Laura Morgan

Engineer and Technical Lead at Spotify, Stockholm

When I was asked to write this article, I said yes immediately...and then realised how strange it felt to be writing about my career in tech for real people to read. For me, personally, working as a female engineer in the tech industry has always been somewhat of an interesting rollercoaster. Roller coasters can be both fabulous, and the opposite - the best thing about these ups and downs is that there is learning to be had by everyone. When I first moved to Sweden from our little gem in the Irish Sea, specifically when I began working here at Spotify, I began to realise just how far global tech had come in ensuring equal respect for hard working engineers, for hyper intelligent human beings - no matter who they were or what their background, or gender, was. The significance of this to me personally was huge, finally we were evolving, and tech could evolve alongside this mix of wonderful brains. It’s not perfect, yet, and you know what? That’s fine, because when things aren’t perfect - that means there’s problems to solve, and problems to solve is what gives engineers, scientists, anyone in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math), life. So about this rollercoaster! This is the awkward part, the whole “tell us a little bit about you” thing. Well I’ll try.

My Dad was an aerospace engineer, and later on taught those skills to others, including a very young budding “pilot” daughter (yeah, I had pretty high hopes to go to space back then). Technology itself may not have been a large part of my upbringing, it was certainly there but it was not the focal point, but problem solving was. “Dad, I would really like a toy boat!” I would say, “OK great! Here’s a block of wood, a chisel and some sandpaper!” my Dad would reply. At the time, this was kind of a downer but in hindsight this is exactly the right thing my brain required to develop into the person I am today - I build, break, and try to fix things to solve problems.

Computers arrived in our life pretty early, and while everyone else was playing Tomb Raider on the PS1 or Mario on GameBoy, the only games I was allowed to play were on PC (DOS and Windows 3.1 to be exact) - and even then they had to be educational. I became pretty savvy with Flight Simulator and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, which in hindsight was monumentally important to the speed at which I can now type! When we got our first internet connected computer… I’d managed to contract several viruses and almost destroyed the OS within 3 hours of having a go. There’s a fun way to get yourself grounded (don’t, it’s really easy to avoid this in 2018!).

Skip on a few years and teenage me is delving into the underbelly of the internet, which had grown to an unfathomable scale at this point. I made Homestead websites about absolutely nothing at all, I’d joined IRC, started using Linux, made new friends whose real names I’d never know, eventually I was learning how to script bots and finding out how vulnerabilities in code opened up interesting challenges. I was learning the difference between simply ‘using’ technology, and ‘embracing’ it, becoming a part of it… the Matrix was out not too long before that time, it really got to me.

It’s probably a good time to talk about school at this point. For me, I enjoyed school, I was interested in a multitude of different things but felt a little frustrated because I think I didn’t quite know how to channel those interests in the right way. Our IT classes perhaps weren’t up to par with what I wanted to be doing with computers, I still despise working with spreadsheets to this day. Nowadays that’s changing for the better, and education in STEM is starting to encourage young people to delve into the things that make our world so intriguing. So, I left school at the ripe age of 15, after completing my GCSE’s with modestly good results. After a while of trying out different jobs, including finance, I finally began to land IT roles.

It started out with building computers, taking them apart, playing around with both Windows and Linux. After a while I’d managed to move on to work for a small consultancy, where I’d eventually end up consulting with and finally working for HSBC (the artist formerly known as Bank of Bermuda). It was here my passion for technology as a career began to take off, working with an equally-if-not-more geeky counterpart (shout out Jaan!) meant that I could start to learn of the nuances of technology in business rather than as a hobby. Problem solving began to take on a whole new meaning and with that I began to specialise, becoming interested in the network stack, network security and architectural design. I’d done some courses in database administration and began honing my programming skills in my spare time. After the financial crash and our wonderful offices’ subsequent and unfortunate demise, I picked up a role in the network ops team at Manx Telecom. From there, I began studying and reaching further into architecture and eventually was offered a role in London for a small fintech (financial technology) firm specialising in passive latency analysis.

