your daily code for breakfast

Spotlight 54: let me introduce you to Meri!

It’s Spotlight Friday! I know it’s been a bit silent on CodePancake (I’ll change that soon!) and I’m more than happy to publish this amazing interview with Head of Technology, Meri Williams. She’s a geek, a manager,  author of the book “The Principles of Project Management” and she won the Young IT Professional of the Year Award! And of course, there’s much more to share….let Meri inspire you! :)

Name: Meri Williams
Job: Head of Technology, M&S Digital (@mandsdigital). Also CTO of ChromeRose, a micro-consultancy focused on helping digital & technical teams be brilliant.
Favorite website, app or gadget: Without a doubt my Kindle Paperwhite. Ironically, when e-readers first came out I was convinced I could never enjoy reading on them as much as a book. Not only was I wrong, I can’t imagine being without a portable library whenever I travel these days :)
Favorite book: First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham. It’s about what conditions are essential for high performing teams, and dispels a lot of traditional management “wisdom” (which mostly isn’t very wise).
Twitter:  @Geek_Manager

What inspired you to pursue a career in IT?
Honestly? I was torn between focusing on Classics or Theatre Tech (I did a lot of backstage stuff at school), but couldn’t afford to get into massive debt as an international student in the UK for something that didn’t lead directly to a job. I’d always been messing with computers and so opted to study Computer Science at uni instead, as it felt like it had better career prospects.

 I don’t regret it at all though. I believe much more in loving what you do than doing what you love, and my career in tech has been super rewarding.


What does your working day look like?
It varies hugely! I lead a pretty big organisation (roughly 350 people) so some days are full of meetings. This isn’t as bad as it would sound to some people — I really value spending time in 1:1s with my people, and for technical meetings we try to be as whiteboard-centric as possible, so it’s really interactive.

I’ve also been spending a bunch of time recently working with the team on our technical vision, figuring out how we help our product teams to be fast & safe, which involves looking at everything from infrastructure to continuous integration/delivery to the programming languages and tooling we’re investing in. We’re also spending time right now on defining great career paths for all our various engineering disciplines.
Other days I’m off somewhere in the world speaking at a conference; a mix of technical, agile & people focused. I also run workshops and training through my own company, mostly around people development and building diverse & inclusive environments.
One of my most exciting days recently was reviewing all the CFP submissions for The Lead Dev and co-curating the speakers & schedule for the day with Ruth fromWhite October Events. Last year was the first year for the conference, and it went really well; I’m super excited about the amazing line up that we have this year, and that we’ve expanded it to two days.


What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Work-wise, it’s a toss up between working on the Olympics when I was still with P&G, and helping to scale up the team at the Government Digital Service so that we could deliver GOV.UK.

 Outside of work, three I’m super proud of being involved in:
– when I was a teenager, I was part of the project to build South Africa’s first satellite. I soldered (a very small part) of something that went into space. Really honestly, this has been pretty hard to live up to!
– I’m a trustee of a tiny charity called One Goes Up, and we sponsor scholarships, prizes & bursaries to help young women continue in education and pursue careers in STEM. It’s been absolutely humbling to see these amazing women flourish, as much from the vote of confidence from the teachers who choose them as from the scholarships themselves.
– The Lead Dev conference. I was delighted when Ruth from White October Events asked me to get involved, as I really think we need a conference focused on the intersection of team, tech & tools that technical leaders live in.


Do you have a hero, or someone who inspires you?
For many years I’ve looked up to Kathy Sierra (her latest book, Badass: Making Users Awesome is BRILLIANT) and Gina Trapani (who I met early in my career and found hugely inspiring).

I’m also lucky enough to have a collection of brilliant friends & mentors, too many to list, who are both inspiration & wonderful support, important because things are damn hard sometimes.
I also find a great deal of inspiration in the people I work with day to day — that’s one of the best things of being part of a team that you believe in and feel honoured to be a part of.
And finally, I find my wife Elly really inspiring. She’s an architect who specialises in building hospitals and getting to actually _walk around_ some of the buildings she’s designed has been awe-inspiring.


Why do you love working in  IT/Tech?
I love being at the centre of the main force changing our time — technology is enabling entire new ways of working, economies and globalisation that is making country boundaries increasingly blurry. That can be both positive and negative — similar to previous major changes, like the Industrial Revolution — but there’s an opportunity to make things genuinely better for people, in small & big ways. I love that.

Tech sadly isn’t the healthiest industry right now, from a number of perspectives, but I remain hopeful that we can continue to improve things.

It’s not so much the starting point that matters, as how you keep going along the journey.


Do you have a degree in IT? If so, what taught you the most? And if not, did you miss some important knowledge?
Yes, I studied Computer Science, mostly with a focus on Artificial Intelligence — I particularly loved the agents-focused AI stuff that I did. Ironically some of the courses I least enjoyed at the time (databases, for instance) ended up more practically useful once I got into the working world.

I value having the grounding in the underpinning maths & science & concepts, but know a great many people without a formal education in computing who have hugely successful careers in technology, so it’s hardly essential. Almost everything practical I learnt as part of my degree is out of date now, so like everyone in tech I have to work hard to keep up with what is changing and evolving.
It’s not so much the starting point that matters, as how you keep going along the journey.


What would be your advice to everyone who is interested in a career in tech? (or learning to code?)
Learning to code can certainly be fun, but it isn’t necessarily easy. To echo/paraphrase Kathy Sierra’s brilliant advice from her XOXO talk: it’s OK that it’s hard. Some things are hard. If you don’t find something immediately easy to master, push on, try again and keep working at it. There is no such thing as an innate aptitude for coding, or tech, or pretty much anything else. It’s all about trying, getting feedback and practicing some more.

My key advice for a career in tech would be to build up the technical skills you need, but not neglect the other skills. That brilliant coder who can’t function as part of a team, wants to sit off in the corner working on what they care about but not what matters to the team and the users of the product? They diminish their brilliance by not being great at those other skills.


Extra question from Mazz: What’s the best decision you’ve ever made in your career?
Making a move from the big company that I spent the first ten years of my career working for. Not because they were a bad company; in fact Procter & Gamble is regarded as one of the best companies in the world to work for, and I had amazing opportunities there. Rather because I had this epiphany that I was on a career path to be a fantastic IT professional, and what I really want to be was a brilliant technologist. So I took a big leap to move to a more technically focused career, and then an even bigger leap when Tom Loosemore convinced me to come and help with the scale-up of the Government Digital Service. It had the added bonus of giving me the opportunity to work with Mazz and many other brilliant folks.