How much should a company’s culture factor into your decision to work there? A lot it turns out. Civil engineer turned software developer Aimi Elias explains the importance of feeling like you fit into your workplace and the role culture plays in your day-to-day job satisfaction. Afterwards, I’ll share my own thoughts on how culture has had an impact on me during my own professional pivots.
Aimi’s actually a long-time listener of this show, and we first connected when she dropped me a note last year mentioning how Career Relaunch podcast episode 8 (featuring Zai Divecha) got her thinking about her own moments of flow, including those moments when she lost track of time as a teenager tinkering around with code. Now, many years later, she’s tapped back into her own flow state working on software development and machine learning at Sky.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of considering whether your current job is moving you closer to or farther from the type of person you want to be in your life and career. Do you like the person you’re becoming? Or do you feel more like you’re having to put on an act to fit into your role or organisation by being someone you’re not?
If you feel like your work is turning you into someone you don’t like, aside from actually leaving that job behind, consider what change you could make to your way of working, your mindset about work, or your attitude toward your job that could enable you to live your life in a way that makes you proud, or at the very least, you won’t eventually regret in the long run.
Aimi Elias is a software developer at Sky, part of the Comcast Corporation, and one of Europe’s leading media and entertainment companies. Prior to this, she spent six years working as a civil engineer after graduating from Imperial College, when she worked for Transport For London, the government body responsible for most of the transport network in London, England. She worked on railway projects such as the Crossrail and station upgrades for the London Underground.
Then, in 2017, she joined the Get Into Tech programme, a 14 week introduction to software development run by Sky alongside her full time job. This eventually led acceptance into a graduate programme at Sky, where she is a now a backend Python developer for Sky’s e-commerce platform for their online streaming service.
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Teaser (first ~15s): I’ve been a minority all my life in wherever I go. I’m kind of used to it. The difference is when it’s affecting directly how people perceive you in a career sense, all of a sudden, it feels very loud.
Aimi: [02:37] Thanks for having me.
Joseph: I want to talk about a lot of different things with you today. We’re going to talk about your career in civil engineering, and then also your shift to coding in a completely different industry. I was wondering if you could start off by first of all just telling me what’s been keeping you occupied in your life, both work and also personal lately.
Aimi: [02:56] I currently work for Sky as a back-end developer. I work on the e-commerce platform for their online streaming service. We deal with the catalog of products and offers that customers can purchase from wherever they are in different territories. For example, in the UK Island and some European countries, provide content for Sky, and in the US, we provide content by NBCU, that’s NBC Universal. In my spare time, particularly the last two years, I’ve been working on my MSC, part-time. This is an MSC in Computer Science, as I don’t have a background in computer science. I decided to do this to upskill myself. I didn’t know at the time that we would be in the midst of all of this craziness, but it helped that I could spend more time on it at home. I’ve just finished that, and I’m glad that section of life is over and I don’t have to sit any more academic exams. That’s what I’ve been working on mostly.
Joseph: Can you also just tell me a little bit about your background?
Aimi: [04:08] My family are from Malaysia. They came to London I think in 1982. My parents met here as young people like on a course, and they ended up staying here. Myself and my brother were both born in London.
Joseph: Let’s just go back in time a little bit. Because you haven’t always been a software developer. Could you tell me a little bit about your 6-year career in civil engineering, which is what you were doing before? And then, we could move forward from there.
Aimi: [04:37] I graduated in civil engineering at Imperial. It’s the kind of degree where you immediately have a lot of opportunities in terms of jobs. The natural progression seemed to be get a job in civil engineering. I had spent every summer working in a design consultancy, so it didn’t seem like a bad idea considering I had some work experience to try that. However, when I graduated, it was 2010, and jobs was becoming quite scarce. We had the recession at that time. Nothing like what people are experiencing right now I’m sure, but it was still one of those times where it was quite difficult. When I did manage to get a job at Transport for London, I obviously took it because you couldn’t exactly complain.
Joseph: Transport for London is a TFL, I guess. It’s the largest government provider of transportation services in the country.
