National Careers Week 2022 is currently taking place in the UK. We grabbed this opportunity to interview our Chief Strategy Officer, Conor Whelan, about his career, how he got into QA and testing and what skills are important for anyone looking to start a career in QA. Conor is being interviewed by his Digivante colleague Sally Ashley.
Hi Conor. Thank you for joining us. Conor is Chief Strategy Officer and Head of Delivery at Digivante. We’re just going to be asking a few questions today to get a bit more information about your current role and career journey.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
The first real job I was interested in was teaching. And I did work experience at a primary school at the time. I really enjoyed that but my real love was always in IT. When I was younger I always had video games and played on things like Pong and an old Spectrum 128K. Then it became a case of figuring out what job I could do within that industry and IT itself.
Did you go to university and if you did go what did you study?
Yes I went to Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland and I studied Commercial Software Development. I got my degree nearly 20 years ago. It was a full time course, so 40 hours a week of lectures and that was split between theory of software development, as well as a lot of coding and development. It was using Java and C and Cobol and we did a little bit of Lisp and Prolog for artificial intelligence as well. It was a good building block for a career in IT.
And what was your first role in business and for whom?
My first role was during my time when I was studying. I worked at a call centre for AOL. And they were introducing broadband into the UK so I was part of the support team there. It gave me a really good background into customer support and customer care but also how broadband and the internet works.
Back then there were no real smartphones and wifi wasn’t a thing so it was very early internet world!
How has your career progressed since then?
As soon as I finished my degree, one of the things my IT degree helped with was looking at where IT work existed worldwide so I actually studied German as well and Germany at the time had a big IT rise. It was the same in the UK. Within Europe they were big areas of growth. So I decided to move to the UK when I finished my degree and I started working as a Config Analyst for a company called Marlborough Sterling who later became Vertex.
So that again gave me really good background in how things work and how you configure systems and looking at a full architecture and how teams work together. It was soon after that, I joined Assureweb (who became iPipeline). They’re an insurance broker. That was my first Test Analyst role and first taster of QA.
And after a few years there I took on a role as Senior Test Analyst at Capita and developed quite a lot over there. I was there for just over 10 years. And I went from Senior Test Analyst, to Test Manager, to Programme Test Manager before joining Digivante as a Programme Test Manager and moving to Head of Delivery and then Chief Strategy Officer.
Why did you choose a career in QA?
As I mentioned I was very interested in IT. My degree was heavily focused on coding and development. At the time what I didn’t really realise was that testing was a separate role to development; I thought all developers did their own testing! I was naïve to think that.
As soon as I got into a testing role and realised what it was I just fell in love with it really. Although I enjoyed coding, I didn’t feel it was the career path I wanted to go into and the testing/QA world allowed me to interact a lot more with developers and operations and the business side of things and acting as a communication channel between them and I’ve always really enjoyed that side of the job.
What does an average day look like for you?
We all start the work day with a team meeting and that’s really to go through updates and see how things are progressing, if I’ve got any news I need to share, but there’s also that social aspect and making sure that everyone’s working ok and everyone has a say in what we’re doing. It’s become more critical with us all working from home during the pandemic.
During that we’ve become a hybrid company so I think having regular meetings like that and kicking off your day with a gathering is really positive. From there my day is a mix of a lot of potential client calls. I get involved in pre-sales calls with potential new customers and making sure we’re coming up with a scope and a correct approach for them. And also speaking with existing clients to ensure the work we’re doing meets their requirements, but also is there any future or additional work that we could be looking at doing with them.
Then I’m constantly looking at strategic changes, researching product improvements, to see if there’s additions we can make and improvements around the business for how we work. Also throughout the day I’m trying to have as many calls and meetings as I can with different people around the business to make sure if there are any processes that can be improved that we do them and any changes they want can be prioritised.
And what are your career aspirations going forwards?
Right now I’m 100% focused on Digivante and making it the best company it can be, and growing. I see the Head of Delivery and the Chief Strategy Officer role as the pinnacle of my career so far, and the strategic part of it is newer to me and I really want to make sure I am doing it to the best of my ability and improve the company.
I’m very focused on that right now and going beyond that it’s really growing Digivante and making it the best it can be.
What are the positives about your current role and working in this industry?
I’m very fortunate in that I’ve put together a very good, solid team. Probably the best team I’ve worked with in my career. As well as the people within the business; I think they are some of the best people in the world so it’s always really good to work with good, smart people and it keeps you motivated.
Last year I received the Outstanding Performance award. It made me feel really emotional at the time. When I found out it was a bit of a shock but it did really hit home how much I care about the company and the people working within it, so that keeps me very much motivated and very positive from my career perspective.
What are the negatives of working in your current role and industry?
