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Michelle Szaraz: from War Studies to Digital Strategy Lead & Founder in tech

Social media handle(s): @MichelleSzaraz

A few words about me:

A profile photo of Michelle, smiling and looking to the camera. Michelle has mid long brown hair, pale skin and is wearing large light brown glasses. She is dressed in a white blouse with a floral grey and red scarf and is wearing a red lipstick.

Originally from Slovakia, I've been living in the UK since 2013. I currently work as a Strategy Lead at dxw, helping government and not-for-profit organisations design and deliver digital strategy, products and services. Alongside that, I’m also the founder of (Extra)ordinary Tech Stories, a mentor on multiple business, startup and career programmes, an ambassador for women in tech, and hopefully a soon-to-be book author.

Fuelled by oat lattes and carbs, I love long walks, artsy things and dancing. I’m fluent in 5+ languages, enjoy meeting with new people and aspire to one day become (at least part-time) digital nomad living somewhere near a beach.

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

→ Summer job preparing archaeological excavations for archiving (including washing human bones!)

→ Operations supervisor at Ralph Lauren (selling fancy clothes and managing their deliveries into store)

→ Research intern writing a report for a charity on medicalisation of female genital mutilation

→ Programme Officer & (Senior) Programme Manager in an international development consultancy (working with United Nations agencies and governments in Africa and Asia)

→ Unemployed for few months considering becoming an influencer and setting up a wellness business (I know!)

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

(As non-STEM as it gets!)

Where did your professional journey start?

Politics, International Relations and EU Studies for my BA degree in the Czech Republic and International Peace and Security (War Studies) for my MA degree in the UK.

I’d never really been sure what I wanted to do specifically as a career when I was younger and after I decided not to professionally follow my passion for ancient Egypt. While I knew I wanted to be helping people (especially women and children) live better lives, I didn't want to become a doctor or lawyer so my studies reflected that.

After university, I struggled to get a job in international development and when I finally did, I quickly realised that it wasn’t for me. Despite matching my background and interests, it didn’t align with my dynamic personality, craving to work flexibly and constantly innovate. The tech industry does.

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

By accident (haha)!

Joining tech was never a planned, thought-through decision for me... Following a bad burn out, quitting my job and a short career break, I applied for an interesting role which entailed the kind of activities I had previously done in a different industry. Out of nowhere, I was hired and put in charge of leading the delivery of the UK’s flagship programme to help accelerate the growth of AI and ML startups (no pressure!).

Overnight, I went from zero tech experience to working with advanced technologies, from AI and 5G to Internet of Things and immersive tech. Being placed at the centre of the tech ecosystem, I’ve since then had a chance to work with many super interesting and diverse projects, products, teams and clients. I've gained career experience I now use to support others to transition into tech and build successful careers regardless of their background.

I was quite lucky and it pains me to know that without ending up in tech by accident, I’d have likely never considered it due to my non-STEM background. That’s why I’m so passionate about helping others avoid making the same mistake.

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

Definitely... Most have been related to either being a woman, Eastern European, and/or a person with non-STEM background. At times, I've been treated like I didn’t belong or had nothing to add even though I did. Other times I have been exposed to micro-aggressions or even discriminated against. So were some of my colleagues.

However, I have to say that despite this, overall, my experience of working in tech has been predominantly positive. I’ve worked with many individuals and teams that have been incredibly welcoming, supportive and encouraging; valuing my unique non-STEM expertise, experience and contribution.

A photo of Michelle standing and leaning against a wooden doorframe, looking away from the camera, Michelle is wearing a white blouse, black tank top and black jeans with a yellow lanyard around her neck. She has shorter brown hair and is wearing large light brown glasses and brown lipstick. She is smiling slightly.

"I was quite lucky and it pains me to know that without ending up in tech by accident, I’d have likely never considered it due to my non-STEM background."

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

How great, diverse and exciting it can be to work in tech and how anyone can do it regardless of their background because there are so many different opportunities. That you can have an interesting and fulfilling career in tech with and based on non-STEM expertise. Basically that you don’t have to learn to code to "make it" in tech (unless you really want to). And that there are many tech for good opportunities to get involved in.

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

Being a panellist during the first AI conference in Belfast talking about AI startup needs and founding (Extra)ordinary Tech Stories to give people working in tech a voice to share their experiences.

The wow part is realising I’m part of the industry despite my background, adding value every day, and that what I often see as a messy career path is actually part of my unique story that can help others.

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

I like how many interesting people, opportunities and products I get to work with on a daily basis and the positive impact my work can have on the society and the world.

I don’t like the stereotypes that still exist about what it means to be a person it tech, the (albeit improving) lack of diversity and inclusion, and how extremely different (positive vs negative) experiences of working in tech can be for people.

"I've gained career experience I now use to support others to transition into tech and build successful careers regardless of their background."

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

Favourite - founding (Extra)ordinary Tech Stories :)

Most memorable - working remotely from abroad for a couple of weeks and going to beach every day before and after work

Funniest - telling my STEM-oriented nephew I lead the delivery of the UK’s flagship programme for AI startups and he’s disbelief followed by telling me he doesn’t know how that’s possible since I don’t even know how plug the power bank I just gifted him - ah well, I guess I wasn’t hired for my power bank plugging skills, was I :)

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

If you are even remotely considering working in the tech industry, don't hesitate and give it a try. Whether we like it or not, tech will be around for a while and spills into all other industries and areas of our lives.

I believe everyone can bring and leverage their existing skills and experience into tech and find or create the right opportunities to build a successful and rewarding career in this industry without having to compromise on their needs!


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