On Beer, Mobile Development, and Crowdsourced Testing: An Interview with Greg Avola

[interview]

GA: Exactly. I don't see working at an organization like ABC News until I have experience with more, a little bit more agile where we develop and go through some change-management procedures and then deploy. But with Untappd, it's a really interesting paradigm. I'm one of those developers that likes to deploy a lot. I actually deploy code to production a lot. I have to look at how many times I have to deploy. My perspective on that is that I really feel that a lot of times in development, you sit and wait over-QA, over-design, over-develop a lot of things. When you're small company like myself, with Untappd, you really need to put something out there to get some feedback from some users and then iterate on that process. I'm OK with making mistakes and I've made plenty in my past, but I feel if you get something out in the hands of the users and they play around with it, you going to get a lot more feedback then spending about another month-and-a-half doing full QA and finding some small bugs here and there. That's kind of the way I look at it. We put a lot in production, a lot in agile. If something's broken, if something doesn't work right, quick fix, then we go right to it and then put it in that perspective.

JV: You’re pretty heavily reliant on your users then for that constant stream of feedback.

GA: Exactly. That's one of the things that we actually started from the beginning is that we want to be an application for the community. I think beer is a very interesting community itself.  Funny story is that when we first built Untappd, neither one of us was really into beer, I guess you could say. I actually didn't even like it to be honest with you.

JV: Really? Ok, that's interesting.

GA: Through the application we learned more about what we like and what we don't like and we've become beer aficionados in that process. From our perspective, if this app can do that to us, we think it can do it to other people. This community of beer drinkers is very responsive to that idea. We get a lot of feedback from a lot of people. We have our own little mini-beta group of volunteer testers that really go through our site and comment on everyday basis, even our application, as well, to give us feedback here and there, and that helps significantly. It's impossible when you're a small two-man team to keep an eye out for almost everything on the site. Of course, we can monitor it from an infrastructure level and also from database level, but as far as the user interaction level, that becomes a very challenging thing; so, we rely a lot on user feedback to help us excel at that level.

JV: How many people do have in the beta group?

GA: We have about forty to fifty people in the beta group. It's a small number. I really find that if you get a small number of dedicated beta users that provide feedback on a regular basis, that's much better than having maybe potentially a thousand users and only fifty of them are active. We have a bunch of beta users that are all active on our forums every single day. One of the things with beer is, not only do we have testing needs, but we also have data accuracy needs. So, not only do these beta testers actually provide feedback on bugs and errors with the actual site, but they'll go ahead and use our shipper /user functions to merge duplicate entries because of the way that our system is set up where people can actually add beers if it's not in the database. And because beers are all made differently, different countries, there are a lot of different things that happen all over the place. That aspect is helping us to keep our system running, but also keeps it clean. That also helps a lot with natural beers; data management helps significantly.

JV: Data management.

GA: One last other thing that I've learned throughout my years, is that developers have this mantra, thinking almost like “If I built this product, I should be the only one that actually gets to do whatever they want.” What I've kind of taken the stance is, this application is built for the community, and if I don't let the community help me grow the application by being able to bring me more information on the beer data management for beers over in London or beers over in Spain, I have no idea about. Then, that will help the community grow, and if you have an open mindset, then I think you're going to make a lot of headway with that.

JV: How do you go about choosing these forty to fifty people? How are you able to weed out, I'm assuming, the hundreds or others that want to join in?

GA: We get countless requests almost every single day from users. “I want to become a fifty-user,” which we call them, our beta group. I'm a user for this platform or whatever and we get a lot of requests and honestly, we have a help forum that users can actually submit merges or edits to beers or bugs.  I honestly look at that profile for the user and I see how many times they've taken time out of their day to actually go in and write these full detailed requests. Now, if you've ever work with tech support or development, you know that you see numerous requests from your client saying "Something doesn't work."

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Jonathan Vanian's picture Jonathan Vanian

Jonathan Vanian is an online editor who edits, writes, interviews, and helps turn the many cranks at StickyMinds, TechWell, AgileConnection, and CMCrossroads. He has worked for newspapers, websites, and a magazine, and is not as scared of the demise of the written word as others may appear to be. Software and high technology never cease to amaze him.

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