Nearshore Americas

Q&A: From Anthropologist to QA Tester

An anthropologist can be a QA tester. And a QA tester can be an anthropologist.

Tech companies find themselves increasingly pressured to find enough people to meet the needs of the industry. Demand climbs higher, and the traditional sources of talent are not fast or prolific enough to match its pace. This has pushed tech leadership to venture into hunting grounds that are far from traditional

América Hernández is an example of a major change happening within the tech industry. An anthropologist turned QA tester, Ms. Hernández considers herself an outsider who has been able to bring a different perspective to an industry dominated by men and STEM majors. She has the tech skills necessary to do her job like any other QA tester, but her background in social sciences allows her to tackle projects from another angle; one which involves deeper cultural understanding.

The following conversation with Ms. Hernández touches on how she has adapted her formation as an anthropologist to her current job as a QA tester. She has spoken publicly before about a process she terms “culturalization”, underscoring its importance for tech. We spoke with her about what she means by culturalization, how it is achieved and why it is relevant for tech businesses.

Ms. Hernández also shared her journey from social sciences to tech, her experiences in the industry and her recommendations for tech leaders seeking to bring non-STEM profiles into the mix. 

NSAM: Let’s begin with a very general –yet necessary– question. What is “culturalization” when applied to the tech industry?

América Hernández: Defining the term “culture” is complicated enough as it is. Anthropologists are still debating the issue. 

América Hernández, anthropologist and QA tester at Coppel. Based in Mexico City

I studied anthropology and later made the move to the world of QA testing. There I realized how necessary it is to know your end users better. And I’m not only speaking about understanding how they use the software, but also being aware of the empathies that might arise from interactions they have with these apps, sites, etc. 

Sometimes we don’t understand our audience. We don’t understand that there are elements, words, parts of an interface which might not be friendly to them, or which might even be cause for discomfort. 

That’s what I mean by culturalization: understanding or diving into a culture to grab the elements that match; those which will help us draw a wider audience while being respectful of their culture.

NSAM: Is it common for service providers in the tech industry to have this concept of culturalization in mind when doing business?

América Hernández: I’ve seen it mostly among bigger companies, like Google and Facebook. Facebook has an algorithm that adapts your profile depending on the country you’re in. 

I have yet to see that in smaller companies. It’s also rare among businesses operating nationally [in Mexico]. I don’t have that much experience, but I’ve seen interfaces and things like that which, in my opinion, show a lack of understanding of even their own culture. 

Among these national companies, for example, you can find instances of classism. I’ve seen some use terminology that could be labeled as classist. You have instances in which a product is marketed to people from a very specific social strata, even when there are other people with the money to pay for that product. 

NSAM: Do you think those blind spots are a matter of budget? Or are they a problem of scope?

América Hernández: I think it’s a matter of opening up, of leaving behind specific methodologies that have for long been in use. The wider your footprint [as a business], the bigger your potential audience. Pinterest, for example. The shades they used for their makeup tutorials worked only for people with fair skin. When they realized that, they course-corrected. That’s because the company grew and reached other countries. 

[Culturalization is] diving into a culture to grab the elements that match; those which will help us draw a wider audience while being respectful of their culture

There’s such a wide mix of cultures here in Mexico. There’s so much migration into the country now. Businesses should be aware of that too. The issue is of relevance not only to companies operating internationally. The inner market is changing too.

NSAM: In your opinion, who is responsible for this process of culturalization? Does the responsibility fall on leadership? On developers?

América Hernández: I think responsibility falls on higher places; above programers and testers; even above UX/UI designers. They do play an important role due to all of the information they gather from users. But sometimes, even when you have all of the necessary info, leadership isn’t willing to change certain dynamics which have been in place for years.

I believe it is important to make decisions for the culture of the workplace, but also for a culture of inclusion. That applies to people from other countries and also for those who have a different ideology. When you undergo a process of culturalization, you come to understand the true needs [of users], and make decisions accordingly, breaking away from previous methods and paradigms. 

I’ve seen this in some companies. Their interfaces are so unfriendly, even confusing. Elderly people, for example; some of them are just getting to know this digital world, and it comes off as highly complex. They feel like the world is passing them by. They have to be online to pay for services, to buy food, even to “go to the bank”. For them, interfaces can be confusing, unintuitive, too text-heavy. 

Those are the things that we need to change. We have to rethink and analyze our practices, and not only from a business perspective, but from a social and political one too. 

NSAM: How do you impress cultural sensitivity on dev teams and business leadership? Who’s in charge of that task?

América Hernández: I think companies should leverage the strengths of social sciences more. I’ve grown convinced of that since I made the switch [from anthropology to IT]. 

A sociologist could be a tech lead or scrum master. And this scrum master could have, aside from the expected tech background, additional knowledge.

When you have a STEM background, you usually don’t develop certain skills that are common in social sciences. Engineering and math can build multidisciplinary teams, where other areas –who should have tech skills too– can provide a different vision. 

