learning on the job, retraining, woman on computerBy Kate Koehn, Program Manager, Amazon Web Services

Opportunities for women to retrain in the technology and innovation industries are a top priority for government, businesses and the education sector.

Recent research from WISE, in partnership with Amazon, surveyed 1,000 women working in STEM and found that a 10 per cent increase of women in STEM careers would lead to a £3bn boost to the UK economy. Women in innovation and tech roles were also found to earn £11,000 more per year on average.

But this work to address the gender balance in the technology industry by appealing to more women and girls is not just about graduates and undergraduates.

With personal experience of retraining into a technical role, my message is that it’s never too late to retrain.

A few years ago, I was waiting tables and answering phones at a motorbike repair shop, but I’m now working as a Program Manager for Amazon Web Services (AWS), a job I love and enjoy immensely.

That means I work every day to drive programmes that scale server capacity to stay ahead of customer demand for data storage on the cloud.

So how did I unlock this opportunity to retrain into a technical role with Amazon, and what advice would I give to other women who want to retrain but might not know where to start?

All your other experiences still matter 

I took an unusual route into my current role, initialling studying psychology at university before working in a variety of jobs, including restaurants, a motorbike repair shop, teaching and recruitment. Although I always loved the scale, ambition and complexity of engineering, you might say that the residual bias of youth had affected me. Without the positive role models and the availability of career paths, I had assumed that I wasn’t smart enough to be part of the tech world.

However, looking back I can’t discount the value of those early experiences. All of those roles taught me something new – interpersonal skills, technical knowledge, problem-solving, professional networks. You cannot disregard that experience as irrelevant because it all counts towards your personal and professional growth. It made me the person I am today.

No matter which kind of technical role you enter, an ability to manage, delegate, communicate and build relationships will always benefit your career.

Lean on your employer for support

Working with a supportive employer has been invaluable. Amazon have been fantastic in supporting me with formal and informal training, lots of different learning opportunities and the time I needed to improve my skills.

I initially started as a recruitment co-ordinator with Amazon. I knew that role wasn’t what I wanted to be doing long-term, but it was a foot in the door which allowed me to work closely with engineering teams, to develop my understanding of how AWS works, and build networks internally.

The next challenge was arguably the hardest: how to bridge the gap in my technical knowledge by building my own skills? I decided to enrol in Computer Science and Python programming courses, and with support from Amazon, carved out the time to study. Those courses gave me the fundamentals in key areas, including a certification in Python programming, and it’s taken about 18 months to complete.

Amazon is also able to offer formal and informal retraining opportunities. For example, its new Amazon Amplify programme in the UK was launched to help further increase the number of women in technology and innovation roles across our UK business. Through Amazon Amplify, its degree apprenticeship programme, AWS (Amazon Web Services) Return to Work programme, in-work training and a new UK-wide interactive training programme all help to build confidence and personal skills.

Beyond that, you have to be prepared to learn on the job. I find it helps to understand that everybody else is learning on the job as well, even if they have a background in your chosen area.

Ask the right questions – and keep asking

In a supportive work environment, it’s totally acceptable to say: ‘I want to work for your team, but I don’t have the right credentials – how do I make this happen?’

I had a clear idea in my mind of which role I wanted within Amazon. During discussions, I was offered other roles – including an Executive Assistant position – but I knew that wasn’t the right step for me personally. By giving a clear impression of what I wanted, my managers knew that I understood the role and would be able to learn on the job.

Within those conversations, make sure to communicate your understanding of the company culture and demonstrate your interest in developing technical skills. Take the time to learn about similar roles and the other specialists that you will come into contact with, so you understand the bigger picture and can speak the right language.

Kate KoehnAbout the author

Kate Koehn is based in Seattle as a Program Manager for S3 Index, Amazon Web Services, where she is responsible for driving programmes for capacity management. Kate is passionate about technology, engineering, automation – and she loves to bake.