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From Developer to Digital Transformation Leader

  • Publish Date: Posted 7 months ago
  • Author:by Charlene McDonald, Head of Product at Kainos

Navigating a diverse tech career and driving innovation with Charlene McDonald, Head of Product at Kainos

In the ever-evolving landscape of the tech industry, it takes a combination of resilience, adaptability and a thirst for knowledge to rise to the top. Charlene McDonald, Head of Product at Kainos, is a shining example of how a career in technology can transform and diversify over the years.

In this edition of our Tech-Sperts series, we dive into Charlene's remarkable journey, which began as a developer and eventually led her to winning ‘Digital Transformation Leader’ at this year’s Women in Tech Awards.

Keep reading to be inspired and pick up some expert career advice…

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Can you tell us about your journey from starting as a developer to your current role as Head of Product at Kainos? How did you navigate through different roles within the tech industry?

“After graduating with a degree in Computing Science, I found that very few IT companies were hiring, as it was shortly after the IT bubble had burst. I took a job working in IT support for a local company to gain professional experience. As soon as Kainos started hiring again, I applied for and luckily secured a Graduate Software Engineer role. I worked as a Senior Software Engineer for many years, which saw me wearing many different hats, including Testing, Delivery Management, and User Research and Design (in addition to Software Engineering) before I eventually specialised in Business Analysis and Product Management.

“I’ve approached every role with an open mind and tried to learn as much as I can, and it's stood me in good stead in my career. It helps to have that solid grounding and understanding of all aspects of Software Delivery when you work for a software company!”

Congratulations on winning the Digital Transformation Leader award at the Women in Tech Awards 2023! Could you share your thoughts on the significance of this award and its impact on encouraging diversity in the tech sector?

“Winning the award was very unexpected but a wonderful surprise. It’s lovely for all your hard work and contribution to the industry to be recognised, and it was a great experience to hear the stories of all the other talented individuals in the room on the night and to get to know them more afterward. My hope would be that it encourages more women and young girls from all backgrounds into tech/STEM careers.”

With over 18 years of experience in IT, what inspired you to transition from development to business analysis and eventually to product management? What lessons from your developer days have proven valuable in your current role?

“When I began my career in IT, Product Management didn’t exist as a role in the IT industry. It’s still considered a relatively new discipline, even though it’s been around for a good few years now. That’s what attracted me to a career in IT in the first place; it’s always changing, and you have to be prepared to change to keep up, or you will get left behind.

“What I love about Product Management is that it covers all aspects of solving the problem for users; it’s the role that brings together the Technical, Business and User needs and skills on the team in order to ensure that we’re collectively solving the right problem, at the right time, in the right way.”

Working on large-scale government transformation programs often involves navigating complex challenges. Can you share some insights into the types of challenges you've encountered in managing these projects, and how you approached overcoming them while maintaining the confidentiality and sensitivity of the projects?

“Most of the work I do is in the Public Sector, so quite often the projects we work on are implementing or responding to legislation. More often than not in recent years, the legislation is still being written and changing as we are developing the solution, so it’s really important to be flexible and pragmatic in your approach. The one constant we can depend on is that things will change, sometimes frequently and at very short notice, and you have to be the type of person who can handle working in uncertainty at a very fast pace.”

As a passionate advocate for service transformation and user-centric design, could you elaborate on how you prioritise user needs and ensure that products and services are both user-friendly and effective?

“A common misconception that I see these days is that only ‘end (or primary) user’ needs are important. In my experience, having this focus can lead to developing products and services that don’t actually fulfil the needs of all users and are ineffective or don’t offer any real return on investment. It’s very important to recognise all users of a Product or Service and understand all their needs before beginning to prioritise.

“It’s also vital to ensure that you do a cost-benefit analysis of any proposed solution aimed at solving particular needs so that you know it is actually worth the cost of solving it. Some needs, while important, are often not worth the financial investment required to satisfy them. To be an effective Product Manager, you have to be capable of identifying those and making hard decisions about which needs will be met and which won’t.”

Are you able to share with us a project or initiative you are particularly proud of in your career? One you have worked on in the past or are currently working towards?

“One of my previous projects was the Digital Transformation of the Screening Programme. The ultimate aim of the Programme was to transform how Screening (Breast Cancer, Cervical, Bowel, etc.) is delivered in England. I was part of the team designing the Technology Products, Operating Model, and Strategy needed to deliver the transformation, as well as writing the business cases to secure funding to do the work.

“I’m immensely proud of the work done on that project, as the transformation of screening doesn’t just save money and provide a better experience for people, but it actually saves lives by identifying more people with Cancer and getting them into treatment pathways sooner.”

In your role as Head of Product, what strategies do you employ to foster innovation within your team and ensure that your products stay relevant and competitive in a rapidly evolving tech landscape?

“Having diverse teams is crucial to fostering innovation. If you only have similar people on your team with similar backgrounds and ideas, you essentially end up with group think. So, it’s really important to champion and value diversity.”

Can you offer some insights into how you balance your leadership responsibilities with your technical expertise? How do you keep up with the latest tech trends while also guiding your team effectively?

“It’s always a balancing act, and sometimes it’s harder to manage than other times. I’m trying something new currently where I have dedicated a few hours at a set time on a set day every week for ‘self-study’ so that I can be more intentional about it.”

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring individuals, especially women, who are looking to build a successful career in the tech industry, whether it's in product management, development, or other roles?

“Luckily, tech is a huge field these days, with loads of different roles and specialisms that go beyond software development. This can be daunting to someone only getting into tech. Therefore, my top tip is to really research the different roles and specialisms and find the areas that you’re most passionate about.

“Identify what you need to do to get into that area. Is it a degree? Is it a degree conversion course? Are there specific training courses? Look at these types of questions, get your answers, and create a plan of what you need to do to get to where you want to be. Once you’ve done this, start reading around the area and building your knowledge and skills.”

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