Why Pay It Forward

Because I did not do it all on my own.

Speaking at Code First: Girls Sheffield

Over the past two years I have been involved in outreach/mentoring programs and events which focused on getting more people interested in careers in technology. As a passionate techie, I want everyone to be encouraged to join in, specifically women and ethnic minorities, as I am a representative of both and there are still far too few of us in this field.

Friends have asked me why am I spending most of my free time constantly speaking, writing, networking and for what? To potentially help people enter my industry, who may prove to be better techies than me and eventually compete with me for jobs. (Honestly: what a terrible way to look at it!)

I often reply: “Don’t you remember the person who helped you?”

Because I do.

There are no words to express the extent of my appreciation of the people who believed in me, took risks and went out of their way to give me a helping hand.

One of those was Herr Markus Erkenbrecher, an IT big shot (at least to me!) in Migros, the largest retailer in Switzerland.

I sent a CV off to the company not knowing if there was even a job available. That CV was one of over 80, which I sent out to different companies in the span of two weeks.

Honestly, I was 17 and desperate. I had strong logical thinking and problem solving skills, but my German was not perfect and my French was appalling. Unfortunately they were all required skills if you wanted to get ahead in any technical vocation in Switzerland. University closed its doors on me, I saw no way forward to move into tech and my career counselor was suggesting I go into hairdressing instead!

Thankfully my CV landed on Markus’ desk. He somehow saw through my poorly written German, his curiousity piqued by my potential. I remember getting a letter detailing their IT apprenticeship program and inviting me to take some tests. It was like finding the golden ticket.

I remember sitting in the waiting room (the only girl) with other applicants, brimming with excitement. I am not usually excited about tests, but what I had was a chance to prove myself. I was unphased.

And I did.

Months later Markus told me that although my language tests were subpar, the result of my logic tests stood leagues above the rest. This was still enough for me to miss out on this apprenticeship.

The next round of the application process was to work in the company for one week. Along with the other applicants who made it through, I learned about the company, its systems and its values. As I did so, the company was learning about us, judging our suitability.

During that week employees met me with thinly veiled bemusement. I could see it in their eyes that they did not believe I would get the job. After all, how can a brown girl, who spoke broken German, fit within a giant of a company, a gatekeeper of Swiss history and tradition. The employees knew it and the other applicants knew it too. The latter did not hide their opinions on that matter.

At the end of the week, I was invited to a formal interview. And in that interview you can bet I tried my damnedest to convey to the panel how much I wanted this job, how hard I would be willing to work (take language classes at night school, no problem!) and how I would not let them down, if they just gave me a chance.

After my impassioned speech, I remember Markus leaning forward and saying: “You are a risk. But I am going to gamble on you.”

And he did.

The risk was not imagined. All through the three year apprenticeship his reputation was influenced by that decision and my resulting performance. People questioned why he had hired me and why he had given one of the two valuable spots of the company’s IT apprenticeship program to a brown girl, who should be learning to cut hair.

I’m not a mean mentor — I promise!

14 years ago I passed my IT Apprenticeship with flying colours. The doubters became believers. And the doors to my future career swung open.

I have not (yet) needed to use French in my current career as a Software Development Team Leader, but I constantly apply what I have learned from the pages of Markus’ book.

Take a risk, pay it forward and change lives.