InsideArachnys – Q&A with Will Ellis, Interim Head of QA

Welcome to InsideArachnys, a series of interviews where we speak to the people behind the Arachnys platform. This month, we caught up with Will Ellis, our Interim Head of QA based in London.

Hi Will, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and explain your role at Arachnys?

Hi, I’m the Interim Head of QA here at Arachnys and have been in the QA profession in some form or other for about ten years. I’ve been at Arachnys just over a year and in that time my role has been about making sure the software development processes we use make high quality products that are as efficient as possible.

Your work has taken you through many interesting routes, from car radios to the cinema industry via visual arts for performances. What motivated you to join the tech startup space?

Pure chance. Back when I graduated from university it was just after the Great Recession. I had a degree in mechanical engineering but there weren’t many engineering jobs around, so I took a short contract testing DAB car radios. Sat in a noisy room next to a broadcast tower (with the same range as KJAZZ) listening to radio recorded test tracks.

I followed this with a stint working for a visual art collective, who made professional media software and servers for stadium concerts, finding myself more interested in the data throughput of the GPU than the epic stage designs so ended up testing cinema systems and pursuing a career in tech.

The problems are never dull in tech; “How do you wow an audience?”, “With a 30ft robot of course…”, “How do you gauge an audience’s reaction to a horror film?”, “Use IR to measure reactions…” and Arachnys is no different.

What are the most useful skills you have learned that are transferable to testing/QA and the management of product teams?

Always ask questions. Key questions can save headaches later on. Asking questions and getting to the nub of the problem helps clarify what is needed. A tech lead from a previous role would always ask “What are we trying to achieve?” almost like a mantra and it worked.

Questions are useful to help communication. I have noticed that some bugs creep in regardless of the skill and acumen of the developers or QA or product owners. I believe there is a sort of QA variation of Conway’s Law in that the quality of a system reflects the quality of the organization’s communication structure. This is why small startups appear to take on the world as being in a small group the undefined communication happens regardless, whereas in larger companies there will always be growth pains from that lack of conversation or questions.

What are you working on right now and what technologies/languages are involved?

Currently I’m working on an interim QA strategy to shore up the existing products and also build out quality processes to help with the new and exciting stuff we’re building. The shoring up involves writing test scripts (Selenium and Python) to mimic workflows users use. Shoring up also involves scouring bug reports and user feedback to work out where critical areas are. For the future I’m looking at ways we can test existing products with the new exciting stuff and get everyone involved in testing, rehashing ideas such as BDD or staging grounds and looking at newer ideas around quality for building out better products.

What advice would you give to software engineers who want to become more senior, based on what you’ve learned in your own career?

Learn those soft skills. Soft skills are about how you build and communicate your brand to the company and to the world. Practice giving presentations on books or ideas, learn negotiation skills to get better results and even just writing effectively gets your ideas across. Your killer idea for a new app or suggestion on process improvement needs persuasion.

Also, after this pandemic is over, attending meetups is a fantastic way to meet people in the craft and pick up new ideas to help you grow.

And finally, who do you look to for inspiration? Can you recommend any great books/people to follow/TEDtalks/podcasts that you follow?

For inspiration I’ve found The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher as my go to book. Probably hard to track down but if you see it in a secondhand bookshop, pick it up. The author had spent years pulling together various ideas, quotes, pictures and, well, stuff, and made a book which is primarily about seeing the world around us.

Also for working in tech both Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister, and The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brookes are fascinating reads as they’re both written long ago and yet seem freshly relevant to working in the tech sector. On that note Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations by Robert D. Austin, although very dry, tackles head on how targets and arbitrary measures demotivate and lower effectiveness of teams.

Also for anyone interested in QA as a career the fine folk at Ministry of Testing run a testing community of practice across Slack, meetups and conferences, and for the more practical minded there’s the Test Automation University which can get you up and running with test automation.

Digital Marketing Executive at Arachnys