GDS Podcast #37: How to break into a career in tech
The Government Digital Service (GDS) talks how to start a career in tech. According to a Tech Nation Talent report, young people could be wrongly counting themselves out of a fulfilling career because they’re worried about things like their skills background, where they came from or their lack of “network”.
We asked 3 of our developers to respond to the report’s findings, and hopefully put some of those myths and misconceptions to bed.
The transcript of the episode follows:
Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast, and our last episode of 2021. Today, we’re going to be talking about careers in tech. Now chances are, if you’re a regular listener, you’re probably already working in a digital, data or technology role. Maybe in government. Maybe in the public sector. Maybe somewhere else entirely.
But hopefully you’re aware of, and are sort of bought into, the long-term career opportunities, flexibility, creativity and satisfaction that a job in tech can bring. But unfortunately, according to a Tech Nation Talent report - that’s not the case for everyone. They surveyed a thousand 15 to 21-year-olds and tuned into almost 80,000 Reddit conversations to understand what young people in the UK thought about a career in tech.
In that research, 32% of men and 45% of women worried they didn’t have the right skills to pursue a tech career. And 24% of women and 21% of men said that tech careers weren’t for - and I quote - “people like them”. People in the UK feel that there are barriers standing in the way of them getting into tech. And they’re potentially counting themselves out of a great career as a result. Which is bad news for them, and bad news for all of us too.
Because diverse teams are better. Teams that reflect the society they serve are more effective. And teams where you can bring your whole self to work are - frankly - happier teams to be a part of. And that’s what we’re trying to build here at the Government Digital Service.
So we decided to dedicate this episode to anyone who is thinking about starting a career in tech - whether they’re 22 or 62 - but who’s maybe been put off by a little voice (or a loud one) telling them they shouldn’t or can’t.
Joining us now are senior developers Rosa Fox, Iqbal Ahmed and Kelvin Gan. They’re going to reflect on what the research found and hopefully, put some of those fears to bed. So Kelvin, Iqbal, Rosa - over to you.
Hi to everyone I'm Iqbal and I'm a senior frontend developer at GDS, which is at the Government Digital Service and joining me today, we have Kelvin and Rosa, who are both senior developers as well. We're here today to chat about some common misconceptions about pursuing a career in tech. I've just been handed a list of things that people, particularly younger people, seem to think about tech careers, and I'm excited to find out what the three of us think about these sort of myths or preconceptions that people have.
So the first one we have is “I don't have the skills to work in technology”. So Rosa, what do you think about this common preconception?
Well, firstly, I think that there are many different jobs underneath the umbrella of technology. So it's not just coding skills. So at GDS, we have jobs such as being a developer, where you do do coding. But we also have designers, project managers, delivery managers, performance analysts, content designers. So, those jobs all require lots of different skills, and you probably already have a lot of those skills. So it could be things like breaking down problems, communicating, being creative, helping other people. And so I'd say you probably already have a lot of the skills. And if you feel like there are some skills that you don't have yet - yet being the keyword - then there's always options to learn.
What do you think Kelvin?
Totally 100%, I agree with that. I think as well the main thing with a lot of people is that learning on the job as well is a big thing for us, like we have apprenticeship schemes, so you can join us as an apprentice. We put you through a bootcamp as well. So Makers Academy is a London-based bootcamp. And you spend, I can't remember how many weeks, 12 weeks or something like that with them and you get taught on the job and you’re mentored by us as well. We've got a mentorship scheme within.
You’re not expected to know everything on day one. I mean, even I as a senior developer, like I've ok doing this for over a decade and every day I'm learning something new, like it's totally OK to turn up and go like, I need help. I need to learn this. And I also know people who switch careers later on in life, so they want to learn coding. They just do it, you know, you can teach yourself as well. A lot of people we've been working with have taught themselves. Yeah, I don't think you need to worry too much about it.
Yeah, yeah, I totally agree. I'd say probably one of the big things I would say is like, just try different things out and just see what you enjoy. And I think like, you know, if you do enjoy it, then just get stuck in and just try and learn what you can then. Definitely, as Kelvin was saying, yeah, once that you get into the job and you get stuck in and you kind of get a real feel for it and just the learning, you’ll just learn really quickly, just pick things up really quickly. So, yeah, thank you for that.
So onto the next one. A common myth is “I don't know anything about tech. I’ll never be able to get a job”. So Kelvin, what do you think about that?
