Women in IT: the product owner

12 May 2017

Our series of interviews with women who work in IT and the technology sector was started by co-founder Claire. It's a response, in part, to the lack of female applicants for our job vacancies - a particular problem when it comes to technical, hands-on roles.

As product owner team lead for a software company, Lisa Legg has just such a role, but like many other contributors to the series she didn't originally plan or study for a technical career. Here she shares her experience, and offers advice to anyone wanting their own career in technology.

What's your current role, and what do you do day-to-day?

My current role is product owner team lead for Red River, a software and business transformation company based in Horsham. I spend quite a lot of time with our clients or potential clients, talking about new projects or enhancements to existing projects. I enjoy getting to know clients' businesses, seeing how they work and what their ethos is - I think you need to understand a business in order to be able to design software to suit its individual needs.

I talk to business owners, stakeholders and end users. I enjoy sitting with end users and hearing about their current frustrations as it always gives me a little shiver of delight when thinking about how we can solve those issues. Once we have a full understanding of the client's goals, I also am involved in designing the software, usually in the form of written "user stories" supported by wireframe designs. As a team, we spend time looking at the best user experience for the end user and design the software around this.

I am mentoring two trainee product owners, so I will generally catch up with them most days. We look at progress, priorities and next steps for the projects they are working on, any issues they have encountered and how to resolve these, plus a general chat about how they are feeling. These daily informal catch-ups are supported by regular, more formal reviews and mentoring sessions and involvement in team meetings.

When I am not talking to clients, I spend a fair amount of time buried in the "product backlog". This is our ever-evolving list of user stories that form the basis of the whole project or feature. The stories are re-prioritised regularly, usually based on conversations with clients and I am generally adding new stories on a daily basis. I spend a lot of time with the development team, discussing the stories and the overall vision for the project.

Finally, I work closely with the delivery team to schedule releases of software to the client. We release new versions very regularly, even in the early stages, so that the client has the maximum opportunity to follow progress, test, and feedback with their thoughts and sometimes new ideas.

You studied Fine Art. Were you already programming at that point, or did you get into it after university? What was the catalyst?

Lisa LeggI loved art from a very young age and whilst at university and for the following few years, my intention was to qualify as an art therapist. After my degree, I worked in various healthcare settings running art and craft sessions for people with learning disabilities or mental health problems.

However, after a few years I felt I needed a break and I ended up taking a job at a software company as their support coordinator. I was the first point of call for the clients and would allocate work to the development team, keep the client updated with progress and schedule releases. I did this for a year, but became increasingly interested in what the development team were doing - it looked far more interesting than my job - so I taught myself how to program in my spare time. I approached the development manager and asked him for a job; he grilled me on my background (luckily impressed by my maths A Level) then told me to go away and come back with fully functioning calculator software. I quickly did and was offered a job as a junior developer. I progressed from there.

Do you enjoy working in technology?

I love it! I find it very creative, to essentially start with nothing and end up with something that can run a business and that is also attractive and a pleasure to use. I love the teamwork, both within our company, but also the feeling of working as a team with the client to achieve the results that they need to enable them to grow. It is mentally challenging and there is a lot of variety in the projects that we do and the problems that we need to solve, so there is constant learning.

Your approach to software seems creative. Does your background in the arts inform ideas like starting with the user story, or is it just a sound design approach?

I think that designing from user stories is best practice in designing software generally. It's empathy with the end user that helps ensure the end product not only does the job, but is something they actually want to use. My art background certainly does give me an interest in the aesthetics of the software that we create, and that complements our user-centric design process.

I also think that women often have 'soft skills' to offer - communication, empathy, understanding - that don't necessarily fit with the perception of what technologists require, but which are incredibly important in designing a product. It's vital to have clear and honest lines of communication with the customer.

Have you ever experienced any implicit bias or direct sexism in your roles?

Yes, I have at times. In previous companies that I have worked for I was not offered the training that the other developers were offered, I was paid less and I have definitely been treated differently from my male counterparts at times - both by employers and by customers and others. Luckily, this has not been my overall experience, and in my current company I have been completely and utterly supported in every way.

Do you know many other women who work in tech?

No - I've no close friends or relatives in anything tech related.

Would you recommend IT or tech to girls who are thinking about their future careers?

Absolutely. There are such a variety of roles in IT or tech that there really is something to suit everyone.

What's the best thing a girl or woman can do to get into the tech sector?

Look around and research the different companies and roles available, look at online resources for training (there are lots of free resources available), and join clubs - either at school or outside. There are local organisations that you can follow on social media to find out what is going on around you, either clubs or one-off events that may be run. If you are at school or college, talk to teachers for advice.

If you are looking at technology as a second career, it's a good idea to get some training under your belt first to show your commitment. Research positions, don't be afraid to contact local tech companies for advice, and don't be put off if the first one is not very responsive; there are plenty of companies out there that would love to hear from you.

How can we encourage more girls and women to consider an IT or tech career?

Ideally we need to change the view that tech is somehow for boys, and also educate women about the variety and type of roles that there are.

There are some good things going on at the moment: I recently attended a Women in Tech event at my daughter's school, where they explored the different career options based on the results of a personality quiz that the girls did. This presented tech in a fun and open way and hopefully opened the girls' eyes to the fact that there are many, many career options in technology. However, as this was an optional after-school event, there were not as many girls attending as if it had been part of the curriculum.

Does your role give you an opportunity to be an ambassador in this regard?

Yes, I talked to many of the girls at the Women in Tech event, and have also jointly done a talk at the local college, but on the latter occasion I was sad to find the room was full of boys (no girls at all!). The company I work for does a lot of work promoting tech in the community, so this also gives me opportunities to be involved.

 

We'd love to hear from more female job applicants. If you want to join us, take a look at our current jobs, and get in touch with HR@ideal.co.uk to tell us why you're the Ideal candidate.

Header image: Jacopo Romei/Flickr, Creative Commons