Sarah SmithSarah Smith, Head of Migration at ENSEK, has over 12 years of experience helping utility companies work through some of their biggest technology challenges.

With ENSEK, the UK’s most innovative provider for SaaS solutions for the retail energy market, she has worked across different projects including setting up the delivery and customer success functions and supporting new entrants and existing suppliers as they move to its platform.

In addition, she has worked extensively with 2 of UK’s largest Energy Suppliers on their smart metering programmes, with particular expertise in smart business architecture: the capabilities energy companies will require to run a smart organisation and the impact of smart metering on processes and staff, whether front office, back office or in the field.

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

I love solving problems and working out how to deliver strategy.

I also enjoy working as part of a team to get a project over the line, to see a tangible outcome and be able to say ‘we did that’.

I’m passionate about retaining the best talent in the workforce and trying to keep hold of the amazing experience and skills of working parents.

I had a slightly unusual route into technology: Classics at Oxford University and then a decade, spent as a Management Consultant, working on large transformation programmes at utility companies. I took myself (and quite a lot of other people) by surprise when I moved to a software company. I joined ENSEK three and a half years ago, even though I had tried to steer clear of IT projects during my consulting career! However, it turns out it’s my calling. The company has transformed from a start-up into one of the fastest growing tech companies in Europe over that period.  I have gone from knowing very little about technology to being fluent in agile delivery models, cloud computing, machine learning and APIs. I also like to think that my operational and change management background has given me a greater understanding of our clients.

Whilst at ENSEK, I have set up our delivery function, created the Customer Strategy and am currently setting up a centralised migration function. Along our journey to market leaders for retail energy software, our clients have also got much bigger and more complex. This has meant that migrating them onto our platform is a much more taxing activity – there will be data quality challenges and time zone challenges, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes, and I still do. In fact, I sat down with my coach this morning to discuss my goals for the next 6 months and 2 years. My career has rarely turned out in the ways I have planned, but taking the time to take a step back and consider different options, keeping up with old colleagues and even day-dreaming about how I’d run my own company, help me to understand what is important in my role and what my personal values are. This means that when opportunities do come up, I know whether or not they will be right for me. It also helps me to shape my current role to give me the experience I need moving forwards.

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

I think my biggest challenges have been related to the massive shift to balancing work and family obligations. I had a real crisis of confidence in my ability to have a career after the birth of my first child. My ways of working and environment used to be centred around long hours in the office and this just wouldn’t work with nursery drop-offs and bath times. It took me a long time to realise that the only person who cared about me turning up ‘late’ or leaving ‘early’ was me. Realising that I put too much pressure on myself, really helped me in prioritising workload, learning when to delegate tasks and when to say no.

Another tough challenge was shortly after returning to work following child number two (there is a theme!), when it became increasingly clear that I couldn’t progress through the ranks as a consultant without making sacrifices at home: large amounts of travel and nights away from the family. It forced me to make the very difficult decision to leave a role and company that I loved. Moving to a senior position in a tech company was a challenge in its own right, since I didn’t have a technical background. But in a start-up, you have to get stuck in and find your go-to experts quickly. Helping ENSEK to grow from a small business to one of the biggest names in our industry and hopefully onto global success has been an incredible journey

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I have led many initiatives at ENSEK to champion flexible working, support for parents and diversity. I’ve contributed to improving our maternity policy and we now have best-in-class packages for parents. I have constantly challenged our leadership to think about how to improve talent retention, flexibility for all staff, and how to remove unconscious bias from decision making. But I have also tried to ‘real model’ healthy behaviours around work/ life balance: I sent out an email to new members of my team, explaining my flexibility, my day off and my boundaries, I put school pick-ups in my calendar, and I make an effort to go for runs/ walks throughout the working week. Culture is now a huge focus for us as we grow and operate remotely through COVID and I am really proud of the role I have played in that.

