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Alex Thomson: from Psychotherapist to Senior Engineering Manager

Social media handle(s): LinkedIn

A few words about me:

I'm sat down, with glasses on looking at the camera, and the photo is a head shot.

I'm Alex, 41, Senior Engineering Manager at Flutter UK&I. I've worked in the Tech space for over 20 years now (it still feels like yesterday), but I also am very people focused, having trained and qualified as a Psychotherapist.

I love to read, which is good as I've hundreds of books, but sometimes you can't beat a good horror film, or a bingeable series on Netflix! I've been waiting decades for the latest season of Stranger Things!!

I adore animals, and have 5 wonderful cats, one of which has a rather expensive prawn addiction (for some reasons he doesn't like dreamies)! I love learning and finding out new things no matter how small or daft.

Are there any professional experiences you've had that are quite unexpected compared to what you do nowadays?

I think my training, and qualifying as a Psychotherapist is unusual, as my day job is all about technology, data, coding and projects. It often gets a wow when I tell people, so I think it is unexpected, especially as I specialise in Trauma, working with clients who have experienced abuse, or traumatic life events.

I also volunteered for West Yorkshire Police in my twenties, as a Special Constable, and I absolutely loved it, but as I climbed the ladder at work, I couldn't devote as much time to it, so after nearly 4 years left, which is when I began to study Psychotherapy.

Is your background more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or non-STEM related?

My education, is non-STEM related. I passed 9 GCSEs and then went straight into the workplace rather than going to university. All my friends and people I knew left our home town and went to university, and I found this quite tough.

Where did your professional journey start?

My professional journey began with my first job at British Gas. Originally it was meant to be for 6 months only whilst I decided whether to continue with my education with A Levels, and perhaps University, but as I had left home at 16 (cutting off all ties with my family), I needed to work to pay my bills and only had myself to rely on.

I was so proud that I had secured a job at such a reputable company, and whilst it was via an agency, I did manage to make it permanent, but this had me leave any prospect of education, and at the time I wasn't aware that you could still go to University but as an adult learner. So back then, in 2001, I figured that the only way I would ever be successful was to work hard, meet my targets, and move up or move sideways and gain new skills.

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

Whilst working at British Gas, where my role was in the call-centre, I became aware of other departments / areas of the business and one piqued my interest. This was in the Management Information (now called Business Intelligence space), and so I applied for a role when it became vacant and I was successful. It was completely different to what I had been doing, but I loved maths at school, and economics, and this role had these elements. And I wasn't very good at upselling to customers so didn't manage to hit my sales targets.

I remember in one of my 121s my manager at that time, she said I should leave as I didn't have any emotional resilience and that I wouldn't amount to anyone/anything important. That hit hard, especially when moving role, as imposter syndrome as it is now called, kept creeping in and I worried I wouldn't be able to this role. So it was scary, but I hoped that I could do something that was more aligned to my interests, or areas I was good at, and I was prepared to learn, so bought books and paired with one of the other people and I found out I was actually quite good at this particular area of work.

Back then, (I think it was 2003), I was one of 3 people in this particular department, and over the subsequent years the department grew to nearly 150 people! And being part of such a huge department was great as it meant I could move between areas of specialism, and learn more about different areas of the business. I was also able to grow in the roles as I moved up, securing a manager position, and then grew into my first real role of a leader.

Have you experienced any 'career in tech' challenges / stereotypes?

Absolutely. When I first joined tech, 20 odd years ago, it was male orientated. And in every job I have been in since, it is largely still a male orientated world. But diversity and inclusion is getting better as organisations are open now to having the conversation on how they can get better at ensuring we have a diverse workforce. As a woman in tech, there are many challenges faced, micro-aggressions, passive aggressive comments, not being included, the pay gap, seen as more obstructive or challenging to name a few.

