“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
This is a transformative quote by Howard Zinn, a late professor of political sciences at Boston University, on the effectiveness of community; an idea that I think is inherently very powerful.
In general, the idea of community isn’t something one often associates with one’s’ career. Generally, it’s the act of coming together for a voluntary (generally unpaid) shared cause for social good, and more often than not, people simply want work to be work and life to be life. They want the ability to switch off – And that’s okay.
But having a community of like minded people who are in the same industry as yourself can yield amazing benefits – and I’m here today to write about how I’ve helped to start, grow and develop several parts of the Belfast tech community, how to keep an inclusive, diverse and strong community going, and how you can absolutely do this, too.
To preface this, I’m going to talk a little about the Japanese concept of Ikigai, or “reason for being”. The word refers to having a balance of activities and pursuits which make life diverse and worthwhile; giving a sense of meaning to life. I’ve found that being part of community groups within tech has impacted my social life and fuelled my drive to teach and help out, meaning that my passion for tech can become something more than simply a profession.
When I was first discovering the world of tech community groups, I was an intern at SAP Belfast; I was being paid, and I was very passionate about tech. But there was a slight feeling of emptiness though; as I was missing the kind of balance that giving back to the community can achieve. That’s when I discovered the organization Women Who Code, which was just starting up in Belfast, and I knew I wanted to help more women to see that a career in technology was a viable option. For those of you who don’t know, WWCode is a global organization that encourages and supports women to excel in technology careers. At the time, I was one of two technical women in an office of thirty or so, and I didn’t understand why – because tech is fascinating, why wouldn’t more women want to have a career in it? So I joined the leadership team of Women Who Code Belfast, and ever since then, tech community work has been an integral part of my life; I’ve seen the benefits of building and growing networks and communities, of making friends who work in the same field, and of fearlessly broadening my horizons and educating myself.
As with everything, my involvement in the community began with baby steps. In the beginning, I worked with Women Who Code Belfast as their Youth Outreach Lead for 3 years, organizing school tech education events, writing and delivering workshops, going to university fairs on behalf of Women Who Code Belfast, and hosting tech talks in the wider community, reaching out to different companies to host each time. I then became the Director of the group, a role I held for two years, and expanded the team to seven people, interviewing and bringing people onboard when other team members felt it was time to move on. All of this was voluntary and in our spare time, so people were absolutely entitled to move on whenever they wanted. Whilst I was in my first year as Director of WWCode Belfast, I was invited to speak at the Dublin Women Techmakers event, which was a conference to celebrate International Women’s Day supported by Google. Women Techmakers is Google’s brand and community group for women in tech, and it’s part of the Google Developer Group brand. I loved this idea, and so I contacted the Google Developer Group in Belfast and set about organizing my own WTM conference for the following year. It was a great success, and I met so many brilliant people within the Belfast tech scene as I was organising it, and it ended up with around 70 people in attendance. I grew the team over the next few years, and the conference has now been running for 5 successful years with an organizing team of around 10 people. I’ve stepped back as the leader of this endeavour, and I’ve been succeeded by some amazing women who have taken the vision further than I ever thought possible.
In addition to the women in tech communities, I’ve been passionate about cybersecurity ever since I started university, and so when I went to my first BSides Belfast conference in 2017, I was eager to get involved. BSides is a grassroots conference focused around cybersecurity in the local community, and as you can possibly guess, there’s a little work to be done around diversity of attendance. Initially, because of my position in WWCode, I was enlisted as an advisor on how to achieve more gender diversity for the conference; but I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just a one trick pony, and so I began helping out with other tasks in organizing the conference, drawing on my experiences with Women Techmakers. I’ve been in the BSides team for two years now, and I can tell you, hosting a conference on Halloween night is a lot of fun.
Finally, a few frankly amazing people and myself have recently started up a community group for cyber security enthusiasts in Northern Ireland, called InfoSecNI. We noticed that the thirst for community within the security enthusiasts of Northern Ireland was present within the annual BSides conference, but we wanted there to be somewhere that the community could go to share ideas and host events between these annual events. I’m hoping to expand this community and have a real thriving network for cyber folk here; because outside of professional networks such as NI Cyber, there’s a dearth of central places for Northern Irish hobbyists and nowhere to share news, job postings, all that sort of thing.
Why Is Community Important?
- It’s a place to build your network of professionals in your field – and a place to make friends!
As I think I mentioned before, being a part of communities that enable you to share interests with others is naturally a great way to make friends! I’ve made some real and lasting connections from attending and hosting events. Being part of a community is also really important for building and expanding your network of professionals in your field. It’s always useful to know people from a range of backgrounds and experiences so that you can be aware of different jobs and perspectives within the industry. It can also be useful to know people within other companies if looking for your next job, or if people in your network are searching for roles, you can recommend them to your organisation.
- Find Mentors!
Another social aspect of community groups that I’d like to highlight is that it gives you the ability to find mentors in your field; people you can look up to, go to for career advice, and who can guide you when you’re just a little lost. Having a mentor is a great way to get a step up in your career, and it’s great to build relationships with more experienced people in your field as well as your peers.
- Learn About Your Field Beyond The Scope Of Your Work!
As with everything, if you don’t expand your horizons, you’re going to stand still. Even if you’re only listening to one talk or reading one extra blog post a day, that’s still something that can be useful to you. You can learn about aspects of your field that you didn’t even know existed if you attend a meetup or conference, and that might inspire you to do a course on it, or introduce a new methodology within your work team. You never know – the possibilities are endless.
- Share Resources!
Communities enable resource sharing in a way that just isn’t really possible without them. Different people have differing experiences and different books and methodologies that have helped them, and sharing these within a community group is a great way to learn. One resource for time management that I learned from a Women Who Code meetup has helped improve my focus and productivity in work by miles; and I wouldn’t have come across it except for an incidental talk at this event. (It’s the Pomodoro method, for anyone who’s wondering – intense 25 minute bursts of work followed by five minutes of messing around and relaxing).
So these are all benefits of attending and being a part of community groups – what about leading them?
Well, leading a community group allows you to gain experience, and also develop leadership, managerial and soft skills that one might otherwise not have the opportunity to work on for years. I’ve been able to talk about my tech community volunteer work extensively in interviews, especially during those omnipresent terrifying “Tell me about a situation where you showed leadership” questions, and I do hope that it’s going to reflect well in future interviews as I continue my work. Leading a community group shows that you’re passionate, dedicated, have good people skills, are a team player and that you’re organized. All highly desirable skills in today’s job market that are quite hard to demonstrate unless you’ve had the coveted opportunity of leading a tech team.
So that’s a little bit about the importance of community to me, and I hope it’s resonated with some of you. Obviously everyone’s journey through their career is different, but I can say with certainty that helping to build communities and teaching tech within the Northern Irish Tech sector has helped me to find my elusive Ikigai.