WORKING IN QA
Friends constantly ask me, “What do you actually do for a living?”
It’s not a career most kids grew up fantasizing about. I know this because once in a while I guest teach elementary and middle school science classes, and one of the questions I ask the class is what everyone wants to “be when they grow up.”
In the sea of potential Doctors, NBA Players, Race Car Drivers, and Astronauts, I have yet to meet a kid who proudly shouts out, “QUALITY ASSURANCE MANAGER!”
I have to admit that my role as a QA Manager is so ambiguous-sounding that even when it comes to my immediate family, my sister jokingly calls me “Chandler,” after the character in the popular 90’s TV show “Friends.” If you’re too young to remember, the running joke with Chandler Bing was that his job description was so ambiguous that even after he explained it to his friends and family, they were left even more confused than before.
The role of [intent]Quality Assurance (QA) or Quality Control (QC) is a standard in almost all branches of science,[/intent] technology, and manufacturing.
For a science example, my degrees are in Molecular Biology and Genetics, whereas one of my early mentors was an Analytical Chemist. What’s cool about this career path is that [intent]no matter which field of science you come from, there is always room for you in QA.[/intent]
In one of our previous blogs (8 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started in QA) I wrote about the differences between the meaning and roles of QA vs. QC teams.
One area we didn’t cover was the role of restaurant QA teams. In a typical fast-casual restaurant, the QA role isn’t necessarily called a QA. Most likely if you work(ed) in the restaurant industry you are familiar with the position of “EXPO” or expeditor. This position is typically located in the back-of-the-house, and its primary purpose is to make sure that correctly made food orders go to the table (on time), at the correct temperature, and looking the way they should.
If you work for a chain restaurant, such as TGI Friday’s, Shake Shack, or P.F. Chang’s, the QA work necessary to even get the proper products into the restaurant for the expo to send out to a table, was done by a Corporate QA team, thousands of miles away, in conjunction with their suppliers.
Corporate QA teams exist in multitudes of fashion. From the ingredient and agricultural manufacturers (e.g. Cargill, ADM, Monsanto), to the ready-to-eat manufacturers (e.g. Nestle, YUM!, Mars, Coca-Cola), and the afore-mentioned restaurant chains, all of the big players employ thousands of scientists to ensure compliance in food safety and quality. Typically this personnel doesn’t spend much time on the actual production floor because their roles are usually strategic in nature and their primary objectives and concerns revolve around the company’s future.
President and Vice President of Corporate QA
Starting at the top of the food chain (no pun intended), we typically encounter the roles of the President or Vice President of Food Safety and Quality Assurance. These positions usually come with very lucrative annual salaries because these men and women come highly qualified. Not only do they have years of actual production and manufacturing experience, they typically have some of the most strategic tasks in the company in regards to future directions.
The standard for obtaining these positions comes with 15-30 years of experience in production, manufacturing, engineering, food safety, some kind of an advanced scientific degree, and incredibly thick skin (see 8 Things I Wish I Knew About QA).
As an example, some of the Presidents and VP’s of Corporate Food Safety and Quality Assurance that I’ve met and worked with over the past 10 years hold Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Microbiology, Chemistry, Toxicology, and Genetics. These folks are smart cookies.
Director of Corporate QA
Depending on the size of the company this corporate role may not necessarily exist. Unlike the President and VP of corporate QA, the role of a QA Director revolves more around strategy planning, implementation, execution, and delivery.
The Director typically reports to the VP of QA, or to a C-level executive (e.g. CEO, COO). This way, any unnecessary biased production decisions can be avoided by not reporting to a person in-charge of production.
However, with 10-20 years of experience in manufacturing and with great comprehension of scientific and regulatory requirements (most likely a Bachelors and Masters in Science), the Director of QA works hand-in-hand with QA teams (e.g. QA Manager and QA Supervisors) that are inside the actual manufacturing facilities.
Food Manufacturing QA
Of course, in large companies, someone has to do the actual work and ensure food safety expectations on a production level.
