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15 minutes with Director of Quality Engineering Natalie Wood

March 18th, 2019

Jennifer Wheeler spent 15 minutes with Natalie Woods – Director of Quality Engineering at Elsevier – Global information and analytics provider in the scientific arena.


Natalie, you kindly agreed to spend a few minutes with me to discuss your approach to quality engineering at Elsevier, I saw you presented on the subject in October 2018.  Thanks for taking the time.


Just to set the scene a little, you have been working in testing since 2001, how did you get into testing in the first place?

My entry in to QE and testing was a bit of an accident really.  I studied for a degree in linguistics and started working improving the phonetic dictionary for speech recognition software which was really interesting.  I wanted to move to London so changed jobs to work for a company in the same sector and got involved in testing their product. The rest is history!

You now have responsibility from overall QE strategy/approach across the Research Technology division at Elsevier which covers around 70 Quality Engineers across multiple locations, would you give us an appreciation of what quality engineering is in your world?

It’s about the principles, best practices, high-level strategy but also the personal and career development of the people who perform the Quality Engineering roles. We are in a transition stage at the moment.  When I moved to the Director of Quality Engineering role beginning of 2018 line management responsibility for QE team members lay elsewhere, we are changing that so that line management will be part of my role.  It is a work in progress.

What skill sets are you looking for in your Quality Engineers? 

Although there has always been a need for people in testing to have common sense and good intuition these skills have become of greater priority with the move towards DevOps.  Analytical skills are so important and really confident communication skills are key, with capturing ideas and collaboration with all squad members being part of everyday life. I look for people who understand that quality needs to be considered from the outset and is owned by everyone. A strong Quality Engineer needs to act as a consultant in many ways to bring the team along on a journey of understanding best practices and designing and building for quality.

If as you say ‘no person’ has all the skill sets but you recruit and develop those who show aptitude and interest in growth, how do you spot this when interviewing candidates?

Unfortunately, this is something that can be hard to spot in a CV. There are techniques we use with example-focused candidate briefing questions as part of the application process to make the screening process more effective but ultimately, you have to be prepared to talk to a lot of people, spend time understanding their thought processes and how they ‘think through’ problems.

What specialist skills do you value in squad members?

Ideally, we try to ensure that localised teams are considered holistically rather than as a collection of individual contributors who focus purely on their squads. There are a number of niche skills in testing, such as security testing, performance testing, accessibility testing etc. and it is hard to find someone with all those skills. Instead, an approach I like to take is to set each of the team members in a ‘group’ an objective of becoming the champion for a niche skill. We support tha training and development of that individual with a caveat that part of the process is sharing back with the wider QE community and their squads so that the knowledge doesn’t sit with one person.

How do you offer continuous growth, do you find people come learn and leave?  What is your experience in this regard?

Continuous growth is important. One of the ways I facilitate and encourage this is via the Quality Engineering Community – the collective sum of all Quality Engineers in my area (and some from others). I facilitate regular knowledge sharing and collaboration across the group, which we largely run via a Slack workspace and provide opportunities to learn, develop and give back. We also implement a mentor/buddy scheme across the community linking up people who are looking for a mentor and those looking for mentoring opportunities.

What skill sets are you developing in your teams?

We have varied skills needs in different groups in my area but BDD is something I am pushing for in all areas. Teams who are more mature in the practices of BDD have a very collaborative and open approach that is evidenced by the quality of what those teams deliver.

You have a whole heap on your plate at a Director level as well as home life.  What tips do you have around ‘time management’?

I’m not sure I’m winning on that front. Juggling work and family life with a young child is a real challenge and there’s no simple answer or perfect balance. It’s about each individual finding the balance that works for them.

How have you changed the approach to software quality in the last year and why did you make those changes?

The last few years have all been about shifting left. Getting away from the traditional approach of testing being a post-development activity and ‘assuring’ quality to being the collective who guide teams to engineer for quality from the outset.

Every environment has challenges, what do you see to be the next ones to tackle?

Effecting change in a large and varied group is a challenge. One of the biggest lessons I learned last year is not to try to make improvements in all areas at once. It can feel like a slower process but focusing on a small number of squads and then moving on to another small number of squads using the lessons learned and improvements evidenced as a basis for the next ‘round’ works better. Being comfortable standing back and watching some dropped balls in some areas is a daily challenge for me but you can’t keep them all in the air at the same time.

How do you see the role of Head of quality engineering / test management evolving in the coming years?

I think the days of having testing or Quality Engineering functions that are separate from and outside of development activities are long gone. The role of test management is more matrixed now and that has its challenges as there are many more stakeholder to influence and get buy in from to make it work.

Developing and coaching your staff – you have 70 Quality Engineers in multiple locations – how do you manage these quality folk?

It’s impossible to spend the time I’d like to with all the individuals (believe me, I tried at first!). Having strong managers in place to embed strong principles and best practices and foster a culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing is key.

What helped you develop your career the most?

Spending time outside my comfort zone has helped me learn and progress. Being open to and inviting feedback from people is key to growing and self-awareness too.

 What are your thoughts on testing qualifications?

Testing qualifications aren’t something I personally seek when looking for talent. I am far more impressed by character and personality.  Experience and potential trumps testing qualifications for me, but they can be valuable at the beginning of a Quality Engineer’s career, largely from a terminology perspective.

You have worked in software testing for many years what advice would you offer people at the beginning of their testing careers who are keen to travel down a similar path to Test Management?

For me, people management is all about caring passionately about the people and their development. Some people are better suited for this path than others and it is becoming more and more common in organisations to have a dual individual contributor track on a par with seniority levels. As a general rule though, if you want top progress in your career, I always advise my team to volunteer for as many things as they can reasonably manage, especially things outside of their comfort zone. Apart from the fact that it helps you grow, it also helps you to build up a strong network.

Staying up to date with new approaches to testing, tools etc.. can be a full-time job in itself.  How do you stay in touch with what is happening in the market?

I read a lot of blogs and articles. I’m also a member of quite a few forums (mostly via Slack these days) and, importantly, I talk to people. A lot of people. Both inside the organisation I work in and in the wider testing community.

What do you most enjoy about heading up a testing practice?

This is an easy one to answer, it’s the people.  I love to help people grow and promote team working and collaboration.  It’s very satisfying to build a team which is productive, passionate, energetic and offers each member growth.


For help and assistance in any aspect of Testing career planning or recruitment please contact Jennifer Wheeler.

T: 01437 532257 or 07733 121897

E: Jennifer@testingprofessionals.com

LinkedIn – JenniferWheeler


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