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Spotlight Series: Kai Bentley, Senior Technology Business Partner, DFS

Kai Bentley

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Meet Kai Bentley, the Senior Technical Business Partner at DFS Furniture, whose journey from BT to DFS showcases the endless possibilities in the tech world. In this illuminating interview, Kai shares her experiences, insights, and invaluable advice for those navigating the dynamic tech landscape.

Kai Bentley is the Senior Technical Business Partner for Customer Service and Centralised Administration at DFS Furniture.

She has a strong background in Contact Centres, Retail Operations and Telecoms, as well as significant experience in Training, Development, Line Management and Coaching. She is PRINCE2 and Lean Six Sigma qualified and is a certified Scrum Master with ITIL v4 knowledge. Before joining DFS in 2021, Kai held positions at BT, Plusnet, and Dixons Carphone.

How did you land your current role? Was it planned?

It wasn’t a planned move at all! I was working at BT in a project management role and got a call from a recruiter who had seen my LinkedIn profile. They were looking for someone with Customer Experience and broader technical experience for the position of Technical Business Partner at DFS. The job was very varied and offered more of a strategic role as well as business analysis and system design elements. It sounded like a great opportunity and was an area I was keen to move into. The fact it was with such an established brand made the opportunity very attractive and exciting – plus, I’m a retail woman at heart!

I’m proud to say I flew through the interview process and was offered the role. It’s been a very satisfying job, as I manage the whole stakeholder and IT element of the customer journey processes, from the initial request and technology/provider selection to the go-live stage. I look at what the business wants and needs from an IT perspective and action those requirements. Stakeholder management and relationship building make up a significant part of the role and are elements that I really enjoy. I also do a lot of project management and implementations, and getting to plan how the roadmap unfolds is a fascinating part of the job.

What are the key roles in your field of work, and why did you choose your current expertise?

I’ve always been slightly nerdy! I was building PCs at 11 and 12 years old as that was the only way I could get my computer to play the games I wanted it to play. And while I didn’t study computers at school, I was always gaming at home or coding MySpace and vlogs. It’s always been a sideline passion of mine, and I knew I eventually wanted to make a career working in the IT space.

I’m also really passionate about proving there isn’t a stereotypical person that works in IT – I hear “You don’t look like you work in IT” a lot, and I’m happy to prove those people wrong!

A few years ago, I had the opportunity at Dixons Carphone to help build and manage an internal service desk. I had always been the person on the call centre floor helping to troubleshoot IT problems, so the opportunity to move into a service desk environment and really do some hands-on work fixing IT issues was very exciting for me. It was a sideline step, and I think many people were surprised by the move, but because I was so passionate about it, I took the opportunity to really make a go of it. I then moved into a Business Change role, helping to implement initiatives across the Contact Centre where I specialised in IT changes and that is where I developed a love for Change Management and implementation.

Did you (or do you) have a role model in tech or business in general?

I’ve worked with and for some fantastic women across Technology, Project Management and the Contact Centre field. I’ve worked with some really driven female managers who have allowed me to express myself and have encouraged me to go after what I want. One of my managers at Dixons Carphone really encouraged me to do something I’m passionate about, – she once said, ‘If it is to be a career rather than a job, do something which makes you happy.’ That was one of the most pivotal moments for me in realising that work doesn’t have to be just a “job”. I also follow many inspirational people on LinkedIn and TikTok like Kanika Selvan from Beetroot Consulting and Ellie Middleton, and I just love seeing women passionate about breaking down barriers and wanting to be the best version of themselves they can be. I want to be the best version of myself and inspire others to do the same.

What are you most proud of in your career, so far?

I grew up in a very working-class family, living on a council estate below the poverty line for many years, and although I was given the opportunity to go to private school on a scholarship, there was still little expectation of what I could achieve. One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact I was able to become someone successful in their career despite people’s expectations and not let the “you’re just a council estate girl” label hold me back.

Today, I work with a lot of people from a range of backgrounds. I believe diversity in the environment is so important because I think that people from a lower socio-economic background have a distinct view and experience that you don’t tend to see as much of when you get into middle management.

I’ve worked hard to rise to this position, and looking back, I could have let any of those things get to me and hold me back.

But instead, those expectations gave me the drive to succeed.

I wanted to be the first person in my immediate family to hold down a career and to be able to support people who are important to me, and I can now look after various members of my family when they need me. I wanted to provide for those close to me and have that experience that no other person in my family had had the opportunity to have before. I will do anything to show my son that anyone can succeed if they do the right things and work hard. It also helps that I’m slightly stubborn, so if anyone says I can’t do something, it really drives me forward!

What does an average workday look like for you?

It’s hard to say there’s an average work day as my role is so varied. I will more than likely have a meeting regarding one of the projects I have going on, and that itself will look different depending on what stage the project is at. I will also likely meet with critical stakeholders, spend time with different areas of the business to understand their challenges and how best we can support them in IT, as well as look for opportunities for things that we could potentially improve. I may do some system admin, and I also like to look at what’s on the market, speak to partners and look up CX trends to see what’s next. I will regularly talk to our partners, like the contact centre specialist IPI, about what new innovations and technologies we can incorporate to enhance our CX. I’ve recently moved into a more senior role, which means I’ve done more around reviewing contracts and statements of work – this is fairly new to me so I’m enjoying developing new skills on these tasks.

