Leaders in Tech: Steve Davies

Welcome to the next feature of our Leaders in Tech editorial series. Speaking to leaders in the industry to capture their stories, career highs and lows, their trials and successes, their current company and their role, most recent projects, advice to others, and the individuals who they most look up to in the industry.

Today, we talked to Steve Davies, Test Manager at MAG, to find out more about why he joined the tech industry, what his role entails, what are the challenges he faces as a tech leader, and his advice to aspiring engineers and developers.


What is your current role and responsibilities?

I am currently the Test Manager heading up all Testing activities in the MAG IT Department.  Projects in our remit can vary from huge Airport Technology projects such as Check-In Desk software/hardware or Admin systems for Flight Information Screens, Infrastructure projects such as new Data Centres or Networks, Enterprise products such as SAP and Asset Management systems, plus supporting our internal development team around APIs and the Data and Analytics Team.

I am responsible for Project and Platform Engagement across all those areas along with resourcing, budgeting, Test Strategy, team development, Test Environment Management, and Tooling.

Obviously, this is an incredibly tough and trying time for everybody, nowhere more so than in the Aviation sector. Due to this, we have faced massive, unforeseeable challenges both as a company, IT team and as a test team. So, a huge part of the role of all the Leadership community in MAG is to ensure we find ways to keep delivering, keep the teams happy and find any way we can to manage projects as efficiently as possible.

You are a Test Manager at MAG, what was your journey like?

Long, and all-encompassing!

I’ve been working in Testing since 1999. In that time, I’ve been a junior tester, QA Engineer, Test Analyst, Senior Tester, Deputy Test Manager, and Test Manager. I’ve been the sole tester in a team, and part of a team with around 100 testers and worked within V-Model, Waterfall, and most flavors of Agile methodology, whilst taking a detour to gain my Scrum Master Certification.

I’ve tested Vending Machines, Slot Machines, Payphones, Smart Phones, EPOS Systems, Tourism booking systems, HR Management Systems, Car Park Management Systems, Mobile Apps, and more websites than I can recall.

So essentially, I’ve spent 2 decades gathering the experience, know-how, and battle scars to prepare me for most things that come my way. I came on board at MAG in January of this year to try and impart the knowledge I have gained.

What drew you to the tech industry?

An ongoing curiosity to discover what is possible. I get a real buzz from seeing innovation, both in products and ways of working.  I enjoy working on projects knowing that the end result could be genuinely game-changing for our customers and stakeholders and have a passion for developing and improving both my own skills and practices and that of the teams I lead.

Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?

I’ve been lucky to work for, and with some fantastic people over the years. Many of these I am still in contact with now and through meetups, or more informal catch up’s will regularly talk through ideas, discuss hot topics in Tech and Testing, and generally share experiences and views.

I’m inspired by people who have been around testing a long time or have proven to have fantastic ideas and understand the value of constantly developing and learning. People such as James Briers at Intelligent Data Systems, Andrew Dalmeny at GSK, Leigh Rathbone at TLA with his boundless enthusiasm desire to learn, and Stuart Day at Dunelm to name a few.

Also, people like Michael Flanagan at The Very Group who is amongst the most natural testers I have ever known and who has the keenest eye for detail and the bigger picture when testing.

What do you think are the most important qualities of successful tech leaders today?

Open-mindedness, ability to learn and evolve, and willingness to adapt beyond your own comfort zone. There’s an understandable, intrinsic urge some people have to steer the direction of a team to match their own skill, experience, and knowledge. The belief being that it’s easier to engage a team in something you know well and can justify. Whilst that may at times be the best approach, we work in such a fast-changing technological world that we are duty-bound to embrace change, explore new solutions, and improve.

On the flip side, another important quality is to recognize what works for you and not continue to change for the sake of keeping on the cutting edge.

How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles?

All through my career, and especially as a Leader, my focus has always been on delivery to the customer and ensuring they are satisfied, be that a public customer or a stakeholder in the business. My approach to Testing has always been that the end product is the key and a large motivation of mine, and of my teams, comes from the moment we get the customers initial reaction either in a show and tell, when it’s complete and operational or when a product is released. We want them to be blown away, we want them to have exactly what they asked for (and more), we want them to go away thinking we’ve made their lives/jobs better, or easier.

In addition, keeping the team challenged with new pieces of work, new areas, new tools, and avoiding them from looking at the same things again and again increases engagement and motivation. If a team is motivated it becomes easy to resolve conflicts as everyone is ultimately pulling in the same direction.

What is expected of you? What are your expectations for your team?

To continue to nail down the presence and role of the test team within MAG IT. Having a centralized test team within the function is still a relatively new concept, my role is to prove the value of having it, show what we can add and remove the common misconception that test is in some way a blocker, and replace it with the truth: Good testing adds value and quality.

