Q&A with Danielle Topping, Lead Software Engineer at Rapid7

  • Danielle gives her advice on navigating a career in tech and building your network

    What advice would you give younger women who are considering or have embarked on a career within the technology sector?

    For those that are considering it, I'd say come join us! There are a lot of jobs in Belfast, but also great opportunities to travel if that's what you want to do. It’s also comparatively well paid. There's a great variety of roles within the industry, so, like me, you can stay within tech but end up doing lots of different things. 

    Tech is the future. That sounds like a slightly outdated thing to say, but it's taking over everything. I used to do STEM events in schools, and we’d ask young people to name an industry that wouldn't be impacted by tech and I'm not sure they ever came up with anything. Even traditional industries like farming have come to depend more and more on tech.

    My number one tip for those who have recently joined the industry is to find your people. Early on in my career, when the different women in tech events started in Belfast, I felt like they weren’t for me. Honestly, I was an idiot because I ended up meeting the best people at those events. It is brilliant to have folk around you who understand what you’re facing, but it's also great to talk to women in different roles and companies so that you can get a bit of insight on what you might like to do in the future.

    What are the best ways to build a network?

    The tech events are great because there's so many of them. Women in Tech helps with professional skills, Women Who Code is more focused on the technical side, and the annual Women Techmakers conference is a fantastic event with one of the warmest and most supportive crowds for new speakers.

    At Rapid7, we have a group called Moose women. It’s a fortnightly chat with a conversation prompt that can include anything from work related issues to asking about favourite memories. This sort of thing is a fantastic way to build your network in the office.

    I know people who have direct messaged people they don't know on the NI Tech Slack who were working in areas they're interested in.. She used the "Hi, can we go for a coffee?" approach, and that's how she found her people and built a great support network. Asking someone to go for coffee can feel like a big thing, but if there is someone you want to get to know or learn from, just ask. In the time I've been in this industry, I've had universally positive experiences with this approach.

    When you’re working in the industry, how do you know when you're on the right path?

    I think it's easier to identify the sense of dread you feel when you are not on the right path. Realistically, there are always going to be elements of a job that you don’t enjoy doing, and lots of people talk about the Sunday dread of going back to work after the weekend - I mean, wouldn’t we all rather win the Euromillions and sit on a beach all year long? You have to listen to your gut about these sorts of things. If you’re really facing work with dread every day then something isn’t ok.

    Even aside from this, you can get bored if you don’t find your work interesting. There needs to be motivation for you to give your best. When that isn’t happening, it can be time to look for a change.

    If you find yourself in this position, talk. This is where your community comes in. Talking to your network outside of your office can help you to understand what might engage and interest you in a role. Then you can talk to your manager about the possibility of moving to a different role or even just finding something that engages you more within your current role.

    Finally I’d say - without seeming to encourage job hopping here! - don’t be afraid to move. It can feel intimidating to start somewhere completely new, but don’t let fear of moving put you off finding the right track for you. 

    Is there a role to play for careers coaches, internally and externally? What about mentoring?

    I think external career coaches can be incredibly useful, just to have someone unbiased who can be objective about your situation. Internally, I’ve had some great managers who have given great advice on where they think my particular skills would be most useful.

    Mentoring is also part of that process of knowing whether or not you’re on the right path. It’s much more tailored to the hands-on specifics of your job, to help you get more out of it. For example, when I moved into the lead role, I knew what work we needed to do, but I had no idea how to figure out how long it was going to take to do the work with a team of people. Luckily, I had a mentor who was lead on a team close to ours who would spend half an hour with me every Friday to answer these sorts of questions, which was fantastic. It’s great to have someone with different career experience in the industry who can give you a fresh perspective.

    In terms of careers, is it really important to set goals and aim to achieve targets, or does it happen more organically?

    For me, I’ve always prioritised getting better at whatever I’m doing as long as I’m enjoying it. So I will set specific goals to improve in that area. Or if I'm not enjoying what I’m doing, I will set a goal to be somewhere different or doing something different within a particular time frame. Some people have very specific things that they want to get out of their career, and they will absolutely need to set goals to move towards it.

    So, if you do want to move into a new sector or a new department or do a slightly different job, how do you go about learning the new skills and attaining the qualifications necessary?

    First of all, take stock of what is needed for the roles you are considering.

    I think there's a statistic that says men on average will apply if they meet 60% of the criteria but women need it to be 100% before they even apply, so don't be afraid to go for something even if you don't meet all the requirements.

    If there is a definite gap where you need to learn something new, make sure you know your learning style. There are loads of books and written resources for learning, but I need to be hands on myself, doing tutorials and trying things out. There are great online resources now, with online tutorials easily accessible and free for everyone.

    This article appears in the skills, education and tech careers edition of Sync NI magazine. To receive a free copy click here.

Share this story