Aimi: [05:39] That’s right. Transport for London, look after London Underground, the buses, the cycle hire scheme and the cycle superhighways, for example. A lot of roads in London, they cover a lot of bases. I was positioned in London Underground, the London Underground graduate scheme, which was a 3-year graduate scheme. I met people of my own age who had also left university. Having done civil engineering, it was a scheme where I managed to do lots of different things and it was really interesting. I worked on Crossrail, which is a brand new railway line that transports people from east to west London. On London Underground, station upgrades, and I could have talked all day about how cool it was. People thought my job was really cool, but the day-to-day reality of it wasn’t that interesting to me. I just sort of went with it. All the signs were saying, “Oh, you’re doing really well.” People will tell me, “You’re doing really well. Just keep going. It’s fine.” My parents would say, “Oh, you’re doing so…”. You just get all these positive signals that everything’s fine, so you just keep going.
The natural route in engineering is to also get charted. Civil engineers get charted with the Institution of Civil Engineers. I did a lot of work with them you know work towards this professional qualification. When I achieved that qualification, nothing was different. I expected I don’t know work to suddenly become more interesting or stuff to be more challenging, but it didn’t happen.
Joseph: Is that certification a barrier to entry for more senior roles, or is it like a stamp of approval?
Aimi: [07:31] It’s a bit of both. I think for some roles, it can be a barrier to entry. It doesn’t mean that people don’t progress without it. Many experienced engineers do not have this qualification. Sometimes, they take a different route to get there. But there can be jobs that require it as part of their job spec.
Joseph: Okay. You’re working on the Crossrail which was probably, in recent years, has been the most major, publicly impactful project to create, that high-speed rail network to connect people outside of London into London. More convenient station upgrades for TFL. That sounds great and exciting on the surface, but you weren’t feeling super satisfied inside. Can you put into words what exactly did you not like about your day-to-day job?
Aimi: [08:18] It’s kind of a tricky one to describe because it’s not that the work wasn’t interesting, it’s just that it’s such a huge project that you end up doing quite a small play, a small role on that project. I think it was to do with just the way that I like to problem-solve. On a construction project, you tend to have designers and contractors. Designers would look at the calculations for the design, provide the drawings, the specifications. Contractors tend to be doing the on-site work. They’ll be doing different jobs on site. I was neither of these. I was a client because Transport for London TFL are a client organization. They give the contracts out to these different companies, to carry out the work for them. A lot of that was me checking that people had done what they needed to do. I had a great overview and strategic outlook on what was happening but wasn’t getting into a lot of that work.
Joseph: The study is subject in university, and they may or may not have a deep desire to go into the industry but they do anyway because it’s what makes sense after you get that sort of a degree. In this case, civil engineering. Your day-to-day life isn’t quite as you had hoped it would be. Were you thinking at this point in time maybe I’ll switch to a different organization and try to do something else in civil engineering? What was running through your head when you were experiencing this?
Aimi: [09:54] At the time, I was focused on gaining the professional qualification. There was a lot of support within TFL to do that so I stayed there until I achieved that qualification. I left TFL for a design consultancy to be a designer properly. It was still Crossrail, which was interesting. I was in a managerial position. I was managing other designers, and it was great because I got that position from gaining my chartership. But then, I realized it wasn’t that fun either. There was a lot of pressure, the environment wasn’t exactly healthy in some ways. I don’t know how to explain it because I was there for such a short time. What happened in that role is that I got made redundant. It forced my hand to look at something else. However, at that time, I had already been looking into coding. A few months before that redundancy happened, I had joined Sky’s “Get Into Tech” course.
Joseph: Was this just something that you’d always been interested in doing? Or, how did you pick coding in particular?
