Testing firm’s founder overcomes skeptics and machismo with a ‘humanist’ operating philosophy
By James Bargent
When Maria Clara Choucair founded Choucair Testing in 1999, it was the first software testing company in Colombia and one of only a handful in Latin America. The company started with a workforce of one – Maria Clara Choucair. Thirteen years later, Choucair Testing has 450 employees, branches in Medellin and Bogota and Lima, Peru, and a host of big-name clients.
Maria Clara Choucair first encountered software testing when she worked on a joint venture between software developers Ecosoft and Intuit. “What I learned from the experience,” she says, “is that we Latin Americans are very intelligent but we’re not very methodical.”
When Choucair – who is #10 on the 2011 Nearshore Americas Power 50 Ranking – decided to set up her own company in Colombia, she was met by widespread skepticism. “Testing here didn’t exist,” she says, “they told me I was crazy, they said there was no use for that because the users are the ones who test.”
What gave her the confidence to challenge that prevailing wisdom was her strong belief in the benefits of software testing. “The product was very good for society,” she says.
That type of thinking characterizes Choucair’s approach to both life and business. Choucair Testing, she says, is informed by a “humanist philosophy with ethical roots,” something that has played a key role in the development of the business by establishing trust and confidence with clients. “It’s a business philosophy. I always ask this question: What kind of friend would you like to have? Because for us, a business relationship is like a friendship.”
Despite the global financial turmoil of the last few years, Choucair has continued to grow steadily and has recently expanded into Peru.
Laborwise, Start from Zero
As pioneers of software testing in Colombia, Choucair Testing had to start from zero in developing its human capital; they not only had to fully train their workers, they also had to instill the concept of testing. Choucair’s answer to this was to design technical and personal profiles outlining exactly what level of training and personal characteristics she was looking for in any given role. From there it was a matter of the right training. “We have a method,” she says, “training and tools that help people change their state of mind.”
Today, both software testing and the IT sector in general have grown exponentially in Medellin and in Colombia, and Choucair operates in a much more competitive environment. The Colombian education system has not kept pace with business growth, the founder says, so the company now faces the dual challenges of both training and keeping the best talent. Choucair herself, however, remains philosophical. “We teach them and they go,” she says. “But I think it has also made us more competitive – it is not a bad thing”
Attrition rates are high, but Choucair says “lower than the market average.” She puts this down to creating a working environment where people enjoy their work, have good relationships with their co-workers and management, and see the potential for personal development in the company. The firm tries to achieve this through a range of strategies, from arranging education and training to perks such as meals out. They are also developing personal “projection maps,” plotting an individual’s potential for career progress.
Intelligence Over Macho
In late 2009, Choucair handed over day-to-day management and business strategizing to her long-time associate and former Choucair customer John Jairo Gomez, allowing her to concentrate on what she loves – software testing. Gomez has brought in a more refined, formal, and disciplined management style, which they both agree was necessary. “Because of the company’s growth,” Gomez says, “we need to behave more like a corporation.”
As a woman, Choucair’s success stands out even more in a country renowned for its culture of machismo. However, sexism has not been an issue for her. “It helps that I work in [a] technical [industry],” she says, “because in a technical market they appreciate your intelligence, your manners, and your way of working.”
The Choucair labor force is evenly split between men and women, while the management team is all women apart from Gomez. According to Choucair, this is not by design. “The only thing I care about is that they are honorable and they do a good job,” she says.
Despite the global financial turmoil of the last few years, Choucair has continued to grow steadily and has recently expanded into Peru. “[Doing business in Peru] is like a university,” Gomez says. “We have learned a lot and we have had a lot of fun doing that job … [it is] a different culture, a different way to do business”
Choucair says her attention, however, remain focused on her home city of Medellin and the IT sector’s ability to help realize the city’s potential. “When I see the comunas [the poverty stricken hillside neighborhoods of Medellin],” she says, “it is my dream to get those people out of there, because we have a lot of opportunities [in IT].”
Choucair Testing currently works in partnership with local educational institutions to help people in the comunas access those opportunities. Even so, Choucair says, more needs to be done. “The universities and the schools have to be faster in capturing these people without resources because this is an opportunity to help get them out of that hole.”
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