When I first started thinking about my career back in school, it was very much presented as you choose a career for life. You do a degree in a related field, start at the bottom in a junior role after graduation and work your way up until you retire. So that’s what I set out to do.

I did an engineering degree, started out as a junior engineer and began working my way up the career ladder. At first it worked for me, I sometimes had to move jobs to get a promotion, but that was becoming more common (at least in the tech industry). I stuck with software engineering as I believed I’d invested in that career and it wasn’t something you could change. However, I found I was surrounded by lots of people who knew more than me, who were better software engineers than me and I felt threatened. If I wasn’t the best, how could I climb that career ladder?

So for the wrong reasons, I took a slight detour on that career path and focused on agile development practices and agile transformations. It was something few people around me were doing, so I could stand out more and it was much needed in the industry at the time. I don’t think my heart was really in it, though, and I soon found myself back on my original path as a software engineer. The skills I’d learned in that slight career detour allowed me to pick up an engineering manager position. I don’t think I appreciated that fact until much later in my career, though, so I still had my sights set on a straight career path.

It was as I moved to Scotland, met a more diverse tech community and got involved with initiatives like CodeBar that I first began to realise there were alternative, equally valid paths to success as a software engineer. I met folks, often in quite senior positions in tech, who’d come from other careers like journalism or healthcare and taught themselves to code or joined a bootcamp. I didn’t see these pathways as something for me: I saw them as alternative ways into tech when I was already here. I did admire the variety of skills these folks would bring into the team and I grew to appreciate how the diversity of experience really made my teams better. It still didn’t click with me that this was something I should be seeking out for myself, though.

It wasn’t until I was part of a women in digital program (Special Edition by TRC media) and through that met some female engineering leaders in Amsterdam that I realised the real advantages in moving between departments and roles. We heard from women leaders in several tech organisations and I was really surprised at their varied career paths, many had moved between different roles, from product to engineering and back again. From design to marketing to business development. From technical paths to less technical and back again. 

What took me longer to appreciate was that these deviations didn’t stall their careers, they accelerated them. Experiencing other domains and departments meant they could work more closely with counterparts. It meant they understood the whole business better and as a result could make better decisions for the business, which in turn helped their careers. I’m not sure if these women made these decisions deliberately to enhance their careers; I suspect many of them followed their interests at the time and let themselves be open to opportunities that came up. They weren’t laser focused on one possible career path, instead they took detours just to see where they went.

It still took me several years after that experience to embrace my own wiggly path, to really give myself permission to follow an interesting opportunity, even if it felt more like a sideways move. I took a platform team role simply because it was something I hadn’t done before, I took on product roles that I didn’t realise were product until I’d left to do something else. I started a data science degree. I joined a leadership team and ended up learning how to run a department and I took a hefty pay cut to join the executive team at a non-profit to help other people embrace their own wiggly paths. I learned so much along the way and had so much fun, that I wish I’d embraced this wiggly path from the start.

Lately, I find myself back on that software engineering path, this time as a CTO. I could not have got here without that wiggle along the way. The platform role I took brought cloud knowledge I use constantly, the product roles mean I understand how important the customer is to business success, running a department allowed me to manage budgets and juggle priorities, the data science degree is paying me back in spades now that AI and data are such a big part of any tech solution, and being on a exec team taught me how to run a business which has been invaluable now I work for myself. I don’t see this as my last step on my career, I anticipate I’ll continue to wiggle my way along as new opportunities arise along the way and I take time to explore them.

My message for other women reading this is: embrace your own wiggly career path whatever that looks like for you. Sideways steps and even ones that seem like backwards steps can all help your career if you focus on the learnings you can take away.