Meet Paul Gartner: VP Software Engineering, National Geographic Society

19 Mar 2015, Posted by Sarina Simon in Edtech, Expert Interviews, Managing Development Teams, Quality Assurance, Software Engineering
Paul Gartner


Paul Gartner has spent the last 18 years in software development—much of that time running software testing teams. Paul has tested everything from ecommerce, education and content management systems to complex order management and financial software. In the recent past he spent 12 years with K12 Inc. running their software quality assurance department. Now he is at the National Geographic Society where he runs the software engineering team. He has also worked in startups like OneSoft and Etensity as well as large development shops like Ciber.

  • 1. You came to software engineering and quality assurance with a degree in Communication and Media Studies.  How did you decide to get into engineering and quality assurance specifically?  Are you self-taught?

Like most testers I fell into the profession. I was a developer at Ciber and was on the bench between projects when a testing task came available. The tester for the project was on vacation and I was asked to fill in for the week. I had so much fun testing and finding bugs that I never went back to writing code as a developer. I quickly moved to automation since it combined testing and coding. Every job after that, except for my latest position, was in testing, I was hooked.

In hindsight it made sense that I would be a tester. As a kid I would take apart and study everything I could get my hands on from blenders to record players. Reverse engineering and figuring out how things worked became a real passion. I brought this same passion to software testing. Pushing the software to do things it was not designed to do while making sure it functioned correctly for the user was what drew me to the profession. 

I learned the craft by reading every article and book I could get my hands on while also becoming familiar with all the tools of the trade. I saw myself as a craftsman and wanted to make sure I was armed with all the knowledge possible.

  • 2. You spent 12 years at K12, a public company which was privately held when you started. Many people aspire to be part of an IPO. What was it like to be at the company during the transition? How, if at all, did the company change after the IPO?

I joined K12 because working in a startup really appealed to me. It’s so easy to get shoehorned into one specific task at a large company. Startups allow the freedom to try many things and be close to the decision makers. It was a full 6 years after joining that the company went public but I found the IPO somewhat anticlimactic. For me nothing changed. I still had to execute and plan the next deployment. It was not like I was an instant millionaire, far from it.

 Like most public companies you are only as good as you last quarter. Some of the freedom and excitement of the working in the startup culture was lost as the company grew in size.
  • 3. During your time at K12 you moved up from a Senior Software QA engineer to a VP, and in your tenure at National Geographic you also moved up to a VP.  Presumably in both cases you went from actually doing the hands-on testing to managing teams.  Was it difficult to adjust to the management role? What  advice would you give other engineers who would like to rise up in their careers?

People management is the hardest part of the job but can be the most rewarding. For years I managed testers and was very comfortable doing it having so much experience in the testing field. Even in my VP role I was still testing our products to keep my skills sharp and understand the changes we were making to applications.

Last May after 9 months at National Geographic, I was promoted to VP of Software Engineering where I now manage a 100+ person team of developers and testers. What came as a surprise to me was that the skills I learned from managing testing teams translated very well to my new role. I try to hire the best people and truste them to get the job done. I have seen too many managers try to micromanage or try to be the center of the everything. They end up failing their people or the project.

Hiring well is the very best way to succeed as a manager. A bad hire can set you back a year but a great hire pays off in spades.
The one piece of advice I would give young engineers is to work on your people skills as much as possible. Take leadership classes or volunteer for nonprofit organizations, do anything that gets you in front of people who are different from yourself. I spent the first few years after college working in retail. I hated it but it taught me how to deal with many different types of people and resolve conflicts.

Managing up and across it just as important. Master the elevator pitch of what your job is or your current project. This way when you’re suddenly in front of an executive you can give them a well thought out description instead of just saying that you’re working on some projects and very busy. Always have a question ready for the CEO as well. One time I was part of a team lunch with the CEO of K12. My first question was “What’s our strategy?” It was a terrible question, I should have been more specific and planned a more thought out question. Luckily he understood and bailed me out, spending the next 10 minutes explaining the full strategy of the company.

Working with your fellow managers is just as important. Having good relationships with them and helping them achieve their goals makes you a good team player and advances the company. Several times managers that were my peers one day ended up being my boss the next. Having a strong relationship already built made the transition very easy.

  • 4.  QA is an essential part of delivering great products and yet it is sometimes tacked on as an afterthought.  When in the product development process do you think QA should be taken into consideration?  And how should it be taken into consideration?

