Amber Swift | Northumbrian Water
Meet this weeks' Women Rocker, Amber Swift 👋.
A data wizard at Northumbrian Water, who started her journey with curiosity in ICT during her GCSE and A-levels. Thanks to her tech-savvy grandma's wisdom, she skipped the business degree bandwagon and leapt into a Degree Apprenticeship at Northumbrian Water. Between sips of coffee and lines of code, dipping her toes in various teams, she discovered a love of data and coding.
Amber's story covers everything from the challenges that came from being a young trailblazer, her work as a mentor guiding university placements & apprenticeships, being an advocate for neurodivergence and diversity within tech to her work beyond the keyboard where she breaks stereotypes with CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting. Amber is on a mission to encourage more women to pump iron and break the glass ceiling (and a sweat)
Amber has achieved great things in her career so far, as well as being nominated for the Rising Star Award for her work and accomplishing a 1st Class Hons Degree. Some might say, she is equally as inspirational as her parting quote:
“find your allies, take every opportunity you are given even if it scares you. Because stepping out your comfort zone and challenging yourself is what opens your horizons and opportunities”. 🚀✨
THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO SPEAK TO US. FIRSTLY, PLEASE CAN YOU START BY TALKING ME THROUGH YOUR POSITION AT NORTHUMBRIAN WATER?
I currently work as a Performance Insights Analyst; I like to think of this as a fancy title for a Data Analyst that often dabbles into Data Science. I work in the Intelligence and Analytics Team here at NWG and my day usually looks like: finding new insight and efficiencies within corporate data, producing automated reports and dashboards, creating intelligent data science solutions predicting future trends in which if we act now, we can improve performance against our key measures! I’m super passionate about it so sometimes when I start, I can’t stop! But to give some examples, I helped predict areas in which water poverty may be an issue (customers struggling to pay their bill) so we can put them on affordability tariffs to combat this. I’ve also been involved in creating an industry first Customer Experience Digital Twin – a model that predicts customer satisfaction levels and highlights where we can improve our processes. Seeing my impact is what motivates me, so hopefully that gives a little taster into my role!
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR STORY SO FAR. HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE WORLD OF TECH?
I studied ICT (or Computer Science) at GCSE and A-Level just out of interest, it was always something I enjoyed due to the creative aspect. I guess I realised I was pretty good at problem solving and developing solutions, a key skill in what I do now. When it came to university decisions it was my amazing Gran who convinced me not to do a traditional business degree. I felt it was more ‘normal’ at the time and she told me that she saw me working in IT and thriving, she saw my potential and my passion. I left traditional university after a month, worked for a year to gain employable skills and confidence, and then looked out for an apprenticeship. Northumbrian Water were recruiting for a Degree Apprenticeship in Digital and Technology Solutions at the perfect time for me. It was a very vigorous process given they were financing your degree, but I am so thankful I was given the opportunity. Between September 2016 – July 2019, I worked for NWG Monday – Thursday and attended Sunderland University every Friday to gain my degree. NWG placed me around many different teams from Business Analysis, Development, Data, testing etc that meant I was able to apply my learnings and find the right role for me upon graduation. About 2 years in I discovered my love of data and coding, I was fortunate enough to land a graduate role in my current team and 2 years ago was promoted into the role I am in now. I still love what I do and seeing the difference I can make to my company’s performance through data daily.
DO YOU FEEL THAT EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT IN CHANGING THE GENDER GAP IN TECH OR ARE THEIR OTHER WAYS FOR WOMEN TO START THEIR CAREERS WITH A MORE HANDS ON APPOACH?
Education certainly plays a crucial role in narrowing the gender gap in the tech industry, but it is not the only factor at play…
Creating a supportive and inclusive environment within educational institutions and workplaces is crucial. This includes addressing issues like gender bias, harassment, and stereotypes that can deter women from pursuing tech careers or lead to attrition.
Mentorship and Role Models: Having mentors and role models who are women in tech can inspire and guide aspiring professionals. Mentorship programs can provide valuable insights and support for women looking to advance their careers.
Hands-On Experience: A more hands-on approach, such as internships, apprenticeships, and coding bootcamps, can complement traditional education by providing practical skills and real-world experience. These opportunities can be especially beneficial for women looking to transition into tech careers later in life or those without formal STEM education. I can vouch for this one as this is how I began my journey! I knew I wanted to go down an apprenticeship root and I think it really fine tunes those employable skills and gets you applying the knowledge you gain from studying to a point where you can become years ahead in terms of experience.