Aimi: [11:08] When I was a teenager, I used to be tinkering around with personal blogs and changing what my Myspace looked like for hours. Instead of doing my revision, I spent a lot of time messing around with that. At the time, I didn’t know that software development was a career choice. I didn’t have any role models that did this. At school, no one mentioned it. I joined the “Get Into Tech” course because I wanted to reignite that interest that I had years and years ago, just to see what it was like and just to see what people were using these days to code things. I hadn’t really coded anything like a program. It was mostly me messing around with HTML and CSS, which are very like the cosmetic side of changing web pages, and I enjoyed it! I found myself in that zone again, just spending hours and hours trying to solve problems that were set in the class. I did this in my spare time outside of work.
Joseph: At what point did you realize that this could turn into something more?
Aimi: [12:22] Sky wanted to get more women into tech through this course by introducing them to some basic concepts. Usually, their graduate program does not attract as many women. Mostly because not many women are doing computer science. They offered the opportunity to sit the interview for the graduate program at Sky. I sat the program just to see if I would get in, just to see what kind of things people ask at these things, and they offered it to me. I was in a bit of a dilemma because at that point I didn’t know that that redundancy was coming. I had to decide whether I would leave this career I’d spend like six years building, or to try something totally different. It was quite hard.
Joseph: Can you take me back to the moment when you were able to make that decision. How did you come to the level of clarity you needed in order to make the leap?
Aimi: [13:24] It was tough. I spoke to so many different people about it. Obviously, my parents being immigrants in this country. They saw it as risky to try and do something which, in hindsight, it’s not that risky. It’s still not a job that has a career path. It’s not like I was saying I’m going to put down all my tools and start a business I know nothing about. My friends had mixed opinions about it. In the end, I decided not to take it because I just felt like, “Oh, I’ve worked really hard at this.” Maybe again, I thought to myself, “Oh, maybe if I give it more time, it will change.” And then, the redundancy happened. I had to go back and ask Sky if they would take me because after that happened, my parents were like, “Yeah, maybe this is the sign that you need to just try it.”
Joseph: It doesn’t sound so bad after all, right? I’m not sure if now is the right time to bring this up, but if you’re open to going here in this conversation, something we touched on prior to this recording because you mentioned friends and family, and their influence on your thoughts and your decisions about this particular move. If you’re willing to talk about this, I understand you’re also in a relationship around this time. I think that would be interesting to touch on because clearly, our life at work affects our life outside of work and vice versa. Can you tell me a little bit about what was happening for you outside of work, related to this relationship, and how that influenced your decision making here?
Aimi: [14:52] My partner at the time was very supportive of a lot of the things I wanted to do. With this particular decision, he helped me a lot in terms of talking through what the pros and cons were. Whatever decision I made, he was really helpful. However, later on, after I had taken the decision to join Sky and become a software developer, a lot of things changed. We met on the TFL grad scheme. He was also a civil engineer. Obviously, I was moving industries and that was a big part of what we spoke about, our work/life. We spoke about in-depth. That all changed. Leading up to that point, everything was fine. He was helping me make these decisions and didn’t hold me back in that respect. It was after that that everything changed.
Joseph: Was there anything in particular that changed with the relationship itself after you actually made your career change?
Aimi: [16:01] The relationship in its dynamic changed a lot in the lead-up to that huge life change. There were a lot of different behaviors that were coming up in the relationship. It became a lot more toxic. There were certain elements of my relationship that I started to become unhappy with. I would say I don’t think he was aware of it at the time that these things were happening and what that would have meant for our relationship, or even that he would have admitted at that time. It was to do with the career change. But I feel like a lot of these things probably came from not feeling in control of how things were moving.
Joseph: It sounds like things were going fine with the relationship. And then, you, yourself, evolved away from what had been the status quo, professionally. It sounds like that in some way triggered a change in the dynamic of the relationship. Do you have any sense of why that happened? Why the career move ended up creating this paradigm shift in the relationship itself?
Aimi: [17:20] I guess when you change careers like that, it becomes kind of your identity in a way. I don’t know if other people have felt this. But when I changed careers, I didn’t realize how much of my identity was tied to my career. Until I moved and realized that, for example, all the social currency you have when being an organization like this connections, people not knowing who you are, people not already having some idea of whether you’re competent or not. All of that changes. You end up feeling like you’ve really started all over again, and maybe it was me wanting to spend a lot more time with the new people I’d met. It could be suddenly all the things I was talking about were very different. A lot of things become a different focus that are totally new. I think it’s maybe that lack of familiarity, or not being able to empathize with the fact that all of this is a bit scary, and all I’m doing is trying to make sense of this new situation I find myself in.
