Thoughtworks ‘Make it Happen’ Event

Recently I attended an event hosted by Thoughtworks called Make it Happen, the same name as the global theme celebrating International Women’s Day 2015 and Women’s History Month.

It consisted of 8 lightening talks from women in the science and technology industry. There were some interesting thoughts which I wanted to summarise with my interpretations.

Sex, Murder, Rape & Apps – Rebecca Rae, Strategy and Insight Lead at Reason Digital

Reason Digital Logo

I have to admit, my intrigue for this talk was one of the main reasons I attended the event! Not at all metaphorical as I had imagined, Rebecca began to talk about Manchester’s red light district. Some statistics revealed that there are approximately 80000 sex workers in the UK, 50% of whom are at high risk of a violent crime such as assault, rape or murder. When these crimes are not reported to police, which is quite usual in this industry, sex workers in Manchester would instead contribute to the ‘dodgy punter’ board. This board resides in the MASH offices and is a place people can report incidents such as descriptions of dangerous clients. Reason Digital, a company that only works on projects that do good and help the vulnerable, thought there must be a better way to distribute this information: by using an app. To my surprise, most sex workers own and utilise smart phones for their day to day activities. Rebecca went on to say that there is not much information on this demographic because they are a private group within the society. Reason Digital needed to know the needs of their clients to provide an appropriate solution. Together with MASH, they went out onto the streets (as the sex workers weren’t inclined to visit the office) and talked to street workers and escorts and visited brothels and saunas. They found out that sex workers wanted a dark background for the app so light did not shine on them (to not draw attention on the street perhaps?). They also specified that the app must be able to be closed quickly so they can check it in between interacting with clients and incase they wanted to keep their occupation private from friends/family. The app was made to help keep users safe by reducing the risk of violent crimes. In doing so, this means less time and money is spent on police investigation, where a reported rape can cost around £100000. It was really interesting to hear about an app being used in an unconventional context. With so many apps and websites focussed on social networking, gaming and entertaining, it’s easy to forget that apps have the potential to impact on so much more.

Life As A Female IT Contractor – Clare Sudbery, Software Developer

Clare began her talk by saying she thought she was going tell us about her life as a female contractor, but that there wasn’t much to stress about her gender; instead she would talk about contracting in general. Not making this distinction is a great sign that things are moving forward for Women in Tech. She only made two points about being female. First that she was recently told there were only 4 female IT contractors in Manchester, though she suspects there must be many more (and I do to0!). Secondly, she doesn’t know if being a woman affects her getting contracts or not and is never sure if the little prejudice she received during her career was just in her head. She went on to ask for audience input into the pros and cons of contracting, but unfortunately couldn’t do the whole list this way due to time restrictions. She didn’t have time to explain all her points, so I’ve added my thoughts to her lists below:

 

Pros
  • Money: more money, less tax.
  • Flexibility / Freedom: i.e. it’s easier to stay off work if your child is ill because there aren’t procedures in place for this for permanent staff.
  • No performance reviews: some people don’t like reviews, but on the other hand they can be useful and help you improve
  • Variety: of projects, companies and locations.
  • Learning: talking to Clare after the event, she said the time when she learnt the least was when she stayed in the same job for 6 years.
  • Positive feedback: you get more positive feedback because you’re applying to more positions. For example, from sending out your CV, getting pitches from companies or agents who want you and from LinkedIn recommendations that she asks for when she leaves a company.
  • Holidays: you can choose when and for how long you want holidays.
  • Politics: you aren’t subject to company politics. For example, aiming for a promotion that managers imply you’ll receive but not getting it due to ‘politics’, cost or last minute changes.
  • Legacy systems: Clare said generally you don’t have to touch as much legacy code as permanent staff. I’m not sure I agree with this as it depends on context – they could bring you in as a contractor because you specialise in a language that an older system uses.
  • Employer comparison: you get to work at lots of different companies so you can see compare them in terms of work and culture. You can also see what it would be like to be permanent staff (including what benefits they get) incase you wanted to stop contracting. Working on different projects, perhaps with different programming languages and technologies, means you find out what it is you like doing the most.
  • Pay per skill: I’m not sure what Clare meant by this, but could it be that as a contractor you have certain skills that are proven with certifications (paid for by the contractor?) which contributes to a contractors higher pay?

