Tech Career Development as a Mother & Career Switcher.

CFG Ambassador Sinéad shares how she grew her tech career as a career switcher and working mum.

11 min read

💻 Code First Girls Ambassador Sinéad Cummings, Senior Software Developer @ Opencast shares how moving to her current organisation allowed her to progress professionally and technically through expanding her technical skills and knowledge of agile, as well as how she made the most of her mentorship and software delivery community at Opencast to advance in her career.

As a mother and career switcher (originally from Biotech), Sinéad also shares how coaching allowed her to overcome initial struggles with confidence after being promoted to a more senior developer role. Sinéad also shares her best tips on balancing leadership and technical proficiencies at work, and how to stay motivated to grow professionally in software engineering.

To read more about Sinéad’s journey, feel free to connect with her on Linkedin!

THE HOT SIX QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS!

  • Favourite coding language? (if you have one!)
    • Java
  • What is your choice of beverage for coding
    • Coffee, I’m lucky to have a really great coffee machine at the office
  • What is your favourite way to destress after a long day of coding?
    • I’m currently replaying Crash Bandicoot 2 for the millionth time as a nice way to destress, but also love a good veg on the sofa in front of old episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
  • What is your comfort food?
    • Mac and cheese! Every time. Not a fan of a breadcrumb crust though, the gooier the better!
  • Are you most productive in the morning or evening/night?
    • Evening/night, which works less well these days now I have a 4-year-old to contend with
  • What do you listen to whilst you code and where? Spotify, radio, vinyl or fave CD? 
    • Spotify – either lofi playlists or albums I’ve listened to 1000 times
blog-graphic-tech-career-development-ambassador-stories-sinéad-quick-fire-questions

👋 Hi Sinéad, thank you for taking part in this spotlight! Please give a brief intro about who you are, your tech experience, what you do professionally, and why you want to become a CFG Ambassador.

I’m a Senior Software Developer at Opencast. I’ve been a developer for 7 years, after switching from a career in Biotech to Software Development.

While working as a Research Scientist, I got the opportunity to take part in a big automation project. This was my first introduction to programming and I absolutely loved it. I was recently married and had no children, so it felt like a good time to take a risk and see if I could make programming my career. I chose a formal education route and left work to complete the Computer Science MSc at Newcastle University, a one-year conversion degree, graduating in 2017.

I specialise in back-end development, working predominantly in Java. My career began in a graduate programme, progressing to a Senior in 5 years. My current role is as a project Technical Lead. In this role, I am responsible for driving quality, delivery, and collaboration in my team. I am often asked to help diagnose bugs, prioritise work, present to stakeholders and ensure the team stays on track for a sprint; all while delivering my own development tickets.

I learned about Code First Girls through a colleague and took part in one of their MOOCs to upskill myself in Docker. CFG is an organisation that aligns really closely with my personal values and my desire to increase diversity in tech roles, so I felt incredibly proud to be selected to represent CFG as an Ambassador for 2024.

“As someone with limited time to learn new things, I try to complete quick coding katas in a new programming language when I have a spare half hour, using tools like Code Wars. It may seem small, but it’s still learning!” 

🚀 Can you describe a pivotal moment or project in your Software Development career that helped propel you to a senior position?

Moving to a new organisation at the start of 2022 was the real turning point for my progression. There was no clear progression process at my previous company and I struggled to identify how to progress both professionally and technically. Moving to a new role allowed me the opportunity to diversify my tech stack, expand my knowledge of agile, and develop my skills in techniques such as Test Driven Development. After being with my current organisation for 9 months, I had the opportunity to apply for progression and was subsequently promoted to Senior.

🤔 Can you share any other elements that allowed you to advance your career in tech? (e.g. networking, mentorship, etc.)

There were several factors that helped me advance to senior, including mentorship, being part of a community that had a big focus on learning, making great connections, working with like-minded people and taking part in coaching.

I identified a mentor early on in my time at Opencast, and their guidance was invaluable in my journey to senior, and then to tech lead. We would meet every couple of weeks and discuss various aspects of the role of a developer, such as challenges on my project and how to tackle them, how to give feedback, and how to prioritise my goals.

The software delivery community at Opencast has a big focus on learning. As consultants, we can be moved onto projects that use unfamiliar tech stacks, so it’s important that we are able to reach out for support when we need it. It’s respectful of inexperience, and asking questions is encouraged. Having this community around me provided a safe environment to make mistakes and learn from them, an invaluable aspect of career growth.

⚖️ How do you balance technical proficiency with leadership and mentorship responsibilities in your senior position?

