For our first episode we interview Kristina Sontag, who runs Omni’s test department — a group tireless, fearless, and strikingly effective in its hunt for bugs.
Kristina got her start playing games for a living at LucasArts. Between there and today she’s also worked on educational software, gotten a pilot’s license, volunteered for App Camp for Girls, and helped organize the Emerald City Supporters.
When she’s not doing everything else, she’s playing Destiny. She may even be thinking about Destiny at this very moment.
You can find Kristina on Twitter @knsontag.
Some other people and places mentioned:
Brent Simmons: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind Omni's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. I'm your host, Brent Simmons. In the studio with me today is Kristina Sontag. Say hello, Kristina.
Kristina Sontag: Hello, Kristina.
Brent: Very well done. Kristina runs the test department here at Omni. Kristina, what's your actual title?
Kristina: I am the Software Test Manager at the Omni Group.
Brent: Software Test Manager. And how many testers do we have, roughly?
Kristina: Roughly about nine.
Brent: Roughly about nine, so we did the math in advance, people. So, we're saving you time. When I first came to work at Omni three years ago, I noticed that there were actual testers, and I loved that immediately. It seems that Omni places a great premium and priority on hands-on testing. So, how did that come to be, or what do you think of that? Automated testing is such a thing these days.
Kristina: Yeah, it definitely is. There are definitely things that automated testing is good for, but I think that products that are used by humans really need to be tested with that in mind. So, while we can automate certain processes and certain cases where we're trying to find maybe lower level bugs in our frameworks or in the way we handle data, when you're actually looking at a product on the screen or on a touch device, you have to have real eyes and real hands touching it and feeling it and making sure it feels right, and it behaves right.
Brent: That sounds right. It would be hard, I guess, for an automated test to catch if an animation is stuttery, for instance.
Kristina: Absolutely, yeah.
Brent: And certainly more complicated things, but yeah, it takes actual human eyes and fingers to make good stuff.
Kristina: Yeah, there's definitely the need for the human touch.
Brent: Yeah. That's cool. I know, I've often joked that Omni isn't a software company, it's a testing company, because in a lot of ways, that is the secret to making these apps really, really good. It's the great testers.
Kristina: Yeah. I make a point to call myself the test manager and not the quality assurance manager, because every one of us really assures the quality of it. Not just the test department, but the engineers, the support [humans], give quality support when things go wrong, which is not very often, I'm sure.
Brent: They're mostly napping.
Kristina: Yeah. Clearly. No, no — no, they're doing good work.
Brent: The support humans are great, yeah.
Kristina: Yes, they are.
Brent: That's cool. And two, when I started working here, I noticed there's a test department and I was a little worried because I had heard stories of other places that developers and testers can be antagonistic sometimes. But the relationship here, at least from my perspective and what I've heard from other people is fantastic. And so I wondered, is that something you've had to work hard to cultivate, or did that just come by just doing an honest good job, or ... How did that come to be?
Kristina: I mean, obviously, it's a little of both because you do need to remember that as a tester, you are delivering bad news about somebody's hard work, and you don't want to go in going, "Hey, hey, look at this really cool thing I found! It's so broken. Sorry." So, I mean, there is a lot of... just recognizing the other person to be a human being and saying, "Hey, I'm really sorry. This is what I found," and sticking to the facts, and then having fun in other ways. We eat lunch together, we tend to have a very solid community here, and I think that a lot of those activities also help to just diffuse any of that sort of kind of bad feeling, ill will, that might spring up.
Brent: So, some of it is we are almost entirely all in the same place, and we hang out, we all like each other. The company's not so large. I mean, I know who everybody is. So, yeah, that's pretty cool.
Kristina: Yeah, yeah. And that's very helpful, knowing who is responsible for a certain area. You're able to go and talk to them. Sometimes we actually find issues before the code is even written, because we'll look at something and we'll go, "Well, how's this going to work with this particular type of interaction?" Or, "Does this work well with the other feature that we have in here that does a similar ... Or works in a similar way." So, I think that really, it's a strong community that helps, and hiring in people who have a good attitude and are able to deliver bad news well and...
