by Paul Geddes

John and Paddy talk to QA’s CEO, Paul about his career journey and how he ended-up at the helm of a tech learning company. Hear about:

  • His career journey
  • What an average day looks like for him
  • Why he joined QA and what he loves about the business
  • His favourite things about working for a tech company
  • What exciting projects are in the horizon for QA
  • His best bit of advice for someone getting into a tech career

Watch the video or read the transcript below. 

Episode transcript:

- PD: Welcome to the Inspire The Nation podcast. We at QA are super excited to be bringing you a regular dose of thought leadership, industry insights on all things related to tech and learning. I'm Paddy Dhanda and I head up the Agile practice at QA. I started off as a software engineer and I've accidentally stumbled into the world of learning, having headed up the agile learning for a global bank and playing lots of Lego along the way. My biggest passion lays in creating engaging experiences through elements of visual thinking, gamification and storytelling. This is my colleague John Gordon.

- JG: Thanks Paddy. So I'm John Gordon and I am the Software Practice Director for QA. Really what we want to use this podcast for is to inspire anyone into technology regardless of background. So for me personally, I really fell into software. If I go back 10 years, I was working in air traffic control in the military, and really by chance, I got into software development. Really what we want to use this podcast for is to meet some amazing guests with a real inspiration of trying to get people into tech jobs.

- PD: So I'm super excited today. We've managed to convince our CEO Paul Geddes onto the Inspire the Nation podcast today. So Paul was a former CEO of Direct Line Group and under his leadership DLG was recognised in the top three of the Sunday Times, best big companies to work for. He was also the CEO of RBS group at their mainland UK retail banking business. And he's got a huge background in lots of other big organisations such as King Fisher, Argos, Procter and Gamble (P&G). So welcome to the show today Paul.

- PG: Hi, Paddy, lovely to join you. Don't be put off by the fact that I'm your boss. Just ask me like all the tough questions, right? I won’t hold any  of these are against you.

- PD: Right, that's good to know. Good to know we've got that psychological safety established.

- PG: It’s all fine, it’s all good.

- PD: And welcome John as well. John, my awesome co-host. Hey John, how you doing?

- JG: Great, we've all got the Christmas jumpers on all ready for Christmas and some Christmas questions coming to you, Paul.

- PG: Excellent, looking forward to it. This is about as Christmas-y as I get. I've tried Christmas jumpers and they don’t suit me in the way that they suit you.

- PD:  Right, so let's kick off then. So we're going to jump straight into your career, Paul. We'd love to know a little bit more about your career, your path to date. It would be great if you could share some insights.

- PG: Good, so the first thing, I almost became a violinist. From a young age, I played the violin and I went to the Junior Royal College of Music. And then at about 15, I decided that I probably I wasn't quite good enough to be a musician. I could have probably got to music college but it's a very tough way to make a living. And I probably wasn't as good as I needed to be to do that.

So I took the slightly more academic route. I went to Oxford and read PPE which is a subject that has got a bad image now all the politicians have done it. When I was at Oxford, it turned out I was quite an entrepreneur. So I was running things around the Oxbridge careers handbook. I set up lots of orchestras and kind of commercialised music and sold out all the churches.

I worked out I was a marketeer from doing all that stuff. Companies like Procter & Gamble look for people that have done all that stuff at university. So I did an internship on Pampers, would you believe? And then went up to live in Newcastle and went up through the various stages of Pampers. That sounds wrong, doesn't it? But it was you know, a huge, great big brand where I learnt an awful lot, did the direct marketing, proposed that we should get into Pampers baby wipes, which we then launched. We launched across Europe to some success even globally and worked in Europe and UK. I worked on Fairy non-bio then worked on beauty including CoverGirl and Max Factor.

The great thing about Procter & Gamble is that you did the pricing and the products and the marketing. So you were the kind of P&L owner, which I really enjoyed. Great company, great technology. There were huge numbers of scientists working on the products to make sure they were better than everyone else's products. And then the marketing job was to get people to try them. So a really good, formative experience. So many frameworks that I use today in business were used at P&G.