It’s tough!! The more senior you become, the further away from the code you can often feel. Within my current project, I often seek out opportunities to pair program with people both inside and outside my scrum team. This helps me keep a hand in the code, while still fulfilling my responsibilities for driving quality, collaboration and learning.  

I try to set aside designated focus time and block it out in my diary to ensure it stays meeting-free (it’s not always possible, but I try my best!). I found changing my work patterns helped me manage my changing workload. As someone who works from the office most days, I found adding a home working day reduced disruption and gave me more time for deep work. As someone with limited time to learn new things, I try to complete quick coding katas in a new programming language when I have a spare half hour, using tools like Code Wars. It may seem small, but it’s still learning!

“Not all phases of life will leave the same energy for learning and growth. The tech industry is fast moving and there is always something new to learn, but it’s impossible to learn it all, so I enjoy learning when I have the time and am kind to myself when I don’t.”

⭐ How do you advocate for yourself and others in terms of career advancement and recognition within your organisation?

Last year I really struggled to pinpoint my achievements, so I have worked on keeping a “brag document”. Essentially this is a diary of any achievements I think will be valuable when seeking recognition during progression and end-of-year reviews. These can be big things, like hosting an event, to small things like receiving a “well done” from a senior colleague.

When it comes to others’ progression I ensure I give feedback when requested, including things they can work on to improve. I praise publicly and give constructive feedback privately. I give feedback to leadership on progression processes and ensure I consider accessibility and equity when I provide this feedback. What has worked for me may not work for others, and it’s important that everyone has equal opportunity to progress. I seek out opportunities to use my privilege as a senior developer to upskill and elevate those around me. My experience is a privilege and it’s important I give back to my community!

⛰️ Have you faced any specific challenges or opportunities as a woman in a leadership position within the tech industry? How did you navigate them?

After being promoted, I struggled with confidence and often believed that I wasn’t “technical enough” to be a good senior developer. This is something I’ve heard other women in technical roles speak about, especially if they are career switchers like I am. I often work with people who have decades more experience than me or started their tech journey at a much younger age. This used to leave me feeling inadequate or as though I would never catch up. When I became a Mum, I felt this even more intensely, as I didn’t have as much free time to explore technical growth opportunities outside of work time.

In 2023, I was given the opportunity to receive coaching from one of the Opencast’s People leadership teams. After an initial conversation, we focused on my lack of confidence as a target for my coaching, and over 7 months, we were able to significantly improve how I viewed myself and my technical contributions. The work we did has helped me both inside and outside of work. It has supported me in taking on, and thriving in, a leadership role. It gave me the confidence to speak at a prestigious tech conference, and has also built my confidence as a Mum.

“(Coaching) has supported me in taking on, and thriving in, a leadership role, gave me the confidence to speak at a prestigious tech conference, and has also built my confidence as a Mum.”

💪 How do you stay motivated and continue to grow professionally in the ever-evolving field of software engineering?

I find myself struggling with self-motivation more since becoming a Mum as, between work and parenting, I often have little energy left for learning new technical skills. Something I have found equally important is understanding that not all phases of life will leave the same energy for learning and growth. The tech industry is fast moving and there is always something new to learn, but it’s impossible to learn it all, so I enjoy learning when I have the time and am kind to myself when I don’t.

However, one of the ways I have found I can continue to pursue my own growth is by taking part in scheduled learning, like CFG Kickstarter Classes and MOOCs. Accountability is a great motivator, so if I am interested in learning something new but don’t know where to start, joining a structured course with live teaching really helps reduce some of that cognitive load.

💡 What advice would you give to other women and non-binary individuals who are considering a tech career, or are aiming for senior tech roles?

When starting your journey into tech, it’s important not to spread yourself too thin in an attempt to learn it all at once. Pick a single language, like Python or Javascript, as these have a lot of free online learning materials, and use this to learn the fundamentals of programming. Don’t just watch videos, challenge yourself to build a small project. Doing is always the best way to learn. 

If you’re looking to progress within your tech career, reach out for guidance from the seniors around you. Seek feedback, but think carefully about who you are requesting your feedback from. Build relationships with kind, knowledgeable people who understand you’re looking to learn and grow; ask for honest and constructive feedback from those people. You don’t want to limit your feedback to “friends only” as that won’t help you grow, but you also don’t have to get feedback from people who are likely to be unconstructive or are known to deliver feedback badly.

Thank you to Sinéad for sharing her insights on career development in tech!

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Looking to upskill or learn about a new area of tech? Check out CFG MOOCs and Coding Kickstarter Classes!