I-I don't think people nowadays really know nothing about tech because we're using tech every day quite honestly, like you've got a phone; you’re using tech you're on, I don't know, whatever social media of the day is, whether it's TikTok or something else. You know you are interfacing. Sorry, interfacing is such an icky word [laughs]. But anyway. [laughs]. You are using tech every day. You just don't really know it. And if you are in- if you enjoy using tech, that actually is the spark. That's the beginnings of it, you know. And more than anything, it's really about curiosity, like you’re using tech and you kind of thinking: ‘how does this work?’ But the other side of it is: ‘how do people use tech?’ ‘How do people benefit from using tech?. And actually that’s like product thinking, for example, like, how can we–or design thinking you know; how can we deliver services to people that are useful? Will make things better for their lives? That kind of stuff, it’s not just about learning the ins and outs of the technical aspects of how things work.
What do you think Rosa?
Yeah, I completely agree with that. I think yeah, you mentioned like phones and social media and technology. And technology just powers so many things; like the way that we consume music and videos, banking, gaming medicine, the energy industry. I read the other day that apparently there's a 100 million lines of code in a new car. So there's probably so many ways that you're using tech without even realising it. So I think whatever your interest is, there's probably a way that it intersects with technology somehow. So that could be quite a fun way to get started.
Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I think I've worked with colleagues that have done, had a degree in fine art. Someone else had a degree in history. You just get like so many people just coming into so many ways to get in. And the team was saying earlier, like apprenticeships and we’ve got these Fast Stream sort of opportunities as well. There is loads and lots of ways to get in there. So yeah, yeah, yeah, tech is everywhere.
So, yeah, so next one we have is that we have to do lots of unpaid internships or work experience in order to get tech jobs. So what do you think about that, Rosa?
Well firstly I think you should never have to do unpaid work, and I think it's, you know, it doesn't create a very good balance in society for people to have to do unpaid jobs because obviously you need a certain safety net to be able to do that in the first place. So if that's not an option for you, then I'd say, don't let that stop you and don't give up. You know, you might be able to find apprenticeships or junior positions or ways that you can learn on the job. I'd also say there's a lot of things that you can do to kind of teach yourself - you could go to maybe technology events. There are lots of free meet-ups that you could go to. There's loads of resources online that you can learn from.
And also kind of maybe looking for someone that can give you a bit more advice about tech careers, even like messaging people on LinkedIn or social media and asking them some questions because often people are quite you know, flattered to answer questions about themselves, and about working in tech. So you know, they might know of some openings for you know, for ways that you can learn skills, hopefully whilst you're still getting paid as well.
Kelvin, what do you think?
Yeah, I totally agree about not doing, not even having, hosting unpaid internships because that's just exclusionary, and it's not really what we're about here at GDS. But again, you know, hammering home the thing about apprenticeships, they’re a perfect way of getting started, and we're really behind it at the moment. We've got new apprentices starting just early next week, in fact. And I know a bunch of them from years gone past have gone on to graduate into junior roles and have also been promoted into mid-level roles. And they're just great and they really enjoy it as well. And then others have gone on to work somewhere else you know. We put that investment in because we want to put back into society as well as, you know, getting good people through the door to come and work with us.
And again yeah, like Rosa was saying, there’s loads of meet-ups. A load of people will turn up and also coach you, Rosa and I have done that in the past as well. I think Rosa you're still doing that right? I haven't been doing it as much during the pandemic, but yeah, go along to, like loads of free resources, online meet-ups. Great thing about the meet-ups is that you get to meet people who are in the profession and so you can ask them questions straight off, like face to face or online. They also host like, I was going to say Slack channels for people to ask questions. And I also saw a meme today, a tweet today where someone’s son asked them when they saw them using Slack: “oh what’s that? Is that Discord for boomers?”. And that really hurt [laughs]. So in case you don’t know what Slack is. It's kind of like Discord.
I will add as well as going to community things, a thing that can maybe help you with finding work is to build a portfolio up. So, you know, a portfolio sounds quite a fancy word, but it could be like, you know, a short blog post or building small projects. They don't have to be anything complicated, just any small thing that you can learn, even doing a tutorial. If you put that up online and show people that you're actively interested in learning then people will probably be interested in giving you feedback and maybe even a job.
Yeah, yeah, I totally agree with that. Like, GitHub is really good; a good place to post code and things like that. And if you show like an active GitHub profile; so you know, even just any tutorials or things like that, it’s a really good place to kind of put those up there and just show your kind of keenness and passion for coding and learning and things like that. So. Cool. Yeah, thanks for that.
