In October 2020, Octopus Energy embarked on an internship programme designed to prove that you don’t need to be a white man to flourish in the tech industry
Whether celebrated mathematician Ada Lovelace can be cited as the world's first computer programmer is a point of discussion among scientists and historians alike. However, her legacy as a role model and inspiration for women seeking to punch beyond traditional gender stereotypes is undeniable. There is no doubt Ada faced challenges in her pursuit of STEM subjects more than a century ago; something sustainable energy firm Octopus Energy acknowledges is still a set-back for many women and other under-represented groups in the tech industry today.
It is undeniable that the bulk of opportunities in tech go to one group, and Octopus is candid about its desire to drive change. ‘All tech companies, including us, have a role to play in making this industry truly diverse and representative', state the materials for its new internship programme, the Ada Lovelace Project.
Led by senior front-end developer Gilly Ames, and with direct support from company director Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, the internship project ran through October last year - the same month as Ada Lovelace Day. During this time the interns, hailing from a range of backgrounds, were responsible for gathering requirements from around the business and assessing both the technical and problem-fit of a proof-of-concept idea, presenting their work and findings back to the team after a two-week period. The concept goes far beyond the usual passive internship filing tasks or shadowing employees. The interns' projects were genuine, and they were immediately accountable for adding value to the business, while also giving the women a chance to hone their tech skills.
Computer science graduate Noshin Begum, 22, and medical secretary Cerise Abel-Thompson, 31, bring two very different skill-sets to the table. Noshin, having many small projects within the tech industry under her belt already, came across the internship opportunity through Octopus' partnership with Work Finder, and was keen to get the inside scoop on what large, well-established companies are looking for in a workforce.
"I heard about Octopus Energy and I knew that it was quite a big company… I knew big companies would have existing processes, so that's something I wanted to experience: working under existing processes, existing company policies, and to see how I needed to use my skills and tailor them to the company."
Cerise, having no previous experience of the technology sector, studied a creative degree and found herself drawn to the creative side of tech, teaching herself to code while on furlough last year. It was a recommendation from a friend who already worked for Octopus that prompted her application. "[The encouragement] was a good thing, because I kind of came from the charity sector and have been hesitant about how different big tech companies were going to be," she says.
Cerise had no pre-conceived ideas of exactly what she'd experience, but felt comfortable because "Gilly [Ames] - who was running it - is obviously also a woman, and so she was really good at chatting to us about what it was like being a woman in tech... so it felt slightly less intimidating than when I've spoken to other people in the past about tech. They've always been men in big teams of men, and there's like one woman there."
Noshin already had some idea about what to expect, and her experience is representative of many in an under-represented minority workforce: "Being a woman in tech and being an ethnic minority, it felt like there were two things against me. I definitely feel that a pain point is trying to not let the pressure of being a minority get to me, and actually get my work done…. It was quite weird and quite new to me to be working at Octopus and not have that pressure." She also touches upon a point commonly acknowledged by many under-represented workers in their field, of having to fight off pre-conceived notions about inequality. "I just said to myself, 'You need to prove yourself even more than everyone else'. But straight after the first meeting that pressure kind of disappeared and it felt like we were all measured equally."