Alternative Route

Unexpected detour led probation agent to quality career

by Stephen E. Johnson

One of my favorite questions to ask people I meet is, "How did you end up doing the job that you have now?" I’ve found that some people take a straightforward path. My father, for instance, earned an engineering degree, was hired at a public utility organization and worked there his whole career. Most people, however, have more twists and turns in their professional journey. I am one of those people.

When I interviewed with my current employer, I said I was a retread human services professional looking for work. Despite my newly minted IT networking degree I had acquired for an anticipated career change, I was unable to find related work. It was bad timing; I received my degree just as the recession hit.

My experience and education did not seem to translate to a manufacturing environment, but I was scrambling for a foothold wherever I could find one. The interviewer took a chance and hired me to run a machine that dispenses liquid bulk material into small vials that are sold to customers. My interviewer said I was overqualified for the position and anticipated that I would advance quickly. That is exactly what happened.

After I spent a year and a half running the dispensing machine and learning a lot about the organization along the way, a records reviewer position opened up. I applied for the reviewer position and was promoted. The position was in the operations department, not quality assurance (QA). But the more I learned about QA, the more it made sense to realign my role with QA. A year ago, management agreed with my observation, and I’ve been in QA ever since.

At first, I knew little about quality as it applies to a process, system or department. I had heard of quality control and QA, but had limited knowledge of the extent and breadth of what those functions cover in manufacturing. I was surprised to learn the quality field had such wide reach.

Decoding jargon

Although much of the quality vocabulary is new to me, most of the concepts are not. The Pareto principle was an unfamiliar concept until I thought about my former job as a juvenile probation officer. Recidivism data analysis revealed that a small percentage of juveniles referred to the court committed most of the crimes. The data also revealed that a majority of juveniles referred to the court once were never referred again. That vital few that Vilfredo Pareto talked about became clear.

Human factor engineering and human error reduction also were terms I was familiar with in a different context. I designed forms and paperwork for the court and my current organization based on knowledge gained while earning a psychology degree. The more I learn in quality terms, the more I connect the dots to my previous experiences.

Root cause analysis is similar to what we used to call peeling the onion. In my previous career, I distinctly remember diagrams almost identical to fishbone diagrams on the chalkboard during discussions of process analysis and flow. Now that I have a base of terminology to draw upon, quality takes on a richer and more complex meaning for me. I see the intent and action behind documents and processes, and understand how I contribute to quality.

I have used the metaphor of an alloy of metals often being stronger than one pure material to describe the value of diversity in life. In our professional life, I feel that this is most certainly true. Varied experiences strengthen the overall skill sets that employees bring to the quality field. I am an example of that. When I am in the present and working on a quality challenge, and I bring my total professional experience and education to bear, I am a more effective and efficient quality professional.

People contemplating entering the quality field should not be afraid that they don’t have the typical skill set that the organization is looking for. They may be a better fit than they think. In my informal straw poll of career pedigrees, I have noticed common themes among professionals. Terms used may be different, but often general knowledge of topics is similar. Human interaction skills, known as soft skills, translate well to the quality world. The most effective quality personnel have honed their soft skills.

When I look back on my career and how I ended up in quality at a biopharmacology manufacturer, it seems to be more of a long, strange trip than a long and winding road. Although I may have taken the road less traveled, I am happy and fortunate to be a part of a QA department with an organization that I believe in.

Stephen E. Johnson is a quality assurance specialist in south central Wisconsin. He holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and an associate’s degree in computer networking and security from Herzing University in Madison, WI.

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