Then I went into retail. I was the head of marketing for Superdrug which was a really cool and really fun job. Beauty is great fun and, you know, really innovative. We had our own products, we were quite irreverent and cutting edge. We did some really cool advertising.

Then I went on to be the marketing director of Comet when it was still doing quite well before it sadly folded. Then I went to be a marketing director of Argos which was my dream job. I grew up with Argos, the Argos catalogue. So to be in charge of the marketing, the catalogue and the online for Argos, that was brilliant.

Being marketing director of Argos at Christmas is the most amazing game of chess. Every day you're trying to compete against jewellers over here, furniture, toys, electricals. You have the stock that you need and have to make sure you sell before time runs out. By Christmas day you’d be exhausted and then you have to pick it up again for the Boxing Day sale.

So I really enjoyed retail. And then I went on from that to retail banking. I went up to Edinburgh. I was initially running the products and marketing and then ultimately the whole thing for the retail bank which was mainly NatWest. So I learned lots of new stuff, reapplied some of the same skills, but obviously, you know NatWest has a huge number of intangible products, which is quite interesting. I did some good stuff on NatWest, a lot on service and quite a lot of product innovation.

And that was through the crisis so pretty challenging. We obviously had a lot of very distressed staff and customers and that was a very challenging period. A lot of leadership challenges, a lot of empathy was needed, a lot of resilience needed but you know, very formative again, I learnt a lot through the things that just didn't work, or things which were challenging. And then I took over the insurance arm which was to be sold. So I was given the task of separating it out and then selling it to the market. I did an IPO in 2012 which did pretty well and went on to become a kind of standalone listed business.

So lots of different experiences.

I'm also on the board of Channel Four, which is again one of the brands that I love. I'm really proud to be part of that and the stuff that it does.

I suppose some common themes throughout. I’m always very interested in getting the people side of it right. Because basically that's what business is. If you get the best people that know roughly what they're doing and feel energised by it then everything tends to kind of take care of itself.

And I’ve always been interested in technology, At Direct Line, we did some great things on technology. We did some things which were more challenging and, you know, I guess I had an understanding of the reliance that modern businesses have on having the best technology. And to have the best technology you have to have the best people in technology.

- PD: Wow, that's amazing that is just a huge wealth of experience, but yeah, phenomenal. So thank you so much. I bet it would have been great to have been a friend of yours back then, Paul.

- PG: Well, I worked at Argos when we were Britain's biggest toy retailer. My kids were about six or seven. We used to go into Argos and there was Santa Claus and they just had the best time. We had all the best toys.

- PD: Oh, wow.

- JG: Wow, Christmas with the Argos catalogue. So I can remember late November you'd always go to the store and get the catalogue and then you'd see a picture of what you wanted from Santa.

- PG: Well, your parents couldn't mess up - that was the other thing for me, I would always say, I want “this”. I remember asking for Crystal Palace kit because that's where I lived. But they didn't quite get the right one and the bike, they didn't quite get the right bike. And I mean, I love them for it. They really did want to do the best. But with Argos you gave them the seven-digit number, and that was it. And then there's this magic of it coming on the conveyor belt. It was like the generation game, it was so exciting. I used to go in store and help them out because the great thing about Argos, you can go work there. It's quite easy. So you get the label and you've got to then go and find the products and put them on the conveyor belt. At Christmas, that was just wonderful.

- PD: I've always wondered how many people they actually have upstairs because it's almost like there's one person coming to the counter, but do they have an army of elves at the back?

- PG: Yeah, it's actually very cleverly laid out. It's a fun job, really good people in the stores. Really a very, very happy part of my life. Because you know, when you are running a business or running a brand that you love, it's, you know, it's not work really. I have to be passionate about the brands I'm part of.

