Meerkat Your Skills

Large organisations’ reliance on data and analytics is becoming increasingly visible in the workspace and the skillsets required to analyse data through innovative methods are vitally important. Unfortunately, many charities and social programmes don’t have access to these types of skillsets.

comparethemarket.com (CtM) is acutely aware of this, and as such, many of our data analysts partake in Meerkat Your Skills — part of our CSR programme, aimed at using our skills to support good causes. The CtM Data team has many capabilities such as engineering, Business Intelligence, analytics, insights, optimisation, and data science. These teams work together to provide many data solutions to the business. CtM prides itself in using data to make better decisions. Modern technologies such as PowerBI and Databricks are entrenched in the business.

Our most recent event was held in December, where different teams from around the business including Data, Tech and Marketing supported a couple of charities and shared their expertise. CtM teams made the training and upskilling for each charity bespoke — to ensure it was relevant and actionable.

The Data team engaged with a charity called The Kite Trust, which supports the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ young people within Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The ambassadors scoped out the requirements and completed project briefs. We learned that The Kite Trust needed help with understanding their geographic footprint and where there was opportunity for more group sessions.

The workday was successful and consisted of an initial meeting with the Data team volunteers and members of The Kite Trust to ensure the volunteers had enough context and understanding of the charity. After getting a good grasp on the data available and the project briefs, the volunteers set off working on their projects.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

The team of analysts used mapping algorithms and spatial analytics to determine where access to community support groups was limited. These insights, using tools such as Databricks would have been difficult to gauge without a team of analysts. The Kite Trust will use these actionable recommendations to determine where support groups need to be enhanced or expanded to.

It’s not news that companies engage with community outreach programs. Holding events such as Meerkat Your Skills is very rewarding and leads to positive gains for both the charities and employees. This was a great opportunity to enhance the teams’ skills — working on a new dataset, completing different types of projects, and collaborating with members of various teams within Data. We enjoyed the experience and learned from the charity and are excited to do this again in the future.

‘Tipping’ Open Source at Compare the Market

At Compare the Market we encourage and support self-organising communities. One such community which formed was the open-source group. This was established from a desire to give back to the wider open-source community from which we gain so much.

The open-source group in Compare the Market is passionate about ensuring that open-source projects receive reciprocal benefits when we use them. One initiative that they have recently introduced is the open source donation process. This process exists to allow teams to make financial donations, or “tips”, to the open-source projects on which their software relies. Through this process anyone in the company can request a donation to a project, which triggers a review and prompt payment when approved.

By giving something back, we help keep the open-source community healthy and the software we depend on maintained. It is also a great way to recognise the hard work that people have put into these projects.

With the successful set up of the tipping process under their belts, the open-source group is now looking at other areas where they can help. They are currently setting guidelines around contributing to open-source projects; making it as easy for our engineers to request changes to open-source projects as it is for them to inner-source work. They’re also looking to support and encourage our engineers to open source our in-house projects. In the course of our work, our engineers often create tools and applications which can be used more widely and we want to make it easy for our engineers to do more of this.

The open-source community in Compare the Market is very ambitious and determined and I’m sure we’ll be seeing lots more great ideas come out of that group.

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How we reinvigorated our engineering career paths at Compare the Market

At Compare the Market we have been very lucky to have incredibly talented people. With my obvious bias, none more so than reflected in our engineering department where our engineers have grown from a single team 15 years ago, to more than 250 engineers today.

In that time, we have surmounted many challenges; pushing the boundaries of our technical estate in moving from a monolith to a decoupled microservice architecture, to a selectable-service based offering and now evolving once again to move to a truly customer outcome focused way of working.

Our engineering career path, however, had not kept pace with the mammoth changes taking place in our people or our systems. It was time for a refresh.

Why we needed a change

As our organisation developed, our estate expanded, and our people grew in number and in expertise. We added more roles, ensuring that our people had the space to grow.

These roles were left to be shaped largely by the people who moved into them and there were problems with our role structures, which were not necessarily reflective of how the whole organisation was structured. Unsurprisingly this led to people with the same titles doing vastly different jobs where responsibilities were not clear.

In Compare the Market we have done an amazing job at creating very high functioning, highly effective teams who work incredibly well. We promoted focus and independence within the teams but, as we become more collaborative across our engineering community, our engineers are able to move around more. Having consistent roles became ever more important and having clear guidance on how our engineers level-up is critical.

