Leaders in Tech: Salman Khan

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 Salman Khan, Head of Test UK Ops at Cubic Transportation Systems, to find out more about why he joined the tech industry, what his role entails, what are the challenges he faces, and his advice to aspiring engineers and testers.

 

What is your current role and responsibilities?

I am a Director of Test. I lead the System Test department to ensure the successful delivery of our testing programs around the UK and support those being delivered across the globe.

Here are some of my responsibilities:

  • Implement test strategy to support our overall business objectives and growth initiatives.
  • Allocate work to optimise our global test resources.
  • Manage, oversee, mentor Test Delivery Managers and Leads.
  • Mentor, train other test resources around the globe.
  • Develop Business Cases to introduce initiatives/improvements within the department.
  • Support aspirations and career growth of the team.
  • Ensure best practices are adopted and evolve over time.

Can you tell me a bit about your journey?

I completed my Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering in Mumbai, India in June 2002 and started working for an exciting start-up immediately after on a small stipend. I pursued an early career in web development using a combination of skills I acquired in my degree and in my free time (Programming in C, SQL, HTML, XML, VB, etc).

I identified very early on that I seemed to focus more on the quality and reliability side of things than actually building solutions myself. It seemed to extend into my day to day working so much so that I started asking my peers and colleagues about how we can implement certain solutions to make them user friendly, consistent and looking attractive to the customer without issues.

As we delivered solutions for our customers, I found that we spent more time and effort in reworking on projects than the original development lifecycle. This stood out for me as I was so conscious of the team’s reputation with our customers. We decided to introduce a level of rigour with some verification steps so there was accountability for the work that was being done.

We then introduced a phase called System Testing and because I seemed to have a flair for pinpointing inconsistencies/issues, I was asked to head up a team of 3 including myself.

We gradually increased the team size to about 14 at one point.

Around 2006, I started to think that I was too young in my professional career to impart training and needed plenty of learning of my own. A great opportunity came up with Cubic Transportation Systems around March 2007. I joined them the following month and I haven’t looked back since.

I feel there is a massive difference in me now as compared to where I was 15yrs ago and all for the right reasons.

What drew you to the tech industry?

It was a combination of things for me. I was very active in sports in my school and university days and played a number of representative sports (cricket, badminton, table tennis amongst others).

However, growing up in the 90s, especially from an Indian background, the focus by default seemed to be on a career as an Engineer or a Medical professional.

I was fortunate that my Dad ran an IT training academy of his own in my younger days which naturally drew me closer to tech.

I fondly remember as a 12-13yr old being immersed in the world of DOS, WordStar, COBOL, Lotus123 and of course gaming on a Commodore 64 console. As a 14-15yr old, I found myself training a number of college-going students which as you can imagine had its challenges. Over time it just became a natural progression and here I am.

Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?

I have had a few role models in my life and I’ve tried to pick up bits of qualities from each of these individuals to try and make myself as well rounded as possible to be a successful leader. It helped that some of these were from my own family.

My Dad taught me the value of hard work and that there was simply no substitute for putting the hard yards in. His is a classic case study of someone hailing from a small town, studying well, working hard and succeeding despite obstacles.

My oldest sister just by leading the way for us younger siblings through her strong will to adapt and succeed and that steely determination.

My wife whose ambition to do bigger and better things rubbed off on me even when I underestimated myself.

Some of my colleagues and ex-bosses helped me getting out of my shell and showing that it’s ok to show passion for something you care for and wish to succeed.

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

I would like to think of myself as a very inclusive team manager. I promote open forums where everyone in the team irrespective of their seniority or lack of can express themselves and suggest improvements.

When there are obstacles, I promote open discussions to identify what they really are, root causes, and then come up with an action plan. An action plan is essentially a set of activities with owners assigned. The owners then take responsibility for these and have the freedom to go out and ensure their plans achieve success. The fact that several individuals within the team are out there identifying and influencing improvements serves good motivation.

We have other ways to tone down the team’s stress levels. In pre-pandemic times, we had regular team outings (bowling was very popular). Over the last 12 months which I know has been very difficult for so many, we have resorted to virtual Zoom catchups. We try and keep it light-hearted and avoid discussing any serious topics in these sessions (we have other forums to discuss those).

What are your current goals?

There are a number of areas I am currently looking at:

  • Support the estimation effort for a number of new and exciting bids around the globe.
  • Increase engagement and mentoring peers around the globe.
  • I am also looking at ways to minimise and eliminate single points of failure within our team.

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

In broad terms, proud of the growth from where I was when I was started working, to 10yrs ago and where I find myself today. A lot of folks around me have helped me get this far.

From a specific project point of view, the proudest moment for me was when we successfully rolled out the contactless smart card solution to the traveling public across the London Underground and National Rail including Buses and Tramlines. A lot of hard work from a big team and a fair period of time was done to be able to deliver this on time and with great results.

What is the favourite part of your job?

The biggest satisfaction for me is to be able to contribute to and shape the career of someone who is fairly young in his or her career to a path where they feel that they belong and can contribute to the business as well as enhance their skills.

The other aspect I enjoy and appreciate is to be able to liaise with teams around the globe and support them where I can.

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

The biggest challenge for me and I can imagine for a lot of us in similar positions is adapting. Tech is moving all the time and to be able to identify what we can take up and implement successfully within the teams that will benefit us in the long term.

In fact, it’s equally challenging if not more to control the level of change and not just do it for the sake of introducing change.

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

I think the biggest risk I took was moving base from India to the UK. I was enjoying my roles and responsibilities with a company I was previously working with based in India.

However, I decided there was a lot of learning I still needed to do and got a great opportunity with Cubic Transportation Systems. I joined them as a Test Lead and have continued my association with Cubic and continued to grow since then.

What have you learned from your experience so far?

There are so many things. One definite area I have learned from experience is to not action anything in haste or when you’re upset. It’s best to take a step back on such occasions and come back to it when you’re back to your usual calm self.

There are other things I have realised about myself – I am very poor at multitasking. This has allowed me to organise my time better and prioritise my list of outstanding activities.

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

Not sure if it’s an anecdote but my mantra is – I get up in the morning and then I go to sleep in the night. In between, I try and do the best that I can.

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

I’d like to tell them what I was told and something that I’ve mentioned in an earlier question – There is no substitute for hard work. You will have days where you will need to work long stressful hours. It’s important to know this is an exception and will not be the norm. You need to ride it out and learn from it.

Always look to dedicate some time regularly to upskill.

Don’t underestimate the power of communication. How and what you communicate is important.

 

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