Networking: Building a professional network is essential for career growth. Attending tech events, conferences, and joining industry-specific organisations can help women connect with peers and potential employers. I was very fortunate that during my apprenticeship my manager and mentors gave me so many opportunities. Even though I was nervous, I took every opportunity and made connections for life.
WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED IN YOUR CAREER SO FAR?
With many roles I’m sure, I struggled with being thrown into a workplace at quite a young age and not being taken seriously due to my age and possibly my gender. Having to report my findings to internal stakeholders when given tasks I felt dismissed and that my older more experienced colleagues were listened to rather than myself. This is something that did diminish over time and workplaces have grown a lot since, but early on in someone’s career it is vital that we support and encourage people, so they grow. I see this as one of the factors that is perhaps why ¾ of women in technical roles leave before the age of 30.
Gaining my role in the first place, as when I graduated, I came up against a very talented pool of people when interviewing for what became my graduate role. I compared myself too much at this point in my life and felt I didn’t stand a chance against those with years more experience than me. I put hours into planning and revising for my interview. Something I feel fellow women in tech could agree with. I feel we naturally put more effort into tasks feeling we need to overcompensate and compete with the men in our industries.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT ANY COACHING/MENTORING YOU DO IN OR OUTSIDE OF WORK TO HELP WOMEN AND UNDERREPRESENTED GROUPS FIND OPPORTUNITY?
University Placements – Since joining my team in 2018, I have been involved in supporting university students during summer internships. From our initial uptake I have then led on the interviewing and mentorships / shadowing of the students. I have endeavoured to find fellow women with the right passions and skills. We have supported 6 students in internships over the past few years which led to me and a colleague hosting a guest lecture at a local University to help with future intake and show universities that a water company does more than what meets the eye.
Apprentices – I am a representative to new and existing apprentices that we recruit. providing advice and shadowing where needed. This year I am supporting a new female apprentice analyst on a neighbouring team which I find so empowering! Speaking to someone with similar passions to myself, I endeavour to do all I can to help her with her studies and work experience.
Mentorship – I am part of a wider group of mentors within Northumbrian Water to offer mentorship to student placements, work experience, apprentices, and graduates. We meet quarterly to share learning experiences / advice which we then take back to any mentees.
For me, this is just small ways in which I can make a difference and I am so passionate about promoting tech roles, which is why I was asked by NWG’s IS Director to represent women in STEM. Alongside my role I am beginning to work with local schools, companies, and universities to promote the roles and the skills to the next generation. Our aim is to close the gap and find more exceptional women for the analytics and technical space.!
WHO HAVE BEEN / ARE THE MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE / MENTORS IN YOUR CAREER?
Two people very dear to me and who were fantastic mentors were men, which we love to see! Men should be allies and supporters of women and help to inspire the next gen. My previous manager in my current role, Mike Hull, presented me with so many opportunities. I came into his team as a graduate with poor confidence in public speaking and in my own abilities, comparing myself to the rest of the team and people who had years of experience. Through his support I became a confident speaker, giving presentations at Director level, to External Companies and so on. My learning and development soared with his guidance, and I began to contribute ideas for the team and began to lead on projects, I am eternally grateful to him.
My manager during my time as an apprentice, Malcolm Duffield. Mal inspired me as he is someone who started from developer/engineer and ended up as a senior manager. He had all the technical knowledge alongside managerial traits, but if you needed him, he’d drop everything and be there for you in whatever capacity. He ridded impediments in the workplace and gave me the study time and support needed. He surprised me by turning up at my graduation which made me emotional because he was there at the beginning of my career and at the end of my apprenticeship to watch me walk into new roles and opportunities.
Melissa Tallack, someone who was interim manager in my current team and inspired me from the get-go. A female manager of many data teams, oozing with strategic direction whilst understanding the technical side of the roles, because she’d been in them! Melissa really ramped up my passion for representing women in technical roles and helping my department and company identify bottlenecks to help increase our female headcount.
YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU ARE AN ADVOCATE FOR NEURODIVERGENCE IN TECH. WHY DO YOU THINK IT IS IMPORTANT TO ENCOURAGE MORE FOLK FROM THE NEURODIVERGENT COMMUNITY TO JOIN THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF TECH? AND WHAT DO YOU THINK COULD BE DONE TO IMPLEMENT THIS?
