An often asked question

I thought I’d pen a short blog post on a question I frequently find myself asking.

You’re right, but are you relevant?

Me

As software developers, it’s all too easy to want to select the new hot technologies available to us. Building a simple web app is great, but building a distributed web-app based on an auto-scaling cluster making use of CQRS and an SPA front-end written in the latest JavaScript hotness is just more interesting. Software development is often about finding simple solutions to complex problems, allowing us to minimize complexity.

  • You’re right, distributed microservices will allow you to deploy separate parts of your app independently, but is that relevant to a back-office system which only needs to be available 9-5?
  • You’re right, CQRS will allow you to better scale the database to handle a tremendous number of queries in parallel, but is that relevant when we only expect 100 users a day?
  • You’re right, that new Javascript SPA framework will let you create really compelling, interactive applications, but is that relevant to a basic CRUD app?

Lots of modern technology can do amazing things and there are always compelling reasons to choose technology x, but are those reasons relevant to the problem at hand? If you spend a lot of time up front designing systems with tough-to-implement technologies and approaches which aren’t needed; a lot of development effort would have been needlessly spent adding all kinds of complexity which wasn’t needed. Worse, we could have added lots of complexity that then resists change, preventing us from adapting the system in the direction our users require.

At 67 Bricks, we encourage teams to start with something simple and then iterate upon it, adding complexity only when it is justified. Software systems can be designed to embrace change. An idea that’s the subject of one of my favourite books Building Evolutionary Architectures.

So next time you find yourself architecting a big complex system with lots of cutting edge technologies that allow for all kinds of “-ilities” to be achieved. Be sure to stop and ask yourself. “I’m right, but am I relevant?”

Women in Tech Festival Global 2021

If you have worked in the tech industry for some time, you are likely to have noticed the issue with diversity. Information Technology was probably thought of as a male domain, and we can see the consequences of such thinking on a global level now.

67 Bricks strives to be a diverse and inclusive workplace, and we continuously improve our D&I awareness and practices. That is why for the second year in a row we attended the Women in Tech Festival aimed to champion diversity and empower companies and individuals to be allies for underrepresented groups. I did a presentation titled “It’s good to give back” at the event, which I immensely enjoyed, because, as a woman in tech myself, the topic of diversity is very close to my heart, and I take great interest in it.

This blog post gives a summary of some sessions I attended virtually.

Opening Note

The event started with the opening note from the Belonging, Inclusion and Diversity Lead of Investec, Zandi Nkhata. She spoke about reasons why women leave the tech industry: 

  • the lack of female role models.
  • experience of microaggressions – that is things people say to you that kind of remind you that you do not belong.  
  • the fact that your experience at a company might vary on whether or not you have an inclusive leader.

She also explained the difference between diversity and inclusion which I think is excellent: diversity is inviting someone to a party and inclusion is asking someone to dance. She also highlighted that only 20% of the workforce in the industry are women.

What can companies do to make their places diverse and inclusive? As an example, Investec’s vision is to make it a place where it is easy for people to be themselves, and to achieve that they set up different networks for people to speak up and listen to their feedback, provide learning and training opportunities about bullying, harassment and discrimination and have an allies programme.

Zandi also mentioned that it’s good to set KPIs with regards to diversity and inclusion, but they are not quotas, you have to be fair in achieving these targets.

Glass Ceiling or Sticky Floor

This panel discussion was about career progression – either knowing you’re probably the best candidate for a promotion yet not getting this promotion, or being capable enough but being obstructed by impostor syndrome, not having a career plan or a mentor.

The main point of the discussion was that a person finding themselves not progressing needs to ask themselves: “what is limiting my growth and what is in my control?”. You need to create a career plan and ensure you are in control. The importance of networking for women was highlighted, and events like Women in Tech is a great opportunity to do that. 

Another piece of advice was to focus on progress rather than perfection, and to learn to not be scared of asking questions even if you might think they are stupid (because they are not!).

Employers also have a duty to help with career progression. It is important to create career paths, understand them and enable employees to understand them as well, making it clear what is needed to get from A to B. It’s also vital to identify the strengths of each individual and know the exact purpose of each person in a team.

The panel also spoke about those who are in search of a new job and what question they might want to ask potential employers to decide about the suitability of a company for them; the suggestions were to look at the leadership gender balance and whether the company is doing any work regarding diversity and inclusion, among others.

Companies should not be scared to bring in people outside of the tech industry, reskill them and tap into their wealth of experience and transferable skills because the mixture of these experiences, strengths and insights can enable the team to grow.

How Old Are You?

This was about progressing in your career when you’re older. A lot of the focus here was on menopause awareness. This topic is still taboo, so safe spaces need to be created to make this conversation more visible, allowing people to speak about it without embarrassment. A lot of people still don’t know much about it even though their female relatives or friends might be experiencing menopause.

The speaker suggests that companies start with things like short talks about it in staff meetings. Some employers hold regular menopause cafes, others hold sessions on what to expect during this challenging time.  An emphasis was made on educating men (especially line managers) to feel comfortable about discussing menopause, and strategies for coping with it in all-male environments, which was mainly to push towards diversity and inclusion, having company policies around menopause and working together.

