Leaders in Tech: Alex Cross

We are proud to announce the launch 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.

So, we spoke to Alex Cross, a Testing Manager at Sky, 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 are your current role and responsibilities?

I’m a test manager for the Advertising Technology team at Sky. My team supports Sky Media (the advertising arm of the business) with the test activities required for their existing software and new upcoming projects.

You are Testing Manager at Sky, what was your journey like? How did you get where you are now?

I started out studying English at university, so far from what some might consider the “expected” degree. After a desperate application process to any graduate jobs that I thought fit my background, I ended up being recommended an interview for a QA tester role at a broadcast software vendor. That was my first involvement with testing as a discipline, and a real crash course into all aspects of the SDLC. In that role, I had the opportunity to manage the test effort for a new client’s deployment onsite in Istanbul, as well as assisting them during Integration and UAT. That made me want to see “the other side of the fence” and work within a TV company. Luckily Sky hired me as a junior test lead, and from then it’s been a few years working up to Test Manager within the same team.

What inspired you to go on this journey? What drew you to the tech industry?

As I say, it really was pure chance, but I’m very fortunate it meant I did find my “calling”. I really don’t think I had any real concept of testing other than the idea of video game testers, which of course sounded like the dream job to a 13-year-old me!  I’m constantly learning and I think that’s what keeps me on this journey: both the ‘history’ of embedded systems and languages, plus the fast pace of innovation and new ideas. 

Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?

I’m very lucky to have a mentor at Sky, coupled with an excellent manager; alongside previous bosses, both have been vital in keeping me inspired and pushing me towards the next level. One of my key pieces of advice to new testers would be to seek out a mentor in whatever official or unofficial capacity you can: not necessarily even within the testing domain. I’ve benefitted hugely from someone who can approach a problem with a different focus, or even ask you “why” and provide much-needed context I never would have, thanks to their background and experience.

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

I don’t really have any ‘idols’ in tech, most of my inspiration probably comes from sports and successful team managers there. I think there are a lot of parallels: team balance and maintaining a happy ‘dressing room’; keeping high performers engaged and receiving recognition; care and attention for those who might need extra focus to improve and contribute. We’re all ultimately pulling in the same direction and much stronger as a unified team than a collection of individuals.

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

It’s probably the obvious answer, but making sure people are constantly praised for their work! I think Testers can occasionally feel like their work is a thankless task: we ‘hold up’ delivery while taking time testing, or delivering the bad news of defects found; once a release/feature goes live the focus is rarely on the issues that were caught beforehand, as a user will never see them in the first place. In the ideal scenario of a flawless new delivery, whether a test team found 1 or 100 defects before release day can often quickly be forgotten…I see part of my job as ensuring that doesn’t happen. Helping the project teams recognize the effort that the testers put in means a higher profile for them, and provides feedback on how valuable their contribution is, rather than a never-ending churn through cycle after cycle. We encourage shoutouts for great work within the team during our standups, but Sky also has a program for formally acknowledging high performers, and receiving a nomination through it is also a great way to keep spirits high.

Aside from that, it’s also the optional extra-curricular activities: pre-COVID we’ve had team nights at minigolf, bowling, playing darts, or just heading out for a meal/drinks. There have of course been the inescapable virtual quizzes & bingo while in lockdown but I think we’re all waiting to escape those digital limits again!

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

I’m expected to plan, manage, and oversee the successful delivery of testing across Sky’s advertising tech estate, and I couldn’t do it without my team; they all contribute to that goal. On a more granular level, project-by-project that can mean a day of regression, or weeks (sometimes months) of integration and full E2E testing (from campaign creation to an advert playing out on a test channel)

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

We are constantly looking to build upon and increase the percentage of automation coverage we can offer. As we pick up more and more new projects, we’re aware the backlog of live projects that now are under change/enhanced continues to grow. Over my five years in the team, our involvement has grown from about 4-5 projects to approx. 20, so we’re always looking to be as efficient as possible when it comes to regression.

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

Probably my team’s involvement in the partnership with Virgin Media to enable AdSmart on their TV footprint: a truly mammoth test effort but made easy by a remarkable collaborative effort and some truly astounding technical expertise on both sides.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My team! It is a blessing to work with such talented people and also share a laugh with them. That goes for the wider department as well; it feels like everyone truly does live the Believe in Better motto

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

I think simply picking up the responsibility for ensuring the integrity and reputation of the team and software testing standards. If I’m honest it had always felt fairly easy or second nature to work that way, but it was a challenge to switch into actively promoting it. This is always something we stress to new joiners, but reviewing current practice is also vital in making sure we are still striving to maintain that gold-star level.

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

Probably starting it! If I’d never said ‘yes’ to that interview I knew nothing about, I have no idea what I’d be doing now!

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

A mixed bag of the mentorship and support previously mentioned, alongside any learning from courses, colleagues, and friends in this or other industries, TED talks, podcasts, etc.  I don’t presume to know very much; I’m always open for a new tip or pointer that could help me (and the team) improve.

How do you align your team and company with your vision and mission?

I see our mission as a fairly simple one: we’re here to support Sky Media with all technology needs and help them make as much money as possible; ultimately that’s what pays our wages! I’m aware I’m quite lucky here, but we have an excellent superuser community and strong engagement from them, which is crucial to making sure we’re on the right track. It’s more keeping that in place, given it feels like a strong relationship already.

What have you learned from your experience so far?

A fair bit, and hopefully it won’t stop soon! Most recently it’s probably been the value of the pastoral aspect of my role during the pandemic. The lesson was understanding that even if the work is still as excellent as always, anyone can still have concerns while isolating that they may not immediately vocalize. From a simple check-in to making sure people are set up and comfortable at home (and latterly the office for those who are making the journey back), it’s the importance of ensuring I’m there when needed.

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

I’ve been fortunate to travel a bit in various roles; one story that springs to mind was probably being in Munich for a couple of weeks during the 2018 World Cup. Being able to spend weekends and evenings off in a Biergarten, sunny weather and steins to the ready, was close to perfect.

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

Come and work for Sky! In all seriousness, probably for testers one of the keys is work towards your ISTQB certification if you don’t have it, as that will always put you in good stead. Involve yourself in learning technology/languages where possible: anything that does translate to creating automated tests will always be a feather in your cap. And most of all for those starting out: don’t feel like you “have to” be from a computer science/technical background or the door is shut; there are tons of examples of passionate people who care about their industry (and have the right mindset to test) who pick up those skills as they go.

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