Unboxed Women in Tech interview series: Rhian Lewis
Feb. 22, 2021
Unboxed is a dynamic digital agency that prizes diversity and celebrates individuality. Made up of a collect group of developers, designers, thinkers and creatives with some of the most interesting stories.
I had the absolute privilege of interviewing Rhian Lewis: published author of “The Cryptocurrency Revolution,” Ruby on Rails developer and in true against-the-status-quo spirit: self-described Anarchopreneur. She sums up her career as having started off as a journalist who coded as a hobby to making the mid-career jump to coding for a living and writing as a hobby.
I served up 10 questions (with a couple of deviants) and off we ventured into the world of Agile systems, polarization vs. diversity, how the internet has transformed information flow and the call for a decentralized future along with a good dose of fearlessness…
To start us off, I wonder if you could give readers a little background info on your role at Unboxed and what set you off on your current career path.
I'm a Ruby on Rails developer at Unboxed. I was originally a freelancer doing a mixture of writing code, blockchain consultancy work and writing but I have decided to focus on improving my Ruby on Rails skillset so I have 4 days a week at Unboxed. I really enjoy being able to solve problems by building things that make people's lives better even if it’s just making systems more efficient in order to reduce frustration or providing technology that enables communities to function better. This is a powerful motivating force. But I also like the mental stimulation of writing code. To be honest this is the least clock watchey career path that I've ever had. I find that it's like if you enjoy solving crossword puzzles and then somebody pays you to solve crosswords all day. The challenge of solving problems, working with colleagues, pair programming, even remotely, and learning to become a better technician, a better engineer. These are all things that fuel me with energy.
What does a typical day look like for you or isn’t there such a thing as a typical day?
Days follow a typical pattern over a couple of weeks because we follow agile methodology which means that we work in sprints. A sprint is a package of work that takes, normally, two weeks. The start of a sprint involves a lot of teamwork where developers, designers, product managers and researchers come together to discuss how the product we’re going to build should work and what pieces of development to prioritize over the upcoming weeks. This is followed by a couple of weeks of intense coding where I could just be working on my own for the whole day. More likely, I might work on my project with two engineers who I get on really well with and who are really, really smart. We tend to be constantly talking to each other on Slack, answering questions, getting second opinions about things. Quite often, we'll jump on a conference call and screen share. Sometimes we can sit for hours, screen sharing, talking through a problem, coding through stuff together. That happens for a couple of weeks and then at the end of the sprint, we’ll get together again and have a demo session to show the client, who is still involved throughout, to show them an impression of what we've got. That same day, we’ll have another planning session and then the sprint starts all over again.
What have been some of the most memorable projects that you’ve worked on?
At Unboxed, it’s been my most recent project. We have just finished the first phase of building some software that improves the housing planning process for local authorities (Southwark Council and partners - Back-office Planning System) This has been super interesting because I’ve sat in on a lot of the user research sessions and heard first hand about the issues that planning officers have working with really old fashioned systems and then watched them interact with the software that we’ve built. This has been really inspiring! Of all tech projects that I've been involved in, one of my favourites was a car hardware project that I did for Audi in Berlin. It was great! We actually had a real car to work with. That was cool because we were designing what was at the time the first keyless car rental system and an IoS app that would allow you to open and close the car and pick your choice of rental car. The app would allow you to walk to the car, open it up and drive it off. It's fairly common technology these days but back in 2014, it was really cutting edge which made it a lot of fun to be involved in, and of course, having a car to play with made it even more fun.
That’s awesome! One of the most amazing things about saying “complex problem solving is what I do” and “technology is the tool that I use” is that it opens up so many doors (pun unintended) to different kinds of varied projects. It’s very hard to get bored!
Absolutely! I think that I've been incredibly lucky to make a career transition relatively late in life because I can see that even if I retire really, really late, I'm going to have plenty of very different things to keep me occupied up until the day that I decide to stop doing full-time work. It’s a very privileged position to be in.
So speaking about complex problem solving... Do you think that there's a unique perspective that women, specifically, bring to the table when it comes to thinking in that way and solving those kinds of problems?
So I used to think that but now I'm almost not comfortable making the assumption that women and men solve problems in different ways. I think that it’s just a function that we divide attributes into different kinds of personality types or genders but actually, with every project, it’s more valuable to have as many different types of people thinking about the problem rather than thinking that women are necessarily going to approach it in a different way because they are women.
