Welcome to the next feature in our Leaders in Tech editorial series. Speaking to leaders in the industry to capture their stories, career highs and lows, their trials and successes, their current company and their role, most recent projects, advice to others, and the individuals who they most look up to in the industry.
This week, we talked to Ines Nikolopoulou, Digital Delivery Manager at the Institute of Physics, to find out more about why she joined the tech industry, what her role entails, what are the challenges she faces as a tech leader, and her advice to aspiring engineers and developers.
What is your current role and responsibilities?
I am currently working at a scientific institution as a Digital Delivery Manager, in charge of leading the DevOps team. My role revolves around ensuring the DevOps team maintains, patches and upgrades existing digital infrastructure while developing cutting edge functionalities and products, aligning with the Institute’s five-year strategy.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey? How did you get where you are now?
I graduated in 2001, and I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery of sorts ever since; you could say I was on a mission to discover what would make me ‘tick’ professionally. The day after my graduation, I was hired in the marketing department in Brent Cross – a luxury shopping mall owned by the Hammerson Group – as a Marketing Coordinator.
My primary objective within that role revolved around organizing events aimed at increasing footfall for the centre. In time, my focus shifted towards the creative aspect of that role: designing, printing and distributing POI – mainly through Photoshop and Quark.
Later, that same creativity was extended online, and soon I was managing their website. That initial exposure to the digital world led me down the path I am now, through a series of roles centred on the modernization and development of websites (and digital infrastructure) for various industries – from retail to banking, to transport, to scientific organisations.
What drew you to the tech industry?
In the early 2000s, the online arena and the tech industry was more of a ‘virgin territory’ so to speak; it presented an opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs alike to explore its potential. It was precisely that potential that drew me to the field; the idea that soon, most if not all company operations could and would be conducted online.
Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?
It would be accurate to state that I’ve looked up to several people rather than just one individual. Throughout my 20 years professional career, I’ve had the absolute fortune of working with some fantastic leaders who inspired their teams through their actions: their ability to listen, motivate and empathize were attributes that particularly impressed me.
It is those very qualities I try to introduce in every interaction I have – whether with teams I lead or with colleagues, agencies and associates I collaborate with.
How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles?
Motivating people is the most complex aspect of my job, but also the most rewarding. To start with, I never refer to my team as ‘staff’, or ‘resources’. A laptop, a table and the kitchen kettle are ‘resources’.
But the individuals who work with me – note that I didn’t say “for me” – are my team. They are ‘John’, ‘Nick’, and ‘Jessica’ and ‘Laura’. They are people. They have stories, rich and complex as any tapestry. They have good and bad days; they have fears and aspirations; they are unique, like the skills they bring into the companies they work in.
Most take pride in what they do, some do not, but there is always a thought, a notion, an idea that makes them come alive: for some, it could be the satisfaction of a job well done; for others, the act of learning new skills; and for others, being reminded that their job is appreciated and that they are a valued member of the team.
The role of a leader is to appreciate, understand and work with those dynamics, in order to create an inspiring place of work; to use empathy, and discernment to bring out the best in people.
Gone are the days when threats, spreadsheets and harsh objectives were the management style du-jour. Leaders have to step up to the notion that we’re not “managing” a horde of thankless robots, but we are leading people – people who can and should be inspired to co-create, to build, to erect the bridge that will connect the “old” to the “new”. And that’s what I do – I remind people of their own uniqueness when they have forgotten.
What are your current goals?
I am currently working on streamlining, enhancing and securing the digital landscape within the scientific institution I am working for, and have had the privilege of collaborating with some really skilled individuals while doing so.
When I started this role, the company’s digital portfolio was chaotic: they had 60+ websites resting on ultra-legacy servers, built with CMS systems that hadn’t had security upgrades in years. Their main website possessed 20,000+ pages – much of which was comprised of obsolete content – and the development team administering those operated in a constant state of ‘firefighting’. The company’s cyber-security and backup protocols were non-existent; infrastructure documentation was minimal, and there was no workflow process for the rollout of new functionalities/deployment.
