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Being Head of Technology – Q and A with Cheryl MacDonald

We caught up with Cheryl MacDonald, Head of Technology at True Digital, an award winning digital agency based in Bristol.

Cheryl MacDonaldCheryl started out as a software developer building business systems, but moved into ‘digital’ as the internet was starting to take off back in 1998 because she was fascinated by the possibilities the internet opened up and the potential reach it could have.

We asked her a few questions to find out more about her professional journey.

This is what Cheryl kindly shared with us:

ADLIB: In your current position, what does a typical day and week look like? 

Cheryl MacDonald: There really is no typical day working for a digital agency. This is why I love what I do. The internet is constantly evolving and developing so what I knew yesterday doesn’t apply to today.

As an agency, our job is to help guide our clients through this ever-changing digital landscape, and help them to achieve the best results for their investment in digital.

I manage a team of developers and testers whose job it is to turn the ideas and creative of the rest of the agency team into a living, breathing application. If you think Frankenstein’s monster – but a more beautiful version of course – then the UX team and the designers would be the ones that lay it all out, but it is lifeless – nobody can interact with it. My team breathe the life into it. People who don’t understand code think it’s through some kind of magic, but actually the team is made up of highly skilled developers and there’s not all that much magic going on.

We sometimes work for months on large-scale projects and when it ‘goes live’, there’s a massive sense of satisfaction and pride. It’s always great to get industry recognition, and we’ve had a few recent projects nominated for awards.

ADLIB: Are there any key events and people that influenced your choice of career?

CM: One of the key things that influenced my choice of career was the reported shortage of software developers and the availability of jobs in what I saw as a growing industry. I felt there would always be good opportunities in technology.

I don’t think this situation has changed much in the twenty years since then – in fact, I think it’s possibly even more relevant now due to growing youth unemployment.

I’ve always enjoyed job stability – and I’m convinced that young people going into digital or technology today would also enjoy that level of stability.

You don’t have to look far to find reports in the media about the technology boom, and about the talent shortages in the sector which threaten to derail its growth. More young people should be going into digital to fill that gap and give themselves a slice of those opportunities.

ADLIB: If you came out of school today, what would you find helpful to encourage more people to pursue a career within your industry?

CM: The digital world is an incredibly exciting area to be working in. When the internet was in its infancy in early 2000, there were very few digital job specialisms, because digital was relatively unsophisticated at the time. As the sector has matured, more career paths have been carved out in specialisms that we hadn’t even dreamed up back then.

This means that there is a variety of digital jobs that would suit young people with different talents. You don’t have to be a coder to be in digital, there are a myriad of other roles to choose from such as web analysts, interface designers, UX designers, strategists, information architects and testers, to name but a few.

All these jobs come with great prospects for an interesting and rewarding career.

When you are young it’s hard to know what career path to follow because it’s hard to picture exactly what a job involves. I would recommend that young people try to get a work placement with a good digital agency to experience first-hand the different opportunities that are available to help inform their decision.

ADLIB: Where did you gain your professional skills?

CM: I studied software development at a college in Johannesburg. The course was an intensive 6 month course which had the offer of guaranteed employment at the end of the course, if I passed my exams!

The course equipped me well in terms of knowledge and some limited practical experience, but the real education came in the working environment – I’ve honed my skills through twenty years’ experience in the field.

These days I think it would be advantageous for young people interested in jobs in digital to study for a degree in a relevant subject such as Digital Media, Technology or Computer Science. While not critical, it would help to open doors and get a foot on the ladder initially.

ADLIB: What was your entry point into the industry? 

CM: As part of my training, I was awarded a placement to work at a software house developing retail systems for our clients. I worked on a furniture retail system that was supporting three hundred stores nationwide.

I was lucky to have fantastic mentors in my first job in the form of other developers who were incredibly enthusiastic about what they did, and took the time to train and nurture my talent.

We competed with one another to build games in our downtime that we could play across the network. We’d then try to hack each other’s games so we could always win. For the time, it must have been the equivalent of the modern ‘hack day’. It was great fun and taught me a lot about pushing the limits and what was possible with technology, if you had a bit of imagination.

ADLIB: What avenues would you recommend to people within your industry to keep their skills up to date? 

CM: There is so much information online these days. When I started my career and had a problem, I’d have to get the manuals out and pore over them to find the answers. I can’t believe how we managed! Today you literally just ask Google to get the answer.

There are some amazing online resources available including exceptional training material. If you can’t find sufficient free training material I would highly recommend investing in online training via Lynda or Pluralsight which both offer a wide selection of training courses in a variety of subjects. I think the monthly fee is a good investment into your future if you are determined and use the resource.

Also, find industry leaders and publications you admire, follow their blogs and connect with them on Twitter.

Get involved in meetups that are happening local to you. This is a great way to learn, expand your horizons and meet people who can inspire you.

I would highly recommend trying to find a mentor who can help guide you in your personal development and career progression. A good mentor will give you valuable advice and insight which might otherwise take years to learn. Ask someone you know and admire if they would do this for you. You’ll both learn lots from the experience!

ADLIB: How would you summarize your professional journey to get you to where you are now?

CM: I would say my career has been a great deal of fun and I’ve also learnt some important stuff along the way – both about the industry and about myself.

Some of the best advice I’ve been given is that you are in charge of your own career. Don’t wait for other people to recognise your talent and tell you what you should do to develop yourself. Get in the driving seat and drive yourself to where you want to go.

Make your own clear long-term goals, be ambitious, and work hard to achieve those goals by breaking them down into smaller goals. Being goal-driven has given me purpose in my career and life, and helped me to achieve things I don’t believe I otherwise would have achieved.

I wish I had seen the value of doing this earlier in my career, as I have seen the benefits since I’ve started doing it.

ADLIB: Here at ADLIB we like to think big – If you could be whatever you wanted to be, what would you be?

CM: When I left school, I was faced with so many options and I wasn’t sure which road to go down. I wasn’t sure exactly what different jobs entailed on a day to day basis, and like young people today I was scared of making a bad decision.

Looking back though, I’m glad I made the choice I did. Technology has provided me with an exciting, challenging and always evolving career path. I enjoy every day of what I do. I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Ok… maybe I’d like to be an astronaut, and go to the international space station – but just for a day.

Thank you Cheryl.