What do you actually do!? Episode 39: Alison Critchley, Technology Delivery Manager, Co-op

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After graduating from York in 2011, Alison started her working life in account management before taking a short career break to figure out what she actually wanted to do. She now works for the Co-op’s start up Health business in Manchester as a Technology Delivery Manager but has done a variety of roles in 5 years with Co-op. She is also a Big Sister for the Girls Out Loud mentoring programme.

Alison and Kate talk about agile project management and the skills you need to do this kind of work.

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To hear more Project Management/Tech related podcast stories:


(With time-stamps)

Kate  0:02  

Hello, and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do? My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about working in the tech sector. And today we’re joined by Skype by Alison Critchley, who’s a technology Delivery Manager at Co-op. So, Alison, what do you actually do?

Alison  0:32  

So as you say, I’m a technology Delivery Manager working for the Co-op and I actually work for the Co-ops new health business. And what that kind of means, if you break it down into what that means day to day, is that I’m given a list of technology needs from a product owner in the team, and that could be that they want to use a new piece of equipment, or a new application, or they want to make a change to a system that we use. And it’s my job then to take that need and that requirement, make sure we’ve got the right people in the team with the right skills to make that happen in a set period of time. And then once we begin on that journey to getting it done, it’s my job to make sure that we’re all on track, and to take away any barriers that might be stopping that from happening. 


So it’s a bit like a project management role then. There’s a distinct task to do, and you’ve got to consider all elements of that, and then find the right people for the job for the different elements. Is that right? 


Yeah, that’s right. So I’m a Delivery Manager and a project manager. And they are different roles, but in a kind of subtle way, I guess. So you typically find a Delivery Manager working with a team who are delivering specifically technology requirements or software requirements, and kind of the reason for that is because we use agile methodology as opposed to traditional Prince2, which I can talk a little bit about later on, which means that we really only focus on short periods of time to get our work done, because we want to make changes as quickly as possible. So, typically, for me, a piece of work would last about two weeks, and we would see what we can get done in that two week period of time and delivered and out for people to use. 


That’s really interesting, that there is such a sort of a quick turnover. And that must keep it really varied, and kind of, I’m guessing, kind of exciting, but high pressure at the same time. How does it feel having such a quick turnaround? 


Yeah, it can feel high pressure sometimes. But I think the really nice thing that people really enjoy about working in this way, is that you get to see the result of what you’ve been doing really quickly. And especially for us, so, lots of the work we do is focused around what customers tell us that they want from our service, which is an online prescription service. So if customers tell us that a particular screen doesn’t look great or that they want a new feature within the app, then we can respond to it really, really quickly, and make sure that that’s kind of kicked up our priority list. We work on it for two weeks, and it may even be quicker than that sometimes. And we can get it out for people to use straight away. 


That must be so satisfying to sort of literally be able to solve a problem, see it through to implementation, and then be like – ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the end of the story. And we made that happen.’


Yeah, definitely. And really good from a customer’s perspective, too. We see that reflected in reviews really quickly, and that’s really nice. And I think customers feel like they’ve been listened to as well. So they might say – ‘Oh, yeah, it’d be really good if it could take me through this part of the journey a bit quicker, because I find that quite time consuming’, and we can just react pretty much straight away to that and make the experience flow a bit better for them.


So, you’re helping the business, you’re helping your colleagues, but you’re also helping the customer with the work that you’re doing..


Yeah, definitely. And customer to us can be lots of different people. So it can be members of the public who use our app for their prescriptions. But I also have a team internally here, who would be considered our customer, who actually work in our pharmacy area, who fulfill all the prescriptions. And so we class those guys as customers too. So if they say, in our order management system, this page would be even better if we could order this list in a particular way, we can equally make those changes super quick for them, too.


So we’re in the middle of a global pandemic right now, newsflash. Are you able to work from home in your role, and how different is your day from normal?


Yes, so I’m super super lucky that my role allows me to work from home, and to be really flexible in that way. But really, we were able to work from home before this started. So I do feel like we already made sure that we had lots of the tools in place to be able to communicate properly, because one of the great things about the team that I work in is that we know that everyone has a life as well as work. So whether it’s like childcare considerations, or you need to be home on a particular day, we make sure that everything can still go ahead and happen, even with everyone’s lives going on at the same time. But as you can imagine, that’s even more important now. So, it definitely took us a little bit of adjusting to get used to the situation. Sometimes it can feel a little bit draining to be on calls all the time. But I’m sure that it’s something that everybody can identify with if they’ve been on conference calls, Zoom calls, teams calls, whatever it might be. We still can do our work, we can still all get together, we can still collaborate and talk, do all of the sessions that we would normally do face to face in the office, we can do those online. So really, if anything, it’s really kind of business as usual.


