Empowering Women in Tech is an interview series by Templeton & Partners aimed at women in the tech field to share their experiences, learn from and get inspired by one another.
For this week’s Empowering Women in Tech, we interviewed Chibuzo Igwe, a UK-based Agile Project Manager with years of top-tier financial and technology sector experience. Chi has a long track record of identifying and developing effective strategies within leading businesses across the globe. We caught up with her to talk about the challenges of her role, and get inspired by her empowering career journey. In this interview, she also shared with us her thoughts on what we can do to encourage more women into tech and rectify the sector's imbalances.
Chi, can you share a little bit about your career journey so far? How did you get into tech?
"Believe it or not, I started my career in marketing. When I finished uni, I worked with a lot of marketing companies. Some of the jobs involved promoting brands in major retail stores, including Tesco, Sainsbury, and Asda, doing POS', ensuring promotional items were displayed properly, talking to store managers about upcoming promotions, and ensuring we had enough promotional items on hand for customers.
From there, I branched off into tech, working again with many field marketing companies. Then, I moved from consumer to more tech-related products, selling up-and-coming devices in retail spaces like EE and Orange, and updating new tech products and technology within mobile phones. So that's how I got into tech, starting in retail and then slowly moving into the technology aspect via the mobile phone route."
You studied Biochemistry and Finance. What impact did your studies had on your career choices?
"When I finished uni, I knew I didn't want to be in a lab environment. As much as I loved science, it didn't suit my personality. It can feel very isolated working in a lab. You're working by yourself, even if you have colleagues doing similar projects. You don't really get that greater kind of interaction with people daily. That's why, at the end of my degree, I decided to move across and do a master's in Finance and Economics. But again, I soon discovered that wasn't for me.
My degree in Biochemistry and my master's in Finance had nothing to do with where I am today. I have never been employed based on my on-paper qualifications. And doing the retail work for these companies was just the step to moving from the retail environment to the business side of their operations."
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And now you’re leading tech teams in major international companies. How did you end up where you are today and which factors influenced your career path?
"After my retail experience, I worked for T-Mobile before it merged with Orange to become EE. My job there involved going into mobile phone shops, training employees on new products, and advising them on up-and-coming promotions so they could sell them easier to their customers. And if new devices were being launched in the market, I would take them to stores and train the staff there as well. I also did a lot of instalment demonstrations of products like laptops and printers. In that capacity, I could interact directly with customers, showing them the unique selling points of the products I promoted in the store. There was a lot of customer interaction, to begin with.
Within the business side of EE, I developed the technical skills and the capacity to deal with the staff and the customers. So, with time, my work involved helping customers migrate from another network to EE. I was part of the on-site team that helped facilitate all of that for the customers, like ensuring that the right processes were followed, providing all the necessary information to our clients, and dealing with any technical issues.
While working for EE, I came across Sky, our biggest contract at the time. They offered me a position, and I decided to take it. At that point in life, I just wanted more stability, whereas, in my previous role, I was constantly moving from site to site. But it took me only a short time to realize that I was missing the challenge. After five years of working with Sky, the job got a little samey. So, I started thinking, okay, what else is there?
The company was generous enough to pay for the Agile Project Management course I did. Obviously, in the other roles I had with EE and other organizations, there were aspects of project management involved, as they required a lot of coordination, especially with migrating users. But, in my CV, I didn't have the PM certification. Having the Agile Project Management course on my CV and extracting information from my previous job experiences allowed me to get a job with a company called Enercom.
Enercom is a relatively small company specialising in the energy sector, but mostly in developing countries. So some of the projects we did were within ministries, really well-done projects. So in that role, I was able to learn a lot, and I was only there for a year. And then, at the end of that year, an opportunity came up with Equinix, a data centre company. The role I was offered there was much more detailed in terms of technology. The projects I did were very tech-based, with capacity within data centres. So that meant working with engineers all around the world. A lot of the projects I did cover all regions of the world. In that capacity, it allowed me to learn a whole lot in a short space of time. That was a contracting role, and after a year, when my contract came up for renewal, it was time to move on to other things. The job became quite repetitive, and I felt I needed something to spice things up a bit.
The rest is history, more or less. I got approached by Templeton for a Project Management role at Sky. The beauty of it was that I already knew the company, the processes, and so many people since it's an organisation I've worked with before. Feels like I've come full circle."
What's most important to you when it comes to work? Which has been your most significant career driver?