You Do Belong Here

This session was focused on combating impostor syndrome. This is typically associated with women (men do experience it too though) and the panellists shared useful tips that help them to overcome it:

  • Try to understand if it’s impostor syndrome or the culture that doesn’t let you grow. Some level of self-doubt is experienced by everyone.
  • Having a conversation about it helps combat it. It is the manager’s responsibility to create space where people can discuss it.
  • Some people use journaling. For example, you made a mistake, and 5 days later it’s still eating at you, and you still think about what you could have done. So to avoid that, by writing down what happened and what you could do next time, you get it out of your system.
  • Keep a list of your successes to read from time to time.
  • Refresh your CV and bio regularly as it allows you to focus on your achievements.
  • Educate yourself in neuroscience; humans are programmed to think negatively, and understanding this enables you to interpret your behaviour and thoughts.
  • Instead of changing yourself and trying to adopt a new personality type in certain situations to suit someone else, decide for yourself how you want to come across. However, beware if you go too far, If you’re not genuine, it’s not a sensible place to be. The best thing is to be your authentic self.

To sum up, thanks to this year and last year’s events I spoke to several inspiring females and got a bigger picture of what issues exist for women and LGBTQ+ communities in the tech industry, and what we can do to deal with them. I definitely learnt a lot from the Women in Tech Festival 2021. It was also great to realise that we, 67 Bricks, are doing all the right things to be as diverse and inclusive a workplace as we can. I look forward to sharing more of my learnings with my colleagues.

The Trials and Tribulations of a Working Parent

I’ve worked in the science and technology sector for my whole career, starting off by completing a PhD in Physics, then migrating into computer modelling, and then into software development.  I had my son during the final year of my PhD (oh how naïve I was about how easy that would be) and then immediately hit the dilemma of “how are we going to pay for this?”

Students are not entitled to any kind of maternity leave or pay – when I made enquiries about this I was advised to quit my studies, which would have made me eligible for various benefits.  My department was much more accommodating and gave me four months paid maternity leave – something they were under no obligation to do.  I also managed to claim Maternity Allowance  (https://www.gov.uk/maternity-allowance/how-to-claim), because I had done some part-time maths lecturing which made me eligible.

When I made my first forays into real paid employment, I had to tackle the thorny issue of childcare.  Childminder or nursery?  Enlisting the grand-parents wasn’t an option, and neither was either myself or my husband becoming a stay-at-home parent.  We initially picked a nursery at my husband’s work-place, and then found one closer to home.  The fees were astronomical – larger than the mortgage – but we scraped by.  I had some comments (addressed to me, never to my husband) along the lines of “why bother having kids if you’re never going to see them?” which I shrugged off.

We timed having our second child so that we would not have two children in nursery at the same time for long – if nursery fees for one child were astronomical then double nursery fees were on a whole other level.  My employer at the time (not 67 Bricks, I should add) only offered the barest minimum maternity package, and so I could only afford to take four months’ maternity leave (my take-home pay went down to around £120 a week after the first 6-weeks of leave).  This was before the change in the law that would have allowed my husband to take some extended leave himself – when he requested to do so his employer said something along the lines of “you can do that when men start giving birth to babies”.

Despite the deficiencies in that company’s maternity policy, my immediate line manager was wonderfully accommodating.  He allowed me to have an arrangement where I worked in the office for about 5 hours a day and then completed the rest of my hours at home.  This enabled me to reduce the nursery hours from 9-4 rather than 8-6, and save money while spending more time with the kids.  He also gave me considerable flexibility around school holidays, and working from home on days when I had various child-related errands such as school plays, parent appointments etc.

Speaking of school, nobody ever tells you that having a school-age child is actually harder to fit a job around than having a nursery age child.  The school day ends at 3pm – and who is ready to finish work at 3pm???  Also, there are 13 weeks a year of school holidays to somehow cover.  At the time, the school did not have an after-school club (they started one up in later years) and so I had to find a child-minder who could do after-school pickups.  There was a holiday club at a school in the next village which I used – it was heavily sports-related, which my son in particular did not like, but I told him there was no choice and he had to go.

Over the next decade I went through various child-care arrangements, including nursery, childminders, after-school clubs, holiday clubs, and various forms of flexible working arrangement for both myself and my husband.  Our days were organised with military precision.  Drop the kids at school at 8:40.  Drive like a maniac to work, never being able to arrive earlier than 9:30.  And then having to leave at 5pm on the dot so that I could once more drive like a maniac to pick the kids up by 6pm or risk being fined (typically an immediate fine of £15 and then £10 for every extra 15 minutes you were late).  And the stress of sitting in a traffic jam on the motorway, watching the clock tick, wondering exactly how late I would be.  I changed jobs and my new line manager was equally wonderful – I was never quite able to complete my full hours during office-time, but he was perfectly fine with me making up time in the evenings.  And he never once quibbled when I said that I could not get in any earlier than 9:30, or stay any later than 5pm.

My kids are now in secondary school and make their own way to and from school, and are old enough to be left alone during school holidays.  Therefore I finally no longer have to worry about pick-ups, or astronomical childcare fees, and I don’t have to rush around like a loon trying to pick them up by a specific time.

The key takeaways from all this are:

  • Parents need flexibility.  We have schedules to meet, parents evenings and school plays to attend, and sometimes sick children to tend to.  Having an understanding manager who doesn’t watch the clock, and allows you to complete your working hours according to whatever pattern works, makes our lives so much easier.
  • Child-rearing is expensive.  Attractive maternity packages will improve your staff retention and employee satisfaction no end. The 67 Bricks maternity policy is better than many (Employees who have been here 2 years get 12 weeks on full pay and 12 weeks on half pay).
  • Dads need flexibility too.  For every dad who you allow to leave early to do a school run, there is probably a grateful mum who is able to get on with her own job without worry.  The number of dads standing at the school gate is getting bigger year-on-year.  When I was a child my dad was the only one at the gate, but these days it is much higher and that is only a good thing.  I have seen male colleagues experience discrimination in previous jobs, for example expressions of incredulity when they state an intention to take paternity leave.