I spent many years of my career working in heavily regulated environments where QA is paramount and is seen as critical and there’s a lot of heavy investment around testing and QA. So I think moving to Retail and app testing and things like that, it can be frustrating when you see that there’s very little investment or companies’ willingness to change processes to improve things. That can be frustrating.
What skills are most crucial to succeed in this career?
I think having an analytical way of thinking, being able to break down problems and come up with solutions. It’s fundamental to what we do. And as well as that and I say to anyone in any career really, is communications at all levels is key. That you’re comfortable speaking to the most junior person or the most senior person, that you’re able to speak to them with the same level of respect.
Listen to them and try and put yourself in their boots. Look at things from there perspective. It took me quite a few years to learn that as a skill but most people when they come to you with problems, if you just brush it away and ignore it, it gets into a bigger problem. But if you view it from their eyes you can learn a lot. And think about solutions in a different way.
Hand in hand with that is to listen to people. Don’t always talk over people. I’ll often sit on calls and just listen quietly for quite a while because I’m letting people speak because they’re either telling me what the problem is or if they’re coming up with a solution it’s good to have other views and it may impact whatever you were planning or if you had any assumptions before it might lead to a better solution.
Beyond that it’s about relationship building. As I mentioned before whether the person is the most junior or the most senior; I’ve had quite a long career now, I’ve seen people that were junior years ago that have now become senior people and showing the respect they deserve keeps those relationships solid and you never know who you’ll be talking to or what position or opportunity might arise later in careers.
Do you find it difficult to find the right kind of people to work in your team? Is there a skills shortage in the UK?
Yes, there’s definitely a skills shortage. Within Digivante when I’m hiring, we’re fortunate that we’ve developed a really good approach to interviewing. That’s been really successful. We’ve managed to always the right people, and people that fully understand what we do and how Digivante works and then get fully committed into it. From a skills shortage there definitely is and it’s a frustration of mine that QA doesn’t seem to be an attractive career path for young people.
Like I said previously I kind of thought Development did testing and QA. I didn’t appreciate that it was a job in its own right and it’s become really critical over time. Everybody has a smartphone or a tablet now. Everyone’s IT savvy. It’s no longer a dark art. Everybody knows what quality looks like and they 100% know what poor service is.
So I think schools and universities should be doing more to educate people on QA and the career path just because I don’t think it gets a big enough voice. I think people understand what Development is, I think people understand what business and finance people are but I think QA is very much lacking in the UK from an education perspective.
What advice would you give someone looking to explore a career in QA or testing?
Interest in it. Read up on it. Ask as many questions as you can. One of the big things is a willingness to learn about stuff. If you do really want a career in IT, go onto forums, check up on line look up some big companies. Ask friends and family what they do as a job. Just show that eagerness to work.
Another powerful tool and I’m amazed at the amount of younger people or people starting out in their career don’t know about things like LinkedIn or they don’t have a profile. My view is whether you have experience or not create a profile and just start connecting with people. What you’ll very quickly start to find is that with different friends and family and people you may know or come across, inevitably they’ll have parents or other friends who work in IT and the industry and reaching out and connecting to them and just asking them if there’s any chance of getting some work experience and things like that that’s the opportunity and that’s what people want to see. People want to see someone who is keen and eager.
And even if you’re afraid you might not have the skills, you can be trained on the skills but it’s very hard to train passion and enthusiasm. That comes from inside and if you’ve got that, well start reaching out and show it and communicate with people.
Whose career inspires you and why?
I would say my Dad’s career had a big impact on me. He was Senior Engineer for Telecom Éireann which is Eircom now and is the equivalent of BT. And he managed the local exchange for fifty years. Now everything is cloud-based but I used to go in to that exchange with him and it was all very manual. There were massive motherboards as big as your house in there and I was absolutely fascinated by all the switches and the way Everything was mechanical with switches that you turned off, now everything’s gone a bit more “tech friendly” but it always blew my mind that that’s where your phone calls and broadband came in.
All the clicking and the dial up was running through that exchange. It really got me interested in more technology-based stuff and the other thing that very much hit home for me was that he never in 50 years missed a day of work. He always got on with everyone, everyone in the town I’m from knows him and hasn’t got a bad word to say about him.
I learnt from the work ethic and learn that relationships are so important and key. And then when he retired (from his engineer role) he took on job as a salesman for a DIY store. Totally different industry, alien to him. But he got straight into it, no problem, everything he learnt from working hard and speaking to people really shone, so even when they were reducing staff my Dad was always there, he was always kept around, he was really solid in that. And his ability to change industry like that gave me the kind of confidence to leave the financial background I’d started in and join the more retail and online stuff going to Digivante and that has influenced me massively.
He’s always been consistently level-headed and dealt with issues in a calm and controlled way which is something that I’ve always prided myself in doing. And staying calm and being confident in what I’m saying, not losing my cool or being unprofessional in any situations.
This interview was recorded in March 2022 for National Careers Week.