Brent: Right, that's a skill.
Kristina: ... and has a good sense of humor is always important, but I think we tend to just recognize that everybody's job is difficult and rewarding.
Brent: The tester I've worked most with recently, his name is Orion, which may be the perfect name for a bug hunter. And Orion, of course, is great. But everyone I've worked with has been great. So, kudos to you for running a great department. Thanks for doing that.
Kristina: Oh, thank you very much.
Brent: A lot of it, too, I think is app knowledge, right? So, I'm a long time OmniOutliner user, and then I started working on Outliner, and I've always used it in kind of a simple way, and then I maybe fixed on bug, not even knowing about some other feature that I just broke. But testers, they know everything. It's amazing.
Kristina: Yeah. The depth of knowledge ... Our apps are very complex, and we try very hard to make them very easy to use, but very powerful. So, there are lots of these sort of tips and tricks that we pick up as testers because we've been testing these features for a very long time. It's pretty amazing to me, because I don't get to spend as much time on all of the apps as my other folks do, and so sometimes I'll walk in and I'll be like, "Okay, what do you need help with?" And they're like, "We're testing this," and I'll be like, "Oh, we do that? Great. Tell me about it."
Brent: Wow, what's that? Great.
Kristina: The depth of knowledge that my folks have on the products is just amazing.
Brent: Yeah. Wow, that's great. Let's move on. I have notes here on my phone in OmniOutliner for iOS, by the way, which I'm working on currently.
Kristina: Of course.
Brent: Anyway, next thing here in my outline is App Camp. You're one of the volunteers at the Seattle App Camp, and you've done that three years in a row?
Kristina: Let's see. I started volunteering with App Camp the first year it was starting in Portland, which was 2013, and then Liz Marley and I decided we needed to bring that to Seattle, and so we organized the Seattle camp in 2014. So, we've run it 2014, 2015, 2016, and hopefully ... Oh yes, this is 2017. 2017 too.
Brent: It is 2017, yeah.
Kristina: And then yeah, so it's been a really amazing experience for a wide variety of reasons.
Brent: In case any of our listeners don't know, we're talking about App Camp for Girls, which was started by Jean McDonald in Portland several years ago, and the idea ... Well, explain the idea behind it, if you would.
Kristina: Right. So, App Camp for Girls started when Jean was at WWDC, the big Worldwide Developer Conference that Apple hosts every year, and she was realizing that really, there were very, very few easily-identifiable women in the audience. Mostly, it was a sea of guys, and I've had the same experience. So, she decided that there was an opportunity to bring in more women into the industry, and let's start from the ... Getting middle school girls really interested in computers and computer science. So, they did a ... She and Grey Osten, actually, worked together and developed a curriculum and figured out kind of how to get a group of middle school girls to develop an app in a week.
Brent: That's just amazing, anyway. Just the thought of it. I'm like, okay.
Kristina: It's amazing. Yeah, and nuts and bolts, I mean, from the very basics that we give them is just a storyboard, blank storyboard, go, and here's the type of things that we are going to do. It's amazing. You can go and download the App Camp app from the App Store.
Brent: I'll put that in the show notes, by the way.
Kristina: Yeah, and see what these girls do, because it's phenomenal. They draw the art, they write the words, they write the code, they put it together. It's pretty cool.
Brent: Oh, that's great. In a week, even.
Kristina: In a week. In one week.
Brent: Yeah. And at the end of the week, as I recall, because I've been to a few, there's a demo, kind of a pitch session. So, there'll be a panel of women who are not necessarily VCs, but kind of pretending, right? And then the groups of girls, right.
Kristina: Well, they're industry experts, yeah.
Brent: The groups of girls then demo their app and talk about it and answer questions.