QA Manager and QA Supervisors
I love this job. If you don’t already know this part from my LinkedIn Profile, this is the title (QA Manager) I currently hold and have held for the past 6 years of my career. Good QA Managers must have a wide spectrum of knowledge and experience regarding science and food science. It is a constant evolution of one’s education as you have to push yourself to learn more every day and maintain a working knowledge of Math (Statistics), Basic Engineering, Chemistry, Biology (Microbiology, Cell Biology and Lipids, Botany, Animal Anatomy, and Genetics), Food Science, as well as knowledge of government and regulatory food safety guidelines (e.g. 7 CFR, 9 CFR, and 21 CFR).
QA Managers usually hold Bachelor and Master of Science degrees, and Ph.D. levels are rarely required. These roles typically supervise a facility QA Team of technicians that can range from as small as 4 techs, to as large as 60. The trick to not burning out in this role is to know how to properly communicate your issues in a language familiar to other facility departments such as Maintenance, Engineering, Finance, Legal, Sales, Accounting, and Marketing.
Technical Service Managers
Although they don’t have the QA acronym in their title, don’t be fooled. The Technical Service Managers are former QA Supervisors with plenty of food science experience. Their primary purpose is to work hand-in-hand with the R&D Departments when it comes to understanding how a food product is made, and their nutritional values and health claims.
This role involves working knowledge of Food Nutrition, QA, and regulatory requirements in regards to health claims (think All Natural, Non-GMO, or Organic food claims). Whenever you see an NFP (Nutrition Facts Panel) on any food or drink, just know that some member of the technical service team had to spend hours/days researching the law and regulations as well as the correct caloric values as set forth by the government. Give these folks a hug and a high-five when you see them, because not a lot of people stop to thank them for their hard work.
QA Metrologist or Instrumentation Technologist
Where there is science there is technology, and with technology come huge problems. Think of these guys (QA Metrologists) as the Doc Browns of your QA Laboratory. Someone has to be the “Mad Scientist” of the group. The primary duty of this QA employee is to ensure that all of the laboratory equipment, such as thermometers, colorimeters, viscometers, penetrometers, Gas Chromatographs, Inductively Coupled Plasma machinery, are always calibrated and in working order.
There isn’t necessarily a Bachelor of Science requirement, however a bachelor’s degree and some working experience is typically expected. The pressure to ensure that everything works correctly in any lab is HUGE.
If you ever received a COA (Certificate of Analysis) from a food supplier, you might have seen the name of the test performed (sometimes the method number is located next to it). Well, imagine if a customer who requires a COA upon product arrival does not have a desired result on the document because of your machine breakdown. This can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars of product being rejected because some machine didn’t work. It’s probably the most thankless job in the entire QA laboratory, and usually the first one on the chopping block if something goes wrong. Forget the high-five, buy the metrologist a beer during your next happy hour.
QA Technicians and QA Chemists
This is the front line, the foot soldiers of your QA team. Every day in food manufacturing is a battle for food safety. A battle that can never be lost. The techs and chemists are the reflection of the company’s best standards and practices. Their sole purpose is to ensure that during the food facility production hours there is always compliance and adherence to food safety and quality standards, and to report any issues to the QA Manager.
I started out as a QA/QC Chemist. Typically, entry-level lab techs start on third shift like I did, working by myself on the weekends in a very quiet laboratory, with nothing but the humming of analytical instruments as my background noise, conducting experiments every 30 minutes for 12 hours in order to ensure proper food safety. This is typically the starting point for many QA Managers and Supervisors.
Just like in the military, you have to earn your stripes to climb the ranks of QA, and entry-level jobs are the starting point for most of us.
Could this blog BE any longer? (That was a Chandler joke.)
Actually, it could.
This isn’t an exhaustive lexicon of the QA roles that exist out there, so we’ll discuss other supporting roles in the QA departments, which involve Auditing, R&D, QA Coordinators, etc. in Part 2!