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Spotlight Series: Sonal Shah, Vice President, Banking

Sonal Shah

ARTICLE SUMMARY

We sat down with Sonal Shah to take a look at her career journey, how she got into tech, her career advice and to talk about her new book, She Chose Tech!

Sonal Shah is a speaker, coach, tech advocate and vice president in banking with over 20 years of corporate experience.

Having often found herself a minority in industries such as tech, she is a passionate advocate for gender parity and diversity. She is committed to helping women fulfil their potential in tech careers and has received several prestigious awards for her success.

Sonal’s new book, She Chose Tech: The essential guide to empower and inspire women in tech, is an essential read for anyone curious about tech, from the student at the beginning of their career or the seasoned professional looking for a change of career, to those wanting to expand their knowledge of the dynamic sector.

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

For me, I made a conscious choice to change my career and join the tech industry.  At school and college, I never thought tech was for me.  I thought it was full of science and maths, and unfortunately, I was not aware of what it could involve, such as the benefits of choosing a career in this area or what the roles entailed. Plus, there were no or few tech industry role models.

These days, all companies use technology and have tech-related jobs. I am pleased that I successfully transitioned by bravely leaving a promising career, where I had worked my way up to manager level, and choosing to take a year out to study an MSc in Computing and Information Technology.

I knew nothing about tech at all and people inevitably commented on and judged my choice. It does take confidence to make a move like this, but only I knew what was right for me, and the same is true for everyone else. We are all entitled to make a change for the better, even if other people disagree with our decisions or choices.

I was drawn to the tech industry simply because it is dynamic. It has extraordinary variety and is full of opportunity. I enjoy reading and keeping up to date with news and changing technologies. Still, as someone who did alright and never really excelled in science and maths-related subjects at school, I now work in various remediation projects and roles. This is something that I would not have experienced at all had I not made a change.

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

I will briefly mention the typical roles in tech that you will tend to hear about in the industry. This is because the more specific roles are forever changing as new areas of tech emerge, and some roles take on fancy new titles. So, I will mention the evergreen or classic types of roles where possible. 

I work in projects within the tech industry, so the roles I typically work with are in projects and programs.These are: business analyst, project manager, consultant, software engineer, data analyst, and cyber security which is another growing area.

I describe these roles more thoroughly in my book , covering the skills required and what the day-to-day is like, and highlighting how individual roles can have multiple titles – something to be aware of.  Some positions require more advanced skills and a better understanding of computers and IT than others. There are plenty of online resources available that outline these. For example, you could visit the Every Woman in Tech website for more information on potential careers, the Barclays Digital Wings page to understand how to develop core tech skills and the BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) or Code Academy websites to learn more about courses you could take for more skills relevant to the tech industry.

Knowing the common roles in tech is a good starting point and allows you to make informed decisions about a potential career path, enabling you to align your skills and interests with the job market demands. I have worked on projects in many different industries, and the same principles apply to my job role, no matter where I go. Building up your knowledge of what is out there assists you as you make any change.

Working on projects in project management is a people job, so navigating different personalities and ensuring they all get the job done is paramount.  I chose this area of expertise as I enjoy the variety and people side of the job and not the technical side, such as coding, so I recommend that people go with what suits their skills and, first and foremost, what they enjoy.

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

I had no role models and saw no women of colour, or senior women of colour when I first started. And even today, I work hard to help women enter the industry, as we still have so much to do to increase diversity. This is part of why I wrote my book She Chose Tech: An Essential Guide to Inspire and Empower Women in Tech, to create awareness that tech careers can be for anyone and that we need to see more diversity and significantly more women in the tech industry. It is so important to ensure all representation is there when making innovations.

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

I am pleased that I took that first risk to leave my job and start studying to change my career to one in tech. I am also proud of how I have been recognised with awards for my work in inspiring and helping women inside and outside my day job. I help women externally fulfil their potential, elevate themselves in their careers, and succeed in their roles, as well as help some change careers and succeed in the tech industry.

I have also been featured in Forbes more than once, was named one of Brummell’s most inspirational women in 2023, and was listed as one of Computer Weekly’s most influential women in tech two years running.

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

We all have moments where things do not go as planned, or we encounter unpleasant experiences at work.  All careers have their ups and downs, and I always try to take the learning forward from anything that has not been easy. Finding a mentor helps, as well as talking with trusted colleagues to help you through any moments of uncertainty or insecurities and imposter syndrome. Joining networks can benefit people enormously, as well as women helping each other and not competing.

You will always have moments of insecurity when you are out of your comfort zone, and this is not to be feared as it is when we learn the most. I have had many, and none of us get to where we are without these experiences.

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

Without even realising it, you may possess talents, skills, experience and energy that the tech industry desperately needs. People dedicate at least a third of their lives to their careers, so we should ensure that it is a pleasant and rewarding experience, while those who want to can make a good living and climb the ladder.

However, being an in-demand and respected tech professional takes more than technical skills. Having good technical skills can be a benefit, and depending on where you land and which role you are interested in, knowing a little coding or using various programming languages may be required. Knowledge of coding or programming languages can help you in careers that analyse large amounts of data or keep computer systems or networks secure. Some roles require an understanding of complex technical concepts in software development.

Aside from that, it is very important to note that tech professionals must be able to communicate effectively in both oral and written forms too. They must be problem solvers, treat challenges as opportunities, know how to navigate obstacles and move forward when things get tricky. They need to have a continuous growth mindset, understanding that learning is a lifelong process, rather than having an ‘I went to college/university’ or ‘I completed an apprenticeship, so that is enough’ attitude.

So please do find a mentor, someone you like and admire, who may share their experience with you to help and guide you, something I did not have in my early days. Please find one, or sometimes even more than one mentor, depending on your requirements.

To be successful, you must be focused, talented and knowledgeable. Good tech professionals know that a massive contributor to their success is a plan. A promising career cannot materialise without a plan!

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