Kristina: Yeah, yeah, and we have a ... Like I said, we have a template, so they do sort of a four questions app, and at the end, you get an answer of some sort. So, we've had apps that are personality quiz apps, we've had apps that are how long will you survive a zombie apocalypse, we've had couch potato apps. Should you or should you not get off the couch? All sorts of different ...
Brent: Answer is not long, and no.
Kristina: Yeah. So, it's pretty amazing, and it's really interesting to see these teams of — because they work in a team — these teams of girls kind of find their niche, because we take them from the concept through the design and the UI and the development, and then the marketing, to the pitch session, in that whole week.
Brent: And so they find their own strengths and interests and everything?
Kristina: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Brent: Oh, that must be cool. So, it's an obvious good thing for the world. What do you get out of it?
Kristina: That was the surprise for us. When we first started this, we thought, okay, we're going to give back, we're going to get girls excited in computers. This was going to be great. And then we discovered we started making connections with women in our industry, and we started having a much broader network of women in our industry, and it sort of strengthened and helped each and every one of us, just basically move our careers forward. We have had volunteers go on back to school to become software developers. We've had all sorts of just really good interactions between volunteers after camp is over.
Brent: Wow. That sounds great. It's nice to do well by doing good.
Kristina: Yes. Yeah.
Brent: That is super cool. As I mentioned, I've been to a couple of the pitch sessions, and they're so rewarding, watching the girls and their enthusiasm, talk about the apps and everything.
Kristina: Yeah, there have been-
Brent: I can imagine that that alone ... That would just make it worth it.
Kristina: There have been some where I've been ... There's been lots of dust in the air, shall we say.
Brent: Oh, I'm sure, yeah. Yeah, always so dusty there. Oh, that's cool. So, how did you get your start in the industry? I heard a rumor that you played games for a living.
Kristina: I played games for a living, yes I did. A friend of mine worked at LucasArts games when I was in college, and they started hiring testers, and I thought, well, I don't know a whole lot about computers, but I had a computer since I was eight years old, so I figured I'd try it, and I got hired, and I got to play games, and break games. So, yeah, you—
Brent: That's the dream of millions and millions of kids.
Kristina: Right, isn't it?
Brent: Or adults, really, yeah.
Kristina: You can do it. It is possible.
Brent: So great.
Kristina: Yeah. It was pretty awesome. I did work on Secret of Monkey Island 2.
Brent: What was the secret of Monkey Island?
Kristina: Oh, you have to play the game.
Brent: Yeah. The last game I played was Threes, and I was so addicted. It ruined my productivity for a year, I don't know.
Kristina: Oh dear.
Brent: It sounds like that must have been cool. So, where was this? This is in California somewhere?
Kristina: Yeah. I grew up in Santa Rosa, California, so when I was ... I think I got the job when I was 20. Yes. So, when I was 20, I interviewed, and the building that we were in was actually near where ILM was in San Rafael. I could actually walk through some of the back lots to go to lunch.
Brent: So, backlots of places they're filming, they're all set up and making movies?
Kristina: There was one time ... Over the course of a week, I'd walk to lunch and there'd be a plywood sort of structure, and then it was covered in a black tarp, and then the next day I walked by and it was a mountain range. I'm like, oh! Well, there you go.
Brent: Yeah, that's cool.
Kristina: So, yeah, there was a lot of that sort of interesting things, and then later on you'd see a movie and you'd go, "Hey, that looks familiar..."
Brent: That plywood, I've seen that before.
Kristina: That mountain range, hmm.
Brent: Yeah, that's cool. That's like the very heart of nerd culture, to be right there.
Kristina: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. It was pretty amazing. We could occasionally go to lunch at Lucas Ranch at the ... Skywalker Ranch, I'm sorry, which was pretty awesome, just being able to go and sit down at a table and have George Lucas two spots in front of you in line. It was a pretty formidable and formative experience, definitely.
Brent: Wow, that's so cool. And from there, you said, "Well, enough fun. I'm going to go work at Edmark.
