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Opportunities for women to retrain in the technology and innovation industries are a big talking point at the moment. Kate Koehn explains how she retrained – and found a job she loves at Amazon.
Businesses, governments and the education sector are busy creating new pathways for women to enter STEM-related study and careers through retraining. It’s no surprise that this is a priority when you consider the benefits.
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 for UK businesses. And women working in innovation roles earn up to £11,000 more per year on average compared to other careers.
Retraining into a technical role is something I have personal experience of. Currently I’m a Programme Manager for Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), which means I drive server capacity management programmes that scale the cloud to ensure we can always meet customer demand for data storage.
However up until a few years ago, I was waiting tables, working in a motorbike repair shop and teaching English. So how did I unlock this opportunity to retrain into a technical role at Amazon, and what advice would I give to others?
Despite studying psychology at university, and the fact I used to do my friends’ maths test for fun, there was a time where I genuinely believed that I wouldn’t be smart enough for a technical role! That’s why a supportive employer like Amazon is invaluable. I actually started in recruitment co-ordination 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 Amazon Web Services (AWS) works and build networks internally.
Amazon has been fantastic in supporting me with formal and informal training, lots of different learning opportunities and the time I needed to improve my skills.
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’s Return to Work programme, in-work training and a new UK-wide interactive training programme all help to build confidence and personal skills.
I had a clear idea in my mind of which role I wanted. 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 the expectations around it and would be able to learn on the job. I would also advise that you plan your career two steps ahead. This will allow you to plan for the skills, networks and contacts you will need to keep progressing.
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?’
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. The process of retraining isn’t always easy – you have to keep knocking on the door and asking the question.
Find time to improve your own skills
This is a key challenge – where do you find the time to improve the skills that will bridge a large technical gap?
I enrolled in Computer Science Fundamentals and am currently pursuing a certificate in Python Programming. These courses gave me the key fundamentals necessary to succeed at my job, and it’s taken about 18 months to complete. I carved out the time to study outside of work. I prioritised studying over many things in my life, which was certainly difficult at times – but it is temporary and ultimately it is an investment in myself and my future, and absolutely worth it!
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. Technology changes and evolves so quickly that a career in tech involves learning every single day. And if you have a good mindset for learning, you’re better prepared to develop throughout your career.
My non-technical work history shaped who I am today. I’ve worked in a motorbike repair shop, worked in restaurants, taught English, worked for an eye bank, worked in recruitment and even worked in an Anatomy Lab.
All of those roles taught me something new – interpersonal skills, technical knowledge, problem-solving, professional networking… It might be easy to disregard that experience as irrelevant, but it all counts towards your personal and professional growth. No matter which kind of technical role you enter, your ability to manage, delegate, communicate and build relationships will always be essential.