Gemma Mackintosh

“…Building up new skills from scratch is hard, but that’s not a reason to avoid it – it’s a reason to give yourself time to make mistakes”

photo of Gemma MackintoshHow did you find your way into tech?

I started out studying undergraduate psychology at university, then followed up with a PhD in a related field, which was a very slow-drip introduction to data and statistics. I only really got into R coding during my PhD, and despite the challenges associated with being self-taught, I enjoyed the problem-solving. This is primarily what pushed me to pursue a career in data science, as opposed to continuing with academia.

I’d actually been interested in working with the emergency services from a really young age. However, I’d always been concerned about my capability when it comes to the operational side of things, and my strengths were always more suited to a support role. I joined the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) around 10 months ago as a Data Services Developer, which couldn’t have been a more exciting introduction to data science and business intelligence in the public service.

I work in a close-knit team focusing on data management, quality assurance, and delivery of high-quality products that make the data useful, both for others in the service and a wider audience. I’ve had some amazing opportunities to use and advance my skills in R, and I’ve even picked up some new skills in SQL and PowerBI. Recently I even had the opportunity to explore more complex data modelling, and I really look forward to adding this to my repertoire.

On being a Woman in Tech

It’s no secret that there are barriers for women when it comes to ‘making it’ in tech, however, my experience with SFRS has been incredibly positive in this regard. A lot of women, myself included, feel, or at some time have felt as though a higher level of drive and ambition is required, and that there is a real danger of being seen as ‘difficult’ when pushing boundaries that need to be pushed. I like to think that any truth in this is becoming a thing of the past, and I strongly believe that women are becoming more respected in the tech industry.

Something really special about working in tech is the speed at which it progresses – both globally and locally. I honestly couldn’t say for certain what I’ll be doing this time in 10 years, but I know it’ll be something exciting, perhaps even something that doesn’t exist yet. The ability to say “I contributed to this advancement” is something that draws a lot of people into this industry, and it’s certainly a huge perk of the job. Even your smallest achievement of the day could be something that’s never been done by anyone in the world before you. I’m grateful that this previously male-dominated industry now gives women like myself the opportunity to experience this.

What advice would you offer?

Building up new skills from scratch is hard, but that’s not a reason to avoid it – it’s a reason to give yourself time to make mistakes. It’s easy to compare your skills to others’ but take the opportunity to learn from them rather than criticising your own skills. Some of my best memories are solving complex code problems with my PhD cohort, many of whom picked up the joy of coding much earlier than I did. I’m glad I used their passion to build up my own.

And don’t be afraid of changing your path, because there’s lots of different avenues for tech roles, and if the one you’re on doesn’t feel right for whatever reason, another certainly will!