It’s interesting. I think it’s similar to other sectors like, for example, us – the Careers service – we’ve sort of had a similar experience, in terms of, it’s been a relatively smooth transition. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it, how you can make stuff happen really quickly when you need to. But that’s also really useful to feel that the work you’re doing is really responding to the current situation. I guess that relates to your earlier point about having the two week turnover and problem solving a lot, but it’s great to sort of feel that your work actually is important and makes a difference at the moment. What was your sort of starting point? And where did your interest in the tech sector come from?


Really, I can probably take this all the way back to when I graduated, and it was really kind of by accident, I guess, that I fell into a job that was in the technology sector. But it was more kind of customer service focused with a little bit of a sales element to it as well. So I was an account manager for a small technology company. And it was really because I had… I applied for the job, it was, I think, a particularly difficult year for students graduating the year that I graduated. I’m sure it’s not got any easier since then. So I joined that company. And really, you have to, if you’re gonna sell a solution or talk about a solution to a customer, that’s technology based, you’ve got to understand it. So you’ve got to understand all the different bits, and how they fit together, and what that means, and actually what that will enable people to do. So I found it really quite a natural transition into that logical way of thinking about how a piece of technology, certainly, can improve the working day of a customer. So we sell things like telephone systems and network services to customers. And being able to articulate how that piece of technology could make a tangible difference in a customer’s day, or how much time it could save them, or what they’d now be able to do with it – you’ve got to understand it to be able to tell someone else about it. And it just seemed to make tons of sense to me and I really got it, I understood how it all fitted together. So I think it was that really that kind of sparked it for me. But since then I kind of moved on to a couple of different roles that I’ve had since coming back to technology that I’m in now. And I think I haven’t really appreciated how much it was that technology element, and that kind of logical element, and being able to explain how these things can really improve your day to people… I hadn’t really appreciated really that it was that that I’d enjoyed so much about that first role that I’d had. 


That’s really interesting because your degree was in English literature and linguistics. So I guess those broad intellectual skills of being able to understand different texts, different concepts, etc, but also analyse and interpret information, and as you say, articulate that to others in concise points logical arguments. It’s not always an obvious transition from a sort of an Arts and Humanities degree like that into a technology role, but it sounds like when you just think about the skills being used, it does make really good sense.


It’s exactly that. Being able to… your role as a Delivery Manager, certainly – whether you’re working with technology, or you’re working with something else – your role, really, you are not the most technical person by any stretch within that team. If anything, you’re probably the least technical. So your role really is to be able to ask questions in such a way where you can then understand what needs to happen, and that you can then explain back to equally non-technical people why you’re doing a piece of work, why it’s important and what they will get at the end of it. So you’re absolutely right, being that interpreter between really technical folks and then businessy folks, to be able to kind of link those two together is super super important. 


Yeah, it’s not an obvious one. I think a lot of Arts and Humanities students, and probably social science students, take those skills for granted because they come so naturally, and it’s something you’re using all the time. But actually, it doesn’t come naturally to everybody, and it is a really, really useful thing to be able to do. What sort of job titles should people be looking for then? Because there obviously will be some roles where you need to know how to code and do other technical things. So what kind of – you’re a Delivery Manager – what other things should people be looking out for in terms of job roles?


Really, within an agile team in the technology sector, you would typically have some technical roles, which are able to kind of do the doing of what needs to happen for a particular piece of work. So that could be Software developers, it could be Platform engineers, those types of people. And you’ll see that really really quickly in a job title. And when you, even just reading the description, you’d be able to tell straight away that this is a really technical role, and I need some very specific kind of skills and experience to be able to do it. However, there are a couple of non technical roles that exist within those teams as well. So there’s my role as a Delivery Manager, and there’s also the Product Owner role. So the Product Owner, as I talked about briefly at the beginning, is the person who would kind of set the direction for what they want the team to be working on, they would be responsible for kind of prioritising the pieces of work that need to happen. And then the Delivery Manager role is kind of responsible for taking those priorities and that list, and then kind of digging a little bit deeper into how that actually comes to fruition at the end. So those two roles work really, really closely together and really need to be aligned, but neither of those roles are particularly technical.


So it’s really those management kind of roles, it’s the overseeing and understanding the connections between the different areas, it sounds like, are really suited to people from different backgrounds.


