March 8, 2022
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Life at Cleo

WNB Engineers: Our paths to tech

As a mix of self-taught, bootcamp and computer science Engineers, we understand that there’s no ‘right’ way to get into tech, only your way 👊

WNB-tech (Women & Non-Binary in tech) is a group of women and non-binary engineers at Cleo who regularly share wins, learnings, personal stories and generally just support each other! We plan to share our stories with the wider WNB in tech community to help you all too 💙


As a mix of self-taught, bootcamp and computer science Engineers, we understand that there’s no ‘right’ way to get into tech, only your way 👊


Elwin Chan, Head of Engineering and Engineering Graduate
Kasia Jastrzębska, Senior Frontend Engineer and computer science graduate
Rita Sijelmass, Mid Level Backend engineer and bootcamp graduate


What got you interested in engineering?

Kasia: When I was 10, my brother bought his first computer. I remember peeking over his shoulder to see what he was doing and I was amazed! It looked like he was hacking and I wanted to do the same thing. He was very protective of the computer and I wasn’t allowed to use it, but I vowed I was going to do everything I could when I got a computer of my own.


Elwin: My dad was a Civil Engineer and I grew up knowing I wanted to do a different kind of engineering. Similar to Kasia, we had a computer at home and my brother taught me how to ‘hack’ a game I liked to give me more points. When I was 11, he gave me a book and said “Go and learn to programme in C.” Whilst studying engineering I realised that working in software was how I could do anything in any industry.


Rita: At 17, I remember thinking “I really want to do something important”; I chose to study Earth Sciences so that I could ‘solve’ Climate Change, but I found it too theoretical, without any action. During my Masters, I started doing computer modelling of rivers and groundwater flow, and I realised that I found the theoretical problem solving of tech very exciting. There’s always a solution if you think creatively enough!


What did you find most challenging about becoming an Engineer during training?

Kasia: As one of only two women in my computer science undergraduate, I faced bias from my Professors. Multiple times they assumed I wouldn’t understand or had asked for help. During my studies, I became pregnant, but I knew I didn’t want to stop. Continuing studying through my pregnancy and early months of my parenthood was a huge challenge.


Elwin: It was challenging being one of very few women in engineering at university. I feel really lucky, as I chose women-only halls and built a strong, female circle outside of my course. It was perfect for me.


Rita: I agree it's challenging facing the bias other people have, but I also found I had internalised prejudices. I didn’t want to ask questions, because I wanted to show I could do it. I probably ‘shot myself in the foot’ with this. I’ve found that as you grow in confidence and experience, you learn something new exists that you didn’t know you needed to know about, as part of engineering. Every time you think you know the space, there’s another corner you don’t know anything about.


Kasia: I had to build a thick skin to continue working in environments where there was no tolerance for anyone who wasn’t a white man and it stayed with me for a long while. I had bad experiences in blaming work cultures, where making mistakes was an awful experience and I couldn’t show emotion.


At Cleo, it’s been so different on so many levels; my squad is transparent and supportive. I feel heard in the Frontend chapter meeting and have found it amazing to be able to have a chat with Elwin anytime (it’s so unusual to be able to speak to your Head of Engineering whenever you want). It’s a nice change!

Is there anything unexpected about being an Engineer?

Kasia: I wasn’t expecting how much fun you can have as an Engineer. I’ve traveled to Tel Aviv and New Orleans to speak at conferences, which wouldn’t have been possible in another role.


Rita: I believed the cliche that Engineers were solitary and I wasn’t expecting the social skills you need to work well. I find the people I looked up to most were those who work best with others. Software engineering is very collaborative – the code we’re writing is for other people.


Elwin: I agree with Rita. I was brought up to do well in exams as “that’s how you succeed.” Now  I’ll say no to interview candidates if I think they won’t work well in a team, regardless of their IQ. The questions I ask myself are: can you handle being wrong? Can you have a good debate with someone? I didn’t expect this, I thought it was all about being clever. I don’t care if you can implement a list from scratch. That’s not what’s important here.


Rita: In formal education, that’s what is focused on and not so much on the soft skills!


What brings you joy outside work?

Kasia: Riding my horse, she brings me so much joy.


Rita: Reading and salsa dancing!


Elwin: I really love baking and eating. As a counter to that, I discovered weight lifting and love the buzz from it!


Interested in becoming an Engineer at Cleo? Check out our open roles, here.

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