In celebration of #InternationalWomansDay, we interviewed two members of our technical team to learn more about their journeys into the field. In this article, we summarise their tips for getting started in tech and the challenges they faced along the way.
Caroline Bleger, Front-End Developer and Graphic Designer
Tell us about yourself
Growing up, I have always had a creative side. I always loved drawing and building things. Moving to different countries quite a lot, I’d often spend most of my time either drawing or on computer games.
After settling and finishing high school in South Africa, I hit the point, like most people, where I had [almost] no idea of what I wanted to do.
I just knew that I wanted to carry on drawing and creating. By then comic books and gaming were a major part of my life. I’ve always been curious to know how things worked and what it took to make them work.
I genuinely love the feeling of finally solving a problem after being stuck on it for a while, and the pursuit of always improving.
What made you choose front-end development?
I first dabbled with HTML and CSS with a small one-page website for a family friend. It wasn’t great. It definitely didn’t tick a lot of user-friendly boxes, but it was fun creating something from scratch! I enjoyed it so much that I would try to incorporate design and coding in my hobbies, such as making a full forum for my online gaming groups, with FAQs, Guides and character designs. That’s when I had the little spark “Hey, I’m actually enjoying this!”.
Another aspect of it was that I would often get frustrated at bad User Experience (UX) or interface (UI), so much so that I wanted to make a difference by creating good UI / UX for others. Not to mention the roller coaster of emotions that came with problem-solving and keeping things interesting. I genuinely loved the feeling of finally solving a problem after being stuck on it for a while, and the pursuit of always improving.
I’d often come up with characters for comic books or games I wanted to create, but a lot of my time was spent creating logos for family friend’s business ideas or little mascots for personal projects or even come up with ideas on how to improve websites or games’ UI… So when it came to choosing what career path to pursue, I felt Graphic Design would fulfil the creative aspect while full-stack development would hit the problem solving / more logical side of things.
Unfortunately, due to lack of funds, my choices for colleges (higher education) were restricted and ended up studying Print design and publishing as well as Web design and interactive media at a relatively new and small college in Cape Town, South Africa.
As cliché as it may sound, you have to trust in your own abilities, and carry on learning and growing for yourself.
What challenges have you encountered?
One of the biggest challenges was that since my education felt incomplete regarding some of the skills I needed for jobs, I always felt a few steps behind. It has been both a motivation but also a big frustration as it is an industry that moves fast, so keeping up to date with everything has been challenging.
But that aside, I, unfortunately, experienced first-hand sexism in more than just one job, where I've been told I wouldn’t be good enough or couldn’t code as well because I am a woman. However, just like any bad relationships, don’t stay in a job that treats you badly, particularly not based on your skills but on your gender/race/ etc ! As cliché as it may sound, you have to trust in your own abilities, and carry on learning and growing for yourself. I used this experience as fuel to motivate me to prove them wrong, and more importantly, prove to myself that I could and will succeed. It’s important to hold on to that, even when times get tough and you feel stuck.
Another important aspect that makes getting to work so easy, is that I get to work with such an amazing team.
What do you love the most about your job?
I love the diversity, doing both design and front-end development, my role allows me to swap between days where I’ll be designing new looks for our mascot or updating designs for our brand or website, and other days I’ll be full focus on coding for our assessment platform, K.A.T.E.®, always learning new things and problem-solving. Both roles work hand in hand, always looking for ways to improve the UI and UX! Getting feedback from our users is always a big win, even the not so positive ones, as it pushes me to think outside to box to solve problems, which can sometimes be quite challenging.
Another important aspect that makes getting to work so easy, is that I get to work with such an amazing team. Even with my self-doubts in my own abilities and sometimes the feeling of not learning fast enough, the team has never failed to make me feel at ease, including, and providing the support ( both moral and help with tasks ) needed without making me feel pressured, we are all there for each other and lift each other up, kind of like a “no one left behind” vibe. I couldn’t ask for better people to work with.
Trust in your own abilities and focus on being your own kick-ass superhero, solving problems one code at a time.