Yes, absolutely! So thinking of diversity as a very good thing when it comes to solving problems but not necessarily the polarization that comes with categorizing men and women into separate groups?
Exactly! Because once you start going down the route of: a woman would consider this differently from a man then you get into the dangerous territory where people might also say 'maybe women are less suited for certain things because they think in x way.' For every polarization that you take as positive, if you polarize in that way, then people will also take it as a negative. So I just tend to think that different types of people solve problems differently but not necessarily of gender polarization.
Absolutely agree with you on this! Do you think that many people within the tech industry, which historically has been considered male-dominated, but seems to be changing now, do still carry an unconscious bias that plays into hiring women in tech or has that changed across the field and majority now share your view?
That's such a difficult question. Anecdotal evidence tends to suggest that some women do suffer from bias. I absolutely don't want to minimize this. I've been incredibly lucky with my own experiences but I don't want to devalue the experiences of others by saying 'well, it didn't happen to me so it doesn't exist.' I've worked on a lot of tech teams that have been very male-dominated, others have been very mixed. They've all been great teams. Personally, as an older woman in tech, I'm probably a bit of an exception, but I've never suffered personally but I don't wish to minimize other women's experiences by saying that they haven't.
Absolutely. Moving a little more towards the technology side of things, do you think that there are any current problems, currently existing social problems that you believe technology could be used as a tool to address?
A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking that technology is magic and that in some way, technology will solve all problems that human nature causes. I think that there are a lot of dangers implicit in assuming that technology will solve problems because if you design your technology in such a way, then it can cause more problems than it will actually solve so you might actually make the problem worse. But looking into the various sectors of finance, health and education there are plenty of cases where innovations have made people’s lives easier and better.
Which of these innovations have you witnessed to have a positively transformational impact?
In finance, there is a mobile money system called MPESA that enables transactions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M-Pesa). It’s an interesting use case because it’s not run as a decentralized thing or as a benevolence initiative and is an example of a commercial technology project that wasn’t designed to make society better at all but actually has. The net results have improved people's lives because it makes things more convenient. And then there’s a type of technology that people don’t often acknowledge anymore but has been even more transformational: the internet! Mobile internet in particular….
Wow, that’s actually something that we take for granted now…
Absolutely but see… I grew up throughout my teens and twenties without the internet and communicating with friends across the world or having access to information that is just on hand wasn’t a thing. So when I started my first job, way back in the 1980's, actually not my first job but one of the earlier jobs I had, was as a sub-editor at a magazine where we had to fact check things and how do you fact check things without the internet? Kind of crazy to think about it... But it was a phone call or looking things up in books or we had encyclopaedias. There's this horrible tendency for people to look back and say 'oh things in the old days were just amazing' but they weren't, they were really rubbish.
Yes! Because how long did it take you to fact check and how many articles could you release as a result?
That's a really good question, I would be interested to see some metrics about it. But something that would take you, literally 30 seconds to look up on Google, would be a process of walking across the room, looking in books, phoning people... We just take for granted the fact that we now have access to all of this information. When I was at university, computers were the size of rooms and books piled on top. And I think that's why I became so interested in tech and wanted to become an engineer... Just because I had, had the experience of a life without technology and I still think that it's like magic.
So bearing all of your experience in mind up until this point, what would be the next big technological or social innovation that you would like to see achieved?
I really believe in the arc towards a decentralized future: technology that enables people to make money, prove their identity and cooperate and share information in a decentralized way which removes control from many of the centralized imposters hoarding control at the moment and using it to their own advantage. This would be a really good thing.
One final question for you considering this amazing career journey that you’ve travelled, starting off as a journalist and then mid-career changing to programming which is quite unheard of. It’s really inspiring. If you could go back in time and give yourself advice while you were making that career change and entering into a new industry and new space, what would it be?
Just to be more fearless. You've got this one life to enjoy and if it's something that you enjoy, you've just got to give it a go and hope that it works out because life's too short not to, at least, have tried. Also, not to care what people think of you. I mean, that's not quite right. I wouldn't want people to think that I'm a bad or horrible person but to not care if people think that you're stupid or eccentric or a bit strange or whatever. Not caring about that. I think that's really important.
Yes, you've kind of got to carve your own space in the world and own it.
Yes! And the amazing thing is that if you can learn to learn, technology means that you can learn anything. That's the amazing thing about the internet and why it’s been such a transformative tool.