Despite the world moving closer to equality, there's still a lack of conversation surrounding women in tech!
Having joined Farewill from Monzo and before that worked in Formula 1, Sally Lait's role is now leading on tech strategy at Farewill – one of the company's leading competitive advantages. She was also recognised as one of the ‘Standout 35’ Women in FinTech Powerlist 2019.
We spoke to Sally all about her profession, barriers for women in the world of work and more!
Could you tell us a little bit about your role and what an “average day” looks like?
Hello! I’m VP of Engineering at Farewill - a company with a mission to change the way the world deals with death. To many that might sound strange or a bit morbid, but through my work I have the privilege of helping to make dealing with death easier and more personal for our customers.
Traditionally the death industry has been built on a foundation of sombre traditions and outdated processes that customers can find complicated, costly and confusing. Through my role, I’m building beautifully designed online products that are simpler, friendlier, and cheaper for our customers to use.
I started at Farewill in 2020 as Head of Engineering, before being promoted earlier this year. With this I joined the Executive team, and the scope of my role grew to cover our Engineering, Data & Insights, and IT functions.
Start-ups are very fast paced and every day’s a bit different! I spend time every Monday morning making a weekly plan for myself, share my priorities with the Exec team and my department so that they can see what I’ll be focusing on, then plan what I’ll do every day before I start.
On any average day I might be doing a mix of things like:
- Having 1:1s with people I manage directly or indirectly
- Working with with the executive team and leadership guild on company-level decision making, strategy, budgets etc
- More in-depth working with my partners in Product on how well we’re delivering, how the teams are set up and supported
- Working with my functions – for example, Engineering on our technical strategy, architecture, and investments, IT on security and cost savings, Data on their plans for better reporting
- Writing policies, sharing these with companies we’re partnering with
- Listening to people give technical talks, or ‘passion talks’ on something they care about
- Interviews and hiring
My days are very different nowadays to when I first started out as a software engineer!
What appealed to you about engineering? Is it something you always wanted to do?
I spent my childhood in South East Asia, and when I moved back to the UK I was fortunate to have a computer and internet access to use for staying in touch with family and friends on the other side of the world. This led me into a world of online communities, where there was a big trend of people making their own websites and sharing knowledge with others.
At this point I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to work as a software engineer, but I was excited about the idea of the web, community, and being able to make whatever I wanted. To learn more I went to university to do an internet-focused course where I learnt a range of programming languages. The third year of my course was a placement year in industry, which brought it all to life and really cemented that I wanted a job making websites. I was learning so much being hands on that I decided to drop out of university, continue working as a developer, and finish my degree with distance learning.
Do you feel that barriers still exist for women in STEM careers?
Sadly barriers do still undoubtedly exist, especially when you factor in intersectional issues around race, age, disabilities and more on top of gender. There have been a lot of studies on this front, but we’re also increasingly seeing a number of high-profile lawsuits against companies like Apple and Google where people are starting to speak out about their experiences.
We’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to breaking down some of the systemic biases and discrimination that women can face in STEM careers, but there are also a lot of cultural factors in play too – for example women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic when it came to juggling work and family.
I’ve faced my own share of gender-based hurdles, but I’m also fortunate to have fantastic women role models and sponsors who’ve helped a great deal. I’m also even more motivated now to use my position in leadership to help make tech an all-round more inclusive and equitable place for everyone.
What are the most challenging things about your roles?
Most aren’t technical challenges! I’m grateful to work with a lot of fantastic people who share the load and help make that side of my role a lot easier.
Instead, the biggest challenges are ones that many in leadership positions probably relate to. The biggest one for me is the general pressure you can feel, knowing that you’re ultimately responsible for a large group of people’s livelihoods, wellbeing at work, and career development.
It can also be hard to balance both long and short term business needs, particularly when the things you care about which are less tangible (e.g. culture, psychological safety) take a lot of time to build up, but can be broken very easily.
As a leader I’ve learnt it’s been important to find my own measures of success and celebrate the small wins that sometimes only you will ever know about!
Has the Covid pandemic impacted your role? Have you needed to do anything to react?
I’ve been working partly or fully remotely for almost 10 years now, and it’s something that I’ve grown to love. That said, even though I was pretty experienced, working in a pandemic has been very different to normal distributed working!
I’ve definitely had to put more effort into building relationships online (I’ve still not physically met some colleagues), and have spent a lot more time supporting people through the mental health, burnout, and loss that they’ve faced over a couple of extremely hard years.
