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Career game changers: Meet the women in tech at Oxbotica

Women from Oxbotica

ARTICLE SUMMARY

SheCanCode spoke with Zeba Farzeena Ashhab, Quality Assurance Engineer, and Laine Clark-Blazan, Senior Software Engineer about their career journeys so far.

AT SHECANCODE WE SPOKE WITH THE WOMEN IN TECH WHO WORK AT OXBOTICA ABOUT THEIR CAREER SO FAR.

ZEBA FARZEENA ASHHAB, QUALITY ASSURANCE ENGINEER

ABOUT: Completed my degree in Bachelor of Technology in Information Technology, I have started my career working as a full stack developer and I am currently working as Quality Assurance Engineer in Oxbotica.

Career game changers: Meet the women in tech at Oxbotica

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR CAREER JOURNEY AND HOW YOU CAME TO WORK AT OXBOTICA.

I started my career working as a Full stack developer, I always gave importance to the testing phase and found that it is the most important phase before a product gets released to the customer. So I wanted to pursue a career in testing and I have been working as QA Automation Engineer in my previous roles.

When I saw an opportunity in Oxbotica for a similar role, I was so excited and wanted to work in the technology that is so futuristic and Autonomous vehicle software where I can apply my testing skills and make the product better.

YOU TRANSITIONED FROM A CAREER AS A PILOT INTO TECH. WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE TECH INDUSTRY THAT ATTRACTED YOU TO MAKE THE SWITCH?

I have always been fascinated by technology and the change it brings to human life. So I wanted to study Engineering in IT. So I had the opportunity to study and choose my career in technology.

WHERE DID YOU TRAIN? DID YOU FIND ANY SUPPORT FROM WOMEN IN TECH NETWORKS USEFUL?

No, I didn’t have any training. We did a lot of projects in the university and were more hands-on which gave me a lot of confidence and interest to pursue further.

What advice would you give yourself if you were starting out in the world of work again?
There is nothing better than following your heart. If you want to be studying or working or even making a career switch into the tech field nothing is stopping you. Have a goal and work towards it, definitely you can reach it.

WHAT DOES AN AVERAGE WORKDAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?

  • I start my day by going through email and meeting schedules. We have our standup in the morning where we get a chance to discuss our progress or blockers and a chance to know what other people in the team are working on.
  • I then start my development work in automation and also work in sprint testing and making sure there are fewer defects in the application.
  • Attending team meetings and planning with the team in a sprint.
  • Getting involved in peer code review.

And yes that’s what a day in my life looks like.

HOW IS OXBOTICA SUPPORTING YOU WITH FLEXIBLE WORKING TO ENSURE YOU CAN BALANCE BOTH YOUR HOME AND WORK LIFE?

Oxbotica has really been helpful in flexible working and definitely, each member in the team is so understanding and approachable. I always believe it is the people who make such a difference to the working environment and I can’t wish for a better team than I have now in Oxbotica.

I have a three-year-old daughter who goes to daycare full time but with a flexible working nature, I am able to spend time with her before bedtime and make a hot dinner, and have that family time.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHER WOMEN WANTING TO REACH THEIR CAREER GOALS?

  • Have a goal and learn the skill that is needed to achieve it. Upskilling and Retraining will help to reach career goals.
  • Build your network and have resilience and perseverance.
  • Communication is key for any change. Develop the ability to stand out and talk.

LAINE CLARK-BALZAN, SENIOR SOFTWARE ENGINEER (MACHINE LEARNING)

ABOUT: Originally from the US and trained in Physics, I came to the UK to take advantage of the Archaeological Science D.Phil. at the University of Oxford. During my PhD and two subsequent postdoctoral positions as a luminescence dating specialist, I spent time roaming around Saudi Arabia, the Canary Islands, and Morocco sampling archaeological and palaeoenvironmental sites. The fieldwork got me through long hours spent in a red-lit laboratory preparing samples, or even in the complete dark, developing a new method for dating minerals via quantitative imaging of the luminescence signal.

Career game changers: Meet the women in tech at Oxbotica

Processing image data led me to automated data analytics and programming, and five years ago I pivoted to private industry, developing machine learning and deep learning algorithms in the UAV space. This past year, I’ve been lucky enough to join the laser and radar perception group at Oxbotica, and I’ve gotten to dive into yet a different part of the world of tech and automation.

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR CAREER JOURNEY AND HOW YOU CAME TO WORK AT OXBOTICA.