Joseph: I’ve had a very similar experience where I go from one chapter of my career to the next. It’s like the people from the previous chapter, sometimes they come along for the ride. But, especially with acquaintances or colleagues outside of your immediate team, a lot of those relationships can kind of fizzle out.
Aimi: [18:51] I would say that some of my friends continued with me for the ride, as you say. I guess the ones that were the closest. But it wasn’t because of the job itself that I’d lost people along the way. It was more to do with how that breakup happened, and what I perceived to be a strong friendship or not based on the stuff I would talk about around the relationship. There are some people who were more understanding when I explained the situation and some people who didn’t have the same tools to respond. That ended up being a separator in this instance.
Joseph: I wanted to shift gears here a little bit with some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way. You go from moving through this 14-week introduction program, this “Get Into Tech” program at Sky, into software development. Can you describe what your experience has been, like going from civil engineering into a very different function and role within a very different industry?
Aimi: [20:03] The perception of software development is that it would have been just as bad as engineering in terms of diversity. But, I found that people are more diverse in their personalities than they were in engineering. It’s a tough one to describe, but even though the field is still male-dominated, not as many people of color, the personalities you get are very different. It kind of fits better with me, I guess, in the engineering world.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine who was also on the scheme at the time. I was like anxious about not appearing White enough, or like having to put on this persona, which was White. At that time, I couldn’t explain what those things were. When I tried to, they just sounded like normal things. Like certain ways of communicating or being opinionated because there are things that sound like they’re just traits that you need. But, it’s a certain way of communicating that’s expected of you, that I had to emulate a lot of the time, which wasn’t in my natural personality.
Joseph: I do think that you’re bringing up something that does come up a lot. Whether it’s explicit or implicit, there’s this cultural fit with your organization. Sometimes, when people talk about cultural fit, they’re talking about the dynamics of the company whether it’s fast-moving, or entrepreneurial, or if the people are friendly or it’s competitive. There’s another element to it which is actually more related to ethnicity or it’s maybe more related to geography. There could be some mismatches there with the culture.
Aimi: [21:50] With ethnicity, I found that I noticed this more as I moved to Sky. The young men who came from an ethnic minority background, I could see them struggling more having conversations with people. And then, I looked back at where I was in engineering and did notice some things as well. But, it’s never spoken about. I felt for them because it’s not an easy one to navigate. At the time, you don’t even know how to describe that feeling where you’re not quite fitting in, culturally, but there’s nothing going wrong necessarily.
Joseph: I actually I used to work in the Bay Area, in California, where there’s quite a few Asians. I’m Taiwanese myself, and I never really thought very much about cultural fit. I’ve felt like I generally fit into the overall environment at work. There’s a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity at work. And then, I remember moving to London, and at both of the companies where I worked, I was a minority in so many different ways. I think when you’re one of, in my case, three Asians along with a handful of other minorities in a company of 180 employees, it’s hard not to feel a little bit like an outlier. It’s hard for that not to affect your overall experience at the company. It’s kind of hard to put that into words, sometimes, both for yourself and also for others.
Aimi: [23:17] I’ve been a minority all my life wherever I go. I’m kind of used to it. The difference is when it’s affecting directly in how people perceive you in a career sense, all of a sudden, it feels very loud. For example, I used to go to an Islamic school. I would be the only Southeast Asian person in my year, and maybe one of three or four other students, which were from the Southeast Asian background. When everyone else was Middle Eastern, you kind of don’t realize how much of a deal it is until you sort of leave and you go. That was a bit weird. There was a lot of things that you couldn’t be, you couldn’t share about yourself. People would talk about how their families are.