"I think the challenge is good because that's how you learn and grow. Otherwise, what's the point? You should challenge yourself every day. Of course, that depends on where you are in life. If I go to that point where I'm ready for a family life or if I have kids, for example, I know that my priorities will change. Then I'll probably want to get comfortable in a job I can do with my eyes closed, thinking it's just a job and not my number one priority. But I'm not there yet. At this point, I'm taking every opportunity I can, while I can. Because you never know what tomorrow holds."
What's it like being a Project Manager? What does it mean to you leading teams towards achieving the same goals?
"First off, to get it out of the way, a job title by itself means nothing to me personally. At the end of the day, you're dealing with people first and foremost. That's the mentality I live by. And, for me, it's never the case of who's in charge or whose job is most important – respect is something that should be given to everyone equally, especially in a team.
So when it comes to interacting, telling people what to do, or leading projects, it's all about communication and being straight with people if you mess up. You own up and say, "Okay, I've done this. How can we resolve this issue?" I think it's all about communication, basically.
What do you enjoy the most about your job? What's the best part of being a Project Manager?
"The satisfaction you get from building something from start to finish. Seeing the whole process, overcoming the challenges you may face, and managing to work as a team with people you might have just met can be thrilling. Especially when completing a complex project, it's a very proud moment.
I also like the aspect of building and maintaining relationships with people. As challenging as it may be at first to work with people you don't know, the beauty of it is that once you establish that initial contact, everything gets a lot easier. For example, if you have a pool of 50 engineers, in one way or the other, you're going to come in contact with all of them at one point. And if you manage to build good relationships with them, you can always go back to those people if there are certain things you need help understanding. And they're happy to sit down and explain all technical aspects to you and enable you to do your job better."
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Can you share with us a critical moment in your career that truly impacted your journey?
"I think it was getting the job with Equinix. Apart from being one of the biggest data centre companies in the world, it was also the most significant learning curve I have ever had. My job there was the one that had the most impact on my career so far."
Would you encourage others to follow your career path, and what advice would you give them?
"Of course I would. But at the end of the day, everyone should be able to follow their own path. Sometimes society is highly focused on its "titans", monitoring values and measuring success based on how much money one makes. And sometimes, we get carried away by what society imposes on us and drift out of our way.
I don't really have that mindset. In life, you should have the courage to create your own path and follow it with passion. But it doesn't mean you'll always know where it will lead you or how. Some people just know exactly what they want in life. But there are also others who stumble from one job to the next. And that's okay. Personally, I didn't have a clear career path. It just happened – one thing led to another and then to another, and here we are now."
Did you have a person or a network to support and guide you during the stumbles in your career? Like a mentor or role model that influenced your journey?
"Apart from my close group of friends and colleagues to discuss and exchange advice, I didn’t have someone like a mentor or a coach to guide me. If I did, I think everything would have been a lot easier. But no, unfortunately, when I started my career in 2005, mentorship programmes or apprenticeships weren’t hugely available or well-known. We did have the internet, but of course, it’s not the same. Nor was it like today, with all that wealth of information available at any time and place."
What are the stand-out skills and attributes of a good Project Manager, in your opinion?
"To stand out as a Project Manager, you should be able to go beyond the formal qualifications and the technical proficiency. You need to be able to keep your cool in difficult situations and remain positive to keep your team's spirit up. You must push yourself to continually grow, ask questions and spend time acquiring new knowledge and skills. You also need to have excellent communication skills and take ownership of things. If you sit down and say, it's not my job, or leave it to someone else, nothing gets done. Taking ownership, great communication, and effective leadership typically go hand-in-hand."
What do most people not know about Project Management?
"People think of project management as something complicated, but that's not true. It's not complicated at all. Simply put, it's just the process of coordinating what needs to be done with the people involved in getting that done. And then it's about communicating to all these people what they need to do individually and in what order. In that sense, you need to know whose job depends on someone else's and organise them properly. And if there are any issues or delays with the process, you need to inform people on time, find out what went wrong and what needs to be done to fix it in order to meet the deadlines. That's how I see it.
It may sound overwhelming, but it's not. And there are so many project management tools out there that allow to do your job better. With these tools and a good plan of action, it's not a case of you having to remember all of the processes and workflows. It's about planning your work accordingly and communicating with people to ensure they have all the necessary updates according to the plan. With the help of these tools, you can also run reports to see what's happening and stay on top of everything."
You’ve worked as a contractor for the past two years. Why did you choose this type of employment?
"Can I say money? Obviously, that played an essential factor in my decision. You take home more when you work as a contractor, but you also have to deal with IR35. That’s the main drawback for me.
I think deciding to work as a contractor depends more on your family life. There are certain benefits to being an employee in an organisation, like healthcare plans, paid leave, bonuses and, of course, more stability. If you have a family, kids and a mortgage, you might decide that all these benefits and a fixed salary will allow you to better plan and manage your monthly financial obligations.