What are your current goals? What are you currently working on?

As mentioned above, I am building out the Strategy to underpin our support of the very varied products and platforms within our remit. Ascertaining the best methods of engagement, where we can add value, the scope of involvement, and then ensuring I have the right resource, environments, and tools to support it.

What are you the proudest of in your career so far?

Ultimately the fact that just about everywhere I have worked, I have left with the knowledge I have been told I would be welcomed back, plus the fact that I have got the majority of my roles from prior contacts, recommendations, and word of mouth.  This highlights to me that I can stand by my performance and I have gained professional respect wherever I have been.

Even more importantly, I have gained lifelong friends in just about every role I have had. It’s nice to think you are respected and rated, but it’s even nicer to think you can do so whilst being a decent person.

What is the favorite part of your job?

Collaboration. I believe the key to success in any project is to enable the concept of a ‘team’ regardless of the makeup of the project. If you can engage early with the business stakeholders, third parties, analysts, development, and end-users then the journey from concept to delivery becomes a collaborative process, everyone pulling in the same direction for a common goal.

I also enjoy engaging with different teams and areas of the business and making them aware of exactly how they can benefit from working closely alongside my team, and then delivering on it.

What has been your greatest challenge from working as a tech leader?

From a Test Lead perspective, it’s attempting to change perceptions.  I believe a lot of good work has been done in recent years to change the view on Testing and mend people’s pre-conceptions and mindsets towards it. However, some truths remain: If the budget is tight, testing is the first thing that’s looked at. If timescales are tight, the same is true. If deadlines are missed, the issues found in testing are looked at as a reason.

I constantly try to change this outlook. High quality, well planned and targeted testing is essential in a Tech world where choice is huge, patience is short, and second chances aren’t often given. If Testing unearths issues, then the tester is not attempting to block the route to delivery, they are ensuring that the delivery is more successful.

This is why I place such an emphasis on collaboration. One of the fundamental and long-held truths of testing is that ‘the earlier you find a bug, the cheaper it is to resolve’. Nothing can be cheaper than to not introduce it at all, I urge projects to engage with Testing earlier to get the benefits of the tester mindset and apply it when developing.

What’s the most important risk you took in your career and why?

Probably taking my current role and moving back into a permanent role after 10 years as a contractor and consultant. Why? Having done 2 previous stints at MAG as a contractor I knew it was an environment and field I enjoyed working in, and the chance to be involved in such a major organization but with a relatively immature testing setup was too good to pass up.

How do you continue to grow and develop as a tech leader?

By subscribing to the maxim that ‘every day is a school day’. No matter how experienced I am, someone else is more experienced. No matter how much I read and listen, someone is always producing more content. No matter how I profess to know, somebody knows more.  To stop learning is to stop growing, and that leads to you going backward.

 What have you learned from your experience so far?

As mentioned above, not to assume I know best and if someone has a better solution, run with it and back it.

Do you have a memorable story or an anecdote from your experience you’d like to tell?

I always think back to the moment when my focus on delivery and satisfying the end customer really crystallized in my mind.  I was working at Totesport as a Tester and the IT Director proposed it would be a good idea for us all to support the call center staff taking telephone bets during the Cheltenham Festival. We all complained that it would take hours to train us and would cost the company more money, but we did the training and went to the call center.

The training consisted of an hour with a script detailing which type of best to place (‘race 1 at Cheltenham, £5 on Number 1, each way’ and so forth) which we keyed into the interface nice and slowly.

Then we went live.

The phone connected, the first customer speaks at a hundred miles an hour ‘Account Number is…., I want Lucky 15, number 1 in first, 3 in 2nd, 9th in 4th and 5 in 5th, a fiver on the nose’

I look at the clock, the first race is due off in 2 minutes.

‘I’m sorry, could you repeat that please’

We just about got the bet on, but I disconnected and sat back and watched the experts at work. It hit me that they barely look at the screen, they instinctively knew where every button and menu was without looking and were lightning quick.

So, the next time we had functionality to add to the Call Centre system, not only did I focus on if it worked but also how much the change impacted the end-user.  Would the buttons stay in the same place? Would the change impact the speed of the screen reacting to the clicks? Has anything changed sequence?

It was the most valuable lesson I ever got a tester. Just because requirements are satisfied, don’t assume it’s fit for purpose without checking first. Even the smallest change could have massive repercussions.

Finally, do you have any advice to aspiring engineers and testers who want to grow in the tech industry?

Ask questions, there’s no such thing as a dumb one.

Be curious, speak to other testers, never assume the techniques you know are the best.

And specifically, for testers, never undervalue yourself, your role, and the value you can add.