Meet Fey Ijaware, Senior Developer at DWP Digital and Founder of CodePossible and CodeandStuff

Fey Ijaware

In this piece, we talk to Fey Ijaware, a Senior Front-End Developer on a Universal Credit team at DWP Digital who is also the Founder of CodeandStuff and CodePossible.

Here, Fey talks to us about her biggest achievement, the challenges of being a woman in IT and what it’s like working for DWP Digital.

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

I’m Fey Ijaware, a Senior Front-End Developer on a Universal Credit team at DWP Digital and I’m also a proud mum.

My journey into tech was a happy accident. I went to university, at the time I wanted to work with Children, so after I got my BSc degree in Children Practices, I decided to do a Postgraduate in Early Years teaching. But after completing my one-year postgraduate I realised teaching wasn’t for me. I then joined the corporate world, discovered coding, left my job to self-learn, worked in some private sector companies and worked my way up to Senior Front-End Developer and made the transition to DWP Digital and I’ve been with the organisation for over 3 years.

My initial impression was that working for the government would be boring and rigid to put it plainly. But I was proved wrong after attending the Hack the North hackathon about 4 years ago, the people I met during the hackathon were very passionate about making a difference and I was not expecting that at all. It was what inspired me to join the civil service. I liked that the purpose of the work revolves around helping to reimagine the digital public service and helping to make a positive difference to the lives of millions of people that uses the digital public service.

I have had a lot of varying work experiences, from working in a contact centre, waitressing, retail to data analysts, then to digital, software and then web development. When I reflect on my journey, it’s not the usual background, as I didn’t really have a clear view of what I wanted to do until I was doing it.

I think when I was in my early 20s and deciding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life it was hard to pinpoint what I wanted to do, due to my background, I didn’t have a lot of varying role models or exposure to different careers until I tried different things, and I came across the world of tech. The minute I got into coding I realised how much fun it was. At that time, I was lucky enough to have a supportive manager that allowed me to pick up projects from other teams and allowed me to deepen my interest in coding, creativity and problem solving which all really spoke to me. Since then, I went for every learning opportunity I could find, and I even got and completed 2 scholarships from Google.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I was raised by a single mum, and she is very hard working and she’s always been my motivation. Even though I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I was very career orientated and I knew I wanted to be successfully as whatever I was doing. I was always looking at different opportunities and was happy to try anything. I often spend time just reflecting. I’ll think about what exactly it is I want to be doing. Whether I’m I happy in my current role and what could make things better. It has been a year since I have returned to work from maternity leave, and I am already thinking about what’s next for me in terms of my career. I’ve reached my goal of becoming a Senior 3 years ago, so now I’m thinking about what’s the next best step for me.

Recently, I applied for the future leader’s scheme, the Civil Service Accelerated Development Schemes, with aim to develop high-potential individuals to the most senior and critical Civil Service roles. I made it through the first round but was unsuccessful in the second round. While I am disappointed, I got valuable feedback which has motivated me more than ever to start pursuing other opportunities and reach out within my network for a mentor that can advise and support me towards my current career aspirations. So, I think it’s important to always check-in and be open to other opportunities, even if you’re happy with where you are now.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

IT is a very heavily male-dominated industry. There’s been a lot of challenges that I’ve faced on the way. At one point in my career, I found myself in a situation where my workload had increased, and I wasn’t being compensated for it. Whereas I feel it would have been different if I was male, there would have been an automatic salary bump or at least a quicker resolution. But I think as a woman there’s always that expectation to take on more and then the employer is surprised when you ask for salary increase. So, for me, it was a question of whether I was willing to fight for the recognition I deserved for what I brought to the table or go somewhere else where my efforts will be appreciated, which I did.

I’ve always had to, especially in some situations, speak up a little bit louder just to be heard. I think for me, I was quite aware of the industry I was going into. I go a very immersive experience of what to except when I took the time off to learn. I knew it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing and I knew it would be challenging and was ready and equip for it.

