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Nicolette Bullivant is Head of Projects, Data Innovation at Isban UK, Santander´s specialist banking software company. She also has four sons, aged 19, 16, 14 and nine.
Asked what impact that has had on her career she says it is difficult to tell. On the one hand, it may have slowed her progress a little, but on the other it has made her more committed to her career. What is clear is that Nicolette thrives on constantly challenging herself and in the sector she works in an ability to adapt to change is part of the DNA.
Nicolette had her eldest son when she was 23 and working for Abbey National as a debt collector. Before she had her son she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She realised on maternity leave that being at home full time wasn’t for her. “I felt like I had lost my identity,” she says. “Work is a way of me being me and I felt more committed after having children. I had to provide for my family and it was also important for me as a person too.”
When she went back the family was struggling financially with childcare bills. She felt her role didn’t offer a long term future so after a year, she saw a role advertised internally for a trainee developer in IT and went for it. She didn’t have any background in IT, but that didn’t deter her.
“It was like being dropped on another planet,” she says. She adds that she felt she had to work harder than her male colleagues both because she was new to IT and because she was a woman and a young mum. “I had to prove myself on many levels. It was a challenging first year, but I wanted to do something that offered a better income for my family and that stretched me mentally. I needed the opportunity to learn and I got a big sense of achievement from challenging myself.”
Support and encouragement
Nicolette says attitudes have changed since then and that she benefited from a supportive line manager who actively encouraged her. “He said straight away that I looked at problems in a different way and that this brought a different perspective,” she says, adding that over her career she has had some great managers and is trying to incorporate what she has learnt from that into her own management style.
She fell pregnant with her second son soon after starting the new job and, when she had qualified as a developer, she changed tack again. “I’ve never stood still and said I am happy and comfortable,” she says. “The nature of tech means you have to keep learning new skills or your old ones will become redundant in a very short time.”
Her partner, who is a plumbing merchant, decided to be a stay-at-home dad for the short term as her career had longer term prospects and went through peaks and troughs of busyness as well as requiring her to be on call. “We’ve never had specific gender roles,” says Nicolette, adding that the couple divide tasks at home based on who is best at it. “We play to our strengths” she says.
Nicolette says one of the big advantages of working in the same large company for 22 years is that it feels like it has lots of mini companies inside it which means she has been able to move around, but remain close to home. That also means she can keep challenging herself and has been able to keep moving up the career ladder.
She adds that parenting skills, such as the ability to organise and prioritise what is important, have helped her at work – at one point, for instance, she had three children under five and was a team leader. “My risk evaluation and organisation skills are completely honed,” she says.
By baby number four she was managing quite a large team and working on database solutions. After maternity leave she changed course again, working on screen technology rather than databases, but ended up returning to databases and managing a larger team. “I’m more of a data geek,” she says.
She has been working for the last two and a half years in her current role which involves dealing with big data and says she loves the job. “It is very exciting and changes every week,” she says.
Over the last few years there has been a lot of organisational change with Abbey National being taken over by Santander. Nicolette says Santander’s arrival has brought a different working environment which is more lively, multicultural and “buzzy”. “It suits me well,” she says, adding that it is very flexible. For instance, if one of her children has been sick she can work from home. “Flexible working is about give and take and it is appreciated that I will give back in return,” she says.
She admits she works long hours, but says this is because she is ambitious, not because it is expected of her and she makes a clear delineation between work and home life. She has also had to flex around other family issues. In recent years one of her sons had severe medical complications due to a rare metabolic illness, VLCAD, and was admitted to hospital. In fact it was subsequently discovered that three of her sons have a chronic illness. However, she has a good support network around her of family and friends which has helped a lot.
Nicolette is keen to encourage more female graduates into careers in technology. “You don’t get a true balance of opinion or the best product if the balance is skewed towards one gender,” she states. She suspects the crucial time to target girls and to show them how a career in STEM is attractive and relevant to them is when they are choosing their GCSE options.
Isban is fairly unique in the tech sector, she adds, because it has a good gender balance. The company has been recruiting through Workingmums.co.uk and Nicolette says this sends a message that it sees gender balance as important. “I am very proud to be working for a company where at no level do I feel discriminated against because I am a woman,” she says.