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How I learned to code

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, cyber security graduate Lianne Potter describes how she retrained to become a coder after redundancy and is now protecting the NHS from cyber threats.

Photo of Lianne Potter.

When I was made redundant in December 2017, I saw it as an opportunity to take stock of my life and think about what I wanted to do next.

I was working as a project manager for a charity, helping people whose lives were in crisis and facing severe destitution. Due to funding cuts, I found myself unemployed.

My work at the charity had already got me interested in how the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in society faced even more social and financial inequality because of their inability to access digital technologies. In fact, I was so fascinated by it that I researched digital inequality for my master’s degree in anthropology.

Serendipitously, I saw Sky was advertising a 'get into tech' day, so I went along and loved it! They taught us a bit of computer programming, told us about all the exciting things that were going on in the tech industry and, best of all, revealed that technical skills can be learned by anyone.

Becoming a coder

I decided to learn how to code and I treated learning it like a full-time job. I spent hours and hours, determined I would get into tech as soon as possible. Less than eight months later, I got a place on NHS Digital's graduate scheme as a developer.

It was a perfect fit for me because it meant I could continue my digital activism. That means constantly working to remind my colleagues of the existence of the digital divide and how this can impact healthcare. I've enjoyed being able to dip my toes into lots of different areas of the business and being surrounded by people who genuinely want to do 'tech for good', too.

We spend our days ensuring that cyber attacks are defended against so that the frontline can keep delivering brilliant patient care unimpeded.

The graduate scheme was so flexible in terms of the projects I could work on that I managed to land my dream placement in the cyber security team. I work with a team of very talented and dedicated individuals in the Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC) as an analyst. We spend our days ensuring that cyber attacks are defended against so that the frontline can keep delivering brilliant patient care unimpeded.

My current focus is automating our existing processes so that we can free up resources and improve resilience against new and complex threats. When I’m not doing that, I’m monitoring the traffic that flows through NHS Digital’s network to see if there is anything unusual that could indicate a problem. It’s a job that can be simultaneously terrifying and exciting – and I couldn’t be happier.

Supporting others

Outside of this, my proudest achievement has been my involvement in delivering the Women's Network-powered code club. It started as a one-off event but has now become a regular fixture on the learning and development calendar at NHS Digital. So far we've taught nearly 100 people the basics of HTML and CSS. The idea is to drive up digital literacy across the whole of NHS Digital's workforce so everybody understands what our developers do and can work collaboratively in our agile and cross-functional teams.

Sessions have sold out and the feedback has been phenomenal. There has even been some discussion about extending the format across the civil service.

The challenges

But don’t let me give the impression that it has always been easy.

Retraining for a career in tech is a sound investment, but it can mean a drop in salary and I appreciate that not everyone will be able to do this.

There is also the crippling imposter syndrome that can hit out of the blue, particularly when I'm working on anything that requires me to use my technical skills. Being so new to the industry, I can worry that I'm not at the level I need to be.

When I was teaching myself how to code, I'd get stuck on problems with no one to ask for help. That was until I realised that there was such a fantastic tech-scene in Leeds.

To get over that, I remind myself of all I have achieved in the last 20 months and of the fact that tech is always on the move. Complete mastery of a subject is a fairytale!

This is the message I spread through my public speaking. When I was teaching myself how to code, I'd get stuck on problems with no one to ask for help. That was until I realised that there was such a fantastic tech-scene in Leeds. You can literally go to a different tech event every night, if you want to.

At these events, I kept hearing people's stories of how they got into tech from non-technical backgrounds. It inspired me to keep going. My advice for anyone thinking about retraining – and especially to women in the run up to International Women’s Day: the time to get into tech is now! We can all do so much good with these tools and, with a bit of determination, you can get them too.

Related subjects

  • To celebrate International Women's Day 2020, some of our female colleagues share their stories of working for NHS Digital.
  • Cyber security still has an out-dated image of being a masculine profession. Charlotte Roe, Cyber Security Apprentice at NHS Digital, talks about her job and why women are needed in the world of cyber.

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Lianne Potter

Lianne is a cyber security graduate working in NHS Digital's Cyber Security Operations Centre.

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