Quality is everyone’s responsibility and should be part of everything we do. I dislike that the name “QA” is given to an entire department. In most instances the quality of the product has been determined long before the test team gets its hands on it. Decisions of design and architecture used to be determined without the full team being involved. Now with agile development these types of decisions are made with the team in a more  collaborative environment.

I am an advocate of agile practices since it moves the tester and the quality initiative to the left. Testers and developers are more fully involved with the overall definition and design of the product. The agile team self organizes and needs to show work on a regular basis.

  • 5.   In today’s climate of multiple product releases how do you determine how much QA is enough?
How much testing is always the toughest question. Given an unlimited amount of time I could test forever. This is obviously not possible, so you must make judgment calls based on risk.
 In most situations they ask “How much time will it take to test?” and we answer “How much time do I have?”. We are normally never happy with the answer in a waterfall environment. We make choices of what to test and how long to spend on it based on our knowledge of the product and what is most important to the end users.

With agile it becomes a bit easier. Since I am included in the planning meeting I get a voice in how many stories are incorporated in the sprint so my life becomes a bit saner. With a good automated checking system in place and proper unit testing from the development side I can validate the functionality quickly since the changes in the smaller time frame are more manageable. I am a big fan of Session Based Testing since it provides me freedom from pre-writing test cases yet gives the accountability and feedback required by development and product owners. After many years of testing I have found it simply the best way to test software. With new tools from Atlassian we are finally able to incorporate SBT into the tools we use everyday

  • 6.   As a QA engineer, do you find yourself becoming involved in the product content itself?  Is it more “fun” for example to work on something entertaining than something didactic?

Having a interest in what you’re testing is definitely more enjoyable to me. Although I have tested order management systems that were fun to test due to their complexity even though they were somewhat dry and unexciting. At National Geographic our applications are so rich in content that we find ourselves reading the articles or truly becoming experts in the subject since it is so interesting.

The mission of National Geographic is incredibly personal to me and most of the people who work there. We take great pride in the mission and what the Society stands for. No matter what the subject area of the testing it feels like we are contributing to the mission.
  • 7. What product or service have you seen lately that really excites you?
The iBeacon technology from Apple could really change the how we are provided with real time location based information. 
 Nation Geographic did an iBeacon pilot for our museum where we provided iPod touches to museum guests and placed iBeacons through the museum. When the guests visit certain exhibits and are within range of the iBeacon they see more information about the exhibit displayed on the iPod. We received a write up in the Washington Post and also have other museums calling to find out how what we learned. We received great feedback from the pilot and learn what we can improve for next time. I hope we can eventually make this type of interaction part of every exhibit. was especially product of my team as one of my mobile engineers built and ran the whole pilot on a shoestring budget.  I am a big believer in bottom up innovation.

  • 8. What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career?  Did it pay off?  How and why or why not?   What are some of the things you’ve learned? are you most proud of in terms of career accomplishment?

I would say moving to management was my biggest risk. I was very good at testing and could have made a very nice career being an individual contributor. My personality is to always try to do more and see how far I can push myself professionally. Moving to management and eventually becoming an technology executive has been full of ups and downs but I have experienced so much in the last 10 years that I would never have as an engineer. I have learned to manage up, down and sideways.

I suffer from an acute case of “Imposter Syndrome” which causes me to never fully accept my that I might be successful or great at what I do. I continually push the boundaries of my comfort zone and prove to myself everyday that I belong in this position.

  • 9. We call this blog, Influences and Influencers, who are the people who have influenced you?  Have you ever had a mentor? Can you tell us about him or her?  Whose work or input has impacted you the most in your career and how?

I have been influenced by many of the executives that I have worked for and with.

One person who has influenced me was a VP of Systems and Technology at K12, Ray Williams. I think I learned the most of how to be a good executive from him. Every Friday he would spend two hours mentoring me. It is rare to have an executive that is so available to help mentor their directs. I still have lunch with him regularly, even after we have both moved to new companies.

Another big influence has been the context-driven testing thought leaders like James Bach and Michael Bolton. I have read many of their articles and blogs for the last 10 years. They have pushed my testing in areas that I never would have thought of years ago. Although I never met them they influenced the direction of my testing career.

  • 10. If you could start all over again what career would you pursue?

When I started college I was in the robotics program. I wish I had worked harder and graduated with an engineering degree. At the time I did not have the work ethic and determination to do something really hard. I switched to communications because I loved media and production but I always wonder how my life would have been different if I had stuck with robotics.



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