Mabel Ochebiri tells Zarina Camal about winning a hackathon, positive changes to bring about equality and giving back to up and coming women in tech. This interview was in support of the Coding Black Females takeover of the BCS Diversity report 2022.
After scouting out a career in teaching or finance, Ochebiri went to university to study maths. It was there that she first got excited about the possibilities of tech.
So tell us about your career?
When I left university I took a trainee software engineer role at a software development company, and basically, I fell in love with my role. Every single day was different.
At the time I knew that I had to take a lot more online classes on the side. So, I started exploring online to find further training as cheaply as possible. And that's when I bumped into Code First Girls and Coding Black Females. There were a few free courses, I took them, I then decided to document my journey, just for me.
I was doing the 100 Days Code challenge online and was introduced to a beautiful community of women in the tech space. So, I've been working in tech ever since and it's been amazing.
What obstacles have you faced on your career journey?
At sixth form I was one of only two females choosing STEM subjects. I thought that was the norm, which it shouldn't be. I then thought, okay some people might be pulled away from these roles because there's not enough women. I've noticed that usually with tech companies more women are usually in leadership roles rather than technical core teams.
I was one of two women on the core team where the other woman was my manager. Having a woman as my manager was very, very encouraging. She really made me feel like part of the family even with the smallest things. However, I did notice she was under a lot of stress.
She had to work double; she had to work twice as much as her male counterparts in order to prove herself. Eight months into my role she got pregnant and again there was a lot of pressure on her, as it felt like her being pregnant was going to put her at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the group. And that's when my eyes opened to the fact that, “that could be you in five-seven years”.
So, I completely understand why women might not feel very encouraged. Being diverse is one thing but being inclusive is a totally different thing. They were diverse in having a woman as a technical manager but not that inclusive given that she didn't feel comfortable throughout her maternity stage.
I believe that might be why women do not feel comfortable in these places. It's deeper than just being the only woman in the room, it's also about the systems in place to support you. Thankfully my current company is completely different and they do really support and are inclusive of everyone regardless of gender, race or sexual identity.
What would you have wanted that company to do differently?
I think we need more women at the top. While my manager was a woman all of the c-level executives were men. The rules and the pressures came from above – and it’s not their fault, men probably don't understand how it feels like for a woman coming back to work after a year off, especially in tech where things go fast. If you're trying to be inclusive, involving the people that you're trying to include in the decision-making process is very, very important.
Can you share any other career experiences either positive or negative?
I would definitely say my current role and company is definitely positive. I feel that there's a good balance in leadership roles and a good balance of both men and women.
That also translates into the junior roles. They ask for custom feedback from everyone in order to update their policies, so they're very open to feedback. They actively seek out feedback. They believe if your employee is happy and they're being heard then they'll do a good job.
Also, my first company was a start-up but this one is a bigger company doing it for longer. But, definitely giving and receiving feedback, having a diverse group at every single level and communicating with your employees to understand their concerns and issues.
Who helped you to get to where you are in your career?
My first manager played a huge role in my development and career progression in tech. She encouraged me and opened my eyes to the opportunities in tech beyond my current role and company. So definitely her. I also have another mentor who is a data analyst for a bank in the UK. Maybe it's because as women we know the struggle, so probably seeing me as a junior in the field they were very nurturing and supportive of me, trying to share experiences and resources
Coding Black Females and BCS have collaborated on a report to capture the real experiences of Black women in the tech industry.
I think my online tech community really helped as well because again as soon as I started, I was able to connect with other women in tech from all over the world. We would have discussions on different experiences, by listening or following other people's stories you pick up things and you learn things.
For example, I learned what a healthy work environment was, which I didn't know when coming out of university; nobody teaches you that! I learned what the different tech routes were, how different people got into tech and it really encouraged me hearing stories of people that may have not studied computer science who are in very technical roles.
What tips would you give to others when getting into tech?
Online community and networking is everything. It was really good because it makes you feel like you're not the only one going through the journey. It can be very hard, even if you are getting development days off work, people might not have the time to be there for you. But the community made me feel like I wasn't alone throughout those times. And networking, going to tech talks, tech events, because you never know who you might meet. I have been exposed to so many opportunities just by having an informal chat with people at tech conferences.
If you could, what three things would you have changed to make your career journey smoother?
Based on my experience from the start, I would have loved to be more supported. So, I was supported in mentorship from my manager but towards the end I noticed I wasn't getting paid market value – but I was taking on a lot more responsibility than my role. That often happens in start-ups. I didn't have the awareness that you need to market yourself and do the research when underpaid.
Probably how to market yourself. It's something they should be talking about in university, just understanding how to put yourself out there, what a market value salary or a competitive salary actually is.
At the start of my career it was disappointing to see how expensive courses are. Not everyone can work for three months and pay £10,000 for a bootcamp. This is something that Coding Black Females are already working on, providing free courses or something that is more affordable for people. Another thing that should change is having out of date tech courses. Some of these courses are very expensive but are teaching outdated material. In tech you should be updated constantly.
What are your next goals in terms of your career planning?
I recently won a hackathon with East Global. We had to create a project within six hours, and my team’s project was based on a data analytics and project management tool. So, I'm planning to keep working on that and I might form a company out of that with my teammates.
The second plan is definitely giving back to the community that helped me come up in terms of Coding Black Females and Code First Girls. I keep posting things online in terms of educational tips for people getting into tech and I'll keep calling to other women to join that fight.
What’s the one final piece of advice you’d like to give?
I would definitely say understand your value and once you're in the workplace don't work for acceptance. Work from a place where you know your value and won't allow people to treat you in any kind of lesser way. So, I think that's the main thing I took away from a short career of three years. Keep working hard, go there with confidence and make sure that you fight for the things that you're entitled to. Fight to be treated the way you should be treated.