I think it’s important to understand – and this goes for any sort of industry that anybody goes into, especially women – that there’s always going to be challenges. The one thing for me is that I never try to let the challenges get to me. It was more a question of ‘how do I fix this?’ If I know it’s not something that I can fix, I always tried to be part of the solution.

A newer challenge I’ve recently faced was coming back from maternity as a new mum. As a working mother, I’ve been able to overcome new and different issues, for example arranging childcare when the options are very limited, dealing with a poorly child while working or having to take time off to looking after a sick child, etcetera. But, as with any challenge, I just take my time, have conversations and advocate for myself. It’s important organisations also consider new mums when making the right provisions for encouraging employees to go back to work. For example, provision for women to express milk safely within the office space.

There have also been some challenges around being a black woman in the workplace, for example, I often change my hairstyle and colour, and this can sometimes lead to colleagues asking to touch my hair or sometimes inappropriate conversations about it. I think it’s good when you come across these types of situations to deal with them professionally, I always try to. You must stand firm in your beliefs and have an open and honest conversations with people.

What has been your biggest career achievement today?

For me, I would say having a child. There is a lot that comes with the decision to become a mother, lots of sacrifices and new challenges. Outside of work, my biggest achievement is establishing CodeandStuff. I’m very proud of that. I’ve received several accolades for it. I am very passionate about diversity and introducing more people to coding, but at the foundation of it is, I love helping people, but I also want to see more women and people that look like me doing the role. I also love what I do and being in a senior position. It’s good to be able to be a visible role model for people to see, especially for the younger generations.

There have been times, when I got my first job and I was doing my second scholarship, that I would not go to bed until 3am trying to finish all my projects – I’ve worked hard to get to where I am! One thing I would say to people is if you’re willing to really work for something… go for it. They’re would still be some barriers for some people, but it helps if you’re willing to put in the work and persevere.

Being a working mum has been a big achievement for me, I had a very difficult pregnancy, birth and recovery, but I was still has determined than ever. I even ended up doing some speaking and interview opportunities while on maternity leave. I’m always thinking about what’s next, I think a lot of people expected me to take things easy being a mum now. I do have to admit coming back to work after maternity leave was challenging, but I am more determined than ever, because I have a little one depending on me now. I’m passionate about a lot of what I do, and they don’t all feel like work. But I am not afraid to work that little bit harder and longer because I know it’s worth it and I’m looking forward to my future achievements.

What do you believe what one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Research, research, research. I’ve always made sure to heavily research what I’m doing. Look at opportunities, and make sure I’m taking advantage of them, and I think that’s important. When I discovered coding and I realised this is what I want to do, I took one weekend and investigated it thoroughly, I reached out to a few people also. I was looking at front-end roles, what skills they needed, and what people and companies were looking for on LinkedIn. And for me that was what I based my learning on. You’ve got to be a self-starter. And I think that’s why I’ve never waited for someone to hand me an opportunity.

This interconnects with being able to self-motivate yourself. I’m always doing my research and putting myself forward because you’ve got to be the person that advocates for you, especially when it comes to your career, not one will be has invested as you. Some people are lucky to have people fight for them, but it’s not always the case. If you think something is for you, go for it. Don’t let somebody’s negative perspective of whatever limitation they’ve put on you, stop you – you’ve got to go for things. If anything, you can get feedback and use that to improve. And if that’s what you want, you just keep going for it. I think that’s so important.

 What advice would you give to someone starting out in their career? 

You need to block out regular time for training and development. When you’re working in tech, things change so quickly, even while it’s not something that you need to use within your role. It’s just good to be in the know of what’s going on within the digital tech environment. Especially if you want to be a developer. If you’re not open to learning continuously then a technical role probably isn’t for you.

At CodeandStuff, if someone’s attended an event multiple times, I would sit down and have a conversation with them and ask them ‘what’s your plan?’ to see what they really wanted to get out of attending and act as a mentor for them.

