Leaders in Tech: Tony Barber

Welcome to the second episode 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 talked to Tony Barber, Head of Quality Assurance, Testing and, Test Environments, at a Large Retail Supermarket, 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 responsible for the Governance and Standards of Testing, the Quality Assurance of our Testing, and the management of our Test Environments Service.

You are Head of Quality Assurance, Testing, and Test Environments, what was your journey like? How did you get where you are now?

In 2000, just after the Millennium bug scare, there were concerns that computers would stop as no one had checked they could accept time from 1999 to 2000. I was working as a Business Analyst when I was approached by a manager setting up a centralized testing service who asked if I wanted to join. Not knowing much about the role, I said yes and, within 3 months, I had completed my Foundation in Software Testing. Since then, I have worked through all the roles, including working for consultancies, as a contractor and permanent.

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

Prior to my journey in IT, I was in the military. IT was relatively new, and I undertook several roles that brought me into IT. I enjoyed it and so, I did as much training as I could. Once I got into Testing, I just had a knack for it and enjoy what I do. I think that is key to any success.  If you enjoy what you do, you will do well.

Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?

That is a tough one. Throughout my career, I have been one of the leaders of testing in the organizations I worked in. When I was at Yorkshire Building Society, I had a fantastic manager/leader who really gave me confidence and helped me grow. I think it is key in anyone’s development to have a good leader (and I don’t mean manager).

If I had to pick someone that has inspired me in testing to think outside the normal, it would be Paul Gerrard. I have been to several conferences where Paul has presented, and I always find his presentations interesting and thought-provoking. Paul is someone who looks at the future of the testing discipline.

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

I believe the keyword here is leadership. I believe in empowering people but supporting them where they need it. Understanding the ability to listen and engage so that everyone feels included, this is key to successful leadership.

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

This is very difficult to answer. I don’t have a permanent team. I have several 3rd parties that provide me with testing, quality assurance, and environmental services. Therefore, they may have different company objectives than mine. However, rather than being a collection of competitors, we have created a Community of Practice where they can come together and work collectively to solve our common problems.  They all understand that my success is their success. If they make me look good, I will want to keep using them, if they make me look back, well you can guess. It’s about teamwork and it enables my company to succeed, grow, and, in terms, engage them for more business.

If they have challenges, I am their voice, the internal person that will put their conflicts and issues forward and champion them. I believe this creates a degree of trust in both ways.

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

This is a very open question and one that is hard for me to answer. In my organization, I have stated that testing is there to mitigate risks and ensure stakeholders have the right information to enable them to make informed decisions. I want to protect our production systems but at the same time deliver high-quality change quickly.

So, what is expected of me is to ensure the various teams and services are always focused on these objectives. As to my expectations of the teams, honesty. Don’t tell me something can be done when it can’t. Don’t say we have to do some testing when we don’t. Be honest.

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

We are currently going through a fairly comprehensive change to our delivery model within IT. As such, my primary aim is to ensure the new model works in terms of testing, QA, and Environments, while supporting those teams that have not yet transitioned to the new ways of working. I am also replacing tools, looking to improve the environment’s service, and have a new manager that I need to educate in my role.

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

There have been a few. In terms of a team,  I was very proud of the team I built as the Yorkshire Building Society. In terms of Testing, being the Senior Test Manager on the integration between the Lloyds and Halifax mortgage systems was a huge task. And in terms of work, I recently worked on the telephones taking orders for people who had to self-isolate and could not get basic food supplies and thus providing them with a key service. Talking to some of these people made me really understand the role supermarkets are playing during COVID-19.

What is the favorite part of your job?

There are several. I like helping people, I like solving problems and I like looking at the future and developing strategies that will help us succeed in the future.

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

My current company is not seen as an obvious tech leader. They are taking steps to address this but were not as well know for Technology as we are as a supermarket. That aspect has been a challenge for me. Sometime when speaking with non-tech stakeholders, we have to adapt our language and our priorities are not there’s. Understanding their drivers and motivators is the biggest challenge.

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

There were two that stand out. The first when I left HBOS. I had been with the company for 13 years and thought I would stay there until my career finished. However, with the merger between Lloyds and HBOS, the culture in IT changed and I found that I no longer enjoyed working there. This gave me the motivation to leave and as a consequence to grow much more than I would if I had I stayed.

The second was when I worked for a consultancy. I found myself facing a dilemma with my principles. As a consequence, I again decided to leave and went contracting. While I may have grown in the consultancy, I had to develop new skills as a self-employed person. I met some great people working as a contractor and felt very fortunate during that time.

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

That can be a challenge. I still stay active with the local testing community and attend local conferences when I can (COVID-19 permitting).  Recently, I have been to several online conferences, which was fun. But I don’t see myself as a tech leader. As mentioned, I like to help people, so when I am at these events, I want to pass my experiences to other attendees and contribute to any discussions. This is my way of giving something back to the career I have had.

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

It’s harder to align people in my company to my vision than it is to align my teams, even if they are 3rd parties. My goals, as indicated previously, are to protect production and delivery high-quality change quickly. Protecting production can put me at odds with some delivery teams that don’t always see the value of testing or quality assurance. When this happens, we focus on identifying the risks and ensuring stakeholders accept these risks, so they are managed accordingly.

What have you learned from your experience so far?

How long have you got? Every organization is different, they have different ideas, objectives, and ways of working. Testers must be adaptable; they need to understand the risk appetite of their stakeholders and structure their goals accordingly. Help stakeholders understand the value you bring and the risks you mitigate. Help them appreciate what the consequences will be if things do go wrong. But always be pragmatic, empathize with teams and see what you can do to help them achieve their goals.

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

In one of my roles, we were talking to a business stakeholder about their challenges. Just listening gave us an idea of how we could help. For a modest investment of £5k, we were able to create a set of automated scripts that saved the business over £700k per annum. Don’t think that what you do must only be in the testing world. Your knowledge can help teams in other areas.

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

I think a lot depends on what your career aspirations are. About 20 years ago, I went on some training. I learned a lot about self-development. From that, I created a 5-year plan. I had a target and then set about understanding what the steps were to achieve that target. Once I knew those steps, I talked to my manager and asked for the opportunities that would allow me to achieve those steps. I achieved my 5-year goal.

Don’t focus on the end game, identify the steps to get there and then take them one at a time.

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