As far as learning curves went, this move was one of the biggest. I’d landed a role as “the IT person” - that turned out to be a pretty broad scope. I got to work with some of the most wonderfully experienced, creative and passionate engineers I’d ever encountered. This was my first chance to work with both developers and technologies I barely even knew existed. Learning about high frequency networking, understanding the network stack and everything about transport protocols, to monitoring, and even threat hunting and security elements. I was young, at times ignorant, but my brain was squeezing up every ounce of data it could as I vehemently followed the guidance of my colleagues.

On the flip side, as a woman in tech, I also got to experience some of the things we’re trying to leave behind. At conferences, it would be interesting to watch the behaviours and interactions of delegates differ based on biases (and yes, I’m talking about gender here). This triggered something deep within me, at that time, being young and maybe a little too impulsive, it triggered a little bit of anger. That anger has fuelled something hugely important in my career to date, it’s fuelled drive - and an ability to settle for nothing less than absolute equality and respect for my position as an individual, and female, in STEM.

Fast forward again and I eventually moved back to the Isle of Man, first working as a network engineer for an ISP, then moving on to work for the Isle of Man Government, in their technology department. I’d wanted to work in the public sector for some time, as I’d developed an interest in using technology to help people and to help drive society in a positive way. Again I got the chance to work with some highly knowledgeable people, I got to collaborate and pair up on fabulously interesting projects and get involved in making a true positive impact on the Isle of Man.

Again, however, there is a flip side to this. We were a large department and I joined as a sysadmin, women were exceedingly sparse at this level of the organisation and while attitudes were generally fine, there’s always one or two individuals who manage to put some sort of a shadow on your trust in the field. I won’t go into detail, but just remember - never ever let any male counterpart, manager or not, make you feel like your skills are inferior because of your gender. That’s not constructive and it doesn’t help you to grow or learn. Eventually I moved on to becoming a network architect (working with one of the most wonderful mentors of my career, shout out Steve you legend!) which has been some of the most rewarding years of my life to date, that kind of made up for those shadows, and my trust in technology was firmly re-invigorated.

Fast forward again and here we are. After a while I decided I was hungry for new challenges yet again, and so I decided on applying for roles in European tech capitals, namely Scandinavia (I like the cold). I was offered a technicians role in IT at Spotify, at first I worried this may not challenge me enough - how wrong I was. The knowledge gained from supporting such an intricate, creative company was invaluable, it’s led me to finally becoming an engineer and Technical Owner in an engineering team, where I can work with others to innovate on highly interesting and complex problems. I get to speak to and bounce off of experts in every field from data analytics to SRE (Site Reliability Engineers) on a daily basis. At first I was overwhelmed by the knowledge held by my colleagues, the imposter syndrome was real. That wore off, as I realised that no matter what my skill level, I was working in a safe environment, where people just wanted to teach, help others learn, and encourage everyone to innovate and use their own interests and skills to build amazing things. Sometimes it’s good to feel proud, and I certainly feel extremely proud of where I’ve gotten to now, thanks to all of these wonderful people.

I get to be involved in everything from mentoring, technical working groups, to being part of driving cultural initiatives, to singing in the company’s choir. Every day I get to visualise and tackle complex problem spaces, and every single day I learn a multitude of new things. There is no boring day, and what’s even better is that even if I have a bad day, it’s not because I’m a woman in tech, it’s because I’m simply having a bad day. Everyone in this world who has the chance, no matter their education or their background, can and should allow themselves to be passionate and work on the things that matter to them. This is how we evolve. For me, that’s having the opportunity to contribute to enabling the population of this planet to listen to music (my other passion). So if you’re wondering if STEM is right for you, just look at the impact you can make, and look at all the rewarding experiences that are waiting for you, we need as much diversity in this field as we can get, because without it we don’t get any better.

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