And the next one we have is that: “it's not for people like me”. So like the tech career or something, might not be for you know, certain people. So Kelvin, what do you think about that?
I would 100% disagree with that. I think the, for us, the key thing for me, anyway, when I'm working with someone is whether they think about who they're working for. Not the sense of not who your employer is, but who your end user is. Like, that's the way, that's the kind of person I like working with. And that's the kind of people we get in. We come here to do the work for, to help people really at the end of the day. And if you've got that kind of philosophy and attitude, then I don't really care what your background is, where you live, where you come from, whether or, what your first language is, what your favourite food is, all that kind of stuff. Like whether you went and got a university degree. Nah you know, if you come in and work with me and what you care about is what we're delivering for the user, then that's it. And that, you know, you like tech. Enough.
Yeah, agree as well. I think kind of like we mentioned earlier, technology is absolutely everywhere now, and it has so much impact and influence on society. And you know, if you use technology, then you should be able to influence how it's built. And we want a diverse range of voices and people working on the products because, as Kelvin mentioned, the products are used by a diverse range of users. So, you know, more perspectives, more different types of skills and more different types of talents, that's going to create a more diverse team and that's going to make much better products. So, yeah. No, you've always, you're always going to have things to bring to the table and things that might be different about you are probably things that could be really, really useful for the team and you should always you know, be proud of your differences because they make you who you are.
Yeah. Go for it Kelvin.
Sorry. And one thing I was going to add to that is like, we, you know, I personally like to advocate for people to bring their whole selves, bringing in that difference, it’s exactly as you were saying there as well, Rosa. Sorry, Iqbal go on.
Yeah. Yeah. No. And I was gonna say that at GDS you can see people are keen to kind of spread opportunities to, you know, just try and go out there and try and interact with other of communities and people from different, diverse or backgrounds. And I think GDS is quite keen to get people from different viewpoints and things like that. And that's something, yeah, I think we're very keen to get people in. And yeah, and I'm very proud to sort of work at GDS, because the services we provide, there's no alternative. So you're applying for your driving licence or something like that or paying for some sort of government service, you can't just go to a different website and you know, buy that thing. It has to–we need to make sure what we have is available to everyone. So, yeah,yeah, so that's something that's really great about working at GDS. But yeah, cool cool. Thanks for that everyone.
And the next one we have is: “there aren't many tech jobs around or near me. So that could be a myth some people are using to potentially hold them back.
Cool, Kelvin, any thoughts on this?
I think for us in particular, at GDS, we support remote working and we're very flexible as well. And like in terms of having to go to an office like we have our three main hubs at different corners of the country. So we've got London as our base. We've also got Manchester and Bristol and so those other parts of the country, you know, we've got these hubs for people to get together and meet and work together anyway. So hopefully it'll be a bit closer to you. Yeah, you know.
It also gives you an opportunity sometimes if you want to go and move somewhere else in the country and work somewhere for a bit, and then you can jump any, like tech jobs are everywhere in the world. So I think that's pretty cool as well about the industry.
Yeah, and also another thing is I think, like Rosa was saying earlier, tech isn’t just Developers and people like that. I mean, there's loads of other opportunities like Product Managers, User Researchers, Content Writers, Delivery Managers. There's so many things. It’s always changing and evolving all the time as well so. Yeah, there could be more jobs out there, it’s just maybe widening the fields and thinking about other things that you might be interested in.
Cool. So the next one we have is: “I don't know anyone who works in tech and don't know where to start”. So, Kelvin, any ideas about this?
Yeah. So it goes back to finding the meet-ups and networks; you know, like they can be quite varied and niche in themselves as well. So say, for example, you might be someone who has a Raspberry Pi through school or you got given one or whatever. And a lot of meet-ups around the country are centred around that. People who have those want to get together and talk about how they play with theirs or do stuff with theirs, you know. And that's a good in. That's how you can get to know people.
Cool. Nice. Rosa, any thoughts on this?
I guess I'd add to that to say using social networks can be quite good as well. I know that social media isn't for everyone, but for example, on Twitter, when I first started working in tech because, like I said, I didn't know anyone that really worked in tech, I just followed lots, lots of people, and I barely really post on there. But I do still go on there and read sometimes. So that’s quite a good way to learn about things, learn about conferences or events that were happening, watching, reading their blogs, reading reports that they posted. I know that there are a lot more kind of Instagram tech bloggers now that are really interesting and also people on YouTube. So there's a lot of, you know, there's a lot of people that are posting about tech online and lots of great people to learn from. So, yeah, that would be my advice.
