2020 saw a big boost in the number of people considering a career in tech. With job uncertainty increasing and remote ways of life becoming the “new normal” (a phrase we’d be happy not to hear again!), tech was being recognised as a stable career opportunity.
But for lots of women, switching to a career in tech is about so much more than professional future-proofing. Many of the engineers here at Marshmallow made an active choice to move into software engineering long before 2020, inspired by their curiosity about how things work and their determination to build things for themselves.
We sat down with our engineers to hear about their experiences of launching careers in tech. One of our core values at Marshmallow is to be open and honest. So, our engineers approached the topic openly and honestly, reflecting on the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry, and what needs to change as more women consider their futures in tech.
Here’s how the conversation went:
A lot of you changed the direction of your career path towards engineering after exploring other avenues. Can you tell me about that experience of switching?
Ella: It was my experiences with UX that made me want to pursue engineering. When I was working in operations and communications, I’d experience terrible UX and think, ‘this is so frustrating! I wish I could build my own stuff!’
Habs: I actually did a sculpture degree where I was building installations. I wanted to use electronics to make things move, and that’s how I got into coding. I found a local community workshop where they taught me the basics of code, and I completed a bootcamp which helped me to switch over.
Without having friends who were willing to teach me, or friends who’d completed the bootcamp I did, I wouldn’t have known that engineering was accessible.
It’s still a stereotype that to do engineering you have to be really clever and really good at maths. Even now, the perception of what it means to be an engineer is completely skewed.
Tracy: I was working in marketing for a small start-up before I decided to start coding. For me, learning code was like a new beginning. I realised it was so much more creative than I’d thought, and so much more accessible.
I give credit to all the bootcamps for being the entry point for those people who want to try it out.
Aga: The problem with getting into coding right now is that there’s so much information out there. You need to know where to focus your efforts so you can gradually build up your understanding. Bootcamps are great as they give you structure and tell you where to look first.
It seems like bootcamps have been integral in launching your engineering careers. Do you think tech companies need to do more to provide women with an entry point into tech?
Habs: Being able to do a bootcamp is based on privilege. I think that’s where tech companies can give back.
I know some companies run courses for women, but none of these initiatives seem to be long-term. Tech companies should make it more accessible for women to train.
Ella: Definitely, It’s such a financial commitment to switch careers to coding. I was lucky enough to get a 50% scholarship for my bootcamp fees. But even without the fees, there’s the cost of living for 3 months where you can’t work because you’re studying so intensely. There’s also the period afterward when you’re job hunting — which, for me, took a lot longer than expected.
I would love to see more companies partnering with organisations that teach women to code for free. And there should be more paid traineeships and internships at entry-level, or even in-house training. It’s a good opportunity for the companies too because they can nurture their own talent.
Maria: A big problem is that many companies feel it’s a high risk to hire someone starting out in engineering because it takes more time to onboard them.
We even ask it in our hiring process: do we have the capacity to hire this person? We want to be fair to them and give them a valuable first experience. It’s not their responsibility to figure it all out; we have to be able to support them.
In start-ups, there are so many ups and downs. In the ups, it’s much easier to hire new people who are starting out, but the ups aren’t consistent.
Tracy: Yeah, the tech market is pretty brutal. As a junior you’re begging for people’s attention, even recruiters! Then, as a senior, recruiters are contacting you every day. The power dynamic flips so dramatically.
That sounds terrifying! Did you feel supported as young women starting your careers in tech?
Maria: I never felt excluded at university, it was a 50/50 split of male and female students. But I did when I started working.
Often I was given feedback that felt irrelevant to me. At one of my very first jobs, I remember being compared to a more junior male colleague who’d had a completely different experience to me. Some of my supervisors were very supportive, but one supervisor told me that computer science wasn’t for me.
I took all that negative feedback and made it my reality. After that, I really struggled with imposter syndrome.
Ella: It’s so interesting to hear you mention imposter syndrome. I was lucky enough to do a bootcamp designed for women and non-binary people, and they built an understanding of imposter syndrome into the course. We looked at how to be aware of this and how to combat it, which was so helpful. Hearing women at a more senior level, like Maria, talk about imposter syndrome is so important.
And really, we need men at a senior level to talk about it too.
Habs: I think there needs to be more women in senior positions. The reality is that bootcamps and courses are 50% women. But that split doesn’t translate into companies.
It helps to have senior women to look up to so that I can see what my career might look like long-term, to know that it doesn’t stop if you want to have a child, for example.
Maria: I agree with you. When I first made the transition from engineer to engineering management a while back, there were no female engineering directors. So I struggled to see how I could progress. My leadership style felt too different, and I couldn’t visualise how my strengths could take me to a higher position.
Then, when the first female engineering director joined, I saw her being openly vulnerable while also being a badass! I saw myself in her and realised I could do that too.
Tracy: I find that with tech, no matter whether it’s an agency or a start-up, there’s definitely a ceiling for women to progress. Because there are so few of us, there’s an unconscious bias of what a tech lead looks like.
In any organisation, if you put a woman and a guy with a beard at the front of a room, everyone gravitates towards the guy with the beard and thinks he knows more about code. I’ve been in positions where I’ve hit a ceiling because the people at the top making the decisions about hiring and promotions have that internalised point of view.
Maria: I think the bias comes from the communication side as well. If someone speaks confidently, I believe in them more.
I know it’s a stereotype, but it seems more common for men to speak with assurance, whereas women seem to doubt themselves more using words like ‘maybe’ or ‘I think’, which only increases [gender] bias.
Tracy: I’ve been given similar feedback to that: being senior is not about knowing everything about code because no one ever will. It’s about being able to stand your ground in the decisions you make without wavering.
So, some solid advice for women entering tech would be: ‘remember, it’s normal not to know everything!’
Aga: I think any new engineer is always going to have to learn a lot, wherever they start out!
Ella: In your first engineering job, It’s so important that the company has realistic expectations of you. And that you know what to expect from them.
When I started here [at Marshmallow], there was a clear plan of what my first 3 to 6 months would look like. I felt like there was a lot of effort to support me as a junior.
That sounds like a really positive first experience. Looking at Marshmallow, what made you all want to take your next steps as engineers here?
[The engineers point at Maria and laugh]
Maria? Ok, so it really is a question of having strong female role models!
Tracy: I also saw that Marshmallow wasn’t top-heavy. There was an equal amount of junior, mid-level and senior engineers, which meant a lot of opportunity for me to progress. The fact that I could also mentor juniors swayed my decision.
Aga: For me, I trusted Maria’s judgement, but also when I spoke to David [Marshmallow’s Co-Founder and CTO], we chatted honestly about career progression and the importance of feedback, things I really wanted my next role to have.
Habs: I think it’s rare to have an engineering career framework at a start-up with scheduled peer reviews and organised monthly objectives. You’d expect it at a more corporate company, but it’s so great to have those things here.
And finally, do you have any advice for young women looking for their first job in engineering?
Maria: When you’re applying for jobs on LinkedIn, it’s really hard to make your CV stand out when you don’t know anyone there. So, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who work at the company and are relevant to your role, and ask them for advice or a quick chat.
Aga: And go to meet-ups!
Tracy: I think LinkedIn is a secret avenue. If a junior messaged any of us, I feel like we’d be happy to reply with a substantial response!
A huge thank you to Aga, Ella, Habs, Maria and Tracy for joining our discussion! If any of the points raised during our chat resonated with you, feel free to share your thoughts with us over on our social channels.
We are always looking for great engineering talent here at Marshmallow. You can find our current openings here.