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‘Believe in yourself and assert yourself’ An interview with Helenna Vaughan-Smith

‘Nearly a third of women in tech say lack of female leaders and role models hinders careers.’ But I believe we have some of the best role models in the South West and Helenna is one of them! I met Helenna at Nationwide’s Adas Loveday event and then popped over to Good Energy where Helenna works as a Scrum Master. Good Energy have endless possibilities in technology and they want everyone to take full advantage of the tech revolution, and to be rewarded with a work-life balance which works for everyone. The world of technology is better with women in it – this story is many reasons why.

From Team Manager at a large Financial Services company to Digital Scrum Master at Good Energy, how did you get into a technical role?

From my Team Manager role in Financial Services I was TUPE’d to an outsource provider in 2012 and picked up a job working as a Client Relationship Manager. I really enjoyed it and it helped to broadened my knowledge of the business and understand more about what options might be out there.

After 2 years I made the leap into a Junior Project Manager role. It was a huge learning curve – I didn’t understand most of what they were talking about; middleware, releases, infrastructure, architecture, API’s, servers, technical debt…I had a lot to learn! I really enjoyed the pace and working with people all over the country and the world to deliver software whilst keeping the client updated and happy. It was a lovely team to work with but it was a very commercial environment and I always felt a pull towards doing something “good”.

After another two years in that role I applied for a job at Good Energy as a Project Manager and was delighted when they offered me the position. It was the “good” company I had been looking for. I worked on commercialising Selectricity as my first project and I absolutely loved working on such a positive launch. I also project managed the GDPR programme which I expected to be very dull but it really wasn’t. I worked with a first class Compliance Team and we actually had a blast. At the start of this year we started our transition to Agile and I became Scrum Master for the Digital Team where we’re developing with a new stack on our website and we’re working on launching our new mobile app. I love working for a mission led company and feeling like I’m making a difference in the world, even on the difficult days.

How has your background prepared you for success in the industry?

From being a child people have always fascinated me. I enjoy getting to know people, working people out and including people who don’t always naturally include themselves. I’ve always fallen back on communication, coaching and people skills. Being a team manager and then a relationship manager meant that I was used to dealing with all sorts of different personality types and I would always try to connect with and understand people to get the best out of them. I think knowing when to get everyone in a room and to pick up on body language and vibes has served me well in my career. I’ve just been asked to lead on working with my organisation to make Good Energy an attractive proposition for women looking for Technology roles and I can’t wait to get stuck in.

Have you ever suffered from the imposture syndrome?

Always! I have a very self-deprecating sense of humour and friends would tell you I’m terrible at taking a compliment. I’ve always been brought up not to “blow my own trumpet” so I’m trying to re-programme myself at the moment. It’s taken me a while to realise it but I’m not employed to know the ins and outs of everyone else’s job, I have my own skillset and I need to bring the best of me to the table without all the self-doubt. I’d say I’m a work in progress in this regard.

What challenges have you faced in the workplace, especially your experience in male-dominated environments?

I love working with the team I do and for an organisation with a lot of strong female role models. We have a female CEO and really balanced representation in our Exec Team. Unfortunately in Tech women are still low in number and we get very few CVs through from women but my team are supportive and professional and always treat me with respect. I’m lucky that at Good Energy diversity is embraced and it’s a very inclusive place to work.

Good Energy works with STEMettes, which is a social enterprise working to encourage girls of school to university age to study STEM subjects. We recently ran a schools day programme with them, hosting a group of secondary age girls from a local school called Hardenhuish where representatives from across the business, including our CEO Juliet Davenport, introduced them to what we do. Then we ran a workshop where all the girls were tasked with designing their own ‘smart home’ app — there were some fantastic entries, really interesting to see what young minds come up with!

What advice would you give to women looking to break into the field of computer technology?

Don’t feel like you have to know all the answers. Be confident and ask the question if one is burning. Chances are other people in the room don’t know the answer either. People will often talk about niche topics when you work in Tech (I think to look clever); don’t let it knock you. There are lots of jobs in Tech, you don’t have to be a developer and therefore don’t have to have the same vocabulary as they do. You can be an Analyst, Project Manager, Product Owner, Scrum Master, PMO, UX designer and lots more and they all come with their own jargon! Believe in yourself and assert yourself.

