Women in IT: Mili Mathew

Welcome to the next part of our Women and Diversity in IT editorial series. This series aims to speak with women about their experience in the IT and Testing industries. Focusing on their stories, their highs and lows, their role, their advice to aspiring women testers and engineers, and who/what inspired them to pursue a career in IT and climb the ladder, we will explore what is it like for women in tech industries: from the diversity and inclusion to the challenges and successes​. 

Mili Mathew is Head of Testing (QA) at Collinson. 

So, we talked to Mili, to find out more about why she joined the tech industry, what was her experience, what are the challenges she faces as a woman in Testing, and her advice to aspiring women engineers and testers.

 

Before we begin, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your current role?

I’ve been in Testing for my entire career. I started in IBM and I was going to be a software engineer. That was in January 2001. I was on the bench being an odd batch, rather than wait for another training batch I chose the test project that needed a hand and stayed in testing since then. It’s been nearly 20 years. I’ve been in different software houses and in different organizations – software companies and businesses where IT is a service. My first attraction to a non-software development house was when I realized that an enterprise has so many different corks that need to plug in and fit in and move together to enable that organization to move forward.

My journey started transforming at that point, where I started to move into different roles including release management, change management, business analysis, and I did a bit of coding as well. So, I did many different things in that specific organization. I learned a lot. I think being involved in all those different roles made me see all the challenges and appreciate them more. While there will be some similarities, the challenges vary from organization to organization.

When I moved from the first non-software development organization to a subsequent one, it was an evolution for me. I could see myself growing in a professional way and I could discern how things were done differently, subtly.

One main interest that led me to where I am now was to discover why certain techniques or processes need to be adapted. When you want to get make something better, and you’ve got an idea of what worked in one organization, try it in the new place and it doesn’t work or fit with that new company in the way you expected. They all have the same goals and yet when you try to explain: ‘we’ve done this change in my previous organization and it worked, why can’t we try this here?’ you find that there could be subtle differences that are blocking it.

The other thing I stumbled on was that implementing change successfully is very intrinsically linked to the cultural mindset of the organization itself. I read this really interesting article by Ron Westrum about The study of information flow: A personal journey when I was trying to understand why that resistance within an organization exists. It talks about information flow in an organization and he categorizes them based on their level of openness within the organization or its structure. It swings from one scale which he calls Generative – all of the startup models where everything is open and transparent and everyone can see what’s being done – to the other extreme which is Pathological – where everyone is just blaming others for things going wrong and just super stressed about everything. In the middle, there is what he calls Bureaucratic. It depends on the size of the organization and how many layers there are.

The study states

Pathological organizations are characterized by large amounts of fear and threat. People often hoard information or withhold it for political reasons, or distort it to make themselves look better.

Bureaucratic organizations protect departments. Those in the department want to maintain their ‘‘turf,’’ insist on their own rules, and generally do things by the book—their book. Generative organizations focus on the mission. How do we accomplish our goal? Everything is subordinated to good performance, to doing what we are supposed to do.

I found that really fascinating because when I got that bit of information, it made sense. I think that the organizations that are either bureaucratic or pathological, struggle to make changes that are more agile. Then, I was even more interested. The whole world is on this agile trend and everyone wants to do things quicker and get more automated – although I don’t think you can automate everything – for one organization to get to the stage where it is agile in mindset, I think they need to understand how the information flow works which is what will move that organization from a bureaucratic to a generative model. That is really challenging.

That’s one of the main reasons why I took the role I’m in at Collinson, where I’ve been for close to two years. It’s a global, privately-owned customer benefits and loyalty company that has been at the heart of the world’s travel industry for more than three decades, and operates Priority Pass, the airport lounge and experiences program. I joined Collinson at an interesting time when it was looking at how to evolve the mindset of the organization. It was a natural progression for Collinson given it’s a business run by entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, which made the decision to go Agile a very logical one.

That was one of the reasons I joined the company. I would say we are between bureaucratic, and generative. There are still challenges within the organization when it comes to individuals who have not had any experience with the Agile methodology. Because people don’t realize something has been done differently successfully unless someone tells you or you experience it yourself. That’s the other challenge to make people see that it can be done differently. It’s been very interesting as my role has evolved from being Head of Testing to more about implementing Agile practices, adapting, and scaling. It’s been a positive experience for me.

Did you always know you wanted to work in that field?

My professional degree is in B tech. So, I always knew I would work in IT but didn’t realize there were so many different roles to choose from!

Did you study STEM and if so where and what was that experience like?