- PD: Right, fantastic. So moving on to QA. So now you're the CEO of QA. It'd be great to get to know a little bit more about what does a typical day look like for you but also from a leadership perspective what's important to running such a business because I assume it's a very different type of organisation to maybe some of the others that you've talked about.

- PG: I think that the weird thing is that irrespective of sector, and I've worked in retailing and FMCG and media and banking and insurance, it's kind of all the same challenges of running a business which is, you know, having a really good strategy and then having a really good plan and then having really good people that make that come to life.

And the great thing about being a CEO is that it's really varied. I mean, by its very nature being a CEO, all of the best bits about the business come to you and all of the worst bits. So if there's anything that is going wrong or anything that is challenging, it comes up to you. So to a certain extent your diary is predictable and you set it but events always kind of end up with you as well. So there's a large degree of unpredictability in it. Then there's kind of some regular rhythm to it. We have a board meeting, we have ExCo meetings and Learning Boards so there’s all the structure from that.

I also love to get in front of clients. So in this role, well, you know John, there are loads of meetings we've been in together where we get in front of a CTO and tell them what we do. And I think that's brilliant. It keeps you real, you learn a lot from what they want. And I think they like to see, you know the CEO of a business, caring about our clients.

We obviously through our Higher Education business have lots of boards with our university partners and I spend time on those as well.

So my job is brilliant because of it's variety. When I tried to explain it to my kids when they were young, they didn't really understand what I did. But you know, a lot of what I do is being in meetings. That sounds really dull but actually each meeting is about making things better. If you try and say, we've got half an hour or an hour on this thing, how do we make this better? How do we really understand it? What's holding us back from being brilliant at this thing?

So I think the thing I would say is it takes a load of energy particularly when it's all on video because typically as CEO, you're expected to I suppose, make a decision or shed some light on something or be energising. And so there's a lot of energy I think goes into the role, which is fantastic, right. But I think that's the kind of the thing which you need to bring every day because you don’t see everyone all the time. And if, when they see you, you're grumpy or irritable, that's what they think of you because they don't see you all the time.

- PD: Fantastic, that's great Paul, thank you so much for that. When I speak to a lot of family and friends and I talk about QA, some people have heard of us, some have absolutely not, but the first thing you know, what they say, oh, so you do training courses. I guess from a CEO perspective what vision would you want to portray to people that don't know much about QA?

- PG: That is a really interesting one. So we're an amazingly big successful business which meets the many needs of our clients and our clients are 85% of the FTSE 350, lots of parts of government, you know, we're huge and we do some really important stuff but I would agree with you that we're not well known and we're not well known for everything that we do. And so you'll start to see, you know, more marketing. That's what I would call it, you know, in The Economist, The New Statesman, you'll see adverts from us just to say to people, hey, we're here and here's all the stuff, the great stuff that we do. And it's not random what we do. We do a collection of services which collectively meet this massive need in the world for better tech skills. And, you know, all businesses are increasingly about tech. I can't think of a sector that doesn't market itself on tech, or run itself on tech, or reaches clients on tech. You know, so even if you're a restaurant business or you're a florist, you know, you have to be a tech business to some extent. So I think what that then means is to win against your competitors, you need to at least have as good a tech as they do, ideally have better tech or use data better. The tools available to all businesses big and small are now pretty similar, right? Particularly cloud, and John you're the expert. You get all the great open source products available to you. I'll mention Jenkins, which is one of my favourites, but it's kind of democratic now, right?

A small company can have access to you know, phenomenal platforms, phenomenal processing power through the cloud and can get developers developing amazing go to market applications, apps and everything like that. Now that is quite scary for a company because actually what that means is winning or losing is not about having the best tech in the back with the best data centre. It's now about have you got the best people to use the tech. That is a bit of an arms race and the current skills in the world aren't enough to keep up with demand. So a company has got a choice, do they up-skill their current people? Yes. And do they find new people? Yes. We can help with both.