Yeah, definitely. But I also think it’s really important when you’re looking at job titles, sometimes the word Manager can kind of put some people off, or it can certainly kind of scare people away from it because they think – ‘well, you know, I’m going to have lots of responsibility for lots of people.’ However, certainly in my team, and it’s true in teams across the Co-op, often as the Delivery Manager or the Project Manager you don’t have line management responsibility day to day for all of the people who are in your team. So if you’re kind of worried about taking that next step in terms of responsibility, or you don’t actually feel like maybe you’d be well suited to the Line Manager part of a role, it doesn’t always come with that. And it’s definitely a question worth exploring with either the recruiter or the hiring manager of the role that you’re interested in, to just see whether manager means manager of people, or it’s just manager in terms of a particular set of responsibilities that you’ve got. 


I think that’s a really, really useful point. Because I think, the word Manager – you just think of a middle aged guy in a suit bossing people around, don’t you. It’s kind of, that’s just the stereotype. Whereas you’re absolutely right, I’ve seen more and more opportunities, internally in the University and in other places, where it’s the management of a task, rather than the management of a team that that title is referring to. But you are absolutely right, you should check the job description or check with the recruiter to clarify it, but don’t always make that assumption that you’ll have to be the boss quote unquote.


Definitely. And I think probably just something else to think about when looking at job titles as well, and role descriptions, is that quite often, and you’ll probably see this more with jobs advertised through recruitment agencies, is that they will sometimes, especially for roles like a Project Manager or a Delivery Manager, they will specifically say things about qualifications that you should have, or frameworks that you should be used to working within. So traditionally, for a Project Manager, they might ask for a Prince2 qualification or experience of working in a Waterfall environment. And for a Delivery Manager, they might say – ‘we want you to be certified as a Scrum Master’, for example. And whilst some companies might absolutely insist on that, I don’t have either of those qualifications, and haven’t done either of those courses. So you absolutely don’t have to have them and some people might, it might be a requirement that they really want you to have it, but again, it’s always worth that conversation with a recruiter or a business to say – ‘I’ve got these skills and this experience of working in this way, but I don’t necessarily have either the piece of paper or the the letters next to my name to say that I can do a particular thing, and I’m certified in it’. Because each of those frameworks really comes with quite a specific way that they want you to work anyway. So certainly for me in an agile environment, the two week period of work has within it various meetings and various sessions that we all hold together that are recurring every time we do a two week piece of work, we do those. So we talk about priorities, and then we do some planning, and then, at the end, we look at how well it went and what didn’t go so well in that kind of stuff. So, you know, as you can imagine, a few times through of that cycle – you’ve got it. And sometimes that’s all you need – just a bit of time to get used to working in that way, but even still, they’re relatively prescriptive. So as long as you can follow some instructions, you’d be alright with it. 


That’s useful to know because I think sometimes people can be put off thinking – ‘I need to be qualified as a Project Manager’, or ‘I need to be qualified in Marketing’, or ‘I need to be qualified in this’. And, as you say, sometimes experience and kind of enthusiasm and interest can outweigh formulaic prescribed qualifications. Okay, are there any other sort of skills or strengths or qualities that you say it’s useful to have if you want to be happy and successful as a professional technology Delivery Manager? I know we’ve talked about the intellectual skills, the ability to communicate and interpret – almost translate – information. Is there anything else that you’d say is important?


Yeah, I think people will say a Delivery Manager is really responsible for kind of motivating people in the right way, making sure that people are kind of working towards this thing that you want to deliver. And really, that person needs to have lots of energy, and they need to be really quite outgoing, and to kind of get people moving on a particular piece of work. And I think even things like that you can sometimes feel, you know, if you’re either leading a piece of work or you’re talking to people all the time, every day, you can sometimes feel like perhaps you have to be a particular personality type to do that; you have to be either really loud and quite outgoing and full of energy all the time, and find it super easy to talk to absolutely anybody. But really, I think the nice thing, certainly about the group of Delivery Managers that I work with in my kind of home team in the Co-op, is that we are all so so different in personality types. So I’m not a really really outgoing loud person, who will be kind of getting everybody to the pub at the end of the day, that’s just not really the type of person that I am. And you don’t need to be because within different businesses, you get very different people and types of people in different teams. So we’re kind of aligned with the other types of people who might be in the team to kind of get the best out of them. So we are all really really different – all of the Delivery Managers that we have in the team, but individually within the kind of separate teams we work within, we’re all a really good fit for it. So it’s – don’t be put off if you feel like you’re perhaps a quieter person, you can still do a role that requires you to talk to lots of different people without you having to significantly change the way that you prefer to be naturally.


