I was trying to think of a way to show various paths that QA personnel can take in their career and began thinking how generalists like myself who wear a lot of hats (small companies make it happen) kind of sat in the middle of a Venn diagram of skills…
…But venn diagrams are always so crowded, and there’s so many fun ways to present data. As you progress through your career in QA and look for the next step, you have to think about what sort of skills the role and size of company is going to need, and where you can be the most valuable. That’s more like a flowchart. So if I wanted to show relationships in a flow…boom, college micro-flashback. Let’s make a phylogenetic tree of QA roles and how they’re related.
Note that our tree will most definitely include some horizontal transfers of skills. Plasmids go everywhere after all.
When I think about grouping QA people and positions into different skillsets, I generally come up with three categories. Let’s define the positions we’re talking about and the various niches they occupy.
Food Safety and Quality Assurance Careers
People who are committed to developing the systems that ensure food products meet customer expectations for safety, performance, and quality. Through this, they help their companies maintain good reputations and increase brand trust. These positions occupy one or more niches below.
All the science in the world doesn’t make someone wash their hands, record the actual “check”, or hold their buddies accountable.
Effective FSQA leaders know this, and no initiatives are undertaken without long-term support to help employees implement change and develop good behaviors that lead to “culture”. An inspection program is only as good as the inspectors, and the constant flow of new hires, new equipment, and new products makes setting employees up for success as critical as any engineering or HR.
People oriented FSQA positions lend themselves to trainers and management, but also auditing staff who often find themselves being impromptu problem solvers and trainers with non-FSQA personnel. These types of career tracks require demonstrated ability to teach and support food safety culture, so look for opportunities where you can be a leader and teacher.
Knowing how the parts of a process flow, HACCP plan, or cold supply chain will work together can be the difference between a tight scope when working through problems, or a brand-encompassing recall.
FSQA leaders manage supplier relationships and understand where critical links in the chain from farm-to-fork occur. Your HACCP plan is meaningless if your customer isn’t keeping your product at the right temperature, and that late-night product hold you implemented can’t disrupt the entire inventory system just to isolate 100 lbs of rice.
Systems oriented FSQA positions can be found everywhere. Common postings include titles like “coordinator” (HACCP coordinator, SQF Practitioner, Preventive Controls Qualified Individual) but also include those roles where FSQA expertise operates far from the lab like supplier/vendor auditing or approval.
A microbial result of <10 CFU, the target pH of a product, or FDA labeling requirements for health claims are meaningless without understanding the circumstances and implications of the information.
FSQA technical personnel can be highly specialized at large companies or scientific generalists at small ones, but their roles are similar in practice. Know the literature and best science on the subject you’re responsible for, determine what data your company needs, collect and organize that data, translate it into effective and realistic actions the company can take.
Technical oriented FSQA positions are experts in their field. It includes the obvious suspects of food labeling reviewers, food microbiologists, regulatory specialists, and R&D adjacent product developers. But they also include engineers and other specialized experts who help make sure the goals of safety and quality are maintained.
You can talk to a dozen different food companies and see various takes on these positions, and many of these positions in name will actually end up being people oriented at some companies and technically oriented at others. There are no rules here! What’s important is knowing where your skills and preferences lie, and find a company that’s looking for them in a position you will excel in.
Author: Austin Bouck is a quality assurance manager at a regional beverage company in Oregon, USA. When he’s not at work solving technical quality challenges, he continues to ponder food safety issues on his blog, Fur, Farm, and Fork, which helps him stay sharp and share his knowledge with other professionals and the public.
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