But, in the wider context of London, you’re like, “Oh, I’m with people who are kind of like me, that’s fine.” Then when I met engineering again, like White-dominated. But then, you’re on a university course, you don’t notice. You just need to carry on doing what you’re doing, like other people’s interactions with you don’t affect your grade. But then, all of a sudden, you’re in a job. All of a sudden, what people think of you matters a lot.
Joseph: The last thing I was hoping to talk with you about with what you’re doing right now because I understand there’s another role shift that’s coming up for you. When we spoke before. Aimi, you mentioned that you did everything you were supposed to do coming out of civil engineering. But, you still ended up in a career path that wasn’t right for you. What exactly did you mean by that?
Aimi: [25:03] The process of doing that job didn’t necessarily fit my natural personality. I felt like I was shifting my personality a lot in order to fit either the type of role or the people I was working with. Software, on the other hand, it has a lot of similarities. But, the cool thing about software is that you can design it, and build it, and see it happen. It’s a lot of problem-solving which I find enjoyable. The kind of problem-solving that happens on big engineering projects depends a lot on your experience and what you’ve seen before. I entered engineering having never had any real experience of being on-site.
As a young person, I think a lot of people get into engineering after messing around with a car or being on-site with a friend or a family member. They have these little experiences which exposes them to what it’s actually like, and I didn’t have that. I totally went into it on a theoretical basis trying to use what I knew to help people but it just didn’t suit me. I had to become this person that civil engineering needed to be. Whereas, I’m an actual problem solver and just software suited me better. It’s also the kind of people that software draws to it that I seem to get along with a lot better. It just seemed like a more natural fit as soon as I joined it.
Joseph: If you had to give some advice to your younger civil engineering self, as it relates to thinking about your career or changing careers, what might that be?
Aimi: [26:57] It would be to unlearn those things that you get taught as a young person, to always listen to what everyone else says. I think I should have listened to my instinct when I was messing around with web pages for hours and hours, and to have followed that. I think a lot of young people tend to have something they’re interested in, but there isn’t anyone to notice that that is something that they can turn into something else. Whether it’s a career or a very important hobby of theirs. Something that they can take forward and do more earnestly in some way, in some creative way or some productive way.
I should have listened to my instinct when I joined my civil engineering course because I definitely felt like it wasn’t for me. But, my dad kept telling me, “No, it’s fine. You’re doing really well.” I don’t think my younger self would have listened to my advice either because my dad would have been on the other side going, “No, no, no, just stay where you are.” I think that comes out of being from an immigrant family who just wants the best for their kids and to just persevere with opportunities that have been presented to them. Not realizing that other opportunities may also turn up as well.
Joseph: Absolutely. I think that that does come up a lot with immigrant families. As someone, myself, who grew up in the United States after my parents immigrated there, primarily for me and my sister, I think that there is always this desire to make their immigration and them transplanting themselves across the world worth it. Last question, having been through this career change, what’s one thing you’ve learned about yourself?
Aimi: [28:47] One of the things I have noticed is that the tasks or jobs I enjoy the most tend to be things that help other people out. I used to do volunteer work, looked at international development and stuff when I was at university. I got passionate about that. Now that you mention it, the projects I enjoy the most in my software career are the ones where I’m helping people do their job a lot better. I get that buzz from someone using something, and it’s made their life a lot easier.
Joseph: I think that’s a nice compass to keep in mind for the rest of your career as you look forward and think about what you want to do next. I understand you’re about to make another shift within Sky. Can you tell me a little bit more about your new role there?
Aimi: [29:41] I did my MSc in Computer Science, and my dissertation was around machine learning. I tried to combine my previous experience with the new things I had learned. I applied machine learning to construction data. Whilst I was doing that, I thought more about where I’d like to go next. Within Sky, we have a team that creates a platform for data scientists to run their machine learning models. This year, I started talking to that team, and then was successful in selection to join them. I’m joining that team in a week’s time, and it’s really exciting! It’s not a bigger pivot as what I had done from civil engineering to software, but it’s certainly a pivot in terms of what I do now to what they’ll be doing in that team.