Nicola Hills

Nicola Hills is VP of Engineering at Personio.

Nicola recently joined Personio – Europe’s most valuable HR-tech company – as part of their growth strategy to double their Product, Design and Engineering team.

Having spent over three decades working in software and engineering at tech companies, including 20 years at IBM, Nicola has a wealth of experience and is extremely passionate about tech products, as well as being a huge advocate for diversity within the tech space.

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

I currently work as the VP of Engineering at Personio, leading an ever growing team of engineers working on the technology that sits at the heart of Personio products.  Prior to Personio, I’ve had a long career in software engineering and product development. For example, I worked at IBM for 22 years, across a number of roles. After such a long time at the company, I decided to opt for a change. I joined a small financial services software company as their Head of Engineering, which led me to join Snyk, a company in hyper-growth mode. At Snyk, I worked rapidly to grow a new engineering team from the ground up. This is what partially prompted me to join Personio, their rapid growth really excited me!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I could never have predicted or planned exactly where I would have ended up today. But that being said, I have been interested in and passionate about technology from the get go. My father worked in computing which definitely sparked my initial interest, however my natural strengths in maths and computer science definitely further encouraged me to pursue tech. And I have to say, I don’t regret a thing. My career in tech has been such a rewarding journey so far and the constantly evolving tech environment keeps me motivated and engaged.

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

Although I love my job, it is definitely not without its challenges. The world of technology is evolving every day, meaning you are always faced with new challenges to solve. Delivering technology and software for such complex issues means you often find yourself facing unknowns and your plans being redirected, no matter how prepared you think you are! But that’s what makes working in tech so exciting – no two days are the same and your skills are tested and used every single day.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

As well as in my engineering role at Personio, I have worked in a management role for the past 25 years. Being in management is one of my biggest achievements – it’s an amazing feeling watching those who you have mentored and worked with grow and flourish.

And on top of this, being able to work in a team with these smart people every day and delivering real world solutions to customers, improving their day to day, has to be up there with one of the best feelings!

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

I believe that being a team player is fundamental to success. I have been part of a team in every role I have had, and it has taken that team of people with their mixture of skills, approaches and personalities to get results, it has never been me alone. I also think a combination of curiosity and confidence have been key; as a leader I think you have to strike a balance between accepting that you don’t know everything, while also sometimes having belief in your convictions and being prepared to try something (and maybe fail).

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

My number one piece of advice to anyone looking to excel their career is to just take the leap of faith. If you wait to be perfect, you’ll be waiting a lifetime! Instead of comparing yourself to others, and how well prepared you think they are, you need to look inwards and have confidence and faith in your own abilities.

A career in technology is great fun, it’s fulfilling and, as I mentioned, you get to work with amazing and smart people every day. I often tell people, the great thing about the tech sector is that we gain from having a diverse group of individuals with unique skill sets. People should spend more energy focusing on the capabilities that they have and what they can bring to the table, versus worrying about what they might be missing. Just go for it!

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

The technology industry has made great progress since I started my career 30 years ago. The culture is more inclusive, with more open debate and discussion. However, it is still a male dominated industry, which can be a barrier in itself. Behaviour norms can also align with cultural gender norms, for example men are seen as passionate, whereas women are seen as emotional, or men are seen as assured while women are called overconfident when displaying the same behaviour.

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

An open and inclusive culture is key. It is important that women can come to work, be themselves and succeed doing just that. This includes education on unconscious bias, and HR processes and practices that ensure that people are rewarded for outcomes and actions – not who they are or how their behaviour and responses may compare to the majority (male) organisation.

Mentoring programs continue to be an important tool to support women, with both men and women using their experience and privilege to help women navigate what may be an environment with unfamiliar (gender based) norms. These programmes are also important for the mentors themselves, as by hearing and understanding the experiences of people within their organisation ensures that they can drive change for the better.

There are currently only 21 per cent 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?

Offering more financially supported boot camps for women. I have seen a lot of younger women who have attended bootcamps spark a passion for technology, as they realise the creative side of tech, as well as the team working and other opportunities it presents.

However, even if the course is free, attendees may not have the time to attend. This is especially true for older women, who are more likely to have financial and time-consuming responsibilities such as the need to pay for childcare. Therefore, financially supported bootcamps could offer women the ability to seize the opportunity to pursue a career in tech, without having to worry about time and income.

It is also incredibly important for us as an industry to educate young girls of school age that technology is an open, creative, and interesting career. It does not matter if you are the smartest person in the room. People seem to have gotten their head round the fact that you don’t have to be the world’s best mathematician to be a successful accountant, we need to get that same perspective on technology. We need to do that before they start to make choices and take options that may at a later stage exclude technology (and/or science) as a path. Influencing young girls to keep an open mind and options about a career in tech may not fix the problem in the next two years, but is fundamental to the sustainability and success of our industry.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I would recommend Brene Brown’s Ted Talks and books, they help you to understand that something that may have been traditionally considered a weakness is in fact a great strength.

I would also strongly recommend the LeadDev conferences, video, podcasts and blogs to anyone in or aspiring to a leadership position in software development.

Lastly, I would also encourage people to have a confident but approachable profile on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a key resource for recruiters working with and for tech companies, they will often use it to find people to reach out to with opportunities. I often see that women in technology don’t have such strong profiles, not because they don’t have the depth of knowledge and experience but because they haven’t invested the same time and approached it with the same confidence as their male peers.