt with some of those things because we've all had that day where we work 24 hours to find the missing semicolon that brought down production?

 

MERLIN:  Exactly! That is true. It definitely happens quite a lot. Lucky for me, I think previous to 2017, we've had a pretty stable quality under my leadership. I'm really proud about that.

We had, obviously, processes and steps in how we worked as a team. A lot of those aspects were built into how that was achieved. But, as you've said, the other instances definitely do happen; and, most often, it's happened.

Now, there are a few things. Because I do head up the quality engineering aspect, quite a lot of things come up hitting at me. Now, it's up to me how I take that in and filter it through down to my team. And that is exactly where the difference gets made.

There is a way I can just let that pass through and let every single aspect from emotion to disruption to the impact to everything just pass through. Or just because I am there as a part of this channel of communication flow, what difference can I make to achieve success with as much of a seamless that does not have to disrupt?

I'm not saying that disruption is bad. Disruption is, sometimes, good. You stir up the pot. It is, sometimes, required because, then, the dust settles. It's required at times. And then, when you stir up the pot, at times, you can also realize what actually exactly stirs up. And there are a lot of learning to be made in that aspect.

On the other realm, it's also about how I channel it. I think that's unique to me and I have seen that work and it's made a difference.

I can call myself a “workaholic.” I'm not the one who’s rushing out just because the production issue happens or “It's three o'clock. I want to get home because I can't wait for four o'clock and be stuck here until eight o'clock.”

No, I'm not that person. I have sat through overnights on certain instances.

There is one question some friends or even family asks. There's a production issue. You are a director of quality engineering. You're not going to write code. You're not going to fix that code. So why the heck are you there?

You can handle it on a call. With today’s technologies, there are a lot of different ways you can do that.

Agree, completely!

But I need to be there for the team that does that. I need to show them that I care in the perspective of “Yes, I'm not there with them till 8 o'clock or till 12 midnight writing code and fixing code. But I'm there to support them and tell them ‘I'm with you. You can do this. And we're going to fix this; we're going to find it; and it's going to be fine.’”

It has not happened quite so often but when it has happened, I have stepped in and made that difference.

The issue is going to get resolved. We're going to find the problem. Just about how you handle the whole situation is where the difference is made. And when you offer that support, you see that they are putting it through not just for production’s sake, not just for their sake. They're actually looking at you with “I can't let her down.” And that matters.

I talked to you about not just production issue; I talked to you about the initiative we had to go live with late last year when we had to lose up on holiday vacation time. And I didn't say anything. I just stood up in front of my team and I said, “This is huge for the organization, for the business. There is a big initiative and everyone is counting on it.

I know the schedules are not working out in our best interest at this time. I know the progress is not working out in our best interest at this time. I know the holidays are coming up ahead and there is a lot of time investment we have to make. And that is a lot to ask.

But I'm just going to stand up here and tell you that this is doable because I trust in you, guys, and we can make this happen.”

The only response I got back from my team was “We will get this done for you.” And that makes the difference. It's not the issue. It's not the problem. It's not disruption.

As a leader, it's clearly putting yourself in a realistic state and exposing to them and then sort of giving them the trust that you have in what can be achieved if we worked together on that and reinstating the fact that it is doable and there's nothing impossible if we just work as a team.

And when you build that trust, the speed that things that can come to life is immense. I have seen one example of that in my lifetime which I feel very thankful for. Therefore, I can confidently say that it works.

 

LEDGE:  That's fantastic. Thank you for sharing that story. I described to you before we hit “record” that we're an organization that is very dedicated to finding, evaluating, and vetting the very best engineers ─ senior engineers, professionals ─ and we do that with a pretty rigorous process that we feel strongly about.

However, I like to ask every technology leader that I have on “What is your process and what are your heuristics for knowing the very best, most senior engineers because I think that we can all learn from each other and continue to build that system?

 

MERLIN:  Definitely! As a senior engineer, I'm guessing you're talking about the engineering contributions and the level of expertise that one develops where they become the senior, right?

 

LEDGE:  Yes. And, obviously, in your position, you have to do a lot of hiring. In one way or another, you are evaluating “Is this person someone that we should add to our team both based on skills and based on a lot of qualitative metrics?”