This organic evolution of our progression paths threw up some challenges. Within the individual team unit, the most senior role, that of Technical Lead, was also responsible for much of the day-to-day management of the team. Not all our engineers had the inclination to take on management responsibility. Similarly, the progression from Tech Lead was a move to Application Architect which was an individual contributor role and many Technical Leads really enjoyed the joint responsibility of technical and team management and didn’t necessarily want to move back into an individual contributor role to progress.

Finally, our architecture function was a separate entity to our engineering department which can sometimes create an artificial divide. The introduction of the Application Architect role a few years ago was the first step in bringing architecture closer to the engineers and we wanted to continue down the path of aligning these two functions.

What we wanted from our new career paths

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When we set out to develop a progression path that worked for us, there were a few things that we made sure to keep front and centre of our thinking.

The ability for engineers to choose whether they wanted to take an individual contributor or management track was paramount — but we needed to ensure that we didn’t lock them into any one path and that engineers could make the next step that best suited them and their aspirations. We wanted to allow people the flexibility to move along and between different paths in the ladder.

We needed to ensure that there were clear guidelines and an unbiased framework in place around each role. This was to aid with progression, performance reviews and to ensure consistency in that role across all our teams.

We also wanted to reframe our most senior technical roles and ensure that they were not seen as a separate ‘architecture’ department but were part of our engineering community. These highly aligned engineering multipliers now work in constant collaboration with our teams, guiding and leading them through technical challenges and step changes. We wanted our titles to reflect that relationship.

What we did

Engineering Career Paths

We created a dual track system for engineering — Individual Contributor (IC) and Engineering Management (EM).

The individual contributor track in Compare the Market is divided into two distinct parts. Firstly, we have the execution roles, that of Junior Engineer, Engineer and Senior Engineer. These roles are responsible for the development of software within the scope of a ticket, product, or team. Secondly, the Staff and Principal Engineers are our scale roles, who use their experience and skill to scale our community of engineers, typically within the scope of a team, a set of related teams or the whole engineering department.

The engineering management track perfectly combines people management with technical expertise. Our Engineering Managers are technical leaders who guide decisions on technical approach as well as mentor the professional development of their direct reports. As these leaders move up through the management track, they increase their scope and impact, making decisions that affect the whole engineering department and leading all of us from the front.

The move to engineering management may require the learning of a whole set of new skills and competencies: how to effectively coach, mentor and lead people is no small feat. Similarly, the move to Staff Engineer is a large step requiring increasingly complex competencies. There needs to be a deep understanding of architecture and design across the breath of the organisation, coupled with collaboration and cross-organisational expertise. We therefore allowed for the expansion of the responsibility of the Senior Engineer to ensure that their work is interesting and that they are continually challenged as we don’t expect every Senior Engineer to want to be a Staff Engineer or an Engineering Manager. However, it also allows our Senior Engineers to gain exposure to the skills and experience needed to take the next step should they wish to do so, whether on a management or IC track.

We also reframed our Application Architect and Solutions Architect roles to Staff and Principal Engineer respectively, bringing them into our engineering community. This reflected and formalised the close connection that had they already created with the engineering teams they work with.

We have many distinct types of engineers in Compare the Market; software engineers both front end and backend, data engineers, software engineers in test and cloud platform engineers who all work across disparate languages, platforms, and skillsets — but who all follow this similar progression path.

What next

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We are now live with these new paths and if this sounds like the type of place you’d like to take the next steps to grow your career — take a look at our open jobs.

We are also working toward the creation of a capability framework which will provide detailed descriptions of the expectations of each role to provide an unbiased aid in progression planning, performance reviews, feedback and hiring.

We’re still working on embedding these new roles and pathways and I have no doubt that there will be lots to learn and adjust along the way but I’m confident that as a community, our engineers are, as they have always been, up for the challenge.

Focus on personal development to avoid becoming a tech dinosaur

For people to be able to develop themselves and drive their own careers is a big win for us at Compare the Market, whether that be for people starting out and joining us as an apprentice or for colleagues who have been with us for a while and are keen to take on a new challenge.

So, to get some insight from the ground on how we’re really doing, we caught up with Ellie, one of our Software Engineers, to find out about her journey with us from Grad to tech mad and the development opportunities that she’s had in this time…

By its very nature, tech moves fast so when you’re working in the tech industry it can be hard to keep up to date with everything that’s changing and evolving, but it’s a must to avoid becoming a tech dinosaur! For me, this is just one of the reasons why working in tech is so cool — no two days are the same and there’s always something new to learn but to be your best, it’s important to be in an environment where learning is a given.