Kristina: Well, I did go ... I moved to Seattle. Ron Gilbert started a company called Humongous Entertainment. Now, Ron was a LucasArts alumni, and so I took the opportunity to move up here and test software for Humongous for a bit, and then I moved ... Since that was children's software, I thought that was interesting, I moved on to Edmark, which was more educational children's software, and I spent 10 years doing all sorts of different things there, not just testing, but I started doing some web development, web server administration. Ended up doing some actual software development towards the end of my time there. That was really kind of where I started kind of figuring out what I enjoyed and what really worked for me in the software industry. And after—
Brent: That's cool. So, they gave you the opportunity to do all these things.
Kristina: Yeah. I mean, I was able to really just grow and kind of tried a bunch of different things. It was great. After Edmark, I did a bit of contracting web development work, and then I got a job in the credit card industry.
Brent: Ah. That's where the fun goes away.
Kristina: Yeah. And then I quickly moved on. No, I had a great time with the people I worked with, but yeah, the industry was not for me.
Brent: Yeah, I understand that.
Kristina: That was definitely not for me.
Brent: So, how did you end up at Omni?
Kristina: Well, I did a bit more contracting, decided I really was not a businesswoman. I enjoyed the work, but not the actual going out and finding the work and paying the bills and doing that part. So, I was deciding that I needed an actual job, and I looked on Craigslist and there was this opportunity at The Omni Group, who I had heard of, for many years, and I thought wow, sure, I'll try that.
Brent: So, this was around 2000 and ...
Kristina: It was the end of 2008. So, I interviewed and apparently did well enough to get hired. I'm very happy to be here, and the—
Brent: Well, with the food and everything.
Kristina: Right? Right? Wow. It's not just the food.
Brent: Well, it's half, at least.
Kristina: Yeah, so I got to work on ... The first project I got to work on was, we were just launching OmniFocus for the iPhone. The iPhone App Store had just opened up to third party developers, and we were getting that out there and that was kind of interesting.
Brent: Yeah, wow, 2008. Yeah, you came in here right as everything changed a ton.
Kristina: Everything changed, yeah. Yeah, so that was a very interesting experience.
Brent: How did you end up running the test department?
Kristina: About a year and a half, I think, after I started, I was pregnant and I was going to have a child, because that's what you do when you're pregnant.
Brent: Smart. First child?
Kristina: First child, yeah. And my boss, who was currently running both the support and the test department, decided he needed to focus ... The department was too big for one manager, and we needed to split the department. So, he was going to ... This was Brian, was going to focus on the support, and they needed a test manager. Now, recall back when I said that I worked at Humongous Entertainment. I was a senior enough tester that they put me in charge and made me the test manager of that little startup. So, I had test management on my resume. So, when they made the decision that they needed another manager, Ken came into my office and said, "Hey, you have management experience. Would you like this?" And I've likened this experience to feeling like I was standing in line with everybody and they asked for volunteers and everybody took a step back.
Brent: [inaudible 00:19:52].
Kristina: But I have really enjoyed it, yes, I have really enjoyed it. I did ask that maybe we wait until after I came back from maternity leave, though.
Brent: Fair enough.
Kristina: I thought that was appropriate.
Brent: Yeah, yeah. That's enough of this work business.
Kristina: Oh, totally.
Brent: So, you tell me that your dream of commuting is to fly a plane from where you live, and land ... If any of our listeners don't know, Omni is just a couple blocks up from Lake Union in Seattle, and there's floatplanes that come and go all day long. So, Kristina, you have a pilot's license, so you could conceivably fly a floatplane into work.
Kristina: Yeah. I do have a single engine land license. I would need to do some work to get my seaplane rating, but you know.
Brent: Once you've got one license, two seems easy.
Kristina: Right? Here you go. Off you go. Yes, that would be my dream commute. I would love to be able to fly my plane in and land and get out, walk up the hill, go to work. I think that would be pretty amazing.
Brent: That would be so cool. I would go from where I live to your house. I don't even know where that is. I assume it takes an hour just to ride in with you on your floatplane every day.