I might also spend time with the customer-owner of the roadmap and see what’s new and what’s coming up, and I might also advise or consult on something. Or someone will come for advice on a project or an idea of how to progress it. As I said, it’s very varied!

Are there any specific skills or traits that you notice companies look for when you’re searching for roles in your field?

I think the number one thing you must have in my role is the ability to build strong relationships. You need to be someone who can readily talk to people at all levels and adapt your communication style accordingly. In addition, you have to be someone who can disseminate information easily and multi-task and prioritise. Being a leader and an advocate for change is also something I feel is very important.

For tech skills, understanding the technology and how it all hangs together with other elements of business technology, rather than just using it, is key. My role within the IT department is very business-focused so if I were recruiting for this role, I would look for relationship skills alongside the ability to pick up new information and retain it, rather than just pre-existing technical skills. You can always learn how to use technology, and since tech changes so quickly anyway, being able to pivot and learn new skills will stand you in good stead.

Has anyone ever tried to stop you from learning and developing in your professional life, or have you found the tech sector supportive?

I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to a private school, but that meant I was probably one of a handful of girls in my year from a very different background. Some of the other pupils and teachers expected a little bit less of me because of it, so I felt that I had to work really hard to prove myself. It didn’t help that I struggled quite a lot at school due to undiagnosed neurodiversity in the form of ADHD, which I found out I had later in life.

Realising I had ADHD was a lightbulb moment for me and allowed me to adapt my working style to support the way my brain works, rather than feeling like I was constantly battling with myself.

Now, I think IT is in an entirely different place than it was 10/11 years ago when I first got into the sector. It was very male-dominated then, and there was often an expectation that I was good at talking to people but that I didn’t really understand the technology. For quite a few years, I would go into meetings and be surrounded by men, and I would have to fight harder to get my point across. My absolute pet peeve would be when I would suggest something and be ignored, and a man would suggest the same things and people would applaud the idea. Today, I’m fortunate to work at DFS, where there’s a good gender balance mix in the IT department. The work being done by organisations like SheCanCode is excellent, and there is so much more acceptance of women and people of diverse backgrounds than there was before. Indeed, when I started out in IT, I got taken a lot less seriously than male counterparts, but that has changed significantly over recent years.

Have you ever faced insecurities and anxieties during your career, and how did you overcome them?

I struggle with imposter syndrome every single day – even where I am now. I just want to prove myself every day and the hardest person to impress is myself.

Moving jobs can be tricky, as you never know if it will be the right move and there are often times you doubt yourself. How I overcome it is to say, ‘there’s a reason I have made this change’. I’m very measured and considered in my approach to decision-making, and I try not to make any knee-jerk choices. I recently spoke at a ZenDesk conference, and as it was so new to me, I really took my time before saying yes.

If I have any issues, I get around them by being logical and reviewing my successes. I’ve found keeping my own personal log of what I’ve achieved gives me more confidence – so I can say I can overcome this challenge because I did it last year.

Having my son also changed things for me. I struggled with guilt and wondered if I’d still be the same career person I was before. It felt like the anxiety of returning to school after the summer but added to that is the consideration of what work-life balance is (and should be) like for you and your family. I went back to work when my son was 7 months old and soon realised that I was a better mum by returning to work and utilising that part of myself, it’s different for everyone.

Entering the world of work can be daunting. Do you have any words of advice for anyone feeling overwhelmed?

I would say talk about it first of all. Find a supportive manager in the workplace, or if you haven’t got the job yet, there’s a lot of great advice and help in the women’s communities on LinkedIn or with organisations like SheCanCode.

Try to reach out and find a peer group in your specific area of interest.

Everyone has these worries, but we rarely talk about them.

Naming and recognising your feelings can help you to overcome the negative ones. I can often work through my feelings by considering why I feel that way. It can be overwhelming trying to navigate the workplace at any level, but look at what is in your control that you can do something about. Try not to worry about what you can’t control – it’s easier said than done, but it can help.

I think it’s so important to ask for support when you need it, which I appreciate can be daunting but in my experience, most people won’t judge you or think any less of you when you ask for help. By reaching out, I’ve often learned new skills and techniques of doing things as well.

What advice would you give other women wanting to reach their career goals in technology?

  1. Work out what your career goals are. I’m lucky that I’ve almost always fallen into the jobs I’ve had, but they’ve been in roles that I’m already good at. I’ve always had a two-year plan, and having that rough outline of what you want to achieve is really helpful and helps spot opportunities when they come along.
  2. Always evaluate your plan and your goals, and don’t be afraid to change course if they’re not working for you anymore. Find out what you enjoy and what you’re good at, and don’t be afraid to pivot. Sometimes a sideways step is the best short term move you can make to help you move forward in the long term.
  3. If you’re not in a space where you have a supportive manager, there are many mentorship programmes. It could be someone else in the business or your personal life who can help you take your next step. If you don’t feel like there’s anyone in your immediate life, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and ask someone you admire if they would be able to mentor you or provide you with any guidance – there are loads of amazing people on LinkedIn, Tiktok and other public platforms who offer advice and could be willing to help you grow.

You don’t have to follow a set path. You don’t have to go through the traditional qualification route. Think of skills rather than qualifications, as you’ll have the opportunity to learn the more technical aspects once you’re in the role.

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