I joined Compare the Market through their grad scheme which is geared towards teaching you as much as possible about the broad landscape of tech in a relatively short period of time — just 18 months in fact. But as well as the fast-tracked learning, a significant part of my decision to apply for the scheme in the first place was just how much focus Compare the Market puts on personal development for everyone, regardless of your role or length of time with the business.

I liked that they talked a lot about this on their website and throughout the application process so was really hopeful that even after I completed the grad scheme, I would still be able to continue my learning with Compare the Market’s support. Generally, I’d say it’s good to take these sorts of claims with a pinch of salt but, amazingly, in the two years since completing the scheme, I have seen everything that they spoke about in those early days and the focus on personal development is as strong for mid-level and senior developers as it is for juniors and apprentices.

Specifically, there are the everyday things like getting paired with a mentor to improve your technical or soft skills. And fortunately for me, I was lucky enough to have people in my team who were keen to mentor and teach more junior developers, but you could as easily be paired with someone from across the business who has the skillset you’re looking for — similarly, you can also become a mentor for someone else and share your skills with them through the same process.

And in my team, we also get to use 10% of your time each week to dedicate to your own personal development which you drive to ensure you are building on the skillsets that you want to grow and focus on — and everyone is actively encouraged to make use of this time .

Then there’s the personal annual learning budget that you can spend in any way that you choose. For me, reading is really important so I’ve mostly spent mine on books, but you can apply it to online and external courses too. And I’m sure that there’s many other ways to spend your budget as long as it supports your learning, so it really is a great resource to have access to.

I’ve also found that at Compare the Market, the tech community is hugely supportive and encouraging with monthly forum updates, a dedicated Community Practice Lead to support and represent the wider teams as well as individuals regularly posting useful or interesting articles and questions on our dedicated Slack channel — it really does make you feel involved and part of a proactive team.

And as well as these opportunities that naturally form a part of your working day, there are the more significant initiatives like going on secondment to another team to broaden your skillset or learn a whole new one, and a regular quarterly promotion panel that provides ample opportunity for you to put yourself forward and move your career on.

And you’re not on your own. There’s always plenty of support from line managers as you go through the process, as well as access to the online supporting resources provided by people who have been through the process already. I’ve had direct experience of both and can honestly say that not only do they exist, but they have been very positive experiences too!

But it’s not all rose-tinted glasses and as with everything, developing your own career path is not always plain sailing — for example, it did take some time to arrange my secondment but Compare the Market are always looking for ways to improve and are actively working towards a more formalised (and hopefully smoother) way of organising secondments in the future.

There’s also a very successful apprenticeship scheme and I know that several people in my team have joined via this route, including a colleague who was retraining after working at Compare the Market for years in a different role. For all of us here, it’s great to know that the apprenticeship scheme is not just for people starting their tech journey, it’s also open to people looking to get into a tech role later in their career with the biggest bonus being that everyone that’s joined via the scheme have all been excellent additions to the team — regardless of their background or previous experience!

For me, all of this together creates a great environment to grow, develop and learn in a culture where you can help others to do the same and just by jotting this down in a blog, it’s made me realise the amazing opportunities there are at Compare the Market and if you are driven to develop yourself, you really will have the support from within the business to help you.

But in addition to this, and probably most importantly I think, is the culture surrounding career development — I’ve always found that people at every level of the business are hugely keen to support personal development for others and openly encourage colleagues to improve themselves.

The World of Black Women in Tech

Esther Ogunmefun, Software Engineer at Compare the Market discusses some of the challenges faced by Black women in the tech industry.

Introduction

We all know what Black History Month is, but do we know how it actually started?

Born in 1875, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves had limited access to a good education and job opportunities. Working as a coal miner, he was eventually able to save up to study at one of the few high schools for Black students. Over time he gained numerous qualifications, including a PhD in History from Harvard University. In 1926 he sent out a press release to mark the first Black History Week in the US. Carter G Woodson worked tirelessly to promote Black history in schools throughout his life and is now known as the “Father of Black History”. Since 1976 every US president has officially designated February as Black History Month. Organised by Ghanaian-born Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in 1987 and takes place every year in October.

People from African and Caribbean heritage have been a fundamental part of British history but their value and contribution to society is often overlooked, ignored or distorted. The history curriculum of most schools focuses on traditional events and the achievements of known White figures. Black History Month gives everyone the opportunity to share, recognise and celebrate the contribution and achievements of those of African or Caribbean descent and to understand the impact of Black heritage and culture on the world we live in today. It is also an opportunity for people to learn more about the lasting effects of racism and how to challenge negative stereotypes.