Yes, I did my B.Tech in Information Technology. I think it’s still the case with a lot of universities today, when you go for a computer science or IT or even electronics degree, the primary job type or job role students look for is a software developer. Most aim to be programmers but actually, IT is so much richer and has so many different roles. Testing is a classic example. Up to a decade ago, most students didn’t even know the Tester role existed. Even less known is the attraction of the role. Because a lot of people don’t appreciate enough what the role entails before it can be done properly.

A lot of people, and organizations, think that anyone can do testing. My counterpoint generally is that yes, anyone can do testing, but it depends on how good you want it to be. And what is the level of risk you want them to uncover or mitigate? If you want to do it well, you employ someone with the right skills and the right aptitude to apply to it and has the engineering background to be able to understand the techniques. Testers need to have multiple skillsets. They’ve got to understand the requirements – “the what” – but they also have to understand to a great degree of detail – “the how” – i.e. the design. They must understand both aspects – what is the business actually asking for and how we are implementing it – put that together and then apply the test planning.

So, people really need to understand what testing is about. When students go to university, they don’t really understand all the options that are available, and they don’t realize all the opportunities and jobs you can have. There are so many variations to it.

What do you think of the gender diversity in testing and in the tech industry, in general?

Testing-wise, I find a lot of the engineers that have joined testing at Collinson are mainly female. Collinson promotes gender parity and is very open about its support for LGBTQ, BAME, and Women. Don’t get me wrong I do have males in my team too. In general, there are fewer women who choose a career in Tech, and those who do tend to choose something that they feel allows them to have a better work-life balance. More broadly, it could be a cultural bias that runs in more conservative cultures – where the women generally take the home-maker role and feel like in the tech industry, the testing role is a good compromise. Because a programmer or another IT role may be more challenging, I guess. That is my hypothesis because those who have been a tester know a tester’s role is just as challenging if not more compared to a programmer’s role.

What do you think are the challenges women come across in that industry?

I think that women are, not just in testing but in IT generally, less confident and assertive, are perhaps more critical of themselves. For instance, if there was a task that would on an average take two days to test if you ask a male tester, he would just say he thinks it’s two days, whereas if you ask a female tester how much time it would take to complete a piece of work,  in my experience they are generally hesitant to say anything immediately, putting a lot more thinking into their process but they don’t feel confident enough to say that, so they will basically say that they think it’s going to be three days or more.

How do you think that can be improved?

I think one way it can be improved is if women in senior roles mentor or coach other women – share what they’ve learned and shown them the ropes. I mentor a few people and think it’s very important and can make a huge difference.

Another key aspect is having supportive coworkers and managers. One of the other reasons I joined Collinson was because my CTO is very supportive. He’s always been very open and if he sees ability in someone, he supports them. I think it was this trust that led me to the organization. If you have somebody at a senior level who guides you and mentors you, I think women can break the glass ceiling.

Do you have any ideas or initiatives that could benefit women working in the tech industry?

One thing I do is connect with people through LinkedIn. Within my team itself, if I find good talent, I’m more than happy to mentor them.

Have you helped to introduce any other women to the IT industry?

I’m doing a presentation for my son’s primary school for Parents’ Day, where mums and dads are invited to talk about what they do as part of their profession. It’s starting at a young age. The school in the UK tend to run a parent’s day, which gives the kids an opportunity to hear and ask questions about different professional walks of life what they entail, so they get a better idea of what they might like to do one day.

Within testing itself, I haven’t really encouraged anyone to join testing if they’re not interested in it. For me, it’s more about ability and interest than gender. I look to see if the individual has the attitude, then I coach them to join the profession or the company. I think in testing, there are plenty of women but perhaps not in prominent roles like leadership or managerial roles. But that is the same case for any sector, not just IT. I do hope to have a positive impact in this regard in my own small way.

What do you think is the best part of being a woman in tech?

I’ve never really seen myself as different from anybody.

Let me explain this in a different way. I was born and brought up in India, in the southern peninsula. Most of my education has been in the south, which is a very conservative society. So, there’s always been the assumption that men would do the work and women would manage the home. That men could do certain types of jobs that women couldn’t. But my father always brought me up saying there’s nothing like that, a girl can do anything a boy can do, you just need to put your mind to it. So, when I joined my university, it was a little bit of a shock because some of my male classmates came from that conservative thinking.

There’s a story that my teacher used to share to explain how changing conditioned learning works. I’m from Kerala, where elephants are used to do a lot of heavy lifting. We’ve got wild elephants in the peninsula and they are captured or bred in captivity to serve the timber industry. When you have a baby elephant, they are much weaker than an adult elephant. They are restrained using a heavy metal chain and when they first try to break free from that chain, they can’t. It’s too strong for them. As they grow older, they become so trained with living in shackles they don’t attempt to break free. When they are fully grown elephants, they have the strength to break free of those same heavy metal chains, but they never try.