We spoke about interview questions, can you tell me your worst interview experience?

When I was around 20 I was asked during an interview when I was planning on having children. They offered me the job and kept offering me more money until I had to tell them that it was their questioning in the interview that meant I wouldn’t work for them regardless of the salary.

What’s going to happen next in the world of energy?

The old world of energy is set up for big power stations to supply to end customers, but the future will be the ‘three Ds’ — decentralised, decarbonised and digitised. So that means more of a matrix system where everyone is generating and sharing power peer-to-peer. It will be decarbonised as generation systems will be renewable, like solar and wind, which are already the cheapest forms of energy available to us.

Then you’ve got battery storage, electric vehicles and the smart home all part of the mix, so we’ll need sophisticated digitisation to make it all work, with artificial intelligence and automation making it all happen, potentially managed via a blockchain system. And of course great UX on the front end so it makes sense for the customer. That’s why energy is such an exciting space for tech right now — we’re on the verge of a massive shift, in which energy will be enabling and underpinning virtually everything that’s happening in technology

Any reading/website you would recommend to stay updated?

I really like – it’s a great resource library for Scrum Masters to run meaningful retrospectives, planning sessions, futurespectives and team building activities.

We spoke about your girls and how one would like to be an Architect and the youngest who is flying through coding apps that you can’t keep up with her, but they say they are no good at Maths, what do you think can be improved in schools to promote future skills and careers in technology?

This frustrates me so much! They are both so mathematically minded and we have bookshelves full of books about inspirational women at home. As a result I have a couple of Marvel loving, tree climbing whirlwinds in my life who question everything from politics to advertising. But there still seems to be this fear of maths, of making a “mistake” or “getting it wrong” which doesn’t seem to apply to the Arts in the same way. I attend their school every year for Jobs Jamboree Day to talk about what I do and do some fun activities with the children. A lot of the careers they see are quite vocational so talking about some of the less visible jobs in society helps them to broaden their horizons. After doing an activity with one group where they had to make a building out of lego to my requirements I asked how they found being a Project Manager and one girl put up her hand and said “stressful” – I think she got the point!

Ultimately I hope that doing more computer science, robotics, coding and programming in school will allow girls to approach maths from a more creative and less theoretical perspective. When my daughter makes a virtual robot climb the stairs on her app and he does a wrong turn she is not disheartened by this, she can quickly see where it’s gone wrong, undo it and re-do it, something she doesn’t experience when she is doing her maths homework.

On that note of children, how do you juggle your job and being a mum?

I have two daughters who live with us and two stepdaughters who live in Exeter and juggling this with full time work can only be achieved with a very supportive family. My girls’ dad and I are separated but he’s a brilliant dad and always shares drop offs and picks ups. My husband is a huge support for me and we always act as a team. We each work from home one day a week so we can be there for the girls at the start and end of their school day and then my mum picks up for us twice a week. My mum has been an extra parent figure to them over the years and I’m very grateful to her. It’s not easy but it’s always been very important to me to have a life alongside parenthood and for them to have a working role model mum in their lives. They are also the most lovely girls and it doesn’t enter their heads that I would be doing anything but being independent and pursuing a career – plus they prefer the breakfast when they get to go to breakfast club!

What’s your favourite quote?

Good question……I find myself shouting teeth and shoes a lot but not sure that’s what you’re after! I always love Roald Dahl’s quote “If you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely”. Being kind and nice to other people really costs nothing and goes a long way.

Choose your squad!

Just 3?! I’m honestly surrounded by the most amazing network of people, I feel very fortunate.
If I had to choose 3 it would be my husband for being the most selfless person I know. He lives to look after other people and we’re so lucky to have him. Then my children for inspiring me all the time. My oldest daughter Hope is totally non-conformist with short hair, bags of energy, a wardrobe full of hero t-shirts and a quiet confidence that means she throws herself at every opportunity. I swear she can whisper to animals too. My youngest daughter Belle is hilariously funny with red hair, freckles and gorgeous dimples. She is forever pranking teachers with rubber spiders and has a wisdom way beyond her years. She’s a chip off the old block creating a floor plan on the computer complete with project schedule for her 8th birthday party (laminated of course)!

Thank you Helenna, you’re an asset to the industry and looking forward to working with you and the team.


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