The other thing I noticed is that many jobs on the market require a computer science based degree, when actually, some people (like myself) don't have this, and this can put people off applying for jobs that they are more than capable of doing, but don't have any formal education as such. Another stereotype in tech, is that to work in tech you have to be techy, and that isn't always the case... some roles you don't need to be able to do the hands on coding, but you can have a pretty decent grasp of what is happening in the team.

"Network. Find people and grow your network. Chat to people, get to know them and what they do. Your network can be good for when you need to hire, when you want to look for opportunities, or if you have any questions."

What you wish you knew before getting started in tech...

I guess with hindsight many things. Tech skills are transferable, and if you can pick up the language of one technology, you can for many others. It's just the same but different. Also knowing that there are dozens and dozens of different tech products to use which can do the same thing but better (or worse), so not to stay in one area, and learning is a constant.

There are always things to learn in tech! And every day is a school day. Also, thinking time is really important, to think things through, examine everything that is on the table, and come to an informed decision is key. And lastly, those who work in tech, want their managers and leaders to be people-centric, to have good communication skills, provide a safe environment, be able to manage difficult people, and for that, you need someone who is good with people, and sometimes tech people aren't. But just because someone is versed in leading people, doesn't mean they are not technical.

What has been your biggest 'wow!' moment related to working in tech so far?

My biggest wow was when I moved into Software Engineering as opposed to Data Engineering. I applied as a talent transfer, where exceptional people could move roles for 4 months with a peer, and learn something new. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to do the role as I'd not had much experience with software, but the experience told me that tech skills are tech skills and I can apply these anywhere, and that I don't need to be hands on coding to lead a team, when what they need is a leader to help solve their problems, remove blockers, and support them on a day to day basis. It taught me that good leadership is just that, good leadership, no matter the tech background.

What do you like / not like about working in tech?

I'll address the likes first! I like the fact that no day is the same, and there is always something to learn. I love to learn and well, in the tech industry, change is change, and tech gets old, new tech gets launched, and it is exciting to see how we can improve on things we have built in the past. I love being a leader in the tech space, as I get to have conversations with people passionate about the same thing as I am, who have creative and innovative ideas, and want to really push the boundaries of their role. Watching someone advance in their career is also a huge plus point.

I love the diversity that the tech role can bring, and whilst I know diversity and inclusion is not where it is needed, we are seeing far more women in technology, people from all walks of life and backgrounds and for me that is really refreshing. And for the industry to truly be creative and innovative we need diversity. I also like seeing products apps advertised on television, or in the app store is great as it almost brings to life what you do, and is almost a bit of a claim to fame with friends.

Dislikes. I guess firstly, I'm not a fan of delivering a MVP, but it often is something we have to do when working on a big piece of work to meet tight deadlines, which is okay, as long as time is given at the end of said project to address these things. Engineers like to produce good quality code/products, so this can be a tad frustrating if and when it happens.

Also, requirements are always a bit of a sticky point, often with people not really knowing what it is they want, so sometimes we have to re-do a piece of work, or wait to get the full requirements before we can really get going. But really, these are minor points, and are really the only things I can nit pick at. But, tbh, I really do enjoy working in this industry.

"Another stereotype in tech, is that to work in tech you have to be techy, and that isn't always the case... some roles you don't need to be able to do the hands on coding, but you can have a pretty decent grasp of what is happening in the team."

What's been your favourite / most memorable / funniest 'career in tech' moment so far?

I'm not sure that there is just one to be honest. But the most recent is building a team from scratch, of four Squads who work on the products in my area. I love how the team have come together, a mix of internal hires and external hires, with a pretty even split of gender, and other key areas. But the team have come together to form a strong unit, wanting to work together, to bring about positive change, to have fun and hit deadlines. It makes my job far easier!

And to wrap up, is there any advice you'd like to give to others interested in a career in tech?

Network. Find people and grow your network. Chat to people, get to know them and what they do. Your network can be good for when you need to hire, when you want to look for opportunities, or if you have any questions.


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