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Women in STEM 2020

From documentary photography to tech

Sam Sheppard

Product Owner, UCAS

My degree is in Documentary Photography and I always assumed I’d end up working in the arts sector. If anyone told 18-year-old me I’d be working in a technology role, I’d have thought you were talking about someone else.

My route into tech

To delay the decision of ‘what to do with my life’, I took what I thought was a ‘summer job’ at UCAS, and they haven’t been able to get rid of me since!

I discovered that I had an aptitude for understanding how things work, and complex rules and processes led me to a role as a UAT tester within UCAS.

It gave me an introduction to how software is built, while letting me explore and play with systems, trying to break them or find bugs.

I moved from there into a team responsible for the operational run of our products. There I could use the knowledge I had built up about how things were supposed to work, to help people when things went wrong and keep the operational systems running.

Before long, I was starting to be involved in discussions and meetings about how we could improve the products we had in production.

A valuable background in working with our customers, understanding the problems in our current systems, and the information I was absorbing about how things worked, led me to working as an SME (subject matter expert) on a project that redesigned and rebuilt the system that students use to find out whether they are accepted into university. From this moment, I had the bug, and transitioned into a role as a product owner.

Challenging the stereotypes of a male dominated sector

Throughout my career I have been lucky enough to have always had a solid support structure of women in similar roles.

I am never made to feel as if a woman working in IT is anything unusual – though sometimes I look around a meeting room and realise I’m the only female there!

The comradery of working within a development team, and the satisfaction of seeing something you’ve been a part of creating be released into the world and getting good feedback is great.

Occasionally, when I mention my job to acquaintances, I see eyebrows raise – but I think that might be more to do with the fact that my understanding of IT before this role were very much at the level of ‘turn it off, turn it back on again’ (which does, inexplicably, still work…).

I’ve worked really hard at building up my knowledge of the role I am now in. I work hard to prove that I know my stuff, but that is very much a pressure I put on myself rather than it coming from any external sources. Absolutely some of the strongest people I have worked with within this sector have been female.

Cross functional and transferrable skills

You don’t have to be trained in IT to be a Product Owner, but by far the most important thing is cross-functional and transferrable skills.

You’ll need to have a good head for organisation, for speaking to customers, for understanding the value in the work completed by your team.

I’ve found that you don’t need to understand HOW things are built, but more that you need to understand what it will give you (as a product owner, and as the customers of your product) to ensure the work you ask the team to do is delivering value to the end user.

You need to be comfortable talking to a range of people – be it one-to-one or presenting to large numbers of your customers.

Customer interaction is a huge part of the role. The ability to articulate what you’d like a piece of software to do, and the value it brings your customers is also key.

You’ll need to be able to prioritise work based on the most valuable item first, while thinking of a range of other factors like resource, size of the work, and timings. If you’re wondering whether you should take the leap, I recommend jumping in feet first!

I genuinely love my job – it comes with its fair share of headaches and challenges, but the comradery of working within a development team, and the satisfaction of seeing something you’ve been a part of creating be released into the world and getting good feedback is great.

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