You Don’t Have to Be a Techie to Work in Tech

I ’d describe myself as a calculated risk-taker, and I certainly didn’t set out to be a trailblazer. But I did clear quite a few hurdles on my path to pursuing my passion for safety and security.

For example, if you’d asked me when I was 8 if I would grow up to be an air force pilot, I would have said, “Girls can’t do that.”

But I joined the Royal Air Force before they allowed women to be pilots, trained hard when they changed the rules, and in 1996 became our first female Chinook helicopter pilot — and later, instructor.

And if you’d asked when I was in school if I would work on the British railway, I would have said, “No way.”

But late and canceled trains constantly kept me from my family, so I joined Network Rail to help people get where they’re going on time and accident free.

And if you’d asked if I would end up in tech, I’d be like, “How? How is that going to happen?”

Though I wasn’t hankering after a career in tech — it’s not like I am technological at heart — I do care about keeping people safe. And I care about working in a culture where you’re judged on your merit.

But here I am, three years on at Symantec, where I pilot sales operations for North and Emerging Regions, EMEA. We protect people and their information so they can go online safely and securely. That strikes a chord with me.

While the military, railway and Symantec carry out different missions, they each focus on safety and security. And each runs like any organization, with people, systems and processes. If the organization has a purpose that fits you, and you can wrap your head around how it works, it won’t matter what industry you’re in. You’ll see your skills are transferrable.

Choosing a career is about understanding your skills, how you tick and finding a company that shares your values.

You don’t have to love aircraft to be a pilot or trains to work on the railway. You don’t have to be a techie to work in tech.

As I tell myself when confronting challenges, “Give it a go. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Pioneering Pilot

Qualifying at age 25 as the first female Chinook pilot was awesome. I didn’t expect or set out to be a pioneer, but I am proud of that achievement.

My military career began when the RAF sponsored me at university as a flight controller. Women couldn’t be air crew so this was the next best thing. Still, they offered me the chance to learn to fly with the university air squadron.

While I was there, the government changed its policy to allow female pilots. I was enjoying my flying and applied for air crew selection.

“Why not,” I thought. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Training grew more rigorous and competitive. Of the three aircraft types on offer, fast jet, multi-engine (tankers or freight) and helicopters, I was selected to fly helicopters.

Once I started, I found I had a knack for it. I gained confidence. I finished top in my class. My peers began taking me seriously as a pilot and a lot of the stigma disappeared.

You don’t have to love aircraft to be a pilot or trains to work on the railway. You don’t have to be a techie to work in tech.

Though I wasn’t thinking about the positive impact of my success on women, I did feel that when we did well, it vindicated us — that as a gender, we can show we’re more than capable when given the opportunity.

Although the Air Force appeared progressive in its attitude toward women, many senior officers would tell me, “You’ll end up marrying someone and then you’ll leave, and we’ll have spent all this money on your training.”

I’m pleased to say those people retired, and with them, those ideas did, too.

Now if you’re capable, you’re capable regardless of your gender.

Making the Trains Run on Time

I served 13 years in the RAF. I received a medal for my role in the second Gulf War after 9/11. Stationed at air operations headquarters in the UK, I coordinated with intelligence, logistics, engineering and planning to make sure we brought back people and aircraft safely from Kuwait.

By then I’d met my future husband, who wasn’t in the military. He led a distribution company in Europe and traveled a lot. We wanted a family, but my military duties would require me often to be away on operations. I decided the time was right to leave.

I joined a consulting company and was there four years. I got married and we had a child. But once I went back to work, my client was a long way from home and the nursery. I was commuting by train, and in one week, the train ran late three days and was canceled another. When I asked my company for a client closer to home, they said, “Go find one.”

I was disappointed by the lack of support.

“I’m going to go work out how to fix the railway,” I said.

That’s when I joined Network Rail, which runs the UK railway infrastructure such as the tracks, signals, tunnels, bridges, crossings and stations. It was a big task. Significant investment was coming to try to boost the economy during the recession. They based me closer to home at my request. I became customer account manager for train and freight operators while a nearly $10 billion (£7 billion), congestion-relieving construction project was underway.
 Though the culture at Network Rail was becoming more diverse and inclusive, there were still a few dinosaurs about who were quite feisty.

Early on, I was in a meeting where we were talking about getting something done. I was the only woman there and I made a suggestion in my area of expertise regarding sequencing tasks and working with a key external stakeholder. One of the men got really cross and swore at me; he felt I was trying to tell him his job, which I wasn’t. In the end, we went with my suggestion and it worked.

This wasn’t so much a battle of the sexes, more a lack of appreciation and frustration at how external factors can affect a project plan. But it does raise the question: Do you have a place at the table? Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, applies to this particular scenario.

I put into practice lessons from that book, especially how to handle meetings.

One: Don’t go to meetings if you’ve got nothing to say or nothing to add, otherwise it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

Two: Make sure the people in a meeting have a seat at that table, no second row behind. It’s a really inclusive lesson: It doesn’t matter who you are, or what rank you are, or what position you hold in the business. If you’re there, you’re there for a reason and you have a right to be included.

Next time you’re at a meeting, check — is everyone sitting at the table? If not, squeeze everyone in. Give it a go. What’s the worst that could happen?

Joining the Tech World

A friend of mine had made the move to tech and when we chatted over coffee, we realized that what we did was so similar, even though our markets were really different. He introduced me to Symantec.

Symantec offered me an opportunity to get into IT with a good-paying job near home, with minimal travel and the flexibility to work from home when necessary.

Impressed by Symantec’s purpose, the role offered and the prospects for an improved work-life balance, I asked friends and family what they thought.

They told me, “You’ve got to give it a go. What’s the worst that could happen?”

I accepted.

The people here are amazing. They expect you to be here for a reason. They want to hear your voice. I also like the ability to reach out to people who might seem a million miles away in terms of their seniority but who always leave their doors open.

I can be myself, too. I feel trusted and safe to express my views even if they’re not widely held.

Though I wasn’t hankering after a career in tech — it’s not like I am technological at heart — I do care about keeping people safe. And I care about working in a culture where you’re judged on your merit.

I also like the fast pace of tech. I feel like I’m in the slipstream.

Making Your Career Choice

I ’ve had quite a diverse career. I don’t feel daunted by that. I’ve got a valuable set of skills.

You can make your skills work for you nearly anyplace. Look to see if particular industries, or particular companies within industries, have a similar ethos as you.

Don’t worry about whether you come from a tech background. Don’t worry that your skills are not transferrable, market to market or organization to organization, they absolutely are.

No, I didn’t set out to be a trailblazer. But by following my passion I not only prospered at work in traditionally male-dominated fields, I achieved a precious work-life balance.

You can, too, if you follow your passion.

Give it a go. What’s the worst that could happen?

Illustrations credit: Cal Tabuena-Frolli