Ryan James, Managing Director of nFocus recently spoke to Grant Powell MBCS about the importance of training top software testing talent and achieving success at the IT Industry Awards.

Specialists in software testing, nFocus, recently won the IT Industry Award for Services Company of the Year. Active for 23 years, the company operates as a testing services partner, working with organisations that are undertaking digital transformation projects and programmes alongside helping businesses accelerate test automation through their innovative academy. nFocus can either supplement teams for fixed durations with their highly trained test professionals or help companies by directly carrying out testing and quality assurance as a service. Here Ryan James, still beaming from the awards win, explains the importance of working to create testing professionals who can meet industry requirements while also helping to fill a skills gap that is otherwise widening.

What is the central aim of nFocus?

As an organisation, we've always wanted to do things efficiently and to be as innovative as we can. We have extensive experience with test automation, essentially writing software to test software. Every time there's a system change, those tests can be run automatically to help understand whether or not certain functionality still works. Historically, in more waterfall type methodologies, you would have done all your analysis, all of your development, and then all of your testing. However, in more iterative approaches, you're taking all of that massive requirement and chunking it into much shorter sprints. Without test automation there's no way of testing everything from the previous sprints as well as everything in the current sprint manually. This is where problems arise. We’ve spent years helping organisations choose the right test automation approach or troubleshooting existing automation that’s fallen into a state of disrepair. It’s this knowledge and expertise that’s enabled us to established a junior practice, the aim of which is to both help those new to the industry find excellent placements, along with supporting clients overcome the scarcity of test automation engineers.

How do you go about finding the right software testing talent?

Test automation has become massively important, and it's a very specific skill set. You need an inquisitive mindset and incredible attention to detail. You also need to have all of the skills of a developer to be able to write the automation, and actually finding people that have both of these attributes can be quite a challenge. Put simply, developers like making things whereas testers thrive on pulling things apart. We were finding it increasingly difficult to recruit those kinds of people, so we did a bit of market research with an independent company to validate the situation. As a result of a confirmed shortage, we decided to create our own test automation academy. In two years, we've hired, trained and deployed 32 junior testers using computer science graduates as the entry point. We have also started the next cohort taking us to 40! We hire them following a very comprehensive selection day and recruitment process and then put them through 12 weeks of training before placing them into clients’ projects as part of our services. We also like to utilise them in our own testing managed services.

How successful has the nFocus academy been so far?

Funnily enough, we only intended on doing one intake of about eight graduates a year. But we were amazed to find that we placed everybody from our first intake within three weeks of that intake finishing!

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Before we knew it, we had done our second intake and we had them all placed within a week of them finishing. Then our third intake were all placed before they'd even finished. We ended up doing three intakes in our first year and we've just started our sixth intake as the Academy turns two years old. We know the right kind of skills, we know the right kinds of people, we know the right training and the mentoring because we've had a couple of decades of experience now and been a part of this industry’s evolution over that time. To have created jobs for people at the start of their IT career is really special for us. I actually joined the company as a graduate, and 15 years on I'm now the Managing Director. We like to upskill, train and develop our people, and my own story resonates with the graduates because it shows that training and development is something we value highly, even in-house for our own teams.

Can the work nFocus is doing help to address the gender divide?

There are so few women going into computer science degrees. At the moment, we're seeing ratios of maybe six to three among our own cohorts, and we want to have more women joining us. We recently sent one of our team to speak at local schools to children before they chose their options. It’s a good age group to talk to about the merits of going into a career in IT before they’ve made any concrete plans in terms of which A-Levels to study or which degree courses to take. We try to present IT and software testing as an inspiring and rewarding career, and if what we offer resonates with the girls as well as the boys, then that’s excellent. Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that it’s never too late to change careers. We’ve seen several people do just that.

One of our team had worked in retail for 20 years and in her spare time studied for an HND, a degree in computing and also completed a development boot camp. Having done all that she decided to apply for our Academy. Her enthusiasm and ability matched her drive and she has been absolutely brilliant. Another of our team worked as a developer post-graduation, then left the industry to start a family. When the opportunity arose to get back to work, she applied to join our Academy and we’re so glad she did as she’s been a real asset to the company. So, as well as those that are new to the industry we’re also committed to giving opportunities to those with the right skills who are looking to change careers.

Finally, can you tell us about nFocus’ recent win at the IT Industry Awards?

The fact that the IT Industry Awards is associated with BCS is something we love, and we've always respected Computing magazine as a really great source of information. When it came to being nominated, we were very aware that we’d be up there with some of the very best, and so to even be named a finalist would be a terrific result. There were some incredibly strong contenders, and as a testing company, we're just one part of a much larger process. We're not necessarily coming up with the really sexy ideas of products to develop, we're the enablers that help other organisations do that sort of thing. I thought the panel of judges this year were totally amazing, and while they certainly pushed me and asked some difficult questions, I could tell they completely got what nFocus is all about and what we’re trying to achieve.

When the winners were eventually announced I think our jaws were well and truly on the floor. We couldn’t believe it. We were totally and utterly speechless. It was a really special moment for us and quite validating. The award is certainly something we’ll shout from the rooftops about, and in fact already features prominently in our company slide deck. It communicates an important message to the businesses we’re looking to work with as well as the new people we’re trying to enlist; that we have been reviewed and validated by this industry and have been found to be both extremely passionate about our work as well as highly credible at what we do.