Cons

  • No benefits: paid leave, paid sick days, pension contributions, trips/conferences that other employees attend. Think also if you’re off sick with a serious illness for 3 months that this would severally affect your budget for the year.
  • Job insecurity: you worry about getting sacked as you can be asked to leave at the drop of a hat. You have to think ahead and budget accordingly.
  • Your next contract: you can take holiday gaps between contracts (brilliant!) but never do for the fear of not getting another contract.
  • Paperwork: you have to do tax forms etc yourself or pay someone (like a contracting agent) to do it.
  • Isolation: you’re not usually seen as ‘one of the gang’ in work and have to make extra effort to fit in. Contracting can sometimes be lonely.
  • Efficiency: you are expected to hit the ground running, so you need to be confident in your skills and that you can pick things up quickly.

I’ve always worked with contractors but have never understood what it entails. Clare gave a really blunt and honest review of her experiences and was more than willing to answer questions after the event. I liked the fact that she started by saying what people were probably thinking – “yeah, I like money”!

A Lesson in Customer Service – Dominika Phillips-Blackburn, Senior Business Analyst at Cooperative Group

Dominika told a fascinating story about when providing good customer service improved a situation she found herself in. Briefly,Dominika's Pinterst Board "Chairs" she listed a chair for sale on eBay but accidentally offered free postage. Accepting her mistake, she knew that even with the large postage cost she would still make a small profit. However, the person who bought the chair lived in a very remote part of England where postage costs would cost more than the chair itself! The customer demanded that the chair be sent as specified in the listing so Dominika did her best to find a reasonable postage quote. After no success she hand wrote a sincere letter explaining the situation she had got herself into and asked if the buyer would come to some sort of compromise. Once the buyer understood the severity of the situation, they were more than willing to pick the chair up from a more easily reachable location. Through this transparent communication, the buyer has since bought 3 more chairs! Dominika expressed how important and useful good customer service can be and said if people can understand why something went wrong, they more more amenable to finding a resolution – something that is very applicable to a working environment.

Getting Out There – Kirsty Hunter, Developer at Swinton

Kirsty described the events, mostly technical, she has attended as part of her work and in her social life e.g. Microsoft Ignite (formally TechEd). It has helped her improve as a software developer both technically and by boosting her confidence through the relationships and friendships she has formed. She suggested meetup.com to discover event listings and to follow The Krewe on Twitter and Facebook, a network of people who made her feel welcome at a conference and she has kept in touch with. I felt that events really must improve personal development as people she met previously have encouraged her to give her first public talk, which was this one!

Design with Purpose – Katie Finney & Maria Mayor, Co-founders of Amity hcd

Having had experience running their own company, Katie and Maria have identified what makes a project successful for them. They found that staff were more engaged when they were solving a problem that really matters to people – that makes a difference to the client and the users. They are designing software with a purpose. To do this successfully:
  1. Alignment: the developers should understand the clients motivation so that everyone aligns on purpose.
  2. Decisions: in an ideal world, don’t make decisions based on budget or sales. From UCD (User Centred Design) always think about the user’s needs and what would improve their lives.
  3. People: work with people with the same motivations and values as yourself so you are all aiming for a product to be created for the same purpose.

Agile: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – Sarah Glanville, Scrum Master at Sky

it’s okay to stand still, just don’t stand still with your eyes shut

As Sarah recently became Scrum Master, it led her to reflect on aspects of projects she has worked on in the past.
  • The bad: when one team member is overpowering, dictatorial and controlling. Although strong, confident people are needed to lead teams, they must also listen and take other people’s opinions on board.
  • The ugly: when teams reach a state where they think everything is running perfectly. This doesn’t sound so bad, but it can mean that the team stops improving. As time goes by, what the team once thought was the best way to approach something might have developed or other techniques could have emerged and gone unnoticed. Sarah used the phrase “it’s okay to stand still, just don’t stand still with your eyes shut” which is a phrase I’ll remember!
  •  The good: when you have a team who all communicate effectively. She noted this is uncommon which is why we need Scrum Master’s in the first place!

Intersections & Collaborations – Florence Okoye, Mobile Consultant at National Grid

Florence told us that she has interests in a diverse range of subjects from technology and comics to history and religion. She explained how she combined these topics through her research, such as in her paper Does Africa Dream of Androids. Give her a Google as she has some great concepts and ideas.

#choicesTELfringe – a hackathon with a twist – Eva Barabas, Software Engineer at NHS Choices

Eva told us about the troubles she faced when a hackathon got postponed and people had already organised their travel etc. Read all about it in Eva’s Blog Post, as she can explain it much better than I! It was a great example of turning a negative into a positive – perhaps more of a positive than it otherwise would have been.


In Summary…

What was clear after hearing these women speak, was that we all want to work on something that matters, the makes a difference and that we care about. We come along to these events because we want to be part of something, learn and maybe contribute. Broadl, and rather soppily, everyone wants to love (what they work on) and be loved (for what they have created). It was also noticeable that very little related to being a female; instead it was about the job or the hobby. +1 for WiT!
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