Inspirational Woman: Sophie Davies-Patrick | Chief Technology Officer, MPB

Sophie Davies-PatrickSophie Davies-Patrick is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for MPB, the world’s largest online platform to buy, sell and trade used photo and video kit.

A transformational leader, Sophie brings over 25 years of experience across several key engineering, project management, and director roles in tech. She is an active careers ambassador for STEM Learning UK where, for over 14 years, she has regularly delivered talks to young people and attended careers fairs in the hope of empowering them to take a career in STEM.

Sophie has a real passion for driving change and, over the last two decades, has leveraged technology to produce results for businesses that range from high-growth start-ups to Fortune 500 companies.

Since joining MPB, Sophie has driven better customer value through the innovative use of technology, which is one of the key reasons she won “CTO of the year” in the 2021 Women In Tech Awards – just 10 months into her first CTO role.

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

Prior to joining MPB, I spent five years on the leadership team of American Express, overseeing engineering teams and delivering agile transformation within two major company platforms. Before American Express I held engineering, project management, and director roles at Clearleft, Yahoo! and the British Airports Authority.

Now as the CTO for MPB, I define the technology strategy and lead product development for the world’s largest online platform specialising in used photo and video kit. Recently we have overhauled MPB’s Product & Engineering team by increasing the pace and predictability of work and reducing the risk associated with updates and deployments, to help deliver better value to the company.

Day to day I work on initiatives that enhance the service the platform provides to its customers, helping MPB to achieve its growth ambitions.  We are currently working on the launch of our new platform where we have completely transformed the user experience and added a wealth of new features to the MPB site.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I started to teach myself how to code at seven and loved it from the outset, so a tech career was never a hard sell for me. It wasn’t a straight path from there as IT and computer science courses were rare at the time. When choosing my A-levels, I decided to follow my interests and studied further maths, art and physics, then completed a degree in Anthropology.

This all changed towards the end of my degree when I went to visit the university’s career advisor. They gave me a questionnaire that looks at your qualifications and personal interests to determine a career you’d be well suited to. Surprisingly, the results came back and said I would be a great fit for software engineering.

Looking back, this was such a defining moment for me. Since I had no qualifications or experience, I didn’t consider software engineering to be an option at the time. However, my career advisor pointed out that having a mix of maths, science and art is perfect for a role like this as you need to have the ability to solve complex problems creatively.

Back then, relevant degrees weren’t necessary to get your foot in the door as companies trained you on the job, so I took on my first job in tech as an Analyst Programmer and haven’t looked back since! It feels so surreal that a small moment in time can completely change the trajectory of your career.

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

I think of myself as a very ambitious and passionate person, and that itself creates a very demanding environment; I constantly react to challenges around me or challenge myself. I’m a firm believer that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a fantastic way to excel in your career but that inevitably leads to some moments where, by its nature, you’re uncomfortable.

Reflecting on more of the systemic challenges I faced in my role, when I began my career in technology a senior manager told me that women’s brains didn’t work the right way for them to succeed as programmers. Sexism was a lot more prevalent back then and it was tough to prove your value to colleagues that constantly underestimate your potential. Being the minority in most meetings did take some getting used to as well but it meant that you were much more likely to be remembered.

The silver lining in all of this is that I had a good opportunity to make an impact and it left me more resilient and tenacious; traits hiring managers love. It’s a shame that extra mental toughness can be the price of admission.

Overall, I believe that the tech landscape for women has changed drastically in the last 30 years for the better but of course, there is still progress to be made.

What are some of your biggest career achievements to date?

Landing my first role as a CTO and winning CTO of the year the following year was huge for me. I’ve taken on many senior positions across a range of global companies, but this is by far the most challenging. It’s so easy to get tied up in imposter syndrome no matter how long you’ve been in the game but moments like that really help you to reflect and celebrate your achievements.

Another achievement I would highlight is being able to secure a senior role in tech following my maternity leave. After having my son, I chose to be  out of full-time work for almost 5 years so my technical skills did atrophy a little which can knock your confidence, but being able to come back and land a senior role was something I took great pride in.

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

Getting that hands-on experience at the beginning of my career, the ability to learn and train on the job is invaluable. I believe the industry could do more to engage young people that maybe didn’t choose the university path or took an unrelated course but want to learn.