I'm curious what those heuristics are and how you measure them.

 

MERLIN:  I walk a little differently than norms. I'm going to get to that, too. But, in general, obviously, there is a job role either internally you're looking at someone or externally. Definitely, in the technology and in the engineering world, it does come with hands on skillset needs.

So that is one of the criteria based on whatever the role means and whatever toolsets and areas of expertise you need in terms of the years of experience, the effective contributions that they have made and brought life and reality a lot of those innovative solutions.

That definitely matters. So that kind of depends on the job role in itself whether you're developing in dot.net aspect or you're in the Java world.

So you're looking at very specific hands on skillsets. That is definitely one of the assessment criteria from a hands-on engineering individual contributor role that they have all of those skillsets to effectively grow into being a senior or already in a senior role.

In addition to that, there is also the equivalent mix of behavioral aspects that you want to look at from a personality. That, again, is dependent on the role in itself:  Is this person going to work in a team? Is this going to be a very solo individual contributor? Is this role going to be partnering with cross teams? Is this role going to be going across departments?”

Based on that, the importance that you rely on the behavior aspects may vary in terms of what's more important, what could be coached, and what could evolve over a period of time.

So you're looking at a lot of those different types of aspects. And that is pretty much how we process. Obviously, we have the first level of screens where we're looking at the immediate need which is the technical hands-on experiences. How does that portray for the individual?

Secondly, we also have panel sessions where we try to gauge the other personality traits and behavioral aspects. How do they handle situations and certain scenarios? How do they handle people of different personalities?

I think that's nothing unique from a company or a process standpoint in the hiring process. Or even if you're looking at an individual in the team to grow into a certain senior, that's pretty much how you're looking and assessing.

I do value a lot of the behavioral aspects a bit higher than the technical hands-on skillsets. In terms of the behaviors, I'm more looking at the drive, the passion.

So you may not be able to code in C# today but do you have that passion to be a hands-on engineer tomorrow? Do you have that drive? And what are doing about it?

Yes, everyone wants to dream about coding in C#, let's say, but one person is just waiting for the opportunity to get into C# coding whereas I see another person who is like getting a lot of those tutorials. He's partnering with a developer to get some hints on how to start or getting onto some subscriptions to practice by self.

Then, you see that there is a difference. There is that drive and the urge and the passion, and you're doing something about it. You're not sitting and waiting for something to come on your lap.

So that difference matters to me because it's not what you know today. It's about what you want to be tomorrow and what you're doing about it in the meantime.

This applies both internally and externally. So when you talk to employees, you're talking about growth and career paths and things like that.

I am proactively setting you up for success by pushing through like “You know what, I'll get you registered on this course. You know what, I'll get you introduced to this one.”

I can do everything for you but all that matters is “What are you doing about it and what are you doing for yourself?”

And that is not hidden; that shows. Mostly, what I say when I talk to my team or anyone else is “I don't have to talk to people. I don't have to actually even talk to you. I can observe and I will know. I will see the difference because the curiosity aspect matters. You're curious. You have the drive to do something about it and you're passionate about it. And you definitely will do something about it.

And then, it will show. And when you do all those things, it will show effectively, quantitatively, and qualitatively. It will show and I have an eye to catch that. And that makes the difference.”

Personally, as an opinion, I'm saying that there are brands and I have nothing against all of those. But I believe in creating a brand for yourself.

Just because I have the worst form that anyone can use in my hand, I believe, if that makes everyone else look at it differently and sort of force of value to it, I believe I can make that difference. I can take something that's nothing and just because I have it, I own it, or I portray it out, it has a value.

And I think that's mostly what I believe in. I have counted on that and I have brought on folks who have definitely contributed in different ways that a traditional engineer would not have if they did not have everything I just talked about.

Personally, that does mean a lot more. At the same time, it's not at the cost of someone who is not having the underlying basic needs, the basic requirements. It definitely comes a little beyond that. At the same time, there are individuals I have come across but you pick and choose the ones you what to take the risk on. And there are aspects that you use to see if it's worth the risk or not.



 

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