Kristina: Yep. Yep. That—
Brent: That would be so great.
Kristina: I'd need to move a little closer to a lake. I think the lake I live near is a little too small, and I don't think they ...
Brent: Yeah. You don't want to cut that close.
Kristina: No, no, no, not really. Definitely not. But that would be my dream commute, yeah, definitely.
Brent: So dramatic every day. [plane sound] Man. Cool.
Kristina: Yes, I do love the fact that my office looks out over the seaplane harbor. It's great.
Brent: Yeah. Was it Kenmore Airlines right over here?
Kristina: South Lake Union.
Brent: That's very cool. So, when you're not dreaming of flying, you're playing Destiny.
Kristina: I am flying through space, flying through an orbit.
Brent: Flying through space?
Brent: Another game I haven't played, but apparently almost everybody around me is either playing or thinking about playing Destiny at pretty much all moments of the day.
Kristina: Yes, yes. We have quite the clan going now.
Brent: Is that a technical term or just ...
Kristina: Yeah. There are basically groups of players that play together for a common cause, and in the game, they organize themselves as clans.
Brent: Now, those common causes, are they plunder and pillage?
Kristina: Always, right, you know?
Brent: Good, good. Yeah.
Kristina: Well, when you're playing a space zombie, it's just what you do.
Brent: I didn't know there were zombies in it. I literally know nothing about the game.
Kristina: Well, the first game, this little ghost, they call it a ghost, it's this little light, basically, in a shell, comes and finds you and resurrects you and makes you a guardian. The guardians are then tasked with using the light to fight against the darkness and all that that pertains.
Brent: Can you play as the darkness instead?
Kristina: You cannot at this point in time. I don't know if they ever will, but ...
Brent: All right. That's fair. You should probably fight evil instead of the other way around.
Kristina: You know, generally.
Brent: Yeah, okay. Then when you're not doing that, you're part of ECS?
Kristina: The Emerald City Supporters, yes. Yes, I am. I spent a number of years standing ... Not even standing, jumping and cheering for our Seattle Sounders. We are now in the playoffs for the ninth year running, and I'm very excited.
Brent: Now, is that an association football team? Do I have that right? Doesn't soccer come from its association football?
Kristina: Soccer, I believe, and don't roast me for this, but yes, I believe that is correct. Soccer in the United States is basically organized under the ... Or, the professional soccer, men's professional soccer is under the MLS, Major League Soccer, and the supporters groups like the Emerald City Supporters are unaffiliated with the team, but they exist because people strongly believe that visible and audible support in the stadium helps the team do better. Helps the players dig deep and find their fire so they can go and win the game. So, you will find me next weekend ... This coming Sunday, which ... Who knows when this actually goes up?
Brent: Right, sure, yeah.
Kristina: ... standing in the Brougham end of Century Link Field and jumping and singing and waving my scarf around.
Brent: So, you're one of the leaders of the crazy people?
Kristina: I was for a while. I have stepped down from that role. I was actually helping organize the membership side of things and signing people up and getting membership kits out to people and organizing the whole side of it for a couple years. But I have passed that along to somebody else who hopefully has more time to do that and does not have a seven-year-old boy running around.
Brent: Yeah. You're a busy person.
Kristina: I am, yes.
Brent: Yeah. Well, I think that probably finishes up for episode number one. Thank you, Kristina.
Kristina: Of course. Thank you.
Brent: How can people find you on the web?
Kristina: You can follow me on Twitter, @knsontag. And that's going to be a lot of Destiny and soccer and some testing and App Camp, and that sort of thing. Probably lots of retweets too.
Brent: Retweets are fun, you know. It's literally the least we can do. Oh look, here's a really good, important thing. I will press this button.
Kristina: Right? I will press this button and everybody will know.
Brent: I did the least I could do.
Brent: Well, I'd also like to thank our intrepid producer, Mark Boszko. Say hello, Mark.
Mark Boszko: Hello, Mark.
Brent: Very well done. And especially, I want to thank you for listening. Thank you.