My career (physics to archaeological science to data scientist/deep learning researcher) might sound a bit unusual, but there have been personal and professional growth opportunities in every stage that have been incredibly valuable. As an archaeological scientist, I spent years learning to gather the correct data, design good experiments, and examine my assumptions. It was during this time that I got a really fundamental grounding in statistics and probabilistic reasoning. I also developed a deep appreciation for the capabilities of good software by attempting to write my own specialised scientific imaging analysis software. It was a fantastic learning experience (and it worked!), but I think I probably broke pretty much every software development rule with this first project. And I hadn’t even heard of version control at the time…

When I finally decided to leave Academia, the image processing and especially large-scale data analysis I had done ended up being useful transferable skills. During my first private job (at a subsidiary of Boeing), I was able to grow my technical skills by working on a wide variety of machine learning and data mining projects. Working directly with talented software developers made a huge difference, as it’s much easier to learn in conjunction with other people (rather than perpetually having to reinvent the wheel for yourself). And finally, when I was ready for another change, the variety of my experience led me to Oxbotica, where I am very proud to currently work.

YOU TRANSITIONED FROM A DIFFERENT CAREER INTO TECH. WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE TECH INDUSTRY THAT ATTRACTED YOU TO MAKE THE SWITCH?

It may not surprise you to know that there aren’t a huge number of jobs for people who are specialists in a fairly obscure dating technique! So to some degree, the issue was practical – I had decided that I didn’t want to stay in Academia, and needed to shift towards something I was interested in and for which I had some applicable experience. For me, this idea was initially pretty fuzzy: “something involving image processing and large-scale data analysis.” Luckily, I was able to use this very general idea to find a job where I could grow into a really interesting position using deep learning to solve various internal and external issues.

I was particularly attracted to coding and tech, because there is something a bit magic about the complexity that can arise from simple sets of instructions. It can help you aggregate so much data that you can see real trends that would not have been visible before…so in a certain sense, you’re able to get closer to the underlying truth of the world. Or, as with deep learning, you can end up with code that does something so difficult to program from first principles that it feels truly special. Moreover, I was attracted to the wide applicability and flexibility of coding/tech in general – I love that there are a huge number of fascinating applications to work on.

WHERE DID YOU TRAIN? DID YOU FIND ANY SUPPORT FROM WOMEN IN TECH NETWORKS USEFUL?

I have taken advantage of multiple types of training opportunities. During my PhD, I had a very small amount of training in code, but most of the software side I was learning/making up as I went along. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, but in the beginning, I was focused on getting results rather than improving the development process itself, so I’m sure this affected my view! Then, while making the switch to private industry, I began doing courses via online programs such as Coursera. I made sure to take advantage of a number of universities that share some of their excellent course materials openly online (e.g. UC Berkeley, Stanford), particularly to develop some of the fundamentals that I didn’t necessarily pick up in my very specialised applications.

I was also lucky to find a job that supported my progression in tech, and I spent a lot of time talking to friends in data science, software development, and various other tech-focused positions. When I first started, I didn’t think of joining a women in tech network, and I wish I had. I think my overall career progression might have been more efficient if I had found the right network sooner!

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF IF YOU WERE STARTING OUT IN THE WORLD OF WORK AGAIN?

I think the most important advice is to not become overwhelmed by the new world of potential skills and to appreciate and highlight the transferable skills that you already have. When I was finishing my PhD, a common refrain in the archaeology and archaeological science department was people lamenting that they had no ‘real world’ skills.

This always sounded completely wrong to me! They had become experts at in-depth research, writing, editing, scientific thinking, analysis, and so forth. And I think this is probably true for most people trying to switch fields or starting out in work, but it can be hard to evaluate yourself dispassionately enough to see it. Furthermore, particularly for women in tech, there are several well-known studies that suggest women tend to ‘overprepare’ in various fields (e.g. writing papers for publication, applying for positions, etc.). Be realistic about your skills so you can learn and grow, but don’t undervalue the skills you already have!

The second important point is that your time is limited, and the world is large and full of career-enhancing skills. Keep learning whenever you can! It’s possible to create a balanced study scheme through independent research only, but it will be much easier and faster if you can find a solid network of peers and mentors. Even just picking a friend as an accountability partner is a good first step to keep you on track in your journey. Whenever possible, try to solidify the skills you’re learning by starting to work with others as quickly as you can. If you want to pick up a skill like coding, start by making some small contributions to a good open-source code base and work up to some more complex issues.

Finally, I think it’s really crucial to balance the professional conduct expected in your field with staying true to your own way of interacting with the world. Remember that groups tend to be stronger and make better decisions when they contain a diversity of viewpoints and action styles. There are many ways to be an excellent, professional employee!

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