Inspirational Woman: Natascha Polderman | IT Director, Schillings

Natascha PoldermanI have held senior roles in IT for over 15 years and various business transformation roles over 25 years.

I am a mum, wife and we look after two cats, one dog, two fish plus the occasional strays. I’ve worked in Asia, the US and the UK, and have moved over 20 times, so am at ease when it comes to working with different cultures and working practices. I am passionate about supporting females in tech, and am a mentor within the Reed Women in Tech programme.

Before my role as IT Director at Schillings, I was the Chief Information Officer at Control Risks. At Schillings, we are beginning a transformation to make even smarter use of technology to protect clients from threats to their reputation and privacy – and maximise the time we can spend working with clients.  As an example, we are integrating technology into our human investigations capability to obtain faster and even more accurate intelligence. It’s vital we do this in a manner which meets investigation standards - e.g. BSI Code of Conduct. To support this strategy, we have recently procured Blackdot Videris, a platform that enables the collection, processing and visualisation of Open Source Information – all in one place. Videris uses intelligent automation, robotic process automation and natural language processing to collect information. Furthermore, its visualisation tools allow us to view results in an interactive chart.  This makes a huge different to our investigations team – our investigations unearth a huge volume of complex data, and having a visual representation really helps to highlight hidden links, networks and connections.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not formally. Early in my career I was more concerned about paying my bills rather than where I would be going to next! As time went on, I spent more time thinking about next steps and the longer term. I initially majored in psychology at university but fell into IT because I enjoyed solving problems and working with people.

During my late 20’s it was clear that I wanted to lead technology functions. I knew that I wanted to steer the direction of technology within a company and felt passionate that tech should enable a firm to grow. Early in my career I often felt technology product/service decisions were being made for the wrong reasons and didn’t meet the requirements of the business. Most tech functions no longer operate like this and the challenges are now more around ensuring that IT can move fast enough whilst maximising the value tech can deliver.

As time has gone on, I have also realised that I really enjoy helping people develop and I am also enthusiastic about supporting females in tech.

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

Earlier in my career, I faced a lot of barriers because I was a female in a male dominated industry (maritime) as well as being one of a very small number of females in tech. I will never forget examples when I was asked to “sort out travel arrangements or organise the coffee” in situations where I was there to provide technical support or training. I usually chose to deal with those situations by proving that I was capable rather than confronting the individual(s).

At times I have felt some degree of imposter syndrome – particularly when I reached the CIO/Exco stage in my career. This impacted me greatly as I felt everyone was more experienced than me which began to erode my confidence. On occasion, I lost sight of the fact that I was the “tech leader in the room”.  I had some coaching sessions but with time/experience the doubts in my head have softened. Part of the root cause with imposter syndrome is the feeling that one must always be perfect or exceptional which, as we all know, is unrealistic. I now remind myself that the quest for perfection if never ending, incredibly tiresome and simply not a happy place to be in.

I also faced challenges in balancing my time at home with the effort needed at work. I was literally running from the school drop off to the train to work, squeezing in a ridiculous number of meetings at work, then running to make sure I collected my daughter from after school care on time. I look back at that time and laugh at the pressure I put myself under – cooking dinner, whilst answering emails and helping with homework.

I think this is a particularly poignant topic now because so many working parents are currently juggling home school/childcare or fulfilling other “carer” roles. There is no magic answer – juggling work and being a parent or carer is always going to be tough job and the pressure is enormous. What I will say is that I am grateful to be working for a firm that recognises this and Schillings have also made efforts to recognise the importance of good mental health. In addition to knowing that the firm I work for has realistic expectations as well as being flexible, I have re-prioritised things in my life such that I do take the time to step away from work to focus on my family. I also took up running about a year ago – spurred on by a group of friends who are incredibly supportive active runners and I was inspired by their achievements.  It is a wonderful way for me to problem solve and clear my head!

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The proudest moment in my career has been the moment when I learnt that 8 females in the tech team at Control Risks had been nominated and shortlisted for an award. I had spotted the awards and encouraged them to apply – on occasion it required me to help them prioritise the submission but overall, they were very supportive to each other and helped each other write their submission.  We won 3 awards that year and I felt such joy to be part of their success. It also gave me a boost knowing I had grown the tech team into a highly diverse, high performing team.

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

I’d have to say there have been two major factors. Firstly, to be able to adapt and change my style as I moved throughout the organisational structure. Secondly, a willingness to tackle the difficult problems that no one else had time or wanted to touch. I tackle challenges as opportunities – keeping a positive frame of mind is so important when leading change or people.

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

  • Learn how to communicate and translate tech into terms the business understands.
  • Prioritise continuous learning for yourself and don’t expect someone to manage this for you. Tech moves fast – you will need to keep up.
  • Do try and network – it is amazing how many doors get opened as a result of meeting someone new. Also, if you go to an event/conference and hear someone inspirational speak, let them know! It is wonderful to hear a compliment after a speaking event and you never know what opportunities that individual might have available.
  • Do not strive for perfection. Doesn’t exist – not in tech, not in anything.
  • Finally, ignore the voice in your head that tells you that your idea is not good enough – speak up and be proud of your ideas or solutions. Not speaking up at times bothers me more than when I spoke up with an idea that was not accepted.

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 are less barriers for women in tech than say 5-10 years ago. However, there are still not enough women in tech so clearly there are still barriers. I think the barriers are two-fold; one, females often don’t have access to inspirational STEM mentors at the start of their career so don’t know what options are available. Linking universities and schools up with females in STEM roles to provide mentoring and guidance is a helpful starting point.

The other barrier is that women are often the main carer responsibilities at home and do not have adequate access to affordable support options. This is not just relevant for tech roles obviously. COVID-19 has been absolutely devastating for the world but one positive is that there is much greater awareness of the impact family responsibilities have on an individual and that firms must be more flexible and supportive towards their employees. Working from home is not for everyone but the reduction of my commuting time has given me more hours in the day, and I would rather not go back to commuting 5 days a week.

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

Develop them, provide them with a mentor, help them build confidence (if required) and more importantly, reinforce the message that it is important to make time for continuous learning.

Also be explicit in providing practical support for working parents and carers (not just for females).

There is 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?

Diversity in tech is vital to ensure tech products and solutions deliver value to more than just one group. This is becoming more important as we move towards a greater reliance on automation and AI.  Increasing diversity in tech is not optional or a nice to have – we need to do it to ensure future technology works for all – not just a select group.

Therefore, I think we need to change how tech is taught in schools in order to inspire females to consider technical roles. Often what is taught is coding, which is a good start but really isn’t representative of the possibilities of a career in tech. So, if I could wave a magic wand, I would change what is taught and how it is taught. Schools should be communicating the many ways tech can help improve the world and discuss examples of the many roles technology can offer. Coding is just one area and with the advancement of low code tools and AI, more emphasis should be made on skills such as critical thinking, empathy, relationship building and problem solving alongside technical knowledge.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?


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