According to National Centre for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), of the 25% of women working in tech, Black women account for only 3%. Research from the British Computer Society (BCS) also shows Black women account for just 0.7 per cent of IT roles, 2.5 times below the level of other professions. This article will discuss just a few of the many challenges faced specifically by Black women in the tech industry.

Our Challenges

Educational Institutional Bias

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It is widely reported that institutional racial and gender bias exist from early stages of education all the way up to higher levels of education. This can deter young Black girls from exploring STEM subjects long before they are even able to consider a career in the tech industry. A 2015 study published by the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research using over 16,000 teachers found that White teachers were less likely to believe that a Black student would someday receive a university degree when compared to White students. As for gender bias, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that whether consciously or unconsciously, teachers showed bias in scoring tests, often underestimating girls and overestimating boys. This inevitably guided how students, especially females in STEM subjects, felt about their prospective academic success and participation. The research also found that, though girls would often outperform male students in STEM subjects at an early age, they were still less likely to pick advanced courses in secondary/higher education.

Recruitment Bias

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Racial and gender stereotypes mean that Black women face double the challenge when faced with recruitment bias. Over the last 21 years, women software engineer hires have only increased by 2% and even less for Black women. The 2021 Women in Tech Report by TrustRadius revealed that 37% of women of colour in tech feel that racial bias is a barrier to promotion. There are many possible reasons for this, one being that networking is often much easier when based on shared experiences, interests and knowledge. Having a supportive network whether inside or outside of work is very useful when it comes to career progression and promotion. Studies show that Black workers and job-seekers are less likely to have role models or acquaintances who can refer them to open positions than White and Asian workers. Many circles of influence within organisations are White male-dominated meaning that they are more likely to make connections and give opportunities that help career acceleration to those who are similar to themselves. 83% of tech workers in Silicon Valley are men and 93% of those workers are White.

“There aren’t more women in tech because there aren’t more women in tech.”

Sheryl Sandberg

Microaggression and Cultural Disparity

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Microaggression can be described as intentional or unintentional commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental slights that subtly express a hostile, derogatory, or negative attitude toward a member of a stigmatised or marginalised group. According to the Women in the Workplace Report 2018 by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co, microaggressions are a workplace reality for 64% of women. Women are twice as likely as men to have been mistaken for someone in a more junior position. Black women, in particular, deal with a greater variety of microaggressions. They are more likely than other women to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise or to be asked to provide additional evidence of their competence. Business Insider reported that men are nearly three times as likely to interrupt a woman than another man.

Microaggressions can seem minor when dealt with in isolated occurrences but when repeated over time, they can have a major impact. Women who experience microaggressions view their workplaces as less fair and are three times more likely to regularly think about leaving their job than women who don’t. Black women especially are less likely to bring their full and authentic selves to work in these environments. According to Business Insider, one in five Black women feel socially pressured to straighten their hair for work, which is twice the rate for White women. Here are some common workplace microaggressions:

  • “Where are you actually from?” or “Where are your parents from?”
  • “You speak really good English.” or “You are so articulate.”
  • “I have Black friends.”
  • “You don’t look fully Black.”
  • “She is quite aggressive.” vs “She is just passionate.”
  • Women being interrupted by their male colleagues
  • Imitation of accents or dialects
  • “Do you speak African?”
  • “Your name is hard to pronounce; can I just call you [alternative/shortened name]?”
  • Confusing the names of the only two Black people who look nothing alike
  • “You should meet [name], she is also Caribbean.”
  • “How do you get your hair like that?” or “You have a different hairstyle every week” or “Can I touch your hair?” or “Is that your real hair?”

  • “All Lives Matter.
  • Commenting on the attractiveness of a female colleague
  • “That is your role? You look so young.”
  • “She is a good female engineer.”
  • “You people…”

Workplace environments and policies can often make female colleagues feel that they don’t belong or are not as important/valued as their male colleagues. McKinsey & Co reported that women were 22% more likely to experience “Imposter Syndrome” in the workplace (the overwhelming feeling of being out of place compared to colleagues). Now imagine that feeling for a Black woman. There are a variety of reasons for this, the most obvious one being that Black women are often the only woman and/or the only person of their race in the room. This can make them feel closely watch and on guard as they stand out. Other reasons could include a lack of female toilets, the absence of a private space for nursing mothers to pump, masculine décor or social events. Kapor Centre stated that company culture greatly affects a company’s ability to retain its employees.

