CTO Sessions: Katie Nykanen, QA

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “I’m really passionate about data (which CTO isn’t!)”

Headshot of Katie Nykanen, CTO at QA

Name: Katie Nykanen

Company: QA

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: September 2021

Location: London

Katie Nykanen joined QA from Adstream, a leading digital asset management platform used by brands and agencies, where she spent nine years managing the global technology function. She has over 20 years’ industry experience, was named female CTO of the Year in 2019 and placed #16 on the CIO 100 list, a list which recognises transformational and disruptive CIOs. Nykanen leads QA’s group technology function.

What was your first job? My first ever job was selling kitchens in B&Q which gave me a passion for work, being part of a team, knowing the value of hard work and the importance of customer service and communication. I went on to work in the IT department at B&Q where I got into business analysis and project management roles before several years in the Telco industry with Nokia. I then went joined at Adstream for a decade, before I started my role at QA in September of last year.

Did you always want to work in IT? I’ve never been a believer that planning a career always works. I think if you’re open to new opportunities and open to learning something new, then exciting roles you may not have considered will come your way. This was the case for me as a career in IT was certainly not something I’d sat down and mapped out.

For me it’s always been about wanting the business I work for to align with my beliefs and values. I’m finding that this is reflected across the workforce more and more. As I discuss this shift in priorities with colleagues and peers, its clear career goals are now about much more than quick progression.

Hybrid and flexible working are also a big factor alongside the desire to produce work I can be proud of. This was a huge motivation for me when I joined QA. I wanted to contribute to a company that was committed to education and ensuring digital skills are accessible to all. The growing skills gap is such a huge discussion industry wide. To be working towards making an impact and contributing to closing this through the work QA is doing is really important to me.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have an honours degree in Business and Languages. Although originally beginning the three-year course, I made the decision to transfer from my original University to the Open University in order to complete the course over a number of years.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? As I mentioned, my career in IT really came through opportunities presented to me through my first job in retail. Despite that possibly unconventional way in, it’s been fairly unextraordinary. From starting out as a junior business analyst I moved into project management, gradually taking on more and more line management responsibility and leading bigger teams until breaking into leadership as an IT Director and then CTO.

What type of CTO are you? I’d define myself as product focused. I constantly want to look for new ways that technology can improve the business and help us achieve our business goals. I’d describe the other side of the coin as being very technical, wanting to have the latest tech and be at the front of trends. The issue I see with that is that you risk having tech for tech’s sake, rather than truly understanding the needs of the business and where tech can make a genuine difference.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I’m really passionate about data (which CTO isn’t!), and how we can better use it to drive business improvement. Businesses really need to be much more data driven. I’ve seen so many organisations that still don’t use it enough across their departments. Utilising AI and ML models over your data can help create almost instant insight and intelligence that would otherwise have taken months of manual analysis to find, or worse have never been spotted at all.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I think the main thing that’s overhyped is our expectation on technology to improve our lives, or streamline our businesses, just because we’ve bought it and taken it out of its real or metaphorical box. In reality, technology is generally fairly complex and only as good as the people using it. If those people aren’t properly trained, or don’t continue to learn as new updates or new technology emerges, then we run the real risk of applying technology in a way that’s costly and doesn’t bring any clear benefit. Cyber is a good example of this. The conversations about AI focus on the power of the technology itself to protect a business from a cyber-attack. But this tech learns from experience and unless people who really grasp the technology can help it understand what is and isn’t a genuine threat, it just won’t be as effective as we’d like. Obviously with something like cyber this could have incredibly serious repercussions.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? As the UK faces its biggest skills shortage in history, there is a real opportunity for QA to offer insight to the tech industry and wider, to help UK organisations plan the future of digital resourcing and skills development. QA has gathered huge amounts of data over the years about businesses, students, skills and jobs to help inform this and I have really enjoyed getting to be a small part of this over the last six months.