So in terms of up-skilling current people we can do it whichever way you want to do it. We can put you on the Cloud Academy platform to assess what skills you've got today. And then systematically upskill, particularly in cloud and then data and software, or you can use our training courses. We have about 700 courses, despite COVID, you know we're doing all that virtually. Fantastic live courses. We do events just for some companies. We then do bootcamps, which are really the intense way of learning, where, you know you can get someone that doesn't know tech and 14 weeks later they are a SFIA Level 3 DevOps engineer. And then we do apprenticeships.

So, in a way our job is to say to a CTO, okay, what's your problem? What have you got? What do you need?

And actually, even if the organisation doesn’t have the talent, we can also go and find the talent for them. We can find diverse people to bring in as apprentices in entry level tech jobs because we also have a fantastic ability to find people that have got the aptitude and attitude to learn tech, and then teach them tech. So we're kind of a one-stop shop for the capability CTOs need to win. Right. And the other half of it is obviously the technology. There are many fantastic vendors but using the technology I think is where companies establish competitive edge. Having run a company which was like most modern financial services companies very tech dependent, I absolutely knew that having the tech itself was really only half the battle, it was having the people.

- PD: Nice, thank you so much Paul. We're now going to get a bit festive and pose a few quickfire questions.

- JG: So we like to get under our guests’ skin a little bit and get to know them a little bit. So on this particular occasion what we'd love to do is find out what the Geddes household is going to be doing for Christmas.

- JG: My first question is, I'm a massive fan of Christmas movies, what is the number one Christmas movie for Paul Geddes?

-PG: I'm going to give you about five. I just think you have to watch all of them. Well, first of all, “The Snowman” on Christmas Eve on Channel Four. There's a few around. The Snow Bear is not quite as good but then you've got "The Bear" which I think is really underrated. Another animated one in the same genre. I think Polar Express gets you in the mood brilliantly. Then not quite about Christmas but I think it's a cracker, Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd, brilliant film. And then the film to watch over Christmas, my favourite film, is "ET". And then obviously all the Bond films.

- JG: I love the Bond films as well. What about the Diehard films? I'm a Diehard fan that would probably be my number one.

- PG: Yeah, I know it's kind of set at Christmas at the tower but it's not, it doesn't elicit Christmas emotions in me.

- JG: Paddy, you got a favourite Christmas film?

- PD: I'm going to say "Home Alone". Home Alone is just my favourite

- PG: Yeah, it's good.

- JG: So the next question then Paul and it's on the lips of everyone at QA. This is what they want to know. So on the Paul Geddes Christmas table, sprouts yes or no.

- PG: Of course, yes, easy, no hesitation. And my kids, even my kids, like sprouts.

- JG: Nice. And then going on to the festive music and kind of speaking about the media. So we are big massive fans of music here at Inspire the Nation. What's the kind of number one Christmas song in the Paul Geddes household over the festive period please?

- PG: So what's the Paul McCartney one? Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time, that I think is great.

- PD: Can you sing that for us?

- PG: No. And then Walking in the Air is nice. So for me I'm a classical musician. I still - COVID permitting - play in my orchestra and I think classical music at Christmas is pretty good. I love the choirs from King's Cambridge on Christmas Eve on Radio Four at three or four o'clock. That gets me in the mood.

- JG: Nutcracker then is that a favourite?

- PG: Nutcracker, the ballet, that's very Christmas-y. Basically I just love Christmas. For me, not quite I wish it could be Christmas every day, but I think you can't have enough Christmas really.

- JG: My girlfriend would agree with you. If you saw my house at the moment, I've got Christmas trees in four of the seven rooms.

- PG: Argos gave us staff discounts on a lot of Christmas stuff. I'm with you, John. I think you can never have enough fairy lights.

- JG: So the final question of the quick fire round before we get back to some technical questions, what does Paul Geddes want from Santa this year?

