In our most recent WomenInTechQA series, we caught up with Michelle Szaraz, Strategy Lead at dxw.
Michelle discusses how you can create your own opportunities in the industry, offers top tips for managing a technical team with no technical background and highlights required skills needed to succeed in a managerial role.
You can listen to the full interview as part of our podcast series!
W.I.T. Republic (WR): To start, could you tell us a bit about your career journey leading into tech and how you got to where you are today?
Michelle Szaraz (MS): My career path into tech was quite non-linear, surprising and somewhat accidental. Following my inclination towards humanities and aspirations to change the world for better, I chose to study Politics, International Relations and EU Studies for my undergrad with International Peace and Security (War Studies) for my postgrad.
Aspiring to work in a highly competitive field, I struggled to find a job in international development straightaway after my studies. While taking on unpaid internships for women’s rights charities, I worked as a Sales and Operations Supervisor at Ralph Lauren. Eventually, I secured my first role in international development. I joined a small consultancy delivering research, policy and advocacy projects promoting access to regular social protection payments as a way of helping people escape poverty.
Quickly progressing from Programme Officer to Programme Manager and Senior Programme Manager, I managed 60+ projects across Africa and Asia. I collaborated closely with the United Nations agencies, charities and governments – visiting Kenya, Angola and Uganda – alongside building a team of 7+ project management professionals and designing various business operations and policies.
While this work aligned with my interests and background, it didn’t match my personality. I’m a dynamic person that needs flexibility to innovate and make things better fast. That’s why after a bad burnout (and during a quarter life crisis), I decided to quit my job without a backup plan. Few months later, I applied for an interesting role via a recruitment agency, though not knowing what company I might be joining. To cut the long story short, I got hired to manage the UK’s flagship programme accelerating the growth of AI and ML startups.
As an Innovation Delivery Manager at Digital Catapult, I got a chance to collaborate with diverse organisations across the tech industry, from startups to corporates, and with the most advanced digital technologies (AI, IoT, 5G, immersive technologies). This experience motivated me to bring together my work in the public sector with technology, which is why I decided to join dxw – the UK’s leading agency that designs, builds and hosts digital public services. Starting as a Delivery Lead, I recently became a Strategy Lead and now I work closely with public sector organisations, helping them shape their digital strategy and supporting them in delivering their digital services.
My non-linear career path helped me develop knowledge and skills in many different areas. I decided to put them to use alongside my daily job by being a mentor and adviser across several business, career and tech programmes. I’m also soon-to-be a founder of a ‘careers in tech’ blog seeking to increase the diversity and inclusion in the tech industry while motivating people to get a successful and fulfilling career in tech.
WR: In your opinion, what are the required skills needed to succeed in a management role in the tech industry?
MS: There are a variety of skills needed when it comes to management in general and within the tech industry specifically. These include flexibility, fast learning, working with ambiguity and effective communication. But for me, the key ones are the ones that relate to managing people, not just processes or projects. These include:
- Ability to listen to and empathise with diverse people
- Openness to being challenged by people and situations
- Leading by example
- Ability to adapt ways of working to different audiences and situations, and
- Confidence, which sometimes (or often) means faking it till you make it
WR: What are your top tips for managing a technical team with no technical background?
MS: A starting point for me is being clear, with yourself and with others, about where your expertise is (and where it is not). This links to being aware and clear about the value you can add to the team, company or the industry with your existing skills and experience.
I’ve learnt the hard way how important it is to not underestimate and undersell your non-technical background, skills and experiences. They’re essential to the success of teams, projects and companies within the tech industry. We should all consider them a crucial component for success in tech and an advantage, not a setback.
The next set of tips links to managing a team. I recommend spending the time and energy needed on getting to know the team members, both individually and the team dynamics. It’s also key to focus on what the team requires to do their work and seeing how you can add value to help them remove potential obstacles. And seeking to have regular, open and honest communication with the team and wider stakeholders to identify potential issues and deal with them as early as possible.
WR: What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of female tech leaders?
