In this article, we interview DevOps Engineer and father of two sets of twins (!) Tawfe’eq Babou. We discuss leaping from marketing to a career in tech, finding balance with a growing family, and his dreams of using digital skills to transform agriculture in Africa and turn the dial on food poverty.
A career path isn’t linear, for many, it’s more like crazy paving. We’re seeing that the trend of the ‘mid-life’ career pivot is on the rise, particularly within the tech world. The tech skills crisis coupled with industry-leading flexible working arrangements and digital-first learning opportunities, make tech an ideal space for those looking to get back into work after a career break or seeking to reskill in a completely different sphere. We’re consistently impressed by individuals who have dared to make a career change and pursue what’s right for them, professionally and personally. Therefore, we were keen to explore this topic with someone who has lived it.
Tell us a little about your career to date.
I started in hospitality, then moved into retail and finally became a freelance digital marketer. I loved working with a range of clients in Manchester from fitness, fashion and music to corporate SMEs.
What was the catalyst for you to consider another career path?
When lockdown happened my digital marketing career went out of the door. As a freelancer, I had no job security and many clients dropped off because nobody knew what was going to happen.
At the same time, my wife told me she was pregnant. I was washing up at the time and I vividly remember just going into complete shock and cleaning the same plate for about 15 minutes. Because I bring in our primary income my immediate thought was ‘how am I going to provide for this child?’ We subsequently found out she was expecting twins which doubled the anxiety!
It was a very stressful and scary, but pivotal moment. I knew I had to change my career to provide. After the initial shock, I sat down and drew out a spider diagram with my name at the centre. I considered what am I good at. What am I interested in? What avenues have I not explored that have potential?
My mum was a real inspiration. Around 5 years ago she was fortunate enough, through her employer, to go to Oxford University and do a master’s degree. Not only did she write her dissertation about the digital divide, which piqued my interest in tech, but she also showed me that a career is an ever-evolving thing and that learning and growing are natural, positive and essential. This took away some of the fear.
How did you decide that tech was the route you wanted to explore?
I had been doing an email marketing campaign for a friend and he had some issues with his WordPress website. I had never used WordPress at the time, but my friend said, ‘look, you’re more technical than me, just give it a go’, so I learned online, solved the problem and enjoyed it.
I started to explore this world a little bit more. I always thought you had to be a mathematics major or do a computer science degree to be a software engineer as that’s the traditional route a lot of my friends who were in the industry took. I’ve always struggled with maths, I went to high school in Ethiopia from 2006-2012 and their maths is extremely advanced, so I struggled even more. I’ve always had this fear that I wouldn’t be technically able to do something like programming. Thankfully the industry has come a long way, many people are self-taught and there are so many online learning resources.
I moved into DevOps through the apprenticeship firm QA Consulting. When I applied there, I had to take an aptitude test. It felt like less of a barrier to entry, less intimidating. Yes, there is a numeric test but there was also a personality and a logical thinking test to assess my aptitude. I passed and the rest is history. It was a big eye-opener that sometimes you don’t know until you try.
To anyone unaware, could you explain what DevOps is?
DevOps is the bridge between software development and business operations. It’s not just understanding how to execute the technical aspects of a project, it’s managing the whole lifecycle i.e. understanding the requirements from the product owner, the programme specification, the customer base, the goals of the company and managing workloads, the project and stakeholders throughout the process. Cross-department communication and understanding is the difference between software development (whose main focus is making sure the code works and has been tested and debugged) and DevOps.
How have you seen your career in tech benefitting you and your family?
The immediate benefit for me is being able to work from home. Having twins who are under 2 is hard work. By being more available I’m able to support my wife and I’ve seen a boost in her energy levels. I also get to see my children more which makes us all happier. For some women, it can be difficult to maintain an identity outside of the family unit, so it’s really important to be able to support her so she can explore things she wants to do outside of being a mother. She’s always been such an independent person and I don’t want her to lose that. Through my work, she’s been looking at how she can develop professionally. Being able to find a solution for all of this through tech has been amazing.
Although, we’re pregnant again…
Wait, what, you’re pregnant again?!
Yes, haha. So we have twins, and we’re expecting twins again.
Yes, it’s going to be a challenge for sure. To be honest with you if I wasn’t in my current career, I would hate to think how stressed I would be about it. I wouldn’t be working from home and I wouldn’t have the flexibility I’m currently afforded to support my family. But it’s not just that, working in tech has allowed me to dream about true career development. The idea that I won’t be in the same position in five years is motivating and job security is key. Having four children under the age of two won’t be a small task, but the benefits of working in tech all make it feel achievable and will hopefully make it a happy experience too.
What advice would you give to people considering a career pivot?
One thing I would say is that things are always worse in your head. For example, if you think tech is this super technical thing which is unlearnable, you’re wrong.
