Pauline Narvas is a site reliability engineer for BT. Pauline has also founded and created her own website, Pawlean.com, where she documents and shares her journey and speaks about issues that matter to her, just like diversity and inclusion, and self-care in tech. She was voted to be the 5th most influential female student in the UK by The Tab in 2018.
“As a woman and a person of colour and someone who didn’t have a degree in computer science, I found it especially difficult to be taken seriously so I felt like I had to work ten times harder than everyone else to get my foot in the door.”
The start of my career
I attended the University of Sheffield where I studied biomedical sciences with a year in industry.
My placement year was unlike other biomedical sciences placements because I actually stayed within the university as a communications and external engagement assistant intern. This was a fantastic opportunity for me to improve my skills outside of the lab – including stakeholder engagement, marketing and communications, social media and public speaking. It really opened my eyes to all the different roles that are out there even outside the sciences field!
Therefore, I looked at all the opportunities available to me and most importantly, focused on what I was passionate about.
Around the same time, I began teaching a coding course with the organisation Code First: Girls. This was where it really changed for me and I realised that I had a calling to work in the tech industry!
I had always been interested in developing websites after teaching myself how to code through a hobby growing up (this is actually where my website Pawlean.com evolved from).
When it was time to look for what to do next after university, I began looking at roles across the tech industry. In my final year, I interned at a few digital agencies in Sheffield as a front-end developer to gain experience. Later in the year, I also secured a part time role as a remote web designer and developer for a research group at the university.
All this experience helped me see if this was the direction I wanted to take – it turns out, it was where my passions lie and, surprisingly, something I was good at as well.
A foot in the door of tech
Once I graduated from the University of Sheffield, I moved to Leeds to work at BT as a digital engineering graduate.
I just rolled off the BT Graduate Scheme! My two years went by so quickly actually, I look back quite fondly at my time on the graduate scheme because it really was a fantastic opportunity to get my foot in the door of tech.
My graduate scheme was two years long with four different rotations that lasted six months each.
My first rotation was in digital architecture which was a fantastic starting point because it helped give me a high-level overview of our digital platform and got me comfortable with interacting with the different stakeholders across digital.
After my first rotation, I was keen to go somewhere that was more technical focused, so I moved on to MyEE Web Tribe where I mostly worked on helping develop features on the self-serve part of the website. This was the team I felt the most comfortable in as I had a good foundational base of UI (user interface) development.
Although it was wonderful going into something I was good at, I was keen to really stretch myself during my graduate scheme so in my next rotation I joined the platform services team – an area of tech I have never really understood.
From my first day, I was challenged quite a bit with my understanding of the cloud, infrastructure and Linux systems. I loved the challenge and even though it was difficult, I thoroughly enjoyed my six months in that team.
In a timely fashion, a new team was developed that required the skills that I was building upon over the past six months with platform services. Enthusiastic about learning more about the cloud, CI (continuous integration)/CD (continuous delivery) and all our systems from a technical architectural point of view, I moved on to the site reliability engineering team for my final rotation where I have recently rolled onto as a full time role.
This team focused on looking at how we’re currently set-up in the cloud and making improvements in cost, security, performance and reliability. There is also an opportunity to look at how we operate and making improvements such as automating manual processes, reducing TOIL and increasing observability of production to developers.
Now, as a site reliability engineer, my day begins with a stand-up with the rest of my teams where we share 1) what we worked on yesterday, 2) what we are working on today and 3) any blockers that we have faced. This sets out our intentions for the day as a team and helps us collaborate better if anyone is facing any issues.
After stand-up, I usually start or continue working through tickets assigned to me. If required, I hop on a call with other engineers to talk through the ticket and get their input.
Most of the day, I usually work on a specific problem until I’m done where I then move the ticket to ‘review’ for others to check.
Other things I do involve reading up on any updates on the tools that we use or new technologies in general for the team to potentially use. This involves getting involved in Tool Reviews and presenting that back to the rest of the team.
