June 11, 2010

AJ Alhait - The Man Behind SQAforums.com

SQAforums is the leading web community for software testing professionals.  I joined in 2000, became a Moderator, and it’s been one of my favorite sites since.  I’ve always wondered what it takes to conceive of and run such a vibrant web site.

AJ Alhait is the owner/administrator of SQAforums and he’s a busy guy. I was lucky enough to chat with him recently – about how SQAforums got started, and how it grew to be the strong community that it is today.

Q:  How would you describe SQAforums?
A:  SQAforums was the 1st real web community built for software testing professionals.  
Q:  How did SQAforums come to be?
A:  Back in the early 90’s, the only resource for software testers were the usenet newsgroups and the mailing lists that were associated with them.  Back in these days, there was no moderation of posts and spam was widespread.  Then recruiters joined those lists and flooded them with job posts.  The other problem was that information was not preserved, so questions were asked over and over again.  SQAforums started as Beta-Soft.com back in 1998; a very basic HTML/cgi design for my consulting company BetaSoft, Inc. and initially was a forum specific to SilkTest by Segue (the tool I was using back then).  People liked the web forum so much that the idea came to make it cover all software testing tools and topics.  Beta-Soft.com also had a Jobs board, a Links section, Downloads section and a News section.  The idea came after that to split each into its own site - hence, the birth of QAforums.com, QAjobs.net, QAlinks.com, QAdownloads.com, and QAnews.com in 1999.  Later QAtraining.net was developed for providing online courses for software testing topics and tools.  Years later (2005), I went on a domain buying frenzy and purchased a bunch of domains to standardize a brand name "SQA".  QAforums.com became SQAforums.com, QAjobs.net became SQAjobs.com and QAtraining.net became SQAtraining.com.  QAlinks and QAdownloads became SQAsearch.com and so on.  Also SQAblogs was added to the list.  Of course I have many more domains; each with a unique idea behind it - but lack of time and resources has prevented me from making them a reality yet.
Q:  What was your goal in starting SQAforums?  What did you hope to accomplish?
A:   The site was started to help the software testing community maintain a knowledge base where they can help get answers to their problems in using a specific test tool or to learn more about software testing in general.
Q:  How has that worked out?  Did you achieve what you had hoped for?
A:  I believe I've been very blessed and successful in achieving what I set out to do.  My life in short has been a check-list of things to accomplish.  I cannot say that I've left anything unchecked.  The key thing is to keep adding items to the checklist.  If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything - it's just a matter of time and willpower. 
Q:  What kinds of members does SQAforums attract?
A:  Software Testing professionals who want to improve their skills, have problems with tools and are looking for help. And of course we attract many software testing trainees as well. 
Q:  At some point in time, you decided to have Moderators.  Do you remember when that was?  Why the change?
A:  When the site moved from beta-soft.com to QAforums.com the need was there because we added over 30 forums then and now over 80.  Having different moderators that are not associated with BetaSoft was necessary.  I did not want to have a company run site, but rather a real, unbiased website with feedback and contribution from many professionals who are not associated with a vendor.  
Q:  Tell me a bit about the numbers behind SQAforums.  How big is it?  Can you give me an idea of the number of members, the traffic, etc.?
A:  SQAforums has over 180,000 members.  Not all are current users.  We do have the type of member that registers, uses the site for a few weeks/months and then does not come back again until a specific need arises.  But overall, we have over 100,000 real, active members.  Over 5,000 unique members visit per day and over 85,000 in a given month. The members are mostly from the US (over 55%) India comes second with about 28% and the rest mostly from Europe.
Q:  Is SQAforums a one-person enterprise?  Or do you have a (paid or unpaid) team?
A:  SQAforums is basically me (the admin) and a few experienced volunteers who are moderators. I've also had a few contractors and even some BetaSoft employees work to provide coding and administration help from time to time.
Q:  Tell me a bit about the technology behind SQAforums - hardware, software, etc.
A:  BetaSoft has a full cabinet of rack mount servers hosted in Fremont, California.  SQAforums runs on a RedHat Linux enterprise Dell server which just got migrated to CentOS.  There are a total of 20 servers in the BetaSoft rack.  Most of them are designed for QAtraining.net and the rest are hosting the remaining sites.  We have a mix of RedHat, CentOS,  Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 servers. 
SQAforums currently used a modified pre-packaged script based on UBBThreads 6.5.  It’s about to be upgraded to 8.0.  
Q:  Where is your office and where are the machines that run SQAforums physically located?
