My Career Pivot: From Retail to Engineering
As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day this week, we’re profiling female-identifying engineers across Skyscanner’s business. Here, Louise Reid tells us how she took the leap from retail to software engineering, what her day to day looks like, her advice for anyone looking to career change, and how the perception of engineering being male-dominated is changing.
Louise, you didn’t set out to be an engineer — what was the path that took you from retail to where you are now?
I didn’t: I have a honours degree in Business and Management. Honestly, going through school, the concept of working as a software developer was so far off my radar. During my degree I worked in hospitality and really enjoyed it, so for a while saw myself working in hospitality management in some shape or form.
After uni I travelled in Australia for a bit and then went back to my role in retail with a large well-known shoe retailer, before moving to head office there and working in system-support for the stores. At 29 I found myself in a job that didn’t excite me and wasn’t really going anywhere. I was really good at my job, but there wasn’t a huge amount much transferable knowledge I could take from it into other roles, as a lot of it was in house-built systems. I was also at the level that any progression was reliant on someone above me leaving or the company expanding in some way. It wasn’t until I started working with developers there that I started to think of software engineering as a path I could take too.
I dipped my toe in the water a little, doing some free online courses with Code Academy, which I really enjoyed. I was then pointed in the direction of CodeClan by my line manager and introduced to their 16 week software development bootcamp. After completing the course I still had a sense of “I don’t know what I want to do” and whilst I got offered a few development roles, none of them really excited me. I ended up staying at CodeClan as a classroom assistant, working up to instructor for just short of two years. In that time I realised my passion was in front end development — having a better idea then of where my interest lay, I took the dive into the industry and after a couple of years finding my feet I ended up joining Skyscanner. My previous roles gave me a good understanding of what sort of environment I was looking for, and something that was really important to me was collaboration. There’s a misconception that software developers sit with their headphones on all the time and don’t talk to each other but that’s not the case. I’d read some blog pieces of what it was like to work for Skyscanner and all of them talked of the great culture. Something else that drew me to the company was their recent partnership with CodeClan. I liked that they were investing the time to help career changers into the industry.
What does your day to day involve now?
Now, I’m a software engineer within Shuttle Squad, working within Search Experience. A typically day might include a morning check in with the team (where we’ll also share our wordle scores that day), then either picking up on work in progress from the previous day or looking at the board for a new ticket. We’ll generally discuss recently completed/blocked/in progress tickets with the whole team at the morning stand up, and the rest of the day is spent in a continuation of sprint work (whether that alone, paired or mobbing). I might also try and catch up on recordings of knowledge sharing sessions that interest me.
The end of the day typically ends with another quick social catch up for anyone who want to take part — a really nice way of bedding into a team and getting to know people, especially in a hybrid working environment.
What stereotype about engineers do you think needs busted?
I think software developers have in the past had a reputation of people who put their headphones on and sit away in a corner not talking to anyone. That’s definitely not true: we do so much collaborative work. The industry moves so fast that you can never stop being open to learn new things or ways of working. And working with others, both junior and senior, helps you do that.
Were there any preconceptions about what you do now that held you back from going in?
Yes — definitely at school this area was seen as for boys’. I think my Higher computing class at school had five or six people in it, and they were all male. I think also at school when you’re trying so hard to be accepted you want to do what the “cool” kids are doing, and computer science wasn’t that. Looking back that is such a warped sense of view, and if I’m a geek now, so be it!
What advice would you give your younger self, or others considering a career change?
You’re never too old to change your career. While working at CodeClan I taught people who were career changers in their 50s. Also, what you pick as your subjects at school are likely to have no impact on what you do as an adult. I can remember thinking when I was 15/16 that the subjects I was picking were going to be so important to how my life was going to shape out. I can safely say they were definitely not. My advice would be pick the subjects you enjoy and are good at, the rest will work itself out.
Engineering is still an industry dominated by men. Is that changing?
It’s still dominated by men, yes, but it’s changing: programmes like CodeClan and Code First Girls, both of who we partner at at Skyscanner, are helping change that though. In my team we have three female developers out of 11 which still seems like a massive difference but when you compare it to the zero females in the Higher computer science class at my year at school it’s a big improvement. Any form of diversity can only be good for teams: different perspectives and ways of thinking will only make engineering teams stronger.
Can you see yourself pivotting again and changing careers in the future? If so, why, and what would you do?
Yes, it’s definitely something I’d consider again. Potentially into engineering management or even into a product-based role. It feels like that is a natural progression path of developers after they have been writing code for x amount of years, and I’m always open to learning and growing in whatever way I can.