Gemma Pitman, Test Manager at the BBC

by Gemma Pitman

My life was pretty conventional until I was 12. Then my dad died suddenly. The subsequent years were tough – my family moved numerous times, during which time my schooling suffered as I moved schools frequently. When I was aged 14, due to difficult circumstances, we had to move across the country to live with my gran.

After we moved, there were no places at any local schools for me, and so for almost a year, I stayed home without any schooling at all. This meant I missed nearly all of year 10 at school, and part of year 11. By the time they found me a permanent place at a school, it was also only a couple of months from GCSE exams and I struggled to keep up.

As a result they saw me as a ‘problem’ and I was placed in a special class for problematic students. Before this period, I’d always done really well at school and was a straight-A student, however it soon became apparent that I’d missed too much schooling and there was no point in me taking my GCSE exams as I’d missed too much. As a result, I left the school soon after joining without taking any exams.

Despite having no qualifications, I found a job in the local convenience store and slowly my confidence started to build. At 17 while I was working on the checkout at a local Tesco store, I was scanning a newspaper when I realised that I knew the barcode off by heart and also that I was starting to forget how to do simple mental arithmetic. It was at this point that reality sunk in. If I didn’t do something to change my life – I would always be working on a checkout. It was at that moment I decided that that I could do more.

I enrolled at a local college to study for my GCSEs with the ambition of becoming a secretary or a receptionist – that was my dream. At the end of the year, I passed my GCSEs with flying colours and spurred on by the encouragement of IT teacher, decided to aim higher and study for A-Levels. After 2 years, I’d also done extremely well in my A-Levels and decided to continue my studies at university.

I’d always enjoyed using computers, and as a child I remember having a VTech mini laptop which I used to write ‘BASIC’ programming commands on. My love of computers had stayed with me throughout all of my life – even when the rest of my world seemed to be in disarray. It seemed logical to study I.T at university – not only a subject I enjoyed and was good at, but one with which the career prospects were extremely good.

My degree course was called ‘IT in Organisations’ which in a nutshell means that it was 50% technical modules whilst the other 50% was more management focused. This was brilliant for me as it gave me exposure to many different IT. disciplines, and this has helped me immensely in my career as it’s allowed me to relate to disciplines other than my own. During my 2nd year at university I did a summer internship in London for an I.T Consultancy. This cemented two things in my mind – 1) I wanted to live in London and 2) I wanted to work in IT.

When I graduated, I went to work for the same IT consultancy on a classified government project (which seemed very exciting at the time). As it was a consultancy, when I joined I didn’t know what specific role I would be given but I ended up with the title ‘Test Analyst’ which basically means once the software code was written, I had to ‘test’ it and identify any defects before it gets to Live (amongst other things!) I learnt how to write automated tests in C# and discovered that I really enjoyed the mixture of manual testing e.g. trying to break things, with structured coding by writing automated tests.

Within 18 months I’d made Test Lead, and after 2 years I moved on to work as a tester within the digital department at IPC Media. As it was web testing and much more agile, it required me to learn many new skills related to ways of working and web technologies but I enjoyed it immensely. Despite most people seeing testing as ‘boring’, I had found a niche and a passion for doing something I loved (and as a bonus I was getting paid for it!)

Fast forward a few years and what am I doing now? Well I’m working for the BBC as Test Manager. My promotion into management has brought fresh challenges and I’ve definitely learnt A LOT in my 18 months in the role. One of the most important lessons is that management is something that can’t really be ‘taught’ and is much harder than people think.

I sometimes miss being so ‘hands on’ and technical but at the same time I’m given so much responsibility and creative freedom to make positive changes and lead exciting initiatives – I sometimes wonder why they trust me so much! But I’m loving every minute – I’m working on products that I genuinely care about and I have a great team that I work with. I currently have 11 great people working for me across 3 test teams and although it’s challenging at times, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My advice would be if you work hard and want something then anything is possible. It’s taken me a while to get where I am today but it’s been worth the wait and I wouldn’t change a thing. 

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