Three successful women that pivoted into tech

DiversityQ speaks to three leading women at Amazon who pivoted careers to enter tech

The number of women working in technology roles in the UK continues to lag behind men, with a report last year by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) finding that women made up just 31% of the workforce; but this is why it’s important to celebrate women who have pivoted into tech.

This can be attributed to a popular misconception that to get a job in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sector, you have to have a background in computer science or a masters in a STEM subject. This assumption holds many women back from even considering a tech career.

A career in tech can be a financially lucrative one for women. In fact, research from Amazon and WISE found that women working in innovation roles earn £11,000 more per year on average compared to other careers. The same study found that over half of all women working in STEM careers said pursuing a career in innovation gave them a feeling of self-achievement (59%), the opportunity to do exciting work (56%) and set the foundations for positive career development (56%).

Christelle Maignan, Lauren Kisser and Beth Holmes made the leap from hugely varying backgrounds into tech by using their transferable skills and building new ones, and haven’t looked back.

Refusing to let perceptions get in their way, they now have flourishing tech careers with Amazon to show for it. Here’s their advice for others:

Christelle Maignan is a multilingual Knowledge Engineer at Amazon Alexa. There, she works alongside machine learning scientists and software engineers to build the technology that powers Alexa’s ability to speak multiple languages. Prior to joining Amazon, her background was in languages and intercultural studies. She had a 20-year-long career in translation, including 14 years as a freelance translator.

Over the past 4 years, she has trained in some technical skills at Amazon, and gone from French Language Expert to multilingual Knowledge Engineer, specialising in Natural Language Understanding and Natural Language Generation. “I was so surprised that the tech industry would be interested in someone like me. I was 42 then, with no technical background. What I did have was a set of skills that I’d never have thought to put on my CV, like problem-solving, being analytical, pragmatism and strong reasoning and logic.

“Those non-technical skills which I already had, are sought after in the tech industry. If you’d like to transition to a more technical role, but don’t have a technical background, think about the non-technical skills that you’ve acquired over the years. What are you good at? And who in tech could be looking for this?

“You could start developing technical skills right away, to prepare for a transition. Numerous courses are available online for useful skills, like learning how to code in Python or other programming languages. The best way to find out what skills tech recruiters are looking for is to look at job adverts and job descriptions. It will help you to identify your skill gaps.”

Lauren Kisser, another member of the Amazon Alexa team, has also had an interesting journey into tech. She studied public relations at university in America, but soon after finishing, her interest in technology was piqued, “When I graduated college, the commercial aspects of the Internet were just taking off and the dotcom boom was underway. The day-to-day problems were interesting and the money was good”. 

After getting her first job at America Online, she realised that she needed more digital skills, and undertook night classes in information systems and computer networking.

From there, she landed a job as an IT technician. Still wanting to pursue her education, she went on to gain a Master of Science in Information Technology and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Denver. Through on the job training and some great mentorship, her career grew, and she is now the Director of Alexa AI at Amazon’s Cambridge Development Centre. “I mentor many young women at varying stages of their career, as I’ve had great mentors that have helped me to get to where I am today. One of the most rewarding things I do is to be a role model for young girls and women. I know that having a relatable role model is a key enabler for girls to follow a career in technology.

“Here’s what I recommend to women wanting a career in tech; keep learning and make the effort to upskill yourself through work schemes or in your own time. Next, plan your career and look at where you want to end up and think about your next step in terms of achieving that goal. Finally, apply! Industry research shows women tend only to apply when they meet all the criteria, while men may feel they only need to meet some of the criteria. If you don’t ask, you won’t get.” 

Beth Holmes originally started out in academia. She completed a PhD in Group Theory, a branch of maths, in 2001, and went on to apply for academic roles. After giving birth, and a series of academic research fellowships, she decided to join a start-up, as she felt they were more likely to offer her flexible hours and the ability to work from home. “The tech sector has allowed me to have a career that was far more flexible than other paths, something I needed when finishing my last fellowship with two dependents relying on me.”

At first, she didn’t find much relation between the job and academia, except the ability to type and the importance of being a self-starter with a strong work ethic. She began with simple data entry and worked her way up until eventually, she was at the stage where she could lead a team of Knowledge Engineers. After a while, the company was acquired by Amazon, and she carried on up the ladder to become a Principal Knowledge Engineer.

Reflecting back, she believes that some of her previous skills from academia have been transferrable. She was well prepared for Amazon’s particular culture of document-writing and the self-starter mentality, while her teaching experience was useful for training up staff. “If people are willing to take a chance on you, and you’re willing to learn, then there’s no reason you can’t pivot to succeed in tech, using previously acquired skills.”

From linguistics to PR, to academia, the common denominator for these women succeeding in tech isn’t their background or education, but a willingness to take a chance in a new career and to push themselves.

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