It’s because it’s conditioned that they don’t. That’s what happens with all the cultural vices. You’re just conditioned to think one way or the other. Because you are being told that it cannot be done. And what we considered not possible ten years ago is now possible. That’s relevant not only in testing or IT but across the globe.

These things take a long time to change.

Do you have any advice for women considering a career in the tech industry?

There’s no domain or business that can be run without IT. Everything is driven by IT because everything is digitized and moving towards contactless. It’s such a multi-faceted industry to join. There will always be changes and you need to embrace them or you will fall behind.

I think that all future is related to technology. Don’t be afraid – just believe in yourself.

What is a typical day for you?

I am a supporter or enabler to all the dev teams and cover all the functions under Technology. Reporting to our CTO, I am one of the senior managers in a team that shares responsibilities and cover when other managers are off. We have a skilled and collaborative team. We’re expanding our team and a lot of my time goes into recruitment alongside supporting the Tech strategy.

We are now planning our roadmap and considering the current trends due to COVID and the impact it’s had on the travel sector. But that hasn’t put us down – we are looking at ways to reshape our product range as the world gets to grips with COVID and the ‘new normal’. Organizations must evolve to stay relevant by adapting their thinking based on the changes that taking place.

For leaders or people in management roles, there are two types of tasks: a doer task – where you need to complete something, and an enabler type – where you support your team to get something done. I would say that 80% of my work is enabler type and about 20% doer.

What is your favorite part of testing?

When I was doing testing, I found it really interesting not only understanding the functional or technical components of a solution but also understanding how a change impacts the business. And applying the information – the what and the how – to know how I was going to design the test. That for me is a niche skillset.

I’ve done several interviews and worked in several organizations with lots of different testers, but very few testers understand that. They’ve got one of two views – they’re either very technical and don’t understand the business’s impact, or they understand the business side but are not able to grasp the complexities within the technical stack. Both views are key, otherwise, the critical functions may not work as intended and it will cause huge impacts and add costs.

Understanding the requirements of the change is understanding the why. When you boil it down to the actual why behind a change or feature – you may be able to find another way to achieve the same goal that might satisfy most people and at a lower cost. I think the technology function has a part to highlight when something is not going to add value, rather than just add more cost. Decision-makers need to understand both aspects, which is why I think that testing is information gathering and presenting back to stakeholders in terms of risks to enable better or more empirically based decision making.

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

While we are talking about this requirement aspect, it draws me back to a few years when I was a testing lead in an organization. The main systems in the enterprise stack were off the shelf CRM and banking systems. Now, the banking system had details of the customers and account details, as did the CRM system. The architectural principle was based on the fact the CRM system would be the master for the demographic details and the banking system would become the master for all the accounts and transactions. We needed to keep both systems in synch. To do this, we created a middle ware – all based on queuing systems – which kept both systems in synch.  So, if a customer had an account in the CRM system, it would ensure that the same account for the customer existed in the banking software, that had the full details of the account. Any transactional updates such as a payment or refund which occurred in the banking system would be updated into the CRM system and any customer address/contact changes in the CRM system would be updated in the banking system.

Once that system was built, they needed to have a seamless experience for the customer contact center or service agents. The product manager said we’ve got to have a seamless experience because they’ve never used the banking system. The proposal was we build this internal layer – a customized UI that looked and felt exactly like the CRM software – same color and scheme. But it was joining the information using APIs from the banking system. My immediate response to that was ‘Why are we doing that? Can’t they just log in to the banking system and see the information? That would be more accurate. Why not train the users to do it on the second system?’ I think the challenge was: what is the user comfortable doing and using?

There is a way to understand how software work. I think everyone faces change and new software is nothing different. It’s a change to the way you work. But with time and practice, people get used to it and get familiar with it. It doesn’t become as daunting. I tried to explain that and that the teams will become familiar with the new applications quickly because it’s not that hard to figure out. There is a pattern to it, they will understand and they will know how to use that application in a few weeks. Then it will become a pointless exercise, trying to build that UI. And, the testing was an additional cost on top of that. So, I tried explaining that but got overruled. We built it. And a few months after the applications were rolled out and the banking system had settled down; people were using it more. They would rely less on those customized UIs that were built. I had to go back and say I told you so.

So much time and money were spent and it was just useless. So, occasionally I use that story as an example of how there could be a simpler way to accomplish the same goal.

When you see something, it’s easier to relate to and understand it. When you don’t have something to touch and play with, it’s much harder for someone who is making the decision which is why I like Agile and other methodologies that allow quicker iteration and feedback.

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