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Encouraging Black Female Talent

There are many organisations that are dedicated to promoting Black women in tech. The non-profit organisation, Coding Black Females, is an example. Their primary aim is to provide opportunities for Black female developers to develop themselves, meet familiar faces, network, receive support and build relationships through having regular meetups. Coding Black Females recently teamed up with the British Computer Society (BCS) to offer 50 BCS memberships. They also teamed up with Niyo Enterprise to run 6-month coding bootcamp for Black females aged 18+ who are unemployed or earn less than £25,000.

Another organisation creating great opportunities for Black women in tech is TechUPWomen who run a training programme and recently took 100 women from the Midlands and North of England from under-represented communities, with degrees or experience in any subject area, and re-trained them in technology. They were then given the opportunity to interview with a company for an internship, apprenticeship or job.

Another way organisations can encourage Black female talent is by ensuring representation and visibility of existing Black female colleagues. This could be at career fairs, public speaking events, media opportunities etc. This shows other Black females that there are people who look like them within these organisations and makes them more likely to consider careers in tech. However, this alone is not enough. Companies should strive for diverse candidate pools and board members as well as hiring managers who have undertaken unconscious bias training to ensure fair recruitment practices. Companies need to recognise and understand the challenges faced by Black women in tech in order to take the necessary steps to address them, make their workplace environments inclusive for Black women and encourage them to pursue a career in tech.

Great Hiring Practices

During the Covid pandemic, in Engineering at Compare the Market, we were doing very little hiring. We had very few leavers and any proposed expansions were put on pause while we waited for the pandemic to play out. Recently though, with everything starting to open back up, we’ve started hiring again and this time at pace.

We needed to ensure that our hiring practices were still fit for purpose, especially within this accelerated hiring market. It was the perfect opportunity to review our practices, shake out the cobwebs and give them a good clean up and refresh.

There were three areas that we wanted to focus on and we worked to ensure that all our practices were honed with these goals in mind.

What we wanted from our hiring

We wanted to get the best candidates — of course, this seems obvious but what’s ‘best’ for one company may not be for another. Every company has their own culture and their own view on what great looks like. We wanted to make sure that we were as transparent as possible on what this means for Compare the Market. We also needed to ensure that we had a slick process that kept candidates engaged and didn’t waste their time.

We wanted to ensure that our processes and people worked in as unbiased a way as possible. The advantages of having a diverse and inclusive workplace are well documented and known, but for us it’s more than this, it’s part of who we are. We know that amazing talent comes from all parts of our community, and ensuring that we proactively pursue diversity across all levels in our hiring makes us a stronger and better company.

Finally, we wanted to ensure that all our candidates had as good an experience with us as possible. Job hunting and interviewing are rarely fun but we wanted to make sure that all our candidates have a positive experience with us, whatever the outcome.

In order to achieve these goals, we looked at what we needed to do to improve our practices.

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The improvements we made

Our amazing HR department along with our leaders in technology, painstakingly reviewed and updated all of our technology role descriptions. This was to ensure that we were clear on the expectations of each role, that they were fair and that they were aligned.

With guidance from our talent acquisition team, we changed our approach to the practical section of our interviews, that is the technical or challenge based presentation. We moved from a take-home pre-interview test to an in-interview pairing or whiteboard session. The reasons for this were:

Although we were using a third party to anonymously grade the technical tests to remove bias, we discovered that having any take-home challenge to complete negatively impacts those who have less free time, usually women, older people or those with families.

It’s a more accurate reflection of how we work in Compare the Market. We pair by default, so giving the candidate a feel for what that’s like as well as giving an opportunity to demonstrate those skills to the interviewer was very helpful.

It reduces the time needed between our first and second round interviews, which is great for all involved.

Finally, we consolidated and aligned our interview process. We documented and shared the exact details of every step of our interviews to ensure that everyone receives the same high standard across the board. We also provided extensive training materials on unconscious bias in the interview process to all our interviewers.

As well as making these improvements, we were also really keen to continue with the great practices that we already had in place.

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What we kept doing

We ensure that we keep in touch with all our applicants. There’s nothing worse than being ghosted in an interview process, so our talent and acquisition team have always prioritised keeping in close contact with all our candidates. They make sure that candidates are clear on what the process entails and what the next steps are. They also ensure that feedback from all interviews is captured and shared with the applicant.

As already mentioned, it’s really important to us that candidates have a positive experience of interviewing at Compare the Market. To that end we always treat our candidates with kindness and empathy. An interview is just as much a process for a candidate to find out about Compare the Market as it is the other way around, so we also make sure that we explain how we do things, what our values are and what makes us a great place to work.

We’re happy with our refreshed hiring practices but like most things in tech, it’s never really ‘done’ and we’ll continue to hone and improve these practices over time.