Interview: Tonya Constant, co-founder of The Ant Firm

Tonya Constant is the co-founder of The Ant Firm, a QA company. They believe that women have a particularly keen eye for games testing and as such; I completely agree. They aim to employ more diversified test teams than competitors.  As it stands, their team is are 5 women and 2 men.  Ultimately, they would like the female-to-male ratio of testers to reflect current gamer demographics. The Ant Firm tells us that while 43% of all gamers are female, the truth is 86% of games testers are male. They strongly believe that those who test games should adequately reflect those who are playing them.

Geek Woman: I get the metaphor.  It could have been bees, or crickets. Why the ants?

Tonya Constant: We identify with the strong teamwork and industrious nature of ants.  And from a marketing standpoint, we thought going with ants would result in a very strong brand.  We also like the play on words: initially, we considered going with The Ant Farm, but there is already a company in the entertainment industry that goes by The Ant Farm.  Then it dawned on our CEO, Hayley Patterson, that we could turn it into a play on words: The Ant Firm.  It’s still fun and points to our work ethic, while the ‘Firm’ makes us sound corporate.  At least, that’s what we tell ourselves!

What is colony thinking?

Colony Thinking is our philosophy here at The Ant Firm.  It involves teamwork.  Our goal is to get the job done– keeping our focus on clients and their projects– not on internal quotas or self-serving agendas.

If you think about it, in an ant colony, every ant has a job to do.  They are not driven by egos or personal agendas.  They gather information that benefits the colony as a whole, and return to the group to communicate what each has found.  An ant’s sole purpose is to single-mindedly focus on the task at hand for the good of the colony.  Teamwork on our end is not only good for our clients, but also boosts staff morale, improves overall bug reporting, and has a positive impact on our employee retention rate.  Everyone wins.

It sounds like it would be helpful to employ while playing a FPS or an MMO.  Did your special style of team work come about in a game world?

This style of teamwork came about when my partners and I worked for a local game developer.  The company was developing games aimed primarily at women, so they put the call out for games testers, encouraging women to apply.  A few men applied as well, and were hired, but, for reasons known only to them, those gentlemen didn’t stick with it.  What we were left with was a QA team comprised entirely of women, ranging in age from 22 to 50.

What’s interesting is that this internal test team eventually went on to earn the respect of publishers such as EA and Nintendo, and we really had to look at ourselves and question why we were so good and earning such praise when we considered ourselves just a ragtag team of women with no previous experience in QA, let alone the games industry.  In addition to our internal QA reports, we were routinely faced with bug reports coming from an outsourced QA company as well, and it didn’t take long to see the difference between our bug reporting and theirs.  Our reports were far superior, even though those outsourced teams were presumably made up of ‘real, hard-core gamers’, if you will, and/or aspiring programmers, artists, and level designers.

Were you a gamer to begin with? What are your all time favorite games?

All three owners were gamers before working in the industry.  Mel’s favourite game is Spiro, Hayley’s is the Civilization Series, and my favourite is Bioshock.

Did you begin on a different career path prior to games testing?

Absolutely!  Melanie was a bookkeeper for a large landscaping company, Hayley was a glass sculptor, and I was a wedding consultant.  No joke.

Is your company women owned and women run?

All three owners are women, while our staff breakdown is 50% women, 50% men.

How important is it to have testers who represent the end user?

We strongly believe that those who test games must adequately reflect those who are playing them.  If 43% of all gamers are female, why is it 86% of those testing them are guys?

If you have a product aimed at 12 year-old girls, does it make sense to have exclusively forty-year-old men testing it?  Of course not.  So why does it make sense to have 25 year-old guys testing a game aimed at middle-aged women?  Or little girls?  Should a brain training game aimed at seniors be exclusively tested by young people?  No.  Men and women, young and mature―game play tactics DO differ among genders and age groups.  Might not both genders bring value to the testing process?  We think so.

What is this philosophy that you have about adult gamers taking a gaming business seriously?

Well, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that adults take gaming seriously when you consider that the average gamer is 35 years old!  Our generation was raised on video games!  Even our parents, the baby boomers―they’re hipper than previous generations of seniors, they’re more physically active, they want to keep their minds sharp, and, with the inter-generational appeal of consoles such as the Nintendo DS and Wii, they are playing more and more games all the time, and this will just increase as today’s 20 and 30-somethings grow older.  Again, we acknowledge that games testers need to reflect the fact that gamers themselves are getting older.

How do you identify and analyze bugs?

We utilize test plans based on game design documents submitted by the developer, as well as those we devise upon our own test teams’ analysis of the game.  These are divided into usability, game play, audio, art, text, user interface, bug finding/development of bug/regression of bug, screenshots, and consoles.

As well, we specialize in exploratory testing versus scripted testing because it is our experience that testers following scripts will look for certain specific results while ignoring others.  We feel that scripted testing can lead to what we call “lazy eyes”, or what noted software tester, Cem Kaner, calls “inattentional blindness”, wherein testers overlook failures as they occur, so distracted are they by the scripted test laid out before them.

How can young women get into a career as a tester?

Just apply.  I’d like to think all QA companies would hire more women if only women would apply.  Often, I think women don’t consider themselves for jobs like this.  Would I have ever applied to be a QA tester years ago if the company hadn’t expressly appealed to women to apply?  Sad to say, but probably not.  So, ladies, apply already!  This industry needs you.

If you do what you love for work, do you still love it?

I still love playing video games, but personally I find it difficult to find the time to play much anymore.  I’m sure this has more to do with the fact that my partners and I are running a start-up company (we’ve been in business a year-and-a-half) and just don’t have much free time anymore.  The truth is I don’t test anymore!  I’m in biz dev, so it’s not as if I’m playing video games all day and am just too sick of games to play for pleasure after work hours…

What I find myself doing these days is playing mobile games such as The Line or Tiny Wings in short bursts–anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes here and there– a far cry from the 3 to 5 hour stints I used to dedicate to games like Fallout 3.