For the time being, I don’t have such obligations or someone else depending on me. Because of that, I’m able to take the risk and say, okay, worst case scenario, it’s just me who’s affected by my choices. I think life is about taking chances, but never at the expense of others."
You work primarily in male-dominated environments. What's it like to be a woman in tech, especially for you, as a female leader?
"Honestly, I haven't had any issues so far. I find that people give you the respect you give them. I have never had any instance of someone being disrespectful or talking to you in a condescending way just because you're a woman, for example. Nonetheless, I believe I have a good enough sense of humour and the grit to respond appropriately in a similar situation if I had to. I would be like, bring it on. But I never had that experience."
According to statistics, the tech industry's gender pay gap is still a real problem. Many women in the field feel they have to work harder than their male counterparts to get equal pay and promotions. In your opinion, what are the reasons for this inequality?
"That's quite difficult to answer because it's based on the assumption that I know what someone else is getting paid. Personally, I have never felt like that. I've never thought, oh my god, I'm getting paid less. I like to think that, at the end of the day, it comes down to skills and experience. In every organisation I've worked, I had a lot of women within my team as well, and I'd like to believe that we were all on a similar wage. At least with my friends that we've talked about money, we were.
Also, the older I got, the more comfortable I was negotiating my salary. When I was younger, I didn't have the confidence to demand a better wage. I can probably say that I got paid even more in some jobs than my male colleagues."
Have you noticed a lack of women in the technology sector? Why do you think there aren't more women in tech?
"First of all, I don't think you should be in tech just because you're a woman. You should also have the necessary skill set. In my last company, there were female engineers. Okay, maybe the ratio was one to five – for every female engineer, there were five guys, but they were still there. And when it comes to encouragement, I think that a lot of women don't know that there are other tech jobs available to them. Using an example from when I was in school, we didn't have career advisors to inform us about all the different paths and jobs available within the technology sector. You have, for example, networking jobs or jobs in configuration or jobs in coding. Those options were not available to us growing up. But I think for the newer generation, there's been a lot of information out there. There are a lot of initiatives within organizations to encourage more women to enter the field.
But in most cases, unless you have someone in the field or you're already working there, you don't really know all the jobs available to you. You take something like coding, for example. It's a well-paid job, but how does someone get interested in coding if they don't have any information about it? Or even the resources to see if that's a place for you, like a course or some kind of test to see if you're any good at it or if it's something you might be interested in."
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Is there anything we can do to encourage more women to choose careers in tech and rectify the imbalance?
"It's one thing to try to encourage women into tech, but it's another thing for the women actually to be interested in it. We can have all sorts of initiatives to support and empower females to join the tech sector. Still, they also have to be interested in it to seek that as a career path and actively search for these kinds of opportunities. This lack of interest could be down to the idea that women don't believe there are any careers for them in this industry.
And again, there are many jobs in IT that simply are not that appealing to some women. For example, if someone told me, hey Chi, would you like to work in a data centre patching and cabling, having to bend on your knees and carrying stuff? I'd probably say, No, thank you. But these jobs are there too.
A way around it would be to make tech jobs more attractive to women. Like by advertising IT roles in a gender-neutral way or promoting women already successful in the industry, for example. And we should also let girls know there are many jobs in this field where you don't need to bend or lift stuff. You can work from the comfort of your office or even remotely from home. That would be a lot more appealing to females. Especially if they have a family and kids, the flexibility many IT jobs offer can be a strong selling point for them."
Do you have any career regrets?
"No, regrets, no. But if I could go back in time, I think I would've studied something else, like electrical or mechanical engineering. At that time, however, I didn't even consider them as options. Even at university, the majority of engineering classes were male-dominated. And that's weird because all my A Level classes were 50-50. There were a lot of girls choosing STEM courses like mathematics and physics. The problem was when it came to selecting courses for our degrees. Since I did not know anyone who was an engineer, I was unaware of like the prospects of available jobs.
If I could do something about it, it would be letting kids know of all the career fields available to them earlier, when they're doing their GCSEs, for example. As well as taking that preconceived notion people have about engineers working on rigs in the middle of the ocean and needing to wear men's clothes and lifting heavy objects. Or the perception that these jobs are too masculine. It's this assumption that puts a lot of women off, thinking that there's nothing feminine about them. But most people do not realize that there are a number of women out there who are just as good as or even better than some men at these jobs. Once again, it boils down to personality and then to having access to that information for you to be able to make the right decisions and choices for yourself."
A big thank you to Chibuzo (Chi) for sharing her inspiring career journey with us.
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