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Culture, advocacy, and trust: Building the foundations for a successful QA team

QA is a vital part of the game development process, but, as Private Division executive producer Kari Toyama explains in her GDC Summer talk, QA’s contributions and even presence is often underappreciated.

QA is a vital part of the game development process, but, as Private Division executive producer Kari Toyama explains in her GDC Summer talk, QA’s contributions and even presence is often underappreciated.

In her talk “How I built a Healthy and Engaged QA Team from Scratch,” Toyama shared how her own experiences working in QA over the years helped her later on when she was tasked with setting up a QA studio for Take-Two Interactive's then-fledgling publisher Private Division.

Her own entry-level experiences left her with game dev horror stories of quite literally being the only woman in the room during her days working on Halo 3, being told her presence distracted other developers, or having her accomplishments explained away by thinly veiled sexism.

The most impactful experience from those early days, and what informed much of her philosophy for setting up Private Division’s QA studio, was that these moments made her to feel as if she had no voice or presence as an individual on a team.

Now, she explains that the benefit of building a QA team from the ground up is that you are given a chance to help shape the studio culture that could make or break a team’s success, or even individual careers. For Private Division, Toyama set out with five pillars in mind: Culture, diversity, relationships, advocacy, and trust. 

“Your first hires are incredibly important on any team,” explains Toyama. “They’ll shape the rest of your team and your whole organization.” This extends beyond just leadership; every hire has an impact on the studio culture, and the early weeks for those new devs should further focus on refining a team’s vision and values.

With QA, there’s also the opportunity to hire a number of people into entry level positions which means that “we have an opportunity as an organization with entry level roles to bring in a diverse group of people that represent our user demographic,” explains Toyama. “There’s really no excuse not to have a diverse group of people join your team if you have entry level roles open.”

Building a team with a strong sense of community is somewhat of a theme throughout Toyama’s talk, along with the somehow controversial notion that QA staff should have a back and forth with other development disciplines, even if each works out of different locations.

Setting up direct lines of communication between other development disciplines and QA seems like an obvious step, but Toyama says she’s “worked in many situations where QA teams are not allowed to talk to developers, or the engineers fixing their bugs.” Instead, she says it’s critical to ensure that QA and the rest of a dev team has a good working relationship and are able to share their processes and feedback with one another.

Leadership needs to advocate for their QA teams and eliminate “the stigma with game QA being the bottom of the barrel.” At Private Division, this takes the form of transparency about the goals, daily tasks, and priorities QA devs bring into their work. “If more people know what QA does for our titles, they’d respect them as a critical part of our team.”

Finally, a successful fledgling team needs to be backed by trust: “Make sure they have the support they need to succeed, but give them room to fail.” There’s a key difference between micromanaging and encouragement, and the latter is absolutely vital to building a fresh team. “We’re not afraid of failure here; we welcome it actually,” says Toyama. “We welcome the opportunity to adjust things when they’re not going as planned.”

Throughout her talk, Toyama shares anecdotes from moments at Private Division's QA studio: whiteboards decorated to celebrate a visiting dev from another team, pictures of the team’s potluck party pulled from the studio’s monthly newsletter, or a note from a dev about how important it is to them that the studio has people of color in leadership roles. 

In closing, Toyama hammers home how vital it is for leadership to invest in their teams, especially entry level hires. “Really, really invest in them! Hire diverse teams and invest in their training. It only takes one ship cycle for people to become an expert in the game industry, and it was well worth the effort we put in.” Beyond that, she says that support, encouragement, and a focus on building strong relationships are vital, but leadership needs to be ready to advocate for their teams at every turn and make sure their voice is heard.

“There is no one else that's going to speak up for people like this,” she says. ”If you don’t do it no one else is going to.”

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