Diversity in the workplace should be like a comfy sofa

Go to the profile of Laura Nagy

I joined Airts as their first female software engineer seven months ago. That was a massive step for me. I’ve had to wrestle with a pretty serious case of imposter syndrome. And that ‘I don’t belong’ voice in my head was amplified by the fact that I was only the third non-native English speaker at Airts. Based on my experience, the right working environment can, and in my mind should, make diversity so part of the fabric of everybody’s values and perspectives, that it’s something that doesn’t have to be noticed. Like a comfy sofa that’s always in the room, and everybody hangs out on, and has their best conversations, and comes up with their best ideas perched on. But isn’t flashy or particularly noticeable. It’s just there.

Some context on my life before joining Airts

One of my ambitions since I was a child was to study in Scotland. So as soon as I graduated from high school I moved to Glasgow. That was six years ago. My parents weren’t able to financially support me through my undergrad, so I needed to support myself. Working in a deli was an okay job. I learned a lot and I’m grateful for the experience. After graduating, it was easy to keep working in a familiar environment. But the main reason I ended up with that as my day job was because I was too afraid to take the next step and start what my dad calls “my proper career”. I felt like I had nothing of value to add to a workplace. So I settled.

The decision to make a change

But I was desperate for a change. Doing things by half measures has never been an option for me, so I left Glasgow and moved to Edinburgh, where I enrolled in CodeClan to learn how to code. A strange thing happened during the course: I realised I actually knew stuff, important stuff that I’d absorbed during university without realising. And that realisation was enough to give me that tiny bit of confidence to land a job interview. In hindsight, I can see how being so intent on improving myself professionally and personally helped convince my colleagues who interviewed me, but at the time I was so nervous, and was certain I screwed up.

Building up to the first day

Having proved myself wrong and gotten the gig, before I even started I was panicking about whether I’d fit in. What did an inexperienced ‘girl’ have to offer these brilliant, accomplished people? I felt way out of my depth. My worries stemmed from what I thought of as my two ‘shortcomings’: my gender and lack of experience. I was really afraid that I would be seen as “the little sister” that needed taking care of, which did not sit well with my ego. That thought was pretty quickly dispelled. From my first week I joined one of the development teams and was invited to express my input as a peer. I was assigned tickets, just like everyone else, and after just a few months I became an ‘expert’ in one tiny part of the codebase. I grabbed a seat on the sofa and had my say. And have been doing so ever since.

What (not) to wear

I very specifically remember having interview preparation during my course at CodeClan, and getting information about how we should dress: “smart-casual, which means jeans and a shirt for the guys. Ladies, you know how to dress, right?” No, some of us really don’t. I still have no idea what smart-casual means for a woman (but if someone out there does please, enlighten me!). All I knew at the time was the image presented by the media, that professional women always look immaculate, formal, and at least to me, severe, and definitely not relaxed, much less casual. So even though I probably hadn’t put on a pair of high heels in literally years, and I’m most comfortable in jeans and an oversized t-shirt, I tried to follow the stereotypes. Since then I’ve learned that if tomorrow I showed up in my jammies, nobody in Airts would give me a second look, because they trust me to do my job, and understand that whatever makes me feel comfortable helps me perform better.

Cultural differences

This one’s a biggie. I am not from the UK, I am from Romania. Whilst I haven’t felt any discrimination for being from another country, what I have struggled with is a lack of cultural context. People have conversations about well-known figures they grew up with and expect me to know them too. It’s this sort of alienation I’ve felt most acutely in other environments. I believe that if the people around you are good and smart enough to catch on, then they will adjust to not having that expectation. My colleagues at Airts made the connection quickly and I am immensely grateful for that. Just the other week two of my fellow engineers were having some banter quoting Father Ted. As soon as I entered the room they welcomed me and explained the scene they were quoting. It’s not the same as actually seeing it, but they were thoughtful enough to provide the context.

Back to diversity in the workplace

You know you’re in a good place when what’s being valued is your ability to do the job. It’s such a relief to be able to say that my value is measured by my intelligence and potential, and not by my gender, nationality, height or chest size. I’m being listened to with the same intent as someone who has been working with the company for years, and my input is being appreciated just as much. Which brings me to my point that diversity in the workplace shouldn’t have to be something people need to think about too much. If it is, then it may not be as ingrained as it should be, and that might suggest people need to think about their openness to differences. To me, embracing diversity means that there’s a new experience being brought into the equation, and that experience can only be appreciated when it is coming from a place of curiosity and a genuine wish for improvement.

How Airts deals with diversity

Every single colleague of mine cares passionately about our product, the direction we’re heading, and the people working to make it happen. There’s respect and unity in every interaction, because everybody realises that’s the easiest way to ensure the work is done well. Another great attribute everyone working for Airts has shown is an inquisitive mindset, which means that new ideas will be fully explored and openly discussed. The mix is a brilliant one?—?it means that input of any kind is valued, and as a result, I feel valued myself because I bring something new to the table. At Airts I’m encouraged to ignore any imposter syndrome ‘symptoms’ which might still flare up as I learn my way.

Last nugget of wisdom

I am sure there are other organisations out there which treat people as people, not genders, nationalities, or generations. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not being appreciated because you’re different, know that there’s a better environment somewhere else. And if you don’t trust somewhere undiscovered, come and work for Airts, I’ll vouch for it. We have plenty of comfy sofas!

Hi! <insert waving gif here> I’m Laura, and I’m from Romania. People seem to see Romania as this exotic place, and if I mention Transylvania their faces light up at the thought of creepy castles and vampires. I got bored with Romanian drama so I settled in Scotland, where the castles are cheery and the vampires only come out on Halloween. I work as a Software Engineer for Airts, building an AI-powered planning platform which helps complex professional services organisations get more from their time and effort. In my spare time I’m learning things: driving, cooking, snowboarding, taking care of myself. I’m sharing my experience in the hopes that it will encourage at least one person to take that first step and make a change for the better.

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