Q&A: QualityWorks CEO Envisions Jamaica as “The New Silicon Island”

We caught up with CEO and Founder of QualityWorks, Stacy Kirk, to find out what Jamaica has to offer in terms of talent and IT capabilities for nearshore QA operations.

Jamaica is well-known for its capabilities in BPO, with around 17,000 people on the island currently employed in the industry. Business services and document technology giant Xerox is a major presence in Jamaica, boasting the lowest attrition rate among all Xerox locations and consistently high client quality ratings. But what about the island’s IT capabilities?

Headquartered in Los Angeles, QualityWorks is an agile software test consultancy firm that is leveraging the IT-centric benefits of Jamaica. The company offers consulting, QA architecture, coaching and test management, serving companies such as Ericsson, Movieclips, Fandango and NBC Universal. QualityWorks first set up operations in Kingston a year ago and has since grown its workforce to 35 consultants.

We caught up with the company’s CEO and Founder, Stacy Kirk, to find out why she chose Jamaica as a location, and what the country has to offer in terms of talent and IT capabilities for nearshore QA operations.

Nearshore Americas: Within a year, your nearshore team in Kingston, Jamaica has grown to over 35 consultants. Where do you source your talent and what level of growth do you expect over the next 12 months?

Stacy Kirk, CEO & Founder of QualityWorks
Stacy Kirk, CEO & Founder of QualityWorks

Kirk: Most of our consultants are sourced from the University of Technology, known as UTEC. I originally started with an internship proof of concept with UTEC, but that grew to having an office on the UTEC campus, in the technology and innovation center. That accelerator has really allowed me to keep costs down as we’ve grown. From there, I’ve made connections with other local institutes such as the Northern Caribbean University, the Jamaican Computing Society. I even found a couple of consultants on LinkedIn.

While the majority of our consultants are subcontracted, we currently have 12 full-time consultants in Jamaica, but expect to grow that workforce to 30 by the end of this year, and double that again by the end of 2017.

Nearshore Americas: How do wages compare in Jamaica to those in the US?

Kirk: As far as I’m aware, mid-level programmers and developers in the US earn around US$80-100k, while in Jamaica that is significantly lower, at around US$20-30k. The exchange rate for Jamaican dollars is very low right now, at around JM$110 to US$1.00, and it is dropping every day. This is why Quality Works pays its employees in US dollars to ensure their quality of life doesn’t change with the fluctuation currency. After all, if our employees are happier, then they will always be more productive.

Nearshore Americas: In a press release, you said that “There’s no doubt that Jamaica will be the new Silicon Island”. What makes the island a suitable location for QA testing and IT services in general?

Kirk: What’s unique to Jamaica that very few other countries have is the ability to merge the shared language of US and shared time zones. The island is on the central time zone for half the year and the east coast for other half. This allows for synergy of conversation as we move into an agile software development model for most tech firms. It’s really important that teams, even if they are not co-located, are able to have conversations as if they are sitting right next to each other. With Jamaica being the largest English-speaking country outside the US, there is an opportunity to have conversations that share a common culture, but also common technologies.

Jamaica’s computer science program at the University of Technology is extremely good at preparing their students to start working right out of college. I’ve had the opportunity to audit some of their classes and talk with professors about how they teach, the whole time being blown away by their readiness to enter the job market, as well as their value in being up to speed with the latest technologies.

Nearshore Americas: What does the island need to improve if it’s to attract more IT companies?

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Kirk: They need to move past the focus of marketing BPO and call center roles. Jamaica’s government puts a good amount of effort into this, but not as much in technology. However, some members of the government are quite new to realizing what talent is on the island.

Even so, in meeting the needs of the BPO industry, the government has made enormous leaps and bounds in terms of infrastructure, which allows for high connectivity and bandwidth. That infrastructure is also required for technology, so as this sector grows, the ability to communicate quickly is going to be more important, so they need to continue to invest in growing that infrastructure.

In many ways, Jamaica is looked at as a high-risk location for some larger companies to allow access. For example, some Apple store features are disabled in Jamaica. Downloading certain software can’t be done on the island. Jamaica needs to build credibility of the island, maintaining that the country is not full of people hacking into systems. Google has now allowed Google Maps on the island, but more strides need to be made to promote the technology sector.

Nearshore Americas: How does the Jamaican government or other agencies work with tech firms to support the industry’s development?

Kirk: QualityWorks couldn’t have been as successful without JAMPRO, which is specifically there to promote Jamaica as a foreign investment location. The agency gave me information to develop market research and a business plan, and also helped with acquiring contacts, all of which was provided free of charge. JAMPRO also hosts conferences to bring together like minds in the industry.

Before the new government was in place, there was an initiative called Startup Jamaica, which brought together the ideas of local and Caribbean entrepreneurs and worked hard to match them with mentor companies and international investors. The CEO is trying push the bar in terms of the technologies that are coming out of the initiatives.

The new government has put together a board of technologists from across the island, overseen by the Minister of Technology. Due to Jamaica being a small island, it means that opportunities to make an impact are common. You have a chance to sit down with board members and have a drink, opening up chances for very constructive conversations about advancing technology.

Nearshore Americas: What are the big trends you are currently seeing in the Caribbean IT services industry?

Kirk: There is a big push toward Javascript both internationally and in Jamaica too. The rate of job descriptions for full-stack Javascript developers versus Java and Microsoft .NET developers is becoming increasingly higher. My company is also big into Node.js and we have partnered with other organizations that are just as excited about it.

The other areas I’ve seen gaining steam is DevOps, which is inclusive of all configuration between the time that the developer writes the code until the release to the end user. We are training 20 top CEOs and CTOs about this area and how they develop their internal organizations around DevOps. That will be followed by a workshop where they send their top people to be trained. This is sponsored by myself and Jamaican Computing Society.

There are certain roles where it’s important to be co-located with the rest of your team, but other positions that involve a lot of configuration but not necessarily as much conversation, but the pay and demand for that is still very high. DevOps is one of those areas, which I see as a move forward. RealDecoy is a competitor on the island that we partnering with in order to look at DevOps. It’s so new that it’s anybody’s game; it’s all about who can come up with the best solution to save clients time and money.

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