For me, I struggled to see a lot of my traits all my life as strengths, I was always very self-critical, and it heavily impacted my mental health never really understanding myself. I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and through therapy I am now able to see that it is because of who I am, I have thrived in my career. People with ADHD or fellow neurodivergent are often very creative individuals, good at problem solving, passionate about topics they are interested in and really care about what they do. From my diagnosis I have been very open about my journey and want to help others see their traits as strengths earlier than I did, hopefully to lessen impact on mental health but also to help others see their potential.
So, because the Neurodivergent Community possess a lot of the traits and skills needed to work in tech, I think through early engagement and highlighting said traits as desirable, we can encourage more people to join our community. I have been working with other teams in my company to engage with schools and universities showing skills matrices of tech roles, telling my story, offering work placements, and shadowing so that the world of tech and all its amazing career opportunities can be show cased to the next gen at a young age.
Obviously much more can be done. My manager Kacper and I have become advocates for the Neurodivergent community and plan to start LinkedIn blogs about our experiences to reach other companies and individuals. We plan to hold more awareness sessions in the company to help teams accommodate their neurodivergent colleagues. We are working with a neurodivergent recruitment specialist to offer future roles in our team, knowing such individuals should thrive in our heavily data oriented and problem-solving roles. I truly believe if company’s get rid of the job descriptions with the ‘must have’ experience and instead highlight the desirable skills, then more neurodivergent people will feel they can apply for roles in tech as they can relate more to the JD.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR HOBBIES OUTSIDE OF WORK. I UNDERSTAND YOU DO CROSSFIT AND OLYMPIC WEIGHTLIFTING. HOW CAN WE ENCOURAGE WOMEN TO TAKE UP SPACE IN AREAS THAT HAVE BEEN TRADITIONALLY SEEN AS MALE?
I started CrossFit and lifting weights in lockdown, and it felt empowering, it became my unwind after a heavy workday or even after those difficult weeks we all experience. I still saw drilled in values in my family with grandparents telling me not to lift weights because I’d look ‘bulky’ or ‘like a man’, but rather than be offended it was more educating them on what I now know. I think we have seen a shift in what was traditionally male, and women are now being encouraged to go for the roles or participate in the sports. By becoming positive role models and sharing our experiences, what is good for our mental health and wellbeing, what has worked for us and makes us happy, it will encourage other women and the next generation to take these spaces too. Gone are the days where I feel I must conform to the beauty standards that were expected of women, especially what has been depicted on socials and through the media for decades and that’s from being in the environment and surrounded by other strong, healthy women. So, I always like to preach, lift the weights, and eat ALL the food.
WHAT ARE YOUR PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS (PERSONAL OR PROFESSIONAL)?
I was part of the team that created an Industry First, Customer Experience Digital Twin. Using many sources of corporate data, we produced a machine learning model that predicted which of our customers struggled to pay for their water bill and who may benefit from extra support. Within its first month of deployment and the actions we took from the insight, we had a 25% increase in customers signing up for our affordability tariffs and help schemes, thus seeing a significant difference in overall Water Poverty in the UK.
Last year I was nominated for Award of Rising Star at the everywoman in Tech awards for my work in the Data Science space. I was thrilled that I became a finalist and even being nominated was a career goal for me.
I graduated with a 1st Class Hons Degree. As someone with ADHD I struggled through school and sixth form, always feeling like I had to overcompensate and try so hard to get my target grades. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled with my results, but I know I had to put a lot of work in to get there due to the way I learn and take in information. I think it helped that I am so passionate about computer science so completing a degree in it, the coding, and the practical assignments, I made it my goal to graduate with a 1st and did just that.
I bought my first house at 18 because I chose a Degree Apprenticeship over University. It was a goal of mine to save and own my own home rather than rent. This is not possible for all, but it was a goal of mine and I was so thankful to Northumbrian Water for the apprenticeship scheme and working full time as I was able to make that possible.
ANY LAST WORDS OF INSPIRATION?
It sounds cheesy but if like me you begin your career quite shy and lacking in confidence, find your allies, take every opportunity you are given even if it scares you. Because stepping out your comfort zone and challenging yourself is what opens your horizons and opportunities. If you have ideas to increase the number of women in tech, preach them, surround yourself with people in your company who will get involved and support your initiatives. To me your job doesn’t just stop at your job description, you can make it so much more, add the extracurricular activities to that as you go along and find what inspires you. You could really make a difference in your workplace and to someone’s life!
Thanks Amber, you rock 🤘
Interview by Bella Snell