Any advice to women who are new to development?
Don’t ever give up! Even when things can get overwhelming, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Trust in your own abilities and focus on being your own kick-ass superhero, solving problems one code at a time. Never stop learning.
Efthymia Kazakou, Full-Stack Engineer at Cambridge Spark
Tell us a bit about yourself
You often hear stories of people who started playing with computers from an early age, picked up coding at the age of 13 and knew already what they wanted to do “when they grow up”. Well, mine is not one of them. As a child, I did have a computer at home but I found it more interesting to go out and play in the park, participate in theatrical plays and explore the world in my own way.
However, I always loved studying, solving hard mathematical problems and I displayed a high level of interest in all STEM subjects. Being surrounded by members of my family who were involved in different areas of computer science in Greece, I witnessed many discussions about computers since my early childhood. Although I wasn’t able to fully understand the implied concepts at the time, I was attracted by this exciting world. Nevertheless, I couldn’t see myself following their footsteps in the future.
Funnily enough, I remember telling them that I would never choose a job like theirs as I thought it was too hard and mysterious for me at that time. A few years later, when I got my results from the national graduation exams, I had to answer a very difficult question: “Now what? What’s the best career for me?”. After having lots of discussions with my family, who were very supportive, I decided that studying electrical and computer engineering was the best option for me. I would get exposed to many interesting areas, solve hard and demanding problems and choose from a variety of roles that would fit my personality and skills. And this is what actually happened.
During my studies, I realised that computer science was the field that inspired me the most and I was keen to explore it further. Six years later I came to London to do a masters in Software Systems Engineering and participated in various coding projects. When I finished my masters, I started working as a Software Engineer and have been doing it ever since. I feel privileged to be working at Cambridge Spark, it's one of the best and most inclusive workplaces I’ve worked at so far.
Once I got into the industry, I soon realised that software engineering is undoubtably a very technical, male-dominated field and I felt many times that I was not good enough to continue doing it.
What challenges have you encountered?
I always wanted to make sure I fulfilled all the requirements before I applied for a job, otherwise, I assumed I had no chance of getting it as interviews have always been demanding and required a variety of advanced skills.
Once I got into the industry, I soon realised that software engineering is undoubtedly a very technical, male-dominated field and I felt many times that I was not good enough to continue doing it. That’s a real challenge that women in tech have to deal with frequently. They are often not confident enough or underestimate their skills, especially as their classmates or colleagues become more competitive. But it’s not just the impostor syndrome that they have to overcome. They sometimes have to put up with derogatory comments and behaviours that do little to boost their confidence.
On top of that, having to cope with the constantly changing technology is not an easy topic either. It has always been a challenge for every developer to learn new things fast, understand them well enough and apply them to real-life problems in order to make a difference to the world.
The basic requirement for all of these to happen is a diverse and inclusive working environment.
What do you love the most about your job?
Despite all of the difficulties one may encounter, computing is intellectually stimulating. Constantly learning, exploring new interest areas, surprising yourself with a new finding or a problem you managed to overcome are only a few things worth mentioning.
It’s part of our job to be creative, keep our skills adaptable, design new features and systems, write clean and elegant code and think out of the box in order to make a significant impact to our end-users. At Cambridge Spark, we constantly contribute to many aspects of our product on a regular basis in order to make our learners’ journey more pleasant and effective.
The basic requirement for all of these to happen is a diverse and inclusive working environment. We need supportive teams and positive people and believe me there are lots out there. You just need to find those that allow you to flourish.
Be open to feedback and take every opportunity to improve without questioning your skills or career choice.
Any advice to women who are new to programming?
I would encourage them to believe in themselves, to be more courageous and to not give up if things go wrong. Programming is hard and demanding but it’s also fun and rewarding. Be open to feedback and take every opportunity to improve without questioning your skills or career choice.
In modern workplaces like mine women are treated equally and are respected and you should look for opportunities like these. Every employee, man or woman, needs to be able to express themselves and work at their own pace and work style.