Matilde Aliffi

Software Engineer at The Economist Group 
PhD Philosophy, 2019

""Please tell us a bit about yourself and your role.

I am currently a Software Engineer at The Economist Group. I got into the role through a non-conventional route: I do not have a degree in computer science and my background is in philosophy. During the last year of my philosophy PhD, I realised that an academic career was not for me.

Although I loved doing research, I was tired of a few aspects of what characterised my daily routine of being a philosopher working in academia. I was mostly working in isolation and was difficult for me to see the impact of my research in the “real world”.


“Engaging with Career Network...was key to acquiring the right mindset for working as a software engineer.”

I started to look for a career that was as intellectually stimulating for me as academia, but more collaborative and with a more direct impact on society. I started considering software engineering as a possible career when I participated in an introduction to web development course offered by 'Code First: Girls' in partnership with The Economist Group. During the course, we had to work in a team to create a website from scratch. I fell in love with the problem-solving aspect of programming: every new bug presented a new challenge to address, which I was thrilled to find a solution for. The course volunteer instructors taught me that communication skills and teamwork are key in software, and I was happy to experience the importance of this through the course.

When a position opened for a junior software engineer at The Economist Group, I applied for it and got very lucky to get offered the role. Although I got into software through an unconventional route, I was surprised to see how much studying philosophy and doing a doctorate prepared me for this career. When analysing a philosophical argument, it’s important to clearly unpack the argument and check whether the conclusion follows from its premises. Programming is somehow similar. 

What motivated you to do your postgraduate research course?

I decided to do a PhD because I originally wanted to become a researcher. I wanted to learn more about emotions and rationality, and I found exciting the prospect of becoming an expert in this topic, and potentially being able to contribute to the field. I chose the University of Birmingham because it is excellent in philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology, and I wanted to work with and learn from my star supervisor Prof. Lisa Bortolotti.

What do you enjoy most and what do you find challenging about your role?

I particularly enjoy the problem-solving aspect of the work: breaking down a complex problem in smaller parts, exploring different possible solutions, evaluating the best one to implement. I find it a creative and very stimulating part of the job. The kinds of problems that I have to address at work are different, and I really enjoy its variety. Most of them require technical solutions - such as moving website domains to a different firewall and content delivery network provider or creating a tool to identify accessibility issues in the code.

When I or my teammates find a problem particularly difficult, we often work together in a small group or in pairs to break it down and find a strategy to address it. I love these sessions as I can learn a lot from my teammates, and they help me to consider aspects I may have overlooked.

In the team where I work, one of the key challenges for me is context switching. We are often spread thin across multiple tasks. Too much context switching has a hit on the velocity on which we as a team deliver our tasks and projects, and this can affect motivation. As a team, we address this mainly with prioritisation - although that is not always easy. But we also have found that documenting really well what we do - and keeping a record of our decisions help massively to reduce the fatigue associate to multiple context-switching. 

Have you faced any barriers during your career journey, if so, how did you overcome them?

When I started thinking about possible career options after graduation, software engineering didn’t cross my mind. I considered doing a post-doc in a different institution, a career in management consulting, business development, policy making, etc… But I did not think software engineering was a career path for me.

I had the wrong stereotypes about the profession. I thought that a software engineering career was for geeks (!) with no particular interest in working collaboratively and did not think about myself as one. But this was a mistake. I did not appreciate the level of problem-solving and creativity that programming involves. I also underestimated the level of teamwork and communication that working in a software entails. These stereotypes prevented me from considering this as a career option for some time but meeting programmers and learning more about the profession helped me to overcome this bias.

How did your time at Birmingham help you prepare for this role?

Doing a PhD in philosophy helped me to develop a lot of transferable skills that are extremely useful in software engineering. For instance, research skills developed during the PhD me to solve problems more efficiently, avoid falling into rabbit holes, keeping the focus on the problem I have to address. Communication skills developed through delivering papers at international conferences came in handy to know how to structure presentations deliver talks and business updates in a software context.

Engaging with the Career Network Services at the University of Birmingham was key to acquire the right mindset for working as a software engineer. It guided my reflection around career expectations, personal values, and transferable skills. Especially valuable were the one-to-one sessions with Holly Prescott, who is the university PGR careers advisor, who offered tailored advice on careers beyond academia.

Another very useful experience that I did undertake when studying at the University of Birmingham was participating in the Birmingham Enterprise Summer School and in the Universitas 21 and PwC Innovation Challenge organised by the University of Birmingham Careers Network services. These experiences opened my mind to explore careers beyond academia and helped me to reflect and get a hands-on experience on how the skills acquired during my degree could be applied in a different context.

What are your career plans for the future?

In the short term, I would like to become a senior software engineer and eventually progress into a tech lead role. I would like to contribute to making software engineering an open and inclusive environment, taking part in initiatives that enhance the participation of underrepresented groups in the profession. I am also personally very interested in teaching and outreach activities, and I would like to get more involved in the Birmingham tech community by presenting at conferences and writing articles around technology.

What advice would you give to students interested in further study?

I recommend anyone considering doing a PhD to appreciate that enrolling in a doctorate programme is not just an opportunity to become an expert in a given subject area, but also to be a well-rounded researcher. I personally really enjoyed the breadth of experiences that doing a PhD offers. Writing the thesis is only one of the activities a PhD student usually does.

A doctoral researcher may - among other things - be involved with teaching, presenting papers and posters at conferences, submitting papers to journals, organising conferences, writing/editing research-related blog posts, reviewing papers and conference submissions, interviewing world-leading experts in a certain field, engaging with outreach initiatives, and so on. These are not only activities that can be very enjoyable, but also very formative. I personally did not anticipate fully how much this degree would have helped me to develop abilities that are crucial for becoming a good researcher and that are also easily transferable to other career paths.

What advice would you give to students interested in getting into your industry or role?

  1. Diversity of background in tech is highly valued - do not think that you need to have a degree in computer science to get a position in tech.
  2. Get in touch with the tech community - in Birmingham, for instance, there is a wide range of tech meetups, talks and tech conferences which are a great occasion to get in touch with other software engineers, upskill, and get a taste of what kind of things engineers do.
  3. There are so many things to learn in this sector, and at the beginning it can be very difficult to prioritise correctly. Create a learning plan - perhaps with the help of a mentor or follow a course.



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