Tenacity and hard work also go a long way. Computer science, just like any other science, is a trial-and-error process, and you need to trial a lot of ideas before you get to the final solution. Being able to keep a positive mindset when problems get tough and being to push through is hugely important.

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

Tech is always changing, and it changes quickly. One key piece of advice I would give is to invest time in keeping your skills current so you don’t get left behind.

It’s also a far-reaching industry, you may get to travel, work across sectors and meet all kinds of brilliant people; it’s one of the many reasons I love tech. Being open minded to working across different companies of all sizes and sectors can give you invaluable experience. I did this throughout my career and was exposed to different ways of working and this gave me many professional opportunities. Having this diverse experience helped shape my career and get me to where I am today; so be curious and take these opportunities with both hands!

Do you believe there are still barriers for women to get into the tech industry? If so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Getting your foot in the door can still be challenging and many of these barriers lie within the recruitment process. There are steps that HR and hiring teams can take to help improve gender diversity. In terms of personal experience, there are a couple of things that I’ve found work well. Firstly, using gender-neutral language when advertising roles can encourage a more diverse pool of applicants. Secondly, and probably most important, using diverse interview panels. This helps candidates realise they won’t be a tick in a diversity checkbox and gives them the ability to imagine themselves working at the company.

Finally, once women are hired, companies should focus on team happiness and engagement to maximise retention of their female employees… and because it is the right thing to do for the whole team!

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

Once women are professional, we need to actively choose to give more opportunities to them. Training and continuous professional development are the most important of these in order to stem the low number of female computer graduates.

It is not enough to let women do the legwork themselves, find out what they need to learn, research training opportunities and then make a funding case. Those in leadership roles need to be more proactive in this area by investing in the training resources for everyone and nurturing the career development of young women.

Companies also need to challenge themselves to support those at all stages of their life. Unfortunately, 35% of women leave the industry when they start a family. The engineers everyone wants to hire are the ones who also code in their spare time because they love it. Side projects such as contributing to open-source software, entering hackathons and pursuing personal projects don’t just keep people happy, they also keep them up to date and connected to the wider world. For some women, though, starting a family seriously curtails this coding time. I don’t think employers can just expect people to hit a high technical bar without helping them maintain it.

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? 

More exposure to the industry. I’d love more women to move to the tech sector, they genuinely don’t know what they’re missing! However, if you don’t understand the opportunities that are out there for you, you won’t take them.

The reality is the tech gender disparity starts in education. Children as young as 4 start displaying gender bias when thinking about jobs and when asked about what influences their career choices, children state that teachers and their schools have the most impact.

These influences impact higher education choices. Only 14% of A-level computer science students in 2020 are women, and when looking at the most recent university graduates, only 20% of engineering and technology students and 21% of computing students were women. That’s why education is a crucial time to take positive action and break down these stereotypes to show girls the endless career potential in STEM.

I’ve visited schools to talk to students about career opportunities in our industry and take part in coding events. It can be tough to overcome girls’ initial scepticism, but they really shouldn’t worry. Women are changing the world through tech and it’s such an exciting and rewarding sector to be a part of! It’s essential that we celebrate these women and the many others that are making an impact in tech today in order to inspire others.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Mentorship programmes are great, and I would highly recommend joining STEMNet as an ambassador. There are a range of activities you can get involved in, from careers fairs, to hosting school trips, to mock job interviews. Female representation is important and there is an opportunity to make a meaningful impact by encouraging the change we want to see in the industry. As well as this, 45% of the ambassadors are women; it’s a great chance to meet brilliant people across the industry and learn about the incredible work they are doing!

In terms of reading materials, it’s important to diversify where you get your information from and look for inspiration everywhere. But if I had to choose one source, I think Medium is a brilliant platform for thought leadership and sharing ideas.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future? 

On a personal level, I’m keen to do more non-exec work in the community, particularly getting more involved in my role as a board member at WIRED Sussex.

There are a few other things on the horizon. Working in a company that is scaling rapidly means there are a lot of challenges to solve. At the moment I’m focused on building the future of MPB and creating better enterprise value. One of these projects includes the new platform which is due to launch this quarter. It is definitely our most ambitious project to date and I’m so excited to see the launch!