“I wouldn’t still be here if I was just doing the same old thing for 20 years.” Diane Miller
Diane Miller on 20 Years at Aptima
In the age of job-hopping Millennials, long-term employees provide a company with a sense of stability, a strong knowledge base, and continuity in culture. But companies have to work to retain these valuable talent assets. Aptimist Diane Miller celebrated her 20th work anniversary with Aptima by sitting down with the Human Element to talk about why she came to Aptima, how she and the company have changed, and what has kept her here with smile on her face and a bounce in her step.
Human Element: Let me start by wishing you congratulations on your 20th anniversary! Aside from the founders, you’re the first employee to hit this milestone. So you know I have to ask—What brought you to Aptima in the first place?
Diane: I heard about Aptima through a friend. We were working together doing human factors, quality assurance, and usability testing. She got a phone call from Daniel, who she knew, saying he was starting this new company and he’d love to have her come to work for him. But she didn’t want to take a full time position because she had just had a baby. I had a new baby too, so she said, “Hey Diane, what do you think about going with me and we would job share?” So I had an interview—and it was best interview I ever had! [laughs] I had an interview with Daniel on a Saturday morning. I wore jeans and we had coffee and donuts and just chatted. It was very informal. Daniel just sold me. It was very exciting at the time to think about helping a company be born. It probably never would have happened without that one friend—if she’s reading this, you know who you are!—because I wouldn’t have met Daniel without her, so I really have to credit her for giving me this opportunity. It’s been an adventure ever since.
Human Element: And what was it like to be “Employee #4,” as you’re known on the Aptima payroll?
Diane: At first it was Daniel, Meg (co-founder), my friend, and I sharing one office about the size of this conference room but I was working most of the time on site at Lincoln Laboratory, which was Aptima’s first big contract. Meeting with the HR Department meant sitting at Meg’s kitchen table having coffee and going over benefits with her.
Human Element: And as the company grew?
Diane: It’s been wild seeing the company grow and change from a place where I knew everybody by name and everyone knew me. That’s a little harder today now that we have over 100 people, but growth is a good thing. And Aptima makes it easier with all of the video teleconferencing capabilities we have in-house—I think most of us take for granted here how seamless it is to work with people at a distance. We just don’t think anything of working on projects with people in Florida or Dayton or DC. Our IS team does a great job of providing that infrastructure where you can just go into a conference room and VTC with them, or share files. I think we do that really well. And then when I talk to other people elsewhere, that’s when I realize, wow, that’s not the norm at a lot of places. So I think that’s pretty cool.
Human Element: A lot of people might be bored after being with the same company for 20 years. What has Aptima been able to offer in the long term that other companies may not?
Diane: Starting with Daniel and Meg, Aptima’s always had a very strong culture of not only company growth, but also personal growth and opportunity and being the best person you can be. This means not only professional development, but having a good work-life balance. And recognizing an employee’s potential for new roles and new experiences as they move through their career here. For me, there was an advantage to starting at a very small company. When there were only four or five of us, you had to be a generalist and know a little bit about a lot of things and be able to do anything that was needed at the time. But as Aptima grew, over the years different opportunities opened up. First I was focusing more on usability and human factors work. Then I started getting into developing computer based training systems and that was really interesting, so I actually got a Masters in Education while I was working. Not only did Aptima help pay for my tuition, but I never would have pursued that line of education if I hadn’t been working here.
Then I morphed to doing Quality Assurance and process improvement because, as we grew as a company, a real need emerged. We were starting to develop more software and we needed to test that software to make sure that it worked. That was something that I knew how to do from my prior work before I came to Aptima—management recognized that and gave me the opportunity to move into an entirely new role.
It’s been fun to adapt with the company—I wouldn’t still be here if I was just doing the same old thing for 20 years. But as I’ve grown and my interests and needs have shifted, and as the company’s needs have evolved, I’ve been able to learn new things and grow into new roles and that’s really cool.
Human Element: And now you’re leading Aptima’s CMMI effort,* which is a big step for the company.
Diane: I am and again, it’s interesting. [laughs] It’s a little bit like herding cats sometimes, because Aptima was born out of the desire to have less structure and be innovative and creative and do cool research. But as we’ve grown and as we’ve started developing products that we want to put out in the world to get used, we have to ensure that they’re good quality. This means that we’re following best practices as we’re developing products and working efficiently.
The CMMI framework just tells you that if you’re a mature company, there should be evidence that you’re doing certain things—“best practices”—but it doesn’t tell you how to do them. It’s up to you to decide what that means for your organization so that’s really what this adventure’s been all about. It’s just trying to figure out what does it mean for Aptima to be mature. So we’re getting there, but it’s going be a constantly evolving thing just like we’re evolving as a company. And that’s part of the CMMI philosophy, too. It’s continuous improvement. So as Aptima evolves and grows, then our processes have to grow and evolve, too.
Human Element: And here’s my final question. For the sake of Quality of Assurance, when we cast the Aptima movie, who is going to play Diane Miller?
Diane: [Laughs] That was the one question that I actually did think about, because I knew you were going to ask! I was going, ‘Oh, my God, who would play me?’ All I could think was Meryl Streep because I just love and admire her as an actress because she’s just so versatile. She can play a really serious, dramatic role, or do Mama Mia, with all of the singing and dancing. She’ll take on anything and she’ll have a good time and just do it well and that’s kind of what I strive to do.
* The Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) is a process level improvement training and appraisal program. Administered by the CMMI Institute, a subsidiary of ISACA, it was developed at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).