WANdisco director shows why you don’t need to be able to code to work in tech

Mai-Mai Lam was in the early stages of pregnancy with her second baby when her unknowing boss approached her to design and roll out an enhanced maternity policy for the company.

Mai-Mai Lam - director of UK/EMEA HR operations and site management at WANdisco

“It was a complete coincidence but it was good timing,” she says.

The director of UK/EMEA HR operations and site management at Sheffield-based public software firm WANdisco created a package that entitles staff to a maximum of 36 weeks maternity leave at full pay, which compares favourably with many of the big tech companies.

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It’s just one of the ways the company is trying to encourage more young women to enter the tech sector, an industry traditionally dominated by men.

“As the markets become more and more competitive to attract talent then it goes in our favour to be able to offer those things,” Lam says.

According to Tech Nation, a government funded body for the tech industry, just 19 per cent of tech workers are women, compared to 49 per cent of all UK workers.

WANdisco is attempting to address the imbalance head-on with a series of incentives to tempt new employees.

As well as a competitive maternity package, it offers unlimited paid time off - which Lam says is very popular with new recruits, private medical insurance, pension scheme and a busy calendar of social events.

“We try to enhance our benefits package each year. It just gives you the winning edge when people are choosing between two companies,” she says.

Unlimited paid time off is an unusual step for a Yorkshire firm to take. “I don’t know of many other companies that have done that,” says Lam. “Nobody maxes out but it’s nice to have that flexibility. The average number of days people take is still 25, though.”

She adds: “Employers need to make much more noise about the benefits they offer if they want to attract and retain more women in the workforce.”

But policies alone will not address the deep-rooted gender imbalance within the tech sector.

Lam believes young women need a greater understanding of the different types of jobs on offer and more visible role models to encourage them into an industry traditionally dominated by men.

“We need to showcase what women actually do within tech businesses,” she says.

“Sharing our experiences is good for anyone thinking about working in our industry and also for those who are already in it.

She adds: “There are so many opportunities for rewarding careers in the tech sector.

“People think it is a male industry with lots of very technical functions. But you don’t have to be a computer science expert to get into tech. It is a great industry to work in with a wide variety of roles.”

Founded by Sheffield-born David Richards, WANdisco is a global expert in distributed computing with offices across the world.

It develops software that helps farmers plough fields, studios make movies and healthcare companies predict cancers. The company is jointly headquartered in Silicon Valley and Sheffield and is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

For people without a tech background, opportunities include sales and marketing, project management, HR and finance roles.

WANdisco, which employs 108 people in the UK and Europe including 19 women, is currently recruiting 10 people for its Sheffield and Belfast offices.

Over the last five years, the company has nearly doubled the ratio of women in its European workforce, from 10 per cent in 2014 to 18 per cent in 2019.

Lam started her career as a project manager at a translation company after studying German and linguistics at Wolverhampton University.

She joined WANdisco eight years ago and has worked in a variety of departments including sales and partnerships, marketing and project management.

After her second maternity leave, she joined human resources and earned a promotion to become director of UK / EMEA HR operations and site management.

At the end of 2019, WANdisco relocated its UK head office to Kollider, a growing digital technology centre at the newly refurbished Castle House, a former Co-op department store in the heart of the city.

The company recently hosted a meeting of the Sheffield Women in Tech group with guest speaker Bella Abrams, director of technology at the University of Sheffield.

Ultimately, WANdisco believes education is the key to increasing the number of women in the tech sector. Only 35 per cent of science, technology, engineering and maths students in higher education globally are women, according to UNESCO.

The company believes the solution starts at a young age, which is why it set up the WANdisco Data Academy at Sheffield College.

Its first intake of 20 16-year-old students has one female, something the company aims to improve with the next intake. At the end of the course in the summer, the students are guaranteed a job interview at WANdisco,

Meanwhile, the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation, which was launched to make computer science exciting at school, currently works with eight schools in South Yorkshire.

Last year, the charity analysed data from the Department of Education and found that just 10.2 per cent of the region’s students choose the subject at GCSE level, compared to 11.9 per cent across England.

At A level, just 7.4 per cent of females choose the subject in the region.

“It’s important to engage people at a young age and give them a realistic idea of what it’s like to work in this kind of company,” Lam says.