- PG: So you can never have enough pairs of headphones. I’ve probably got six or seven cause I'm into my music and my wife hates all the noise I create and obviously in lockdown you're using headphones all the time. So I might try to sneak those new Apple AirPods Max, you know the big ones they've just brought out in the last few days.

- JG: Yeah.

- JG: Paddy, what do you want for Christmas mate?

- PD: Oh dude, I just want more time. I think I need more time in the day. There's just so much going on and I just feel time is shrinking all the time and I would just love a bit more time.

- PG: You've got 11 days from QA. We're giving you 11 days off in a row.

- PD: That's true, yeah, and thank you. Thank you for letting us have Christmas Eve off. I think that was a good idea

- JG: So I'm going to get back into the questions about QA. So obviously we work at a tech organisation and you've kind of alluded to some of it already. So what's your favourite three things working in a tech company like QA?

- PG: Well, I'm not sure I have three.

I think the first revelation is if you've trained, if you've learned about tech this year, in a year's time it's all change right? The concept's the same, but the pace of change, particularly in cloud. I went to the AWS event last December and there were two and a half thousand product changes. And I suppose just keeping on top of all of that, I think is exciting. And, you know, the products are changing, they're being made better and they can do more things. And so again, I think by spending the money on the products and you know keeping people up to speed on how to use it properly I think that's kind of an impetus.

And then I just think what we do is really cool. I think you know really at our heart when we do it well, we are giving people amazing careers and we're helping companies win and they can win on a global stage. You know, the great thing is of course, you know people can build global businesses, you know, based out of the UK or anywhere else. And then I think on careers, you know, John some of the people that have come out of your academies in the past, you know, you've given them a lifelong career, you've given them, you know, the keys to really satisfying you know, long-term valuable livelihood. Right. And that makes me extremely excited because I think, you know, in the future I think the Microsoft study says we need literally millions more techs in the UK alone. And thank goodness because some of the more conventional jobs are affected by tech in a negative way. So re-skilling the nation, I find quite exciting.

And then I think the other point about tech is what we're creating, what I'm trying to create. QA is a UK based, global company in tech. And again, I think the UK side under punches its weight globally. It has lots and lots of great innovation but I think in terms of scaling a company, obviously you know, I think you can do lots more, you know grow fast-growing good profitable tech-based businesses. And I want us to be one of those. So I think there's something that kind of resonates with me in terms of, something we're creating, which should be, you know hopefully a nationally important asset and that would be great as well.

- JG: Yeah, I completely agree. And some of the stuff that we get to do every day, it's just such a great job to change people's lives and, for example this podcast is just trying to get people into tech, there's so much untapped talent. Anyone can do tech as long as you've got a little bit of inspiration and a little bit of aptitude. So, for anybody that is listening, come on one of our courses, get into tech, and get an amazing career.

- JG: So speaking about some of the amazing stuff that you just alluded to there, are there any interesting new projects and things in the roadmap. Can you share with us any of the future things that are currently on the horizon with the viewers?

- PG: Yeah, basically our subject is tech and we need to make sure our tech facilitates learning about tech in a really good way. So apprenticeships used to be really quite kind of cumbersome and bureaucratic and we've kind of reinvented those to make them really efficient and digital and you can do them from home, they're very practical and project based.

And we're doing the same on learning now. We're getting the portal to be really slick. And we're trying to reinvent learning to make the most of all the modalities. So I think it's really exciting to use tech ourselves to make our products much easier to access and trading much more convenient. We continue excitingly, I think to add new products and topics. John you, and Paddy, are both inside the process whereby we go over each of our practices as we call them. we go over all our courses, our cloud courses and software courses. And we continue to go, okay, how do we make this even better? How do we reinvest in new courses? What are the courses missing in the world? We know that lots of companies are multi-cloud yet there are not many multi-cloud courses so we're building those.

We're flat out busy just making the business better for our clients. And I can’t think of any part of the business that doesn't have a really clear exciting plan of how we are working. So nothing's standing still. And I think our ambition is pretty high, our ambition is that we should be the best at all the stuff that we do.

