4 August

#ItoWomen – Ellen’s Story

From The Life Academic to Driving MaaS Data – Ellen Potter’s inspirational story of women in tech

Ellen Potter is a Lead Development Engineer at Ito World, where she develops products that process and improve the data Ito World specialises in.  She is part of a team of women who make up 25% of employees at the Cambridge based, transit tech company. She is part of a growing number of ‘Ito Women’ working at the coalface of tech, in either web dev or coding.

Nationally, women in tech account for 19% of the workforce*, so Ito World is bucking trends. A transit data company delivering real-time data feeds for journey planning apps and a platform for transit authorities & operators, Ito World operates in a universe traditionally dominated by men (crossing tech, data and transport).  Its approach to a gender-balanced workforce, and positive recruitment policies, have seen a steady increase in female applications and hires, but of course there is always room to do even better.

#ItoWomen is Ito World’s latest initiative, showcasing the career paths and histories of women across its teams, to help inspire more women to move into STEM-based careers.  Programming and development departments are under-represented even in companies which actively encourage diversity, which is why Ellen Potter has offered to share her story.  As she says:

“If even one woman hears my story, and sees the campaign, and thinks they could be a programmer that would be great. More than one would be marvellous.”

Ellen did not start out in tech, or indeed STEM.  Ellen started her university career in the history department at Cambridge University.  As an undergraduate, she joined The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (Campop) as a research assistant, helping collect data on demographic shifts since the time of Henry VIII.  On graduating, she joined Campop full time, where she quickly became immersed in data-heavy research. As more and more historical information cascaded online, she soon found herself working with databases containing hundreds of millions of data points.

Having seen the transformative power of Microsoft Access and Excel in describing data she was researching, Ellen quickly realised she wanted to dig deeper than these tools would allow, so she decided to teach herself R, XPath and regex to help her automate data collection, including web scraping.  She also started tapping into ad hoc courses to pick up Python. Ellen realised that the aspect of work she enjoyed the most was “making things” and started to wonder if she could make the seemingly impossible jump from historian to software developer.

It was perhaps a case of right place and right time for Ellen, but in 2017 she spotted a rather vague job application for an education tech start-up in Cambridge called TwoSigmas. As an early start-up, TwoSigmas offered three months of intense Python training in lieu of full pay, at the end of which Ellen could either move on, training in her back pocket, or take a pay rise and stay on as a developer.

It was the helping hand she needed to make the move from academia into the tech industry, and she remained with TwoSigma for two years, honing her developer skills, before joining the Ito World development team in the summer of 2019.

At Ito World Ellen has been able to focus on what she loves best – “making things” with her colleagues.  She is one of three female developers in a team of about 20 but has never felt her gender has mattered. If anything, the gender balance she and her colleagues bring to the team, and their uniquely female perspective, adds to the overall quality of the data the team produces:

“There is an entrenched stereotype of what a code-obsessive “programmer” looks like, but really there are very few programmers – women or men – who live up to that stereotype.  

“What I do know, through my own path into the job I have today, is that the industry is not necessarily what you think it is going to be, and you may be surprised just how many places are right for you. Indeed, there are already many welcoming companies for programmers of all types, companies like Ito World, who value the individuality each person brings to the business.” 

* Women in Tech:  Women in technology survey 2019