MS: Finding their own place within an industry that, albeit becoming more diverse, is still (like many other industries, workplaces and the world in general) set up around male experiences. The challenge will be how women can not only find or create opportunities within the tech industry that allow them to be leaders, but also make sure these are in the areas they are interested in, rather than just made available to them. And then there is a key challenge of how to balance demanding jobs with personal life priorities if women are to have truly fulfilling careers in tech … A lot of work for us all to do!
WR: How do you think businesses can ensure their tech and leadership teams are diverse and inclusive?
MS: There are many steps businesses can take, starting with having a buy-in from the management and key stakeholders to invest effort, time and resources in seeking increased diversity and inclusion. Another core element to focus on is having the right recruitment process in place. I would recommend checking how dxw recruits new staff (using blind recruitment) as it is one of the best recruitment processes I have gone through so far.
Businesses, in tech and beyond, need to also catch up with the changing values and needs of today’s workforce if they want to attract and retain skilled and diverse staff. They need to offer as much flexibility as possible, including (and not limited to) remote working and working from abroad, flexible working arrangements and benefits that cater to different needs people have based on their individual circumstances. And businesses need to work on building a culture that has inclusion and diversity at its core in as many business activities as possible (in particular company socials and teambuilding).
WR: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to create their own opportunities in the tech industry?
MS: Don’t wait for the right time to come by – just go for it now and see where the journey takes you. Use your existing experience and skills to transition to the tech industry, whether by doing the role you do currently but within the tech industry, doing something completely different with transferable skills, or starting your own business (venture).
I’d also encourage others to not underestimate or undersell their experience and background! And to keep an open mind in trying various roles, companies and areas of tech until the right fit comes by to have a role at a company where you are and feel valued and do interesting work. Nowadays people really don’t have to compromise or go against themselves to have a successful career in tech because there are endless opportunities. Even if many people still don’t realise just yet that that’s the case.
WR: As a startup advisor, do you have any top tips for women who are looking to start their own venture in tech?
MS: Starting and running one’s own business is challenging, but it’s possible regardless of the individual’s background or experience. Just like being employed, being a founder has its positives and down sides. So if you’re interested in setting up a business, don’t let the challenges stall you and give it a go. This doesn’t have to be a huge life changing, job quitting and investing all savings kind of effort. It can mean starting small for a couple of hours a week alongside stable employment until you are ready to scale up and focus on running a business full time.
Also, try not to let the Imposter Syndrome stop you. There are now tons of initiatives to support women in setting up and running their own businesses so the best time is today! Plus very few founders know what they are doing at first – and even if they do, they have to pivot as they go. You can and will learn along the way, not by seeking perfection before even starting. And you can always leverage your existing experience and skills and partnering up with others to fill in the gaps instead of trying to be everything and everyone. This way you can not only start, but also run a business successfully and sustainably.
WR: What advice would you give women navigating a career in this male-dominated industry?
MS: To start by acknowledging that being a woman in tech still comes with a lot of challenges. It can be tough at times, so it is important to not be overly hard on yourself (which women often do). I would also advise to get clear with yourself and others about individual strengths, experiences and value, as well as aspirations, needs and boundaries. And respect those. Sometimes that means leaving jobs or teams behind and moving on which is difficult… But we can all do hard things.
It’s also key to always seek to be yourself as much as possible, and find opportunities that fit with who you are, not the other way around. And lastly, working on building confidence in self – it is crucial to know your own value, be able to ask for what you want and need (even if you might not get it), and not compromise on your values.
WR: Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received throughout your career?
MS: To share my career journey with others because even though it might seem ‘not worth talking about’ to me, hearing my story can in fact help people in shaping theirs. This altered my thinking more broadly. Instead of fighting my non-linear career path and diverse background or perceiving it as a lack of expertise and disadvantage, I started to see it as a unique blend which no one else can offer. Something that allows me to make my own contribution. It prompted me to stop dismissing my background, skills and experiences and rather to see them as the value I can add to my team, work and driving change in the world. And now, I get to use my story to help others which is credibly rewarding.
If you would like to join Michelle as part of our Q&A series, get in touch today!