And then I think for our clients what I'm really excited about is the fact that in one place you can find all the ways you need to improve the technical capability of your organisation. You know, in one place you can find an organisation that can bring you candidates. We can up-skill your teams, we can do the bootcamps. We can do the apprenticeships, we can do the programmes. We can do the digital training. We can do the virtual training. And we can worry about putting that together for you to tell us your problem, tell us your needs. We can help you assess where you are today. Where you need to go tomorrow and how you use apprenticeship funding, and how you can structure it. That is our expertise which is putting all of these various ways of up-skilling your organisation together and giving you a plan because that's what our expertise is. So I just want us to be super useful to our clients who've got so many challenges, right? And we can hopefully really help them with one of their main ones which is making sure they've got the capability in the organisation.

- JG: Yeah, I completely agree with all that exciting innovation, me and Paddy are at the front end of that work. So I'm building that STO course at the moment which is going be the new buzzword for the next six months to a year, which is really cool. And being in that, it's just such a cool job and all the different platforms that you see, we bring them all together. To bring these really innovative solutions to the customers, it's just a great place to be.

- JG: So the final and big question.

- JG: The whole purpose of this podcast Paul is to inspire people into tech careers and into tech jobs. So if you were going to give someone one bit of advice to get into a tech career, what would it be and why?

- PG: Well, I'm going to slightly dodge the question John because I hadn't prepared.

So, I think there’s a generic piece of advice I give that is, and we do this on the academies, don't we, we start talking about soft skills. I think the table stakes is knowing your stuff, right? In a tech role, you need to be passionate about your technology and know it and be adaptable and resilient and all that stuff. But ultimately the people side of what you do is really, really important. If you're in a squad, you know, it's about the chemistry of the team. It's about leadership.

A lot of success in jobs is about the stuff that is not terribly well taught. And one of the things I always find in people is this kind of lack of confidence thing and it does hold people back. And you know you can be overconfident, you see examples of that kind of on TV all the time, but I would say 90% of people are a bit under-confident. And I think it's quite important, especially if people are interacting just over video now, you kind of need to go for it a little bit. Sit up, shoulders back, smile a bit more, be expressive. It just matters. It matters more than people think. And you know, that will be the distinguishing thing which will get people on in their careers.

So be comfortable, know your stuff, it’s not a substitute for doing the hard work but I'm saying it's an AND, right. It's an AND, be good at what you do, know what you're talking about AND project some confidence about it because then when someone hears what you're saying they go, okay, well this person seems to believe in what they're saying therefore, I should pay attention to it. And a lot of people, I think say things in a way which reveals they're not really kind of confident in what they're saying.

So it's a little bit kind of fake-it until you make-it, project it and it's self-fulfilling after that. And that's what I love to breathe into kids and young people. I sometimes go back to my old school. I've talked to them about it. You've got these amazingly capable people but just not putting themselves out there enough. And you know, that does not mean that everybody should be the same. You should be your authentic confidence. It should be your style. We shouldn't all try and be the same, we should be the best versions of ourselves but it's the confident version of you. And we will all look different but everybody will be saying things with a belief in what they're saying and that kind of confidence in what they're saying.

- JG: I completely agree with that. And we get to see that first hand in the Academy all the time. There will be someone that comes in on day one who's maybe under confident and we work with them. It's just not the tech skills that make people great in their careers. It is managing to have great conversations with great people and give presentations. You know what I mean. Confidence is such a major part of being successful and doing well in a career. So I think that is a fabulous piece of advice for everyone that's listening. Paul, thank you so much for joining the festive version of the podcast. That's you off the hook now. So, Merry Christmas. Thanks very much for coming and we hope to have you on as a guest in the near future.

- PG: Yeah anytime. Next Christmas. Hopefully we'll have a load more achievements to talk about. Thanks for inviting me on and thanks to everyone listening and hope everyone has a fantastic festive break.