I am proud to say that within the space of 2.5 years, my team and I worked tirelessly to switch off obsolete sites and re-build the rest on Drupal, hosted in AWS.
Currently, our goals are aimed at solidifying and enhancing the security of the digital infrastructure, finally modernising our company’s digital presence, and bringing it to the 21st century. Although there is no ‘end’ to improvement, I am looking forward to the “end product”!
What are you the proudest of in your career so far?
Around 2014, I decided I wanted to take a sabbatical and travel for a year. I firmly believe that exposure to new people, places and cultures can help build one’s character as much as any job. But when I came back, I found out the hard way that employers were reluctant to hire me because I’d been gone from the market for a year (plus the few months I’d spent job hunting).
That’s when I decided to demonstrate to myself, first and foremost, and then to potential employers that I “still had it” – and I set up my own company with an initial capital of just £2,000. In a matter of months, I went from distributing CVs to hesitant hiring managers, to selling premium coconut oil sourced from Sri Lanka to interested consumers across the globe, using Amazon as a platform.
The idea of becoming the next Jeff Bezos appealed, but short of that, this venture gave me the opportunity to use and display my skills on designing, hosting, and setting up my own website – complete with the artwork, logo, and content. If I am being honest, the profits I made wouldn’t have financed my next Lamborghini, not even my next Peugeot.
However, it was my proudest moment, because it helped me bring out an entrepreneurial side of me that I didn’t know I possessed, and it helped me shift my mindset from ‘not having a job’, to ‘having my own business’. Needless to say, I found a job soon after I set up that business and it was the best job I’ve had so far.
What is the favourite part of your job?
Progress. Looking back at ‘what was’, and seeing ‘what is’ and knowing I had a part to play in that; seeing my team come together despite adversity, particularly since the pandemic, and still delivering great work; creating and building robust systems, built upon industry best standards.
What has been your greatest challenge from working as a tech leader?
The greatest challenge from working as a tech leader was that I didn’t start off as a tech leader. I came across the tech path, which had always intrigued me, and I certainly traversed it, but I didn’t start off as such – I just had the desire. The trick is to say ‘yes’ to an opportunity and have enough confidence in yourself to know you can learn it as you do it.
What’s the most important risk you took in your career?
The most important risk I took in my career was… temporarily placing my career in the freezer – in favour of a sabbatical. Normally, ambition dictates the relentless climb up that infamous ladder, never taking the eye off “the goal” which could be the next job, a higher salary, a better title, and so on and so forth it goes.
For me, exploring new horizons and acquiring new experiences far from the confines of an office was just as crucial as learning the latest theory of SCRUM. Why? Because travelling stretches a person; it helps provide perspective, and perhaps even humility: nothing like crossing a Colombian favela to appreciate the comforts of life in a developed country.
So I decided to press ‘pause’ on an ascending career and travel for a year – knowing this move could have set me back significantly. And yet it was the most rewarding experience I ever had. I highly recommend it – post-Pandemic, of course!
What have you learned from your experience so far?
If you love your job, there are no heights you can’t reach. If you hate your job, find something you love in it, and hold on to that every day, until that’s all you see.
If you are a leader, always remember to thank your team for a job well done – good work should never be taken for granted.
Do you have a memorable story or an anecdote from your experience you’d like to tell?
Absolutely! I was offered a Sitecore Web Manager role with the task to create and launch the company’s website within 2 months.
I had no previous experience in Sitecore. None. (and yes, they knew it).
What happened? Oh, I accepted the offer.
…and learned Sitecore on the job, set up all CMS component libraries, built and launched the site (within 2 months), and then trained my entire team on Sitecore.
Like I said before. The key is to say ‘yes’ when a great opportunity is offered, then learn how to do it. (It gets much easier with Google!).
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring engineers and testers who want to grow in the tech industry?
Well, as a Digital Project/Delivery Manager, the only advice I could give anyone with a different career to mine would be to always be curious.
Have I done the best possible job?
What don’t I know about this project?
How could I go about ‘breaking’ what I just built?
These are some helpful questions to ask. When we start asking the right questions, the answers will definitely come.