A:  We have an office in Fremont and San Jose, California.  And the collocation facility is in Fremont.
Q:  How much time do you spend administering SQAforums?
A:  When things are under control, I spend only a few hours per week.  If there urgent tasks or emergencies, that could go into 3-5 hours per day in some cases - particularly when I have to go to the collocation facility.
Q:  Does SQAforums make any money?  What is your monetization model?  How did you arrive at this model?
A:  SQAforums makes money via advertising.  The website was primarily financed by myself initially and via BetaSoft consulting division back from 1999-2005.  I wanted to start the site and keep it ad free for the longest time (I personally do not like banners).  I got pinged so much by tool vendors, and once a well known testing site came online and I was told how much they were charging for advertising, I was arm-twisted into taking on sponsors and creating some revenue for the site in order to keep the expansion effort going.  
Q:  SQAforums has sponsors and ads.  How is that working?  What do sponsors get?  Any long-time sponsors you care to mention?  Do you actively recruit new sponsors?  If so how?  How should potential sponsors contact you?
A:  The initial sponsors of the site were: Compuware, Segue, Mercury, Rational and Empirix.  Then most of these companies were acquired by larger companies.  Mercury was acquired by HP, Rational by IBM and Segue by Borland, and then Micro Focus, Compuware tools were sold to Micro Focus and Empirix sold off their testing tools to Oracle.  I lost contacts with most sponsors when this transition happened.  The larger companies have 3rd party marketing campaigners.  These companies were not interested in sponsorship of community forums.  They wanted lead generation for sales only.  And to be honest, most of these sales-only tactics were too overwhelming to the membership. 
After the 1st wave of testing tool acquisitions, the 2nd wave of testing tool vendors became more popular, so sponsors like AutomatedQA, Gomez and FrogLogic came to fill in the gap and grow their market share by making their tools more visible to the community and help support their users and potential customers.  
I do not do any active recruiting for sponsors- we have no sponsorship sales force.  I only cater to the interested parties who are viable software testing tool vendors.  They mainly contact us via emailing the webmaster at betasoft.com.  I have tried to ignite old sponsors again like HP/Micro Focus and IBM through employees who work there, but most of those efforts have been unfruitful. 
Q:  Do you use Google for any part of your monetization?
A:  Yes, I have Google Ads running, but that basically helps support what we pay to Google for advertising. 
Q:  What kinds of challenges have you seen over the years of administering SQAforums?  What was hard?   What has so far been impossible?
A:  Spam prevention, piracy protection, and educating the community to follow the rules have been the hardest tasks.  Getting all moderators to agree on issues has also been very difficult.  The impossible thing to achieve has been getting the new members to actually read the FAQs and follow the rules, particularly those who are new to the internet!  Also getting the average new member to actually contribute to the site by helping others after they have solved their individual problems is really hard!
Q:  If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
A:  I would have hired a person to be a webmaster and actually work on features. I would not have relied solely on myself for these tasks.
Q:  When you aren't running SQAforums, what else do you do?
A:  I have many hobbies!  I mean MANY!  I've tried almost every hobby that is called a hobby!  My favorite thing to do in the winter is skiing.  I do not get to do it as much as I want, but I try to go at least twice every year.  My favorite thing and most time consuming hobby is Reef Aquariums.  I have 2 salt water reefs – one 150 gallons and another a 120 gallon tank.  They are my most expensive and time consuming hobby. 
Here's a link to one of my fish photo albums: http://picasaweb.google.com/aalhait/FishTank2?authkey=Gv1sRgCLqxyZX_s6S0Sg# 
I also like gardening.  I have more than 14 fruit trees and nice back and front yard gardens with an aviary which I built and landscaped from scratch! 
Q:  What about your personal life?  Are you married?  Children?  Where do you live?
A:  I’ve been married for 15 years.   We have three children – two boys and a girl.  We live in Cupertino, CA.
Q:  What kind of plans do you have for the future of SQAforums?
A:  SQAforums will soon have a facelift.  There will be integration between SQAforums/SQAblogs/SQAnews, along with a new site for SQAjobs and SQAtraining.com.   And one more site which I would rather keep secret for now.
Q:  Anything else you would like to mention?
A:  'May the source be with you... Always!"

Thanks, AJ – for answering my questions, and for providing the gift to the software testing profession that is SQAforums!

My name is Joe Strazzere and I'm currently a Director of Quality Assurance.
I like to lead, to test, and occasionally to write about leading and testing.