Farewill’s business being centred around supporting people through death has meant that our teams are constantly faced with a lot of really tough realities, but it’s also been wonderful to see the difference that we’ve been able to make to huge amounts of people’s lives since the pandemic began.
On a practical level we did have to make some changes when lockdowns began – for example some parts of our technology and processes were tied to the London office, which we needed to change quite fast. As a digitally focused business we’re quite fortunate that we could switch pretty easily, but we’ve also been mindful that some of our team don’t have great home working situations and have found being remote much harder than others, so we’ve had to look at ways to mitigate that.
What do you think makes a good engineer?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this, and it can depend on a lot of factors, including whether someone’s just starting out, or if they’re much more experienced.
Within the industry there can be gatekeeping around what a software engineer is expected to be, do, or look like (this can be another challenge for women). Developers love to argue about which technologies should be taken more seriously than others, and there are still dangerous and privileged takes around how much “passion” people should have, and time outside work engineers should spend coding.
My view is that you need a level of technical aptitude and skill appropriate for the level you’re working at, but your core skills are what really make people stand out – things like problem solving, communication, making a strong case, leadership, teaching others and knowledge sharing. Once someone’s past the basics, an ability to think about the non-functional aspects of writing code - implications around accessibility, performance, usability, security and others – also set engineers up really well.
There can be a lot of subjectivity, and it can be hard for people to know whether they’re doing a good job. To that end we created a Farewill Engineering Progression Framework to help everyone have shared understanding of expectations of what good looks like for engineers at different points in their career.
What has been your favourite achievement?
When I was working in a hands-on engineering role, I worked on some really challenging but fun projects. In my spare time I play a lot of video games, and I’m still really proud of working on some award-winning game sites for Electronic Arts, particularly the ones where we tied the websites in with data from the games themselves.
As a leader my achievements have become more about what I’ve enabled, either in terms of business outcomes, the impact on customers’ lives, or for other people in my teams. I’m particularly proud of the team and culture that we’ve grown at Farewill, and love it when we can celebrate promotions and brilliant work people can do because of it. Creating the progression framework, and subsequently for our first Senior Engineers to all be women, as well as our first Staff Engineer to be a woman, was also pretty special!
What are your goals for the next year?
As a company we’ve just launched an exciting new funeral plans product, which will help customers plan ahead to protect their loved ones against the rising cost of funerals and allow for their legacy to be celebrated in their own way. We’re also going to be announcing a fantastic partnership in the new year, which will mean we can support a whole new group of customers. We’ve done a huge amount of technical work and architectural changes to set this up well, and next year most of our goals will centre around how we can build on those even further.
In terms of personal goals, next year’s going to be a bit different for me as I’m going to be going on maternity leave with my first child. For once I’m not planning on setting too many goals apart from focusing on that!
What would you say to girls or young women considering a career as an engineer?
A career in technology and software engineering can bring you a wealth of really varied, rewarding, creative, and fun opportunities. There’s lots of demand for engineers, you’ll pick up valuable skills that can help you work in different countries, and as an industry it’s generally well paid. You’ll also meet lots of intelligent, kind, and talented people.
There are lots of different types of technologies, roles, and companies. Everything from creative coding and digital art, to building tools for other engineers, to making apps and websites, and much more. You’ll also be able to find really meaningful problems to work on – at Farewill we’re trying to change the way the world deals with death, but you could also write code for NASA, to power government services, video and music streaming services… or whatever problems YOU want to solve.
I’d also stress that this isn’t just a career for girls or young people to consider either – there are lots of roads in, and some of the people we’ve hired at Farewill come from extremely varied backgrounds at different stages of their life.
If you’re considering it, my main advice would be to jump in and start trying some things out. There are lots of free resources online (e.g. FreeCodeCamp), or you could follow people on social media who share content and tutorials. Don’t be afraid to try things out, ask questions, and share your work!
You may also want to consider getting involved with events (such as those run by Codebar.io), as there are lots of places who’ll welcome you even if (or especially if!) you’re a beginner. Finally, contributing to open source projects can also be a great way to get some experience of working on real projects, but if you’re a total beginner it can be easier if you have people who can point you in the right direction, and bring you into supportive projects.
It will require some hard work and dedication, but there are lots of us in the industry cheering for you and trying to make it a great place for you to join!
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