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

I have a lot of privilege: I had a great education and had a lot of support growing up. I was taught to believe I could do or be whatever I put my mind to. My mum had been a computer programmer, who studied computer science at university in the 1960s, she and her brother were the first people in the family to go to university, so I had a great role model. I was encouraged to be curious, to challenge and solve problems and I think I have always taken that mindset into my working life

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

  • Give yourself permission to succeed; don’t be afraid to shape and add to your role. Go for the interviews that you’re not sure about, have the conversations about growth and salary with your boss. I got my first ‘Head of’ role, by putting my name on an org chart as ‘Head of Delivery’, a role that didn’t exist at the company at the time – no one questioned it!
  • Get yourself a network of trusted advisors and coaches. It’s invaluable to have someone outside of your family and work to bounce ideas off, work through problems and give you assurance that you’re doing the right thing. I am part of a great remote networking group of mothers in leadership roles, who meet every week – they have been a real source of strength, ideas and sanity during lockdown.
  • This one is aimed at parents returning from maternity or extended paternity leave and may sound counter-intuitive, but: set boundaries at home. If you want to excel at work, you cannot carry all of the mental load at home. If you have been away from work for many months, then the chances are, you will be doing most of the work at home. You need to be very clear about what you are going to stop doing at home and then you need to give it up entirely.

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

Yes – I think there is a cultural expectation that women do a lot of glue work (see below for the link to Tanya Reilly’s great blog on the subject). This work takes a lot of time and tends to be undervalued – it can take time away from the ‘core role’ and unfairly reduce opportunities. I think the answer to this needs to come from women and their managers. Women (and anyone prone to taking on too much glue work) should try to limit how much they take on and, ideally, be able to tell a story for how it has helped the company or improved their skills. On the other side, managers should ensure that they are spreading glue work across all members of their teams and should include it in reviews and performance.

I also believe that networking opportunities are harder for working women, particularly mothers. Junior members of my team have been invited to golf days and football matches, purely on the basis of them being male! Too many networking opportunities and events are still centred around boozy dinners, which often doesn’t work for parents. Hopefully, the move to remote working will result in more innovative ways to network virtually around caring responsibilities.

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

Flexible and remote working – there are lots of great tools that can be used for virtual teams.

Offer shared parental leave and encourage all parents to take it: equality at work does not happen until there is equality at home. In addition, support back to work schemes for women in technology, who have taken time out to have children. The pace of change in technology is fast and even after a few years out, a return can seem daunting

Think hard about socials and networking events, who do they work for and who will struggle to attend.

Coaching and mentoring by leadership are great to offer all talented employees and, when done well, can work both ways. Helping leaders to understand the barriers and challenges faced by junior staff, particularly women and the BAME community.

Really support diversity of thought and approach, listen to opinions that aren’t shouted, ignore how people look and sound and pay attention to what they have to say, recruit for ‘add’ rather than ‘fit’.

There is currently only 15% 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?

Encourage more girls into STEM subjects at school and university. Furthermore, there is still a burning issue with gendered toys.  If we want to see more women excel in technology, we have to start at the outset and provide a greater variety of gender-neutral entertainment. This stuff starts early and there is no silver bullet!

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I can’t recommend highly enough – Lyndsey is a great coach, expert in D&I and champion for women leaders. She also has a great Instagram account.

Tanya Reilly’s blog ‘Being glue’ is a great read:

Amol Rajan’s BBC documentary: ‘how to break into the elite’ the whole documentary is no longer available on iPlayer, but there are some clips on iPlayer and YouTube

I follow Women in Tech, The Female Lead, 56 Black Men on LinkedIn

Women of Silicon Roundabout is a great UK conference for women working in tech

I very rarely read ‘business’ books, a couple of exceptions are:

  • ‘Invisible women’, which was a real eye opener to the systemic issues faced by women,
  • ‘Untamed’ by Glennon Doyle, which has made me think about being me a bit more bravely
  • ‘Why all fish*are biased (and how to tackle prejudice) *humans’ Lyndsey Oliver

However, for anyone like me, who loves literature, there are some books that have really changed me and the way I think about women and diversity: ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara, ‘The Book of Night Women’ by Marlon James, of course, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I’m currently reading what feels like the book of the year: ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ and I think that will soon be added to the list!

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here