So, my first piece of advice is to almost take a helicopter view of yourself. My pivotal moment was doing that spider diagram exercise; putting myself in the middle and matching my aspirations to my interests to my skills and trying to see the trends. Do your research and you will be very surprised at how many things you are interested in and how varied roles and opportunities are.
My second top tip is once you’ve chosen your route, get yourself a mentor. You’ll be so surprised how many people, no matter how busy or senior you perceive them to be, are willing to help, share their insight and connect you with others that will be able to help you in your career. One thing I’d say to people who are looking to get into tech, in particular, is that there are some amazing mentors here in Manchester that are willing and want to help and it’s such an amazing privilege to have access to that.
Would you like to give any of them a shoutout?
Yes! My Dad always used to say we are fishermen of people, you cast your net wide, keep the good, and throw the bad back in the water. These are the exceptional ones:
First, Naomi Timperley. I spoke to her initially at the Manchester Tech Festival and we arranged a coffee over Zoom where she set me some assignments; one was to talk at their next event. Having someone willing to give you advice and push you into action can be so impactful because it can be daunting coming into an industry for the first time. To have someone senior or who is an expert in the field have your back isn’t something I have seen outside of tech, to be honest.
Another person is James Akrigg, he’s ex-Head of Technology for Microsoft. I met him at the tech social as well. He’s another person who has given me advice, guidance and, most importantly, feedback.
Why is tech a great career option for those looking to re-skill?
The tech industry is booming not only with opportunity but with a fantastic network of diverse people who have different backgrounds and experiences. People are doing some amazing things for diversity in tech and addressing the digital divide. It’s refreshing. As a community, we must champion these facilitators to positively disrupt the industry.
What many people don’t appreciate, is that there are loads of non-technical roles within the tech industry too. I want people to understand they don’t need to be a mathematical genius to come into the digital realm because it is an amazing space. One thing I love about software development and DevOps is that you can take an idea and bring it into the real world and see it positively impact people. That’s so cool and empowering.
There is something for everybody in this space. Through recruitment and outreach programmes we need to help people understand there are so many transferrable skills in tech. People have ability based on aptitude and therefore ample opportunity to find a role in tech that they love and can excel in. As I said earlier, not every tech role is a technical role and we need to promote that. We need to show that tech is an open door and there is something for everybody. With tech being one of the fastest-growing economies there are huge opportunities here.
What are your aspirations and where do you see yourself in the future?
I have a very personal ambition. I studied in Ethiopia and I have African heritage so the issues that affect the country are very real to me.
Specifically, I aim to use my skills in the digital arena to work on food loss preventative measures within East Africa. Africa loses enough calories to feed 1.7 billion people, three times a day every year. The idea that Africa suffers from famine for a lack of produce is largely incorrect. For example, in the UK we waste food, this waste is everything after it gets to the consumer – throwing food away after it goes off etc. In Africa or other developing countries, food waste happens before it gets to the consumer. Not having the correct packaging for produce, and poor communication between farmers, suppliers and the marketplace are examples of this loss. In addition, lack of refrigeration causes toxins to get into the food which leads to illness, susceptibility to things like malaria and cholera and a long list of other issues.
Growing up in Africa seeing so much food but realising how little of it reaches the consumer was shocking to me because I always assumed that the reason people go hungry is that they haven’t got it. But systems around the supply chain are so broken, that’s the main reason that these situations arise. Within five years I aim to be using tech to help solve these issues, helping farmers and suppliers to communicate across the supply chain accurately, implementing systems so data can be harnessed to help see what needs to be optimised and where processes fail. Better transparency across the supply chain is a big thing, but it’s solvable, and it’s solvable through tech.
I also hear you’re an advocate for digital literacy and you’ve also mentioned the digital divide. Could you tell us a little bit more about the issue and your activity in this area?
Of course, the digital divide means the difference between those who have access to the internet, computers and smart devices as opposed to demographics who don’t have access to the same resources. For example, Manchester City Council is still trying to get enough computers for students. We’re considered the second biggest city in the UK but we’re the sixth most deprived area in the UK.
And the reason the digital divide is so important is that pretty much everything has gone or is going digital. Every business is a digital business now, they all have a website or some other digital outreach, email, or social media. This means if you aren’t digitally able or haven’t had the resources to use these online platforms, you’re already going to be out-skilled by the rest of the market. For example, a lot of homework is now done online and children that don’t have the access to computers or the internet are already falling behind.
I want to advocate for better digital literacy because technology is moving exponentially and as time goes by, if no action is taken the digital divide will become almost un-closable. I’d like to see a holistic approach to solving this issue; increased awareness of the digital divide coupled with private sector investment and a curriculum that serves the needs of our children’s futures.