Yeah, that’s interesting. So it’s about sort of knowing your own strengths, kind of being clear on what does and doesn’t work for you, and trying to sort of find roles and teams where your individual strengths are embraced and encouraged, and you can interpret the role rather than it being a fixed thing where only one type of person can do it. Yeah, I think that was really really useful. What’s your favorite bit of the job then? What do you really love about it?


I really love.. I know we talked about this a little bit earlier, but I love being able to see really quickly the impact that a piece of work has made. So I love seeing the reviews come through, when we’ve made a change to something, and love hearing the feedback from colleagues who work in the pharmacy side of the business, when they say – ‘Oh, this particular change you’ve made saved us X number of hours per week, which means we can do so much more’. It’s that kind of almost instant feedback that you can get, which really kind of encourages you and spurs you on, and I think really motivates all of the team as well. Especially in a difficult time like now – being able to hear from colleagues who are working kind of frontline on the ground saying you’ve made our lives easier, is really really motivating for us. 


That’s really nice. It sounds like this high job satisfaction about your role in particular allows you to be authentic, to be human, rather than just a corporate face kind of thing, and that you can set the tone for your work and your team. What’s the worst bit of the job then? Because that all sounds really good. There must be something bad. 


Probably, if you spoke to anyone who manages projects or manages like small incremental pieces of work that contribute to something bigger, it’s the possibly the changing priorities sometimes. So we get a list of things that we need to deliver for the business. But actually, there’s a whole process that happens kind of further up the chain, before those even get to us. So as you can imagine, so within a business like ours, to give you an example, there are people in charge of marketing, there are people in charge of kind of physical operations and how we get orders out the door to customers, for example, there’s people who look after our app journey, and to each person who’s included in that chain, their priorities are number one to them. And when you get lots of number one priorities coming through that are maybe conflicting, it’s then that k ind of battle happens sort of somewhere over here before it comes and filters down through to my team, and so the role of the Delivery Manager is to sort of be a bit of a shield to that. You don’t necessarily want the team to be either distracted or to be kind of worried about the work that they’re doing changing all the time, and to be able to see tons and tons of work coming through and what that might mean for them. So you kind of act as that bit of an umbrella, a bit of a shield to some of perhaps the conflict that happens, or the challenge that happens, and you only let through what you think is going to be useful and helpful.


So that’s really nice for the team. So they’re not overwhelmed and, as you say distracted, but how does that feel for you if you’re having to be the shield, if you’re having to take over flack, and kind of, you’re aware of sort of hot topics, conversations, conflicts that are going on and seeing how things are trying to be prioritized, and you know that your team and yourself will be impacted by these decisions. Is that’s sometimes a difficult position to be in, a stressful position, or do you not really have any say in it, so you kind of just have to let it happen, and then, you know, get on with it.


Can definitely sometimes feel stressful because you’re thinking of the, when you’re listening to these conversations happening, you’re thinking of the downstream impact on the team that you want to keep happy and motivated. So you can kind of sometimes foresee problems coming, but it gives you a little bit of time to deal with it. But I think really, you just have to be kind of pragmatic about it. Conflicts, conflicting priorities are going to come up, you kind of expect that that’s going to happen, but the conversation needs to happen to kind of get to the bottom of which one should be first. And it’s just about things going into a queue really, and who wants to be first in that particular queue.


What do you think the key challenges will be for the tech sector over the next few years? Obviously, big situation going on at the moment, so that is probably going to affect things. But was there anything else in the pipeline or on the horizon that you as your and your company were thinking about, that might be important?


So the Co-op used to have lots of high street pharmacies. And that used to be a really core business for the Co-op, but we don’t have those anymore, and we haven’t for quite a few years. And really, we’ve made the move over to online, because actually what the Co-op kind of all about is convenience. You know, the biggest part of our business is convenience food stores, for example, being on the high street, but we didn’t feel like the future of prescription, certainly, and online prescriptions, that extra journey that people take to a high street pharmacy, that kind of queuing at lunchtime, etc, we’d already begun to really think about it, and that’s why we decided to take the health business totally online. So for us, it’s about making that journey of linking direct to your GP and for them to approve your medications all the way back through to our pharmacy, which is a warehouse operation, so there’s no physical presence on the high street, you can’t visit our pharmacy – it’s all in our warehouse. We felt like that was a journey that customers would really look for actively, certainly over the next few years and that that would be a sector that will continue to grow. Lots of other pharmacies are investing in similar technology to allow them to handle repeat prescriptions solely online and take out what’s of the cost of being on the high street. It’s really that investment in infrastructure, it’s that investment in technology that’s easy to use, that customers like to use. It’s given them ultimate convenience, too, so something that we’re working on right now is being able to… if you are a carer, for example, or you look after children with prescriptions that you can handle them all in one place. So it’s really having.. I think the challenge for the sector is how can you be the most convenient, the most easy to use, and I guess the most sticky for your customers, you want people to stay with you and continue to keep ordering from you.


