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Millie Spalding: from Acrobatic Gymnast to UX Strategist

A few words about me:

I’m currently a UX Strategist at a digital agency based in London.

I have worked on a number of exciting projects solving real-world challenges with advanced digital technologies, through the use of service design, product design and UX/ UI.

In my free time, I try to see as much of the world as possible and I’m also passionate about music, hiking and photography.

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

Before my career in tech began, I had spent the majority of my life as a Team GB Acrobatic Gymnast and Performer, achieving world titles and appearing on televised shows and events. This could have easily led me to a career in circus arts and performing. However, instead of running away with the circus, I chose to stay in school and complete my A Levels. Once I had finished competing, I went on to become a Gymnastics Coach, passing on my knowledge to the next generation of gymnasts.

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

Non-STEM related.

Where did your professional journey start?

Once I had completed my A levels (the moment we’re told we should know what we want to do), not surprisingly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. However, being keen to do something creative, I applied for a Foundation Course in Fine Art. After this year, I chose to take a less conventional route into the world of work by starting an apprenticeship, which is where my professional journey began. I joined a forward-thinking technology company where there was lots to learn and room for growth. My attitude was to explore different areas of the company, ask lots of questions and discover what I enjoyed.

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

My journey into tech began simply because I wanted to try something new and gain experience through getting exposure to real-world projects and environments.

I completed my apprenticeship in web and software development whilst working full-time at a digital innovation company. Entering a whole new world, I came across words and terms I’d never heard of before, but I asked questions and absorbed as much information as I possibly could. I took full advantage of being an Apprentice, as I experienced many different departments before settling into the design team.

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

I would say I have been quite lucky with the experiences in my career so far. I’ve always had encouraging work environments with strong-minded male and female role models to look up to. Still today, I am often inspired by seeing colleagues have the confidence to unapologetically bring their full personalities and opposing views to the table even when it doesn’t align with the majority in the room.

I have however witnessed and heard of many challenges that colleagues have faced throughout their careers, usually regarding culture, respect, pay and recruitment. Unfortunately, the tech industry has many stereotypes and cultural issues, where negative experiences are very common. Although the world of tech has an innovative and forward-thinking exterior, this is far from the truth in terms of inclusivity and diversity. Women and minority groups are vastly underrepresented in the technology sector and are often discouraged, patronised or underestimated.

Companies must find ways to actively attract and retain diverse teams. Having a large representation of people in a room together has proven to broaden perspectives, create more inclusive solutions and accelerate businesses as a result.

"Find the thing you enjoy and do it! There are a million essential moving parts that enable the ‘technical stuff’ to happen, meaning there is a place in the industry for everyone."

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

Going into the tech industry, I expected to be moulded into a robot that takes orders and produces lines of code in a very structured and systematic way. Like many others, I had a very warped vision of the world of technology, which was initially quite daunting. Since joining the industry, I quickly realised it’s nothing more than people trying to improve the lives of other people. I was surprised by the incredible amount of room for creativity, ideas and personality in all areas of the business.

I wish I had more visibility and knowledge about the routes into these types of roles I see and experience today. After finishing school, my options seemed very limited and I wasn’t aware of how to find the available opportunities. Being fairly proactive, I spent lots of time researching and trying to find something that interested me. However, I believe many young people have a similar mindset and would likely choose different education or career routes if they had more awareness of what’s out there.

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

There are so many areas of technology that have impressed me and continue to do so. However, the biggest would have to be the introduction of immersive technology and its many real-world applications. I initially believed virtual reality was mostly for gaming, however, I have seen it be used for extraordinary things that blew my mind.

For example, the use of VR in therapy for mental and physical health. It has the ability to improve rehabilitation outcomes in range of motion treatment, as patients dissociate from the pain and focus on the actions in the virtual world. It’s been used to treat trauma, phobias, PTSD and depression. Even putting cows in a virtual environment has been proven to impact their emotional state, which improves the quality and quantity of the milk they produce.

The technology is also often used for training, to recreate real-life settings and simulate challenges that enable you to be in high-stress situations and respond to them in real-time, without being in any danger. This is useful for all types of jobs, such as Firefighter, Soldier, Travel Journalist, Surgeon and Construction Worker.

I’ve even seen VR be paired with electrical muscle stimulation to provide real resistance in a virtual setting, to give the feeling of lifting weighted objects.

This area of technology is always expanding and will probably create many more ‘wow’ moments throughout my career.

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

Something I’ve noticed since working in tech is how common it is for trends and fads to pull focus from the real problem that the technology is solving. Companies are quick to adopt trends without adequate thought as to why or what real benefit it will provide users, leading to products and services that don’t fit a real need. It’s easy to get caught up on buzzwords, lose sight of what the tech is there to do and forget to deeply explore the challenge before the solution. This is why a large portion of my work is researching the problem space, speaking to users and exploring multiple routes for the solution.

There are, however, many things I enjoy about working in the tech industry. I love that there is so much collaboration, creative thinking and experimentation with people across different departments, fostering the sharing and testing of ideas. Tech roles are usually perceived as very solitary and isolated, but in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The dynamic and evolving nature of the industry also means that there’s always a new area to explore, and projects are usually very diverse. Technologies are always developing and adapting to fit different use cases and have been proven to solve many ambiguous, complex challenges.

"Companies must find ways to actively attract and retain diverse teams. Having a large representation of people in a room together has proven to broaden perspectives, create more inclusive solutions and accelerate businesses as a result."

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

I have had so many brilliant and memorable experiences, but one of the best days in my career so far is probably the day I ran an immersive prototyping workshop with our internal teams. It was a day when everyone broke out of their corporate roles to unlock their inner child. We cracked out the play-doh, lego, cardboard boxes, fancy dress, pens and paper, as well as VR headsets and mobile devices. I prepared and ran this together with an Apprentice in the company, who was fairly new to these methods, and we had great fun brainstorming and preparing engaging activities.

During the workshop, we encouraged all sorts of crazy and innovative ideas, stripping back technological limitations to let imaginations run free. I learnt a lot from this day and realised how much you can achieve if you think with your hands and have fun with the process rather than getting bogged down in the details.

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

Here are a few bite-sized bits of advice I would give others interested in a tech career:

  • Find the thing you enjoy and do it! There are a million essential moving parts that enable the ‘technical stuff’ to happen, meaning there is a place in the industry for everyone.

  • The questions that seem simple, are often the ones that matter most and usually the ones people don’t have the answers to.

  • The limitations of technology should never hinder creativity or big-picture thinking.

  • The process of exploration, failing and learning, is usually more valuable than the end result.

  • People will speak in acronyms like it’s a universal language everyone else understands, so ask if there’s something you don’t know, you won't be the only one.

  • Real-world experiences will teach you more than you can ever learn in a classroom. It teaches you how to overcome unforeseen challenges, communicate with people, advocate for your decisions and be receptive to new or opposing ideas.


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