The past few years has also seen QA grow rapidly through a series of acquisitions. We are currently working through an exciting project to bring the business together in terms of our learner delivery and operations, while also ensuring each business retains a unique proposition and the qualities for which we bought them. It has been great to help contribute to this.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Yes, At QA we need to continue our own DT program but also create online learning programs and pathways to help our clients achieve their goals too, and empower individuals to succeed in tech.

The term digital transformation has become a little overused over the last eighteen months, as it is now so ubiquitous. Businesses that traditionally fell into industries not prepared for a digital world, such as financial services, retail and telco, have had to embrace a technology-first approach in the last twelve months. All businesses need to put technology at the core of what they do for operational efficiency, maximising revenue opportunities and providing excellent customer experience. Without drastically upscaling digital capabilities, businesses run the risk of being left behind.

The balance these days is in having the right talent to push digital transformation forward. The digital skills gap is widening. We know there is a huge deficit in young people coming through the education system with the right skills to move into a technology role or believing that they can access rewarding roles in tech without having a degree. We also know that mid-career reskilling is going to be vital to maintain competitiveness in the absence of sufficient new talent. It is only in nurturing that talent will true digital transformation across all business areas be possible.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? The biggest area that QA is helping customers is our wide range of solutions to address the talent shortage and how we are helping our customers train up or reskill their people to face today’s technological challenges. From a professional learning perspective, we are helping to balance the need for hybrid, remote and in-person training, and how we facilitate the best possible learning experience in these circumstances. Enter Total Learning our new blended’ approach launch at the end of last year, which combines the best of digital and live learning, making sure employees can apply both to drive impactful results in the workplace. 

Additionally, the majority of young people are still entering the world of work ill prepared for its digital demands whether or not they pursue a further education route. So, one issue we’re really pushing on now, is helping to close that skills gap through a closer alignment between education and the world of work. Our apprenticeship schemes run across core competencies such as cyber security, software development and cloud opps, and enable apprentices to access core technology skills via accessible and flexible learning methods.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Aligning technology is all about making sure that the tech we deploy makes lives easier. We need to make sure that it genuinely solves business problems, doesn’t add to the tasks colleagues need to undertake and maintains or reduces business overheads.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? The tech strategy needs to follow the wider business strategy. It’s vital to first clearly articulate the company vision and proposition for customers and then work out what tech you need to support that and not the other way round. So, a good tech strategy will follow on from business strategy and work with existing products and services to improve the offer to customers and enable the business vision.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Ultimately a tech strategy needs to solve business problems and improve customer proposition. To be effective in this, you really need to focus on balancing that end goal with the use of modern tech in terms of being resilient, scalable and driving real change.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? CTOs and their teams are often seen as a cost to businesses and a service provider that enables others to do their jobs effectively and therefore ensure the business succeeds. In the future I think we’ll see that transition to CTOs being seen as a key enabler of business growth and directly driving that success.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I was really privileged to win CTO of the year at the Women in IT awards in 2019 and to be named at number 16 in the CIO 100 list. It just shows that anyone with the passion and drive to succeed in tech can make it and I hope that we see many more diverse leaders in tech in the years to come.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I wish that I’d sometimes pushed harder for change in the organisations I’ve worked for. It’s not always easy in certain business cultures, but without advocating change where you can see it’s needed only results in frustration. I’ve also allowed legacy ways of working to continue where they’re clearly detrimental to business goals just because others are protective of ‘the way things have always been done’. I’ve seen the impact of these things in slowing down business growth or stifling the ability to deliver more benefit to businesses and their customers. If I had my time again, I’d definitely be more assertive in those areas.

What are you reading now? Maybe I don’t belong here by David Harewood. It’s about his early experiences of racism and how they caused him to twice be sectioned with psychosis. To navigate that and become a successful A-list Hollywood actor is truly inspirational.

Most people don't know that I… used to own a Harley Davidson!

In my spare time, I like to…run and cook!

Ask me to do anything but… jump out of an aeroplane (at least not anytime soon)