Multidisciplinary tech teams usually have a programmer, a scrum guy; people with experiences that fall mostly within technology. It’s rare when a member of those teams has a different vision. I believe it is necessary to bring those two worlds closer. 

I also believe social sciences and humanities departments in universities should aim to contribute to the digital world. Social relations also happen in technology, in a way. 

NSAM: Companies might see these processes of culturalization as just another expense. They might bring someone else on board, or hire an external consultant. How would you justify that effort to companies seeking to keep expenses in check?

América Hernández: The following goes for businesses and for people in social sciences. I’ve seen more and more tech teams opening up, incorporating outsiders who also know how to code.

The plus comes from people who have varied skills. It’s not about hiring a historian, an anthropologist or a sociologist just because. They need to have basic tech skills. If their basics are sound, they won’t be seen as an expense. A sociologist, for example, could be a tech lead or scrum master. And this scrum master could have, aside from the expected tech background, additional knowledge.   

NSAM: Are we speaking of “hybrid profiles” then?

América Hernández: Yes. I’m seeing a lot of that now. I’ve come to realize that there are many hybrid profiles now; profiles which might eventually become actual components of tech. If I want to work as a data analyst, and I have a background as a biologist, that will give my work a plus.

When I started [in tech], everything was so tough at first; there was so much I did not understand. But you educate yourself. And if your background differs, you bring another perspective to the work. That’s what happened to me in QA. I thought about who’s using our software, how and for what. 

Hybrid profiles are exactly what’s needed now. Today you can see lots of new careers emerging and which did not exist before the [COVID-19] pandemic. Things are changing, though mostly in private schools. Those are adapting their curricula to fit emerging and growing professions. Public universities, not so much. But I believe –and hope– that public schools won’t take long to do the same. 

NSAM: In a process of culturalization, how important are direct interactions between developers and either clients or final users?

América Hernández: Those are fundamental, but they can be tough. Perhaps you’re developing software that will be used by 10,000 people. Interacting with such a wide array of people won’t be easy. But you can use study groups; introduce the app, site or whatever to them, to see how intuitive it is. UX/UI designers already do that. As a matter of process, they have to interact with end users. 

You can’t go around believing that everyone thinks like you do. We have biases; we are the ones who build the software, who design it. Without that bias, it’s easier to obtain more information on how things are working. People will abandon an online shopping session outright because they found the process too complicated; it’s quite common. That’s how you lose users, clients.

Hybrid profiles are exactly what’s needed now.

NSAM: You’re an anthropologist who moved into tech. How did that happen?

América Hernández: During the pandemic, actually. I have a business, and wanted to make it grow. I wished to launch a website, but found the offers available too expensive. So I decided to try it myself. I did research, and more research, and more research. I ended up finding an organization called Laboratoria which trains Latin American women in digital skills. I applied for a course and became a frontend dev. Then I ventured into the job market and here I am. That’s how it happened. The pandemic brought important changes for me, as it did for many others.

NSAM: What recommendations would you give to companies seeking “hybrid profiles” for their tech teams?

América Hernández: I’ve seen some companies doing away with the traditional requirements for a tech job. They have filters meant to test your tech knowledge, to determine how you fare with technical challenges. I think that’s a good approach: testing your grasp on logic, your knowledge and, most of all, your willingness to learn. 

We come from an old-school perspective in which you get a degree, join the workforce and do the same thing over and over and over. You turn, in a way, into a machine. That’s not possible in tech. 

Companies should look for talent with resilience, who are open to change and who show they have the necessary tech skills.

Bigger tech companies, like Google, Amazon and LinkedIn, are taking that approach. They’re incorporating people from other careers or who don’t have a degree but are self-thought. People from STEM will have an easier time adapting, but, as an outsider, your contributions are different. 

I’ve seen some companies doing away with the traditional requirements for a tech job […] I think that’s a good approach: testing your grasp on logic, your knowledge and, most of all, your willingness to learn.

I believe it is important for the industry to give those opportunities. That goes beyond professional and academic credentials. It also applies to gender and age. 

NSAM: What would be your recommendation for people who don’t have the technical know-how for the tech industry but who are curious about developing digital skills? 

América Hernández: Being curious is a plus already. In tech, you have to be super curious because you have to figure out why things are working or not working. 

I would underscore the fact that it’s not impossible [to move into IT as an outsider]. I’ve been fortunate enough to be among communities of women in this industry who come from different backgrounds. A lot of them come from math and engineering, but there are also those who joined out of curiosity.

I sometimes feel there’s an ocean of information out there, but it’s only a matter of approaching schools and even websites. There’s a lot of information on LinkedIn, for example. There are also people who are well known in the industry and who offer lots of tips. You can even message some of them directly and ask away.

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There are those who believe they’re too old to learn digital skills. That’s untrue. A colleague of mine began his tech journey when he was 46, and he’s a good programmer now. This might sound romantic, but you come to realize that it isn’t impossible to break into the industry and create a profile that’s your own. 

And you don’t have to spend four years chasing a degree. I think that six months or a year of training on the required skills will get you in shape for the industry.

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

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