Meet Jo Lillie, Associate Software Engineer, Puppet

Jo Lillie

Jo Lillie didn’t always envision a future in tech. Prior to joining university, she dabbled in art and design as well as various aspects of media & theatre. But at 22, she decided to enroll in an access to university course in maths and computing which enabled her to study computer science at Queen’s University Belfast. She had a knack and interest in these focus areas and eventually wound up with a year-long placement at Puppet as a software engineering intern. This internship soon formed into an offer to join the team as an associate software engineer after graduation. She graduated in May 2021 and started working at Puppet in September 2021.

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

I work in Belfast as an associate software engineer at Puppet. Currently I am working on a product called Comply. Puppet Comply enables and automates compliance across hybrid IT infrastructure.

Prior to this my educational and working background has been a bit of a mixed bag. Before deciding to do anything tech related, I completed various art & design courses, qualifications in special effects and media hair and makeup, while working jobs in hospitality, care home and retail industries.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I wouldn’t say I had sat down and planned my career. I left school not long after starting 6th form with no idea what I wanted to do career wise. As I enjoyed art at school this felt like a natural path to go down. The next 5-6 years were filled with different courses and jobs, but I eventually became frustrated. I knew I needed to make a change. I wanted to try something new, and I wanted a job that could provide stability and an opportunity to learn and grow both professionally and personally. I started looking into what options were available to me and decided to go down the route of an access course in maths and computing, run by Belfast Met. This is a course for people who have been out of full time education for at least two years and provides the equivalent of A levels. I had been hearing more about tech courses and tech roles in Belfast so it was early on in the course that I decided I wanted to go on and study computer science. Whilst in my second year of uni I worked in a job implementing scada systems for the UKs largest police force and councils in London. This is where my interest in tech really peaked.

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

Once I had decided to pursue a career in tech, I looked at the different options available to me. Becoming a full time student was not ideal as it would mean that I would be working less hours, would need to take out a loan for the fees and would also be older than the majority of students. But I struggled to find a better alternative option. Many of the part-time courses seemed to be aimed at people who already worked in the industry, yet to  get a job in the tech industry is hard without any previous qualifications or technical experience. While apprenticeship programmes are designed for younger people and school leavers. It was a bit frustrating at the time as my options felt limited but it worked out in the end.

I think it’s important to note that alongside career challenges many people also overcome personal challenges. I believe that we should help people to feel comfortable talking about these challenges. Due to illnesses, I was helping care for both of my parents. While I found it hard to talk about what was happening, I did eventually make my lecturers aware of what was going on. This helped them to gain a better understanding and offer help and support. Balancing caring responsibilities with part-time work and the work involved from the course felt overwhelming at times. To help overcome this, I tried to break everything up into manageable steps; doing one thing at a time and organising when I would be able to get each step done. I think this helped me to become more resilient and to use this resilience when facing new challenges.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

It was my goal to come back to Puppet after finishing a placement with them so when I was offered a job as an associate software engineer I was really happy. Since I am quite early on in my career my achievements may seem smaller, contributing to a product that is putting out new releases every 6 weeks. I have gained confidence in myself and I am hoping that the future will hold many career achievements.

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

I can’t pin this down to just one thing. It’s probably been many different things which I feel come down to having a good attitude, resilience, determination, being adaptable and at times stepping out of my comfort zone. I think being aware that everyone has good days and bad days, trying to create good habits and being consistent with myself and with work has helped. I try my best to take opportunities when they appear as long as I feel comfortable doing so. Throughout university I attended mentorship schemes and internships that really helped me to learn, network and improve my confidence.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Network, this could be through attending different tech meet-ups. If possible find a mentor or someone who inspires you and arrange 1-1 chats with them. Try to step outside your comfort zone at times and keep learning, take courses that can expand your skill set. For me it was off-putting that it was going to take 5 years before my career journey properly started, but there is a quote I always remember by Earl Nightingale, “Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use”.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I think there is a barrier for women starting their career in tech or who want to move across into a job in the tech industry if they don’t meet certain education or experience requirements. Companies could look at their requirements for technical roles, for example it shouldn’t always need to be so strict as needing a certain grade in a technical degree or years of experience in x, y and z  as I think there are lots of other skills that can be useful in tech roles. Women who have taken career breaks may find it difficult to return to the tech industry. There could be more focus on hiring more mature women who may have had career breaks, and who have experience in other industries with developed skills and attributes that could also strengthen the tech industry. Also offering return to work schemes for women who decide to have children so they know if they do, they can slowly come back to work and/or on a part-time basis if preferred. Offering part time roles and flexible working hours could also appeal to women who already have children and/or caring responsibilities.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

If companies are searching for someone to step into a higher job position, they could actively go to females who are performing at that level and ask them if they would be interested, as a lot of times women will not put themselves forward. Hiring more women into leadership and management roles will mean younger females can have role models to look up to and strive to be like. If females aren’t being represented in higher roles it can be hard to imagine being in that role yourself and to relate to someone, which can at times lead to a lack of motivation and inspiration throughout women’s careers in tech.

A lot of people, especially women will have experienced to some degree imposter syndrome, and it can be hard not to let these feelings get on top of you. Companies could discuss this and show that people who feel this way are not alone. They could also help women to feel comfortable in tech by having a great work culture with a safe space to learn and grow. Workshops in confidence building, improving presentation/public speaking skills and technical workshops would be useful.

There are currently only 21 percent 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?

It is important for schools to provide more information and bring more awareness of the different types of roles that are available within the tech industry. Students need more knowledge  when choosing their GCSEs/A-Levels in terms of what subjects are useful or required to pursue a career in the tech industry. Tech isn’t only about coding on a computer by yourself. Yes there is a certain amount of coding but other hard and soft skills are also needed such as, problem-solving, attention to detail, multitasking, communication and collaboration with team members and people from other areas of the business such as product, UX, docs, management etc.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, e.g. Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

If possible, it’s great to attend meetups in your area. Belfast has some great ones such as women who code, women techmakers, women in tech, Ladies that UX. These meetups can provide a great opportunity to expand your network by meeting new people who are working in or interested in the same area as you and to learn from workshops run by them. A short podcast I like to listen to on spotify is “Tech & Science daily”. I also find LinkedIn a great resource to keep up to date with news from different tech companies.