One thing I learned very early on in my career in tech, is that tech is a ‘show and tell’ world. Nobody cares what you know, they want to see it. They don’t have enough time to see you talk about it. They don’t care about that. What gets attention is the things that you’ve built. And that’s how I kick-started my career. I didn’t just talk about the courses I was doing. I was sharing actual things that I built on my LinkedIn and asking for feedback and that’s what got the attention of one of the companies that I first worked for. I was very visible and transparent and took on feedback.

If you want to work in tech, you need to be able to demonstrate things you’re learning, not just learning stuff, but being able to implement it is important. One thing I also realised very early on is understanding that failure is part of the process. When I was younger, I was afraid to fail because I felt like it wasn’t okay. Growing up and being a Nigerian immigrant, failure was not an option. And for me and the things that I’ve done, for example, going to university, getting a degree and then changing my mind and deciding that it wasn’t for me. It felt like I failed a little bit. It wasn’t until later, that I then realised it was all part of the process. And that failure for me was opening a different door to me. And I’ve since learned to embrace failure is just a pathway to success.

Do you believe there are still barriers for successful women working in tech? And can you give any suggestions on how these can be overcome?

Organisations need to start acting and put in active steps to give women the opportunity to step into tech. They need to have junior roles where people starting out can get an opportunity, for example through apprenticeships and other early talent schemes. How else will women looking to join the industry get experience? There are a lot of women who are learning to be developers, open the doors for them. Offer them junior roles, offer them that mentorship that would allow them to thrive. They need progression. There needs to be more in terms of progress otherwise people will have to jump ship to get on.

In the Civil Service, it’s fairer because you must apply for promotion. It doesn’t just land on your lap, you need to put yourself forward for that role and believe in yourself. It can be difficult sometimes when you don’t want to leave your team but it’s okay to be selfish.

There’s currently only 17% of women working in tech. If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Creating more opportunities. There are lots of programmes now targeted at getting women into tech, where women are learning and upskilling themselves. But once they’ve completed this training and are ready to take the next step into a career there aren’t a lot of opportunities available. Lots of the opportunities that are available don’t offer flexibility, but this is slowly changing due to the pandemic as some organisations have now introduce flexible or hybrid working policies. A lot of people can work effectively from home and having that hybrid approach is important. There needs to be policy reviews to make things easier for women. Having a child, for example, shouldn’t mean women have to put their career on the backburner, there needs to be more flexible around having that work-life balance, especially as we live in a society that place almost all parental responsibility on women.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

If you’re learning to code, I think generally Google is your best friend. I’d recommend CodePossible, a platform I create to help aspiring coders and developers in 2018, it also list lots of free resources available such as FreeCodeCamp. I also think it is important to find your tribe by using the power of community. There are loads of tech events nowadays and useful resources like Eventbrite and Meetup can allow you to see what meet up’s and event are close to you. If you don’t have one in your area, why don’t you start one? You’d be surprised by how many people are thinking the same thing you are. So don’t be afraid to start one if you’d feel like you want that community. Trust me, if you start one, people will show up.

I also listen to podcasts with women leaders talking, such as the Northern Power Woman podcast. They also named me on their Northern Power and Future list in 2019 and that’s really opened up my world. I met some amazing women doing amazing things within the North. I think they have some powerful podcasts. I’ve been a guest on them as well. There’s this recent one, that’s motivational, that I really like where it talks about prioritising progress over perfection. ‘Women Tech Charge’ is another podcast by Dr Ann Marie Imafidon and it’s all-around conversations with different inspiring women and what inspired them in their careers. I also listen to a lot of TED Talks too.

I love listening to women and the career challenges they’ve had and how they’ve overcome certain things. I like listening to stuff like that because I feel like we can all learn from each other experiences and learn valuable lessons that we can apply to our own journey. It’s one of the reasons why I’m very happy to share my story because I feel like we can all learn from each other’s stories. Listen to other stories and advice is partly what has inspired me and allowed me to get to where I am today.