Feature Story

Alka: The master of her career

by Stephanie Chan

Alka Jarvis

Cisco Distinguished Quality Engineer Alka Jarvis shares why passion and persistence has gotten her to where she is today.

Alka Jarvis needed to make sure this interview happened.

We had scheduled several meet-ups before this chat, and for some reason or another— either an absence of Wi-Fi, unexpected meetings—something had always come up.

"I got up today and I thought, I must make sure I attend this meeting," Jarvis tells me during our interview, "At any expense."

It's this kind of tenacity that finally brought us to our chat—the same tenacity that has sparked fire to Jarvis' career throughout her time as an engineer.

"Why don't you do something about it?"

Jarvis, who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, is of Indian ancestry. She says that culturally, she grew up in Kenya under a lot of British influence. The engineer—who is now known as Cisco's only Distinguished Quality Engineer–first entered the world of quality in a fateful job on a sales team of a small company.

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"I accompanied the sales teams as they did demos," says Jarvis, "The sales person would try to show customers certain files but the files weren't there. With my experience in computer science and software development, I continued to raise concerns: It was a small company and I was the only one saying that our software doesn't work. One time I was finally challenged by the senior VP of operations, ‘Why don't you do something about it?'"

It was that one challenge that got Jarvis on her path towards quality assurance.

"I went to Golden Gate University Library and learned everything I could about software testing and quality assurance," says Jarvis. At that time she also co-founded Bay Area Quality Assurance Association by contacting companies through the Yellow Pages to discuss the field of software quality and processes. 

Software quality assurance, Jarvis tells me, is making sure that all of the products and services work according to the customer requirements and exceed their expectations.

Learning to teach

In her in-depth studies of quality assurance, Jarvis started looking at the UC Berkeley-Extension curriculum in software engineering. She found out that all of the classes taught programming but none were actually about quality and testing.  After approaching one of the Directors at UC Berkeley, the school asked her to develop and teach a class.

After 21 years, Jarvis is still manning teaching podiums and teaching quality at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz-Extension, Santa Clara University, and has published seven books. 

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"This is where Cisco shows industry leadership," says Jarvis, "When an employee teaches or participates in industry events—it shows Cisco as the leader. This type of industry participation makes students and people more aware of Cisco and of the talents we have within the company."

Quality work

"If you have a passion for any topic within Cisco, take it upon yourself and go after it."Persistence, Jarvis stresses, is what got her to this point in her work. She encourages others also to take an active pursuit of their interests in life and career.

"If you have a passion for any topic within Cisco, take it upon yourself and go after it," says Jarvis, "You are the master of your career. It might just seem like a very small thing right now that you're involved in. I was only on the sales team to watch demos, but I thought that I had to get involved and did not stop at that." 

And she doesn't plan to stop any time soon. Her next venture into telemetry—within the Technology and Quality functional organization of Supply Chain—has just begun. Jarvis would like to emphasize on leading indicators like "predictive" telemetry to track issues and stay steps ahead of customers.  

 If we can predict the way Jarvis has pursued her career, and even this interview, we can expect big things for her in this next step.