Cool, yeah, I was actually helping out some network and some group of coders, and they asked if I would mind just providing some mentoring and I really enjoyed it- it was really nice, just like people would just book a calendar invite with me and we just did it online. And it was just 1 on 1, some people were brand new and didn't know much and asked me some questions. And yeah, I really enjoyed it. Really liked sort of chatting to the people. So what you'd be surprised that there would be people out there if you did reach out to them that they’d be more than happy to spend some time with you and help things out. And I do actually know a few graduates actually that reached out to people on LinkedIn. And surprisingly, they got quite a few responses back and a lot of help. So I'd say LinkedIn is really good as well so if you do see anyone, just try and sort of send out a few messages - you just never know.
Cool and now we are onto the final one, which is: “it's no fun to work in tech”. So Rosa, what do you think about that?
I think working in tech is really good. I mean, it's a job where, you know, you get to build things that potentially I mean, on GOV.UK, millions of people use our products every week. So it's amazing to go from having like a plain text file on your computer, writing some code. And then as a result of that, you've got something that people can actually use and interact with. And I think that's like really amazing. It's nice to be able to you know build things that help people and again, that people can use.
It's also a really creative job. So I think people assume that working in tech is quite like nerdy, and it's just the people that don't see the sunlight you know sitting in the basement coding all day [laughs]. But actually, it's not like that. There's a lot of collaboration. It's very creative. You know, you have to kind of think of an idea and make it happen.
And also, the tech industry is generally like, it's quite fun. You know, the tech offices are generally quite cool. They’re usually made in a way that there's space for a lot of collaboration and communication. And I think my favourite thing about working in tech is that you're always learning, things are always changing, it's always evolving. So you never get bored. Sometimes it can be a blessing and a curse because there’s so many things to learn. But as long as you’re kind of like, try not to get too overwhelmed by the enormity of it and just, you know, start small. It's amazing what you can even learn in like one hour. Have a break, do something else and then come back again. So, yeah, I think that's definitely my favourite thing about working in tech.
Yeah, definitely. Like it is a deeply rewarding role as well. Like Rosa, you're talking about like building something useful you were on the Critically [sic: Clinically] Vulnerable People Service at the start of the pandemic, and that is like mind-blowingly useful, actually like life-saving, you know, sending food to people who are isolating and can't get out at the beginning of the pandemic. And that had so many people involved in it as well, didn't it? And like again, for me as well, working on GOV.UK, the impact that we have on people's lives is so like, it’s a huge responsibility, but it's super rewarding. And then there is the fun aspect to it as well, like you are working with like a huge discipline, sorry a huge variety of disciplines and the types of people who are just really, really great people and really fun to work with.
Yeah, one of the other big things I've noticed as a sort of Frontend Developer is the focus we have on accessibility. So as I was saying earlier in terms of making sure our apps work with uh screen readers and other sort of accessibility tools, like we spend quite a bit of time on that. And yeah, I've just never had that anywhere I've worked on so, and I've worked quite a few years in the private sector. And so, yeah, I really kind of enjoy that at GDS. And also as Kelvin and Rosa are saying, you get to work with Service Designers, Content Designers, Delivery Managers, there's all these different kind of disciplines that you kind of all work together when you produce something and you get like really good feedback from it as well. It's like a really good sort of rewarding sort of feeling. So, yeah. No, amazing, good stuff.
So I think that's brought us to the end of our conversation. So yeah, just like to say thanks to Kelvin and Rosa for chatting to me today and sharing what they know about a career in tech. Hopefully, we've convinced you to think again about whether a career in tech is right for you and - hint hint - to keep an eye out for opportunities to come and work with us at GDS. So you get to work with great people like ourselves [laughs]. And also you can find more about GDS and the work we do at gds.blog.gov.uk. And we also have a podcast and we're also on the socials @GDSTeam and we’re, yeah, you can find us on Twitter and Instagram. And you can find the latest job opportunities just by searching for GDS careers on Google. So thank you very much, and thanks again to Kelvin and Rosa as well. See you later, bye.
So big thank you there to Iqbal, Rosa and Kelvin for sharing the myriad ways you can find, and get into a career in tech - whatever your background or starting point.
Don’t forget, you can also find all of our other episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all major podcast platforms and our transcripts are available on PodBean.
Thank you for listening - and see you in the new year.
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