Laura Baker | Iwin Mitchell
Introducing Laura, with a bachelor’s in software engineering and being the only female to complete the course, she began her career within Software Engineering at Landmark information group. After having children her career took a turn; Laura developed a keen interest in AI Architecture and fast-forward 6 years, she is leading from the front as the Head of Data Engineering and Platform at Irwin Mitchell
She describes her leadership style as nurturing and empowering, with a huge focus on inclusivity. Laura went through her school years, even up to university age with undiagnosed Dyslexia, and was only diagnosed whilst at university. This is her self-proclaimed superpower and testified that having Neurodiverse talent within a team adds a diverse approach on projects - which is invaluable! So, if you are Neurodiverse yourself, and seeking a role model within the Tech world, Laura is certainly that person!
Be prepared for a fantastic story into the rise of a Female leader in tech!
Hi Laura, thank you for being involved with Women Rock! Could you tell me a bit about how you first got started in Tech?
I have always like maths at school, so I ended up doing an Advanced GVNQ in Computing, so glad I did. I didn’t know it then, but that was the start of my journey. I loved the programming sections and found I was pretty good at those bits. This led me to do a BSc in Software Engineering, I was 1 of 3 females on the course, and the only female to finish. For my final project, I did a crude natural language solution, which I didn’t do a particularly good job on, but led me to pursue a MSc in Applied AI, this became a corner stone of my career since.
You are the Head of Data Engineering and Platform at Iwin Mitchell; we absolutely love to see a woman leading from the front within a company. How would you describe your leadership style and what do you enjoy most about the job?
I have a nurturing and inclusive style. I want the people in my team to feel comfortable to be themselves and feel part of a cohesive team. I also believe in empowering the team, ensuring they can take ownership. I want them to feel like they are backed and supported, but in exchange I want them to provide this to each of their teammates.
The thing I like most about my job is all the cool stuff we are building, this ranges from great architecture using cutting edge technologies for providing value to the business, to a building a wonderful team that is maturing and developing together.
As a woman in technology, what would you say is the best and worst thing you’ve encountered within the industry over the years, and what did this teach you?
I was in a room with 10 or so male colleagues as a relatively junior software engineer, I challenged someone’s point and the rebuke I received was attributing my challenge to “female hormones”. I was absolutely fuming, and embarrassed... thanks mate, he might as well have said “get back in the kitchen and make me some pie”. I think this is appalling, what a way to keep a woman in her box. Wouldn’t happen in my team!
The best bit is... “being in the kitchen making pies”. No Seriously, I think the best bit is how women can support each other, I love the movement to support women in tech as a whole. I used to see it as a badge of honour that I was one of so few females. I took a while to see that me being the only female was due to a systemic problem. Being from a farming community with a dad with only daughters I was always brought up to believe that I could do anything a man could do, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to follow a career in tech, or that other women weren’t able to follow this path, for whatever reason.
Quite a lot of women have felt they have had to make sacrifices with family to pursue their career choices, as a Mother yourself have you ever come up against any barriers like this and if so, how did you overcome them?
I have two children, I had as long off work as possible when I had them, around 14 months with each of the them. Until both were in school, I remained part time. For a few years this stunted my career however, with the support from a fabulous female boss I was able to power on through and make some huge leaps in my career. I did have to work really hard to achieve this. Toward the end of being part time, I was working a lot of extra hours, but hey it paid off in spades!! But should it have been that way?
Given that I took so much time off with the kids, I don’t feel like I sacrificed anything, I have been very careful because I don’t want to look back with regret, my career will still be there, but my kids will have grown up.
I know that you are passionate building a diverse team at Iwin Mitchell, and you’ve been successful with diverse hires in the past – How do you ensure your interview/recruitment process is inclusive and what advice would you give to other hiring managers around this?
Irwin Mitchell is very passionate about diversity and inclusion. It’s not just lip service, the company is very proud of it’s gender equality and have a good proportion of female senior leadership (which is very inspiring). The advice I would give, is "keep an open mind”, interviews are stressful for most people, but this can be on a whole other level for a neurodivergent person, the behaviours you see might not be quite what your used to, so you need to try not to put this person in a box by making a snap decision about them.
Why would you say that Iwin Mitchell is a great place to work for people from all different backgrounds and walks of life?
Irwin Mitchell is a great place to due to its culture. We have a “flexible by choice” policy that is reflected in all areas of the business and is held core to IM’s values. This is something that the business is proud of, and the people.
We also have a high percentage of female employees, although we could do with evening it up a bit in Data! The culture is very inclusive and friendly, there is quite a long average tenure at IM, I think that is mostly down to people being happy and satisfied.
Let’s talk about your self-proclaimed superpower! We have talked previously about you growing up struggling with un-diagnosed Dyslexia and how later in life you sought out a diagnosis. Tell me more about that and the impact it’s made on your career?
I have been very open with work and colleagues about being dyslexic. I think this has had a positive impact on my career, I can often think about a problem or solution differently from peers and having that diversity is useful in a team. I noticed early on in my career, that neurodiversity is very common in the engineering space, possibly the abstract and logical nature of it as a craft, so I’m in good company. I see it an advantage to think different than others and I seem to excel in some other areas such as spotting patterns and spatial reasoning. I think it helps me to be an abstract thinker.
It can be more stressful in meetings if I have to read a body of text, and I’m thinking “this is going to take me much longer that everyone else”.
On the topic of Neurodiversity, what advice would you personally give to hiring managers/employers who are trying to ensure their interview process is also attracting neurodiverse candidates?
I would make it clear in the job advert that neurodiversity is valued, not just accepted, but valued. I would put a short paragraph, maybe a couple of lines near the top of the advert. These is much more appealing that a statement at the bottom that sound a bit like an after statement, or token effort to be inclusive.
If you could go back to your 16 year old self, what advice would you give her?
Buy stocks in Google!!
But seriously I would say “You don’t have to be the cleverest person in the room to be successful and kind to yourself”.
Accademia came easier to my sibling, so I always felt like the thick one, but I have gone on to make a great career that I’m proud of.
What do you think the biggest thing tech companies could do to attract more female talent? And I guess, if it was you looking – what would attract you to a company?
Flexibilty, fair compensation, career progression, and interesting work. For me, it would be a combination of these things. I love working from home, I can relax and deliver, I can contact and access the people I need quickly and easily. Flexibility is important to me and was certainly a major consideration when I chose the role at Irwin Mitchell, not only as a mum, but also from a “manage your energy not your time” perspective.
Career progression and interesting work are also very attractive, most of us like to make a difference, add value, and feel appreciated. I like to see the potential in the domain and data, also working with a relevant tech stack that is going to keep skills on point with the industry.
Who is someone in your life that inspires you?
My parents are my biggest inspiration. I grew up in West Somerset, in the south of England, which is one the lowest social mobility areas in the England. My parents were tenant farmers on a Crown Estate farm on Exmoor, which for anyone who knows the area, would know that’s pretty tuff farming land. Lots of farmers weren’t coping in the area but Dad diversified, I watched him make a successful Ice-cream making business, even innovating, and making solar panelled ice-cream vans.
Mum went back to study and become a solicitor; this had a huge impact on me for what it takes to succeed.
Finally, could you leave us with your favourite quote?
Interviewed by Adam Townsend