So it sounds like it’s really a responsive sector to work in. It’s being driven by what are the needs of society, and how can we make this more efficient and kind of seamless? I mean, Co-op must have had a crystal ball because what you’re doing now sounds absolutely perfect for dealing with the covid situation – it’s all remote, it’s kind of easy and convenient, you don’t need to leave the house. So that’s exciting to work in a sector that is so cutting edge and see it being actualized in such a big way.


Yeah, absolutely. And I think really, you know, we kind of, we are at the forefront of that certainly, but it’s a real mindset shift that we expected the kind of public to need to take. Because there’s few things that are more important to people than their health and their money. And really, when you think about getting somebody’s prescription to them, it’s about trust, and we really felt that. Co-op was quite well placed within that industry, given our history with high street pharmacies. To be able to offer a product that would give people peace of mind, ordering something that’s kind of super important to them, where usually they might need that human contact with a doctor or a receptionist or whoever it might be to feel like they’re getting what they really need.


So do you have any other sort of final bits of advice for students thinking about working in sort of a tech role? Is there a particular type of work experience it’s worth them getting? 


Really, when I think back to how I remember feeling, and I remember this so so clearly, in my sort of second and third year – was that I remember just wanting the guarantee of something being at the end of university. So you kind of see this cliff coming at the end of third year, and wonder what on earth you’re going to do when you get to the end of it. And I think sometimes that can lead you to take a role that’s maybe not exactly what you want. But don’t feel that pressure to make that first job straight from graduating be exactly the job that you always imagined that you would want to have, because there’s value in sort of every experience that you take. And certainly for me – the first job that I had out of university I knew wasn’t going to be one that I wanted to stay in. And after a couple of years, I decided to take quite a short career break, but to really assess what I actually wanted to do, given what I’d learned up until that point, and think about the types of things that made me happiest during my working day, and the things that I’d enjoyed the most, and the kind of cultures that I enjoyed working in, and the ones that I didn’t enjoy working in, and take a bit of time to make a considered decision as to where I wanted to be. Kind of don’t feel like that decision has to be made either in second or third year whilst you’re at uni, but know that there’s kind of value in every experience that you do. So I did, probably all the usual suspects that you might expect whilst I was at York, so I did volunteering programmes, and was involved in societies, and I did a summer internship, for example. And it was all super valuable and all teaches you how you respond in different situations, and the things that you enjoy doing and don’t enjoy doing. So I would just say get involved in as much as you possibly can to kind of get an idea of the kind of day you would enjoy having at work. I think it’s the most important thing, because there’s so much – especially when you come from humanities degree – there’s so many different things that you can do, because you’re not really technically training in a particular thing. You’re really learning lots of those soft skills that employers look for in lots and lots of different roles, not just technology, not just project management, tons of different ones. It’s really about demonstrating those in a way that isn’t just about how, I guess, you communicate in seminars or lectures, and what other things can you be involved in that showcase the type of person you are and how you react and deal with people.


So it sounds like gaining any kind of experience is always going to be really useful, but taking the time to really reflect on those experiences, think about what you’ve learned about yourself, think about what strengths and skills it’s highlighted that you’re best at, and what you’ve enjoyed using. Start to look around for jobs that allow you to use those skills, but don’t get caught up in thinking – whatever job you take that is then going to be the career for the rest of your life. It can be a case of stepping stones, and just learning more about yourself along the way. It doesn’t have to be –  ‘right, I’ve committed to this one career area now.’


Definitely, you got so so much time to… And I know that probably won’t help anyone who is anything like me at that time, where I would say – ‘no, but I just want the guarantee. I want to know what I’m going to be doing. I want that kind of safety of knowing what it’s gonna look like for me after university’. But, you really do have so much time, and you can always pivot away from the thing that you thought you wanted, if you discover it’s not for you.


Well, that’s brilliant! For more information about the career areas we’ve mentioned today, I’m going to add some relevant links to the episode description and a link to a full transcript to today’s show. But Alison, thank you so much for spending time with us today and for sort of giving us your words of wisdom. That’s really, really helpful. 


Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers