Meet Catherine Mowbray, Data Engineer at DWP Digital

Catherine Mowbray

I joined the Data & Analytics team in DWP Digital in January this year as a data engineer. I work on the IRIS (Integrated Risk and Intelligence Service) team and I’ve really enjoyed my time working on this team. I’m excited to have the chance to share my experience so far!

Tell us a bit about yourself, background, and your current role

At school, I was always interested in maths and science and had a great biology teacher at A-level. That convinced me to study Human Genetics at Newcastle University as an undergraduate. Part of that course involved a lab-based project in the third year which I thoroughly enjoyed, pointing me towards a career in science.

Through networking and word of mouth, I managed to secure a job as a research technician in the Mitochondrial Research Group at Newcastle University, where I stayed for about 18 months. During my time there I had extremely supportive colleagues who recommended I study for a PhD. I applied and started my PhD developing liver models for drug testing in 2007, graduating in 2011. From there I completed a series of Research Associate posts, for the last five years conducting research and testing in clinical trials looking into causes and treatments for recurrent urinary tract infections and alternatives to treatment with antibiotics.

However, during the start of the pandemic in 2020 the lab suddenly closed, and I was unable to conduct my usual work. As a result, I taught myself Bash/Shell scripting to analyse a large batch of bacterial sequencing data that we had collected but never started doing anything with. This allowed me to develop coding skills that were relevant to my current role, so when I was made redundant in August 2021 I began applying for more coding-based jobs. I spotted the vacancy for a Data Engineer role on Civil Service Jobs and decided to apply due to Bash/Shell scripting being listed as one of the criteria. I must admit, I was more than surprised when I was invited to interview!

I was ecstatic when I was informed that I had passed the interview and was offered the Data Engineer role. When I started in the department in January 2022, I knew I had a lot to learn and began training in Python and SQL with the support of team members. Now I’m working independently using my new skills, contributing to maintaining and building required features for ETL and database-querying services and delivering good-quality data to customers.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

I typically get out of bed at the last possible moment and have a strong coffee to kick-start my brain – I am not a natural morning person! I double check my emails and calendar to mentally order my day, then look at my notes to pick up where I left off the day before. At the end of each day, I like to reach a natural finishing point in my code so I can pick it up easily – I think of it as reaching the end of a paragraph. I will then jot down where I am on my whiteboard and my thoughts on where to go next, followed by checking my calendar for the next day to make sure I know when meetings are. After signing out it’s time to walk my dog, then put my feet up and play a computer game or continue with my cross stitch for the evening.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I was always aware that this was something you definitely should do, but I can’t honestly say I did. I have tended to follow what I’ve enjoyed doing and have been lucky enough to enjoy most of my jobs. When I was made redundant from my scientific role, I did have a decision to make – do I continue with where I am or try something different? Due to the short-term, stressful nature of my previous roles, I decided to try and switch my focus to coding, which I found a refreshing change of direction during lockdown and aimed to have a career with more stability and new learning opportunities. Fortunately, I feel like this worked out well!

What do you love about working for Data and Analytics within DWP Digital?

There are two major things I enjoy about my job – the people and the work. Everyone I have met so far in DWP Digital has been so kind, supportive and generous with their time, it has made a rather daunting career change into a pleasant experience. I was involved in meetings and discussions from day one and was always encouraged to ask questions and offer opinions. Even though it’s a totally new area for me I have never felt silly, which I put down to the fantastic team I’ve joined. I also find the day-to-day work really rewarding. I’ve always enjoyed a good puzzle and identifying code that can be improved to match requirements, and then working out how to implement those changes is very motivating for me.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you overcome these challenges?

I think my biggest challenge has always been having a lack of confidence in myself. It has improved as I’ve got older, but even when applying for this role I was pleasantly surprised at getting an interview, and even more so at being offered a post! Looking back, I don’t know why I doubted myself so much – I knew I could do this job (and others I’ve applied for in the past), but communicating my abilities to others in a confident manner has been something I’ve struggled with. I think this is partially an anxiety of mine about being seen as over-confident or boastful. When interviewing or taking part in meetings, I do have to periodically remind myself that being open and honest with my knowledge or opinions to help the team is what matters, not whether someone will see that as a knowledge gap or overstepping the mark.

Have you benefited from coaching, mentoring or the sponsorship of others?

I have never had formal mentoring, but over the years I have been supported in different aspects of my career by colleagues. My former boss was instrumental in teaching me how important “telling the story” is when communicating technical concepts to non-technical stakeholders or customers. Another of my former colleagues supported me in deciding to apply for coding roles, giving me the confidence to believe that I could be successful in changing my career path.

Do you believe in the power of networking? If so, where do you network?

In my previous role, networking was very much seen as attending big conferences or meetings and introducing yourself to people in order to increase visibility. I must admit, I was terrible at this – the thought of doing that was terrifying! I have since realised that networking doesn’t have to be such a big deal – just chatting with people you meet around the office or in a couple of minutes before a Teams meeting starts and there’s just the two of you in the call is also networking. Getting to know people and having a chat can open doors and make collaborations a lot easier than it would be if you remain more isolated.

What advice would you give to those who aspire to a career in tech?

It’s never too late to start! For the last few years it was always on my mind that if I’d gone to university now, I would have chosen something like a computer science degree. As the years went on a career in tech seemed further and further away. However, upon learning to code, build a pipeline and use data for analysis, I realised that it’s never too late. If you have a desire to change, make the time to learn some concepts, learn a bit of code and build something with it. Employers are keen to hear how you can use your learned concepts and coding skills, not just whether you have a certificate saying you can do it.

What does the future hold for you?

I am thoroughly enjoying my role and can’t see any reason for a change of scenery in the near future! Over the next few months I aim to build on the knowledge I have gained in this role and learn different parts of the job to be a complete team member. In the longer term, I aim to develop the skills to become a Senior Data Engineer and continue to learn about and implement new technologies within my role. The future is exciting!