I also work with development teams with any questions they may have around security, cost, performance or reliability. In addition, as a team we work closely with the operations teams to help reduce silos between development and operations.
In addition to these responsibilities, I also get involved in internal and external events and communities to improve my technical knowledge and skills as well as network with other folks in the business or communities.
Building up the team’s presence and being an advocate for site reliability engineer activities within BT as a whole (not just in engineering) has been a huge part of what I do. Other groups I get involved in include Gender Equality Network, Diversity and Inclusion within BT and Women in Tech communities around the UK.
What I can be with just a bit of effort and persistence
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help from mentors and other figures that I look up to – they are the reason that I believe in myself and my abilities. Role models have shown me what is possible… I now know what I can be with just a bit of effort and persistence!
There’s the saying, “you can’t be what you can’t see” and I have experienced this first-hand. Therefore, I will continue to contribute to work that promotes visibility in technology for women and underrepresented folks in technology.
Creating my own website
I’ve been blogging for as long as I can remember. My blog, Pawlean.com, has grown so much over the past couple of years. In fact, it’s not just my blog anymore – I experiment with video content, podcasting and interviewing guests on my project, ‘Inspiring Figures’.
I began Pawlean.com and now everything else with it because I am passionate about sharing my story and using my voice to share topics that are important to me. When I first started, I never thought it would reach so many people – I always described my blog as an ‘online diary’ and so I used it mostly for my own personal development.
Today, people can relate to my personal stories and some people are even inspired by what I share which motivates them to reach for the stars! It’s been heart-warming to see the positive impact that I’ve managed to create for folks around the world.
I’m not sure what Pawlean.com will look like in the future, but what I do know is that I’m going to continue to use my voice and growing platform for good.
Why we must be vocal about gender equality
The more of us talk about gender inequality, the more we can all come together and think of ways to combat it.
Organisations such as Code First: Girls are constantly proving that this gender inequality exists in STEM and working with women all over the country to give everyone the opportunity to reach their full potential is inspiring to see! That visibility is incredibly powerful for future generations.
With COVID-19, I think it may increasingly be more difficult to continue this visibility as there are deep-rooted inequalities within our society.
For example, although there are so many resources online for people to learn these technical skills, not everyone has full access to the Internet or even a computer for that matter! As most of us have experienced lockdown, the Internet has increasingly become an essential part of our lives but unfortunately, not everyone has that access.
On the flip side, I have liked seeing communities and organisations all over the world coming to the need of those vulnerable folks in our society. I’m particularly inspired by Melinda Gates work on highlighting the importance of supporting vulnerable women during this time.
Self-care in tech
As I said in my talk, it is quite easy to get carried away in tech especially when you’re early in your career. As a woman and a person of colour and someone who didn’t have a degree in computer science, I found it especially difficult to be taken seriously so I felt like I had to work ten times harder than everyone else to get my foot in the door.
My first few years of trying to break into tech was unsustainable and unhealthy in the long-run, every single moment of the day I was always doing something related to improving my chances for a career in tech. Whether that was teaching others, improving my own skills with various projects, speaking at tech conferences or organising hackathons… I was doing it!
It helped me build a fantastic portfolio of course, but at the same time, if I could go back, I would do it differently – in a healthier way!
Sometimes I still feel like I get too carried away especially with the changing nature of tech… Some days I just want to sit down and keep learning until I fall asleep to then do it again the next day. However, this just isn’t sustainable in the long run! I’ve slowly become more aware and trained my mind to be better at spotting the red flags of burnout before I get there.
It’s so important for more tech workers to talk about this. Burnout is real and is no fun at all. Recovery varies from person to person as well. We all need to take a step back and care about ourselves as much as we care about the tech we’re all so passionate about. We’re humans, not machines.
There’s always room for improvement
In the next year, my main focus is to continue to improve my technical expertise in this area including getting my Amazon Web Services solutions architect associate certification.
Long-term my goal is to further improve my leadership capabilities and in the future become a technical leader within the organisation!