Coding their way to happiness
Software development company Softwire was founded in 2000. The company hires Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates from top universities, straight after graduation, and prides itself on their training and subsequent high retention rates. Softwire has offices in Bristol and Romania and is hoping to expand even further afield.
How would you describe Softwire?
Softwire is a bespoke software development agency. It is quite an unusual business, though, as we are focussed on employee happiness. Employee retention is really important for our business model and this focus makes Softwire a great place to work. It also makes it a great place to be Managing Director – sometimes I describe my role as half MD and half Chief Happiness Officer.
How do you incentivise your team and try to hang on to great employees?
We have a morale budget and a morale officer who organises events for the company. We also have onsite lunches, flexi-time and part-time working. However more importantly we spend a lot of time working out how to make people’s day to-day jobs challenging and interesting. We encourage people to work autonomously and to fix any problems that they see within the company.
How did you get into the tech sector?
As a child I enjoyed programming my rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum. I guess my interest was piqued then, at an early age. I went on to do a mathematics degree and applied to Softwire straight from university.
As you work your way up the ladder and the business grows and employs more people, how does your focus change as the managerial side of your role grows?
The biggest difference between being a programmer and being a manager is the nature of how you work. As a programmer, your work is very focussed as you are thinking hard for long stretches of time without interruption. As a manager you are interrupted all the time, so you need to be able to switch contexts quickly and prioritise well. As we grow I need to be able to communicate in a broader way to an ever larger number of people. I’m still learning how to do that. Communication is always much simpler when you can talk to people directly, one on one.
How do you manage to preserve your unique culture as this growth continues?
There are some ways that the culture at Softwire has changed and some ways that it has stayed the same. As we get bigger we are able to have more specialised roles within the company, and also a greater range of out-of-work activities. On the other hand, our core focus and values have stayed exactly the same. One of the things that I have been most interested to learn is that as you get larger you need to do more work to “feel” small – the main rule is communicate, communicate, communicate.
What are the main challenges of running a tech business in London in the current climate?
We have three main challenges for our business: sales, recruitment and culture – in other words, holding it all together. Sales is a challenge since although we get 80% of our work from repeat business, we need to keep finding new clients as we grow. Recruitment is very important, and we steal a march on our competitors by recruiting graduates straight from university, training them in-house and retaining them – rather than employing the people who are the best coders right now (a very competitive market), we employ the people who are going to be the best coders of the future and keep them. Culture is a constant challenge that changes as we get bigger – so I’ve always got plenty of work to do.
Do you notice that you’re a woman in a male dominated sector?
I don’t notice this at all in my day-to-day work, and at Softwire I’ve never felt any different from anyone else – despite being the first female employee and the only woman on the board. However, there is a clear lack of women in the sector and studying STEM subjects at school and university.
How do you encourage more women to take up coding as a career? – Do you think it is important?
I give a lot of talks at schools and through organisations such as Stemettes and TeenTech. I think it is key to capture people’s imagination when they are young and before they decide which options to pursue at school. Role modelling is very important – people need to see examples of women working as coders and in senior positions within organisations. I love to see organisations like Makers Academy encouraging people to change career to coding and this helps to increase the number of women, including those who perhaps didn’t study STEM at school. It’s never too late to learn. It is important that people learn coding as it gives you a very deep understanding of how technology works. As the world becomes more and more technologically complex, it will be a big advantage to have this understanding.
What’s next for you?
I have learnt a lot in my journey to become Managing Director, in particular how much more is achievable than we think, if we set our minds to it. I’ve learnt not to put people into boxes, and that people can have interests and talents in more than one area. Combining both of those ideas has led me to start training as an actor outside of my day job and I am enjoying following that path to see where it leads. One of my favourite quotes is Steve Jobs’ “You can’t connect the dots going forwards, only looking back.” and I hope that one day in the future I’ll combine my technology skills with my acting skills in some way that seems totally obvious then, but that I can’t even conceive of now.