As the only girl at Brunel University graduating with an Engineering Doctorate in 2012, Nicola Combe is proud to say that she’s always only been judged on her capability, not her gender. She now is the Global Product Lead at British Gas Connected Homes, leading the launch and development of the Hive Active Heating thermostats for the UK, Ireland, Italy, Canada and the USA. In 2015 she was ranked in Management Today’s “35 Women Under 35” list and in 2014 shortlisted for the IET Young Woman Engineer Awards. She was kind enough to give us an insight into a career in the Engineering world and what it’s like to launch one of the world most innovative products….
Can you tell us a little bit about your role as Global Product Lead at Hive Active Heating? What does an average day look like?
As a Global Product Lead I lead the development of the Hive Active Heating thermostats for the UK, Ireland, Italy, Canada and the USA. This means I’m responsible for a team of people that do both the front end (iOS, Android and Web Apps) and back end (thermostat hardware, hub and platform) development. I’m also responsible for things like packaging, user guides, helping marketing understand the features and ensuring our support staff know how the products work.
Usually I get in about 8:30-9am and have a nice coffee from the independent shop next door, I’m addicted what can I say! I’ll check my emails for about an hour with my nice coffee and read the feedback we get from customers. The work we do is driven by this feedback to continually improve the products as well as doing new things. We then have a team stand up where everyone says what they did yesterday and are doing today. It helps keep the motivation up, everyone going in the same direction and gives people a chance to ask for help with things they are stuck on.
Working in an Agile we also have various ceremonies (meetings) throughout the two week sprint from refining what work we have coming up to demoing the new work completed. This is within the development team. I also work closely with the hardware team to help them prioritise what is most important for them to work on so we stay aligned.
I then spend some time looking forward with the design team as to what we are doing next, how we can test it and making sure the requirements are clear for development. The other third of my time is spent reporting back to the business on our progress, working with our customer operations team and marketing to communicate new features to customers and getting investment for new projects.
What is the best part of your job at Hive?
The best part is when you launch something and actually see it in a customers hands or home being used. It’s really cool when you get feedback from people saying how they use it to make sure their parents aren’t getting cold when they live far away or the blind lady who told us she could control her heating herself for the first time. Who would have thought people would get so excited about a thermostat!
Who would have thought people would get so excited about a thermostat!
Key to your role is creating and managing new products for Hive. Are you able to tell us about any new projects you are working?
So I work on multiple things at once. There is always minor bug fixes and improvements that happen on a day to day basis. At the end of last year we launched our Hive Active Heating thermostat in Italy and I’m working on making adaptations for the next country in our sights. This is to make sure you have a great experience of the thermostat and apps but not necessarily in English! Then there is a big new feature for our Hive Active Heating thermostat which will make sure we meet a new regulation in the UK. I can’t tell you too much about how it works but it will optimise your heating schedule for you so that your home is warm by the time you get up in the morning.
How did University prepare you for your career? Is University essential for a career in Engineering or are their other entry points into the industry?
I wouldn’t say university is the only route into engineering at all. It depends on the type of person you are, what you want to do and how you learn best. I learnt best with a mix of practical and classroom based learning which my course at Brunel offered. If you go down the university route make sure you visit the school or faculty before you commit so you know what you will be doing. While a course name might be the same they could be very different in reality.
There are a number of apprenticeship schemes in engineering where you get both practical experience within a business alongside part time study. These can be a great way into the industry and make sure you have real world skills when you finish your apprenticeship. Saying all of this some of the best software engineers and developers I’ve worked with have been self taught. With coding languages come and go quite quickly but people with the ability to keep learning can really thrive. There is definitely a route to suit everyone.
How was life immediately after university?
When I finished my doctorate I felt really unsure about what I would do, I felt like I had all these qualifications but no practical skills. I found the writing up process really lonely and it taught me that I didn’t want to work at home or insolation again. Spending that much time on my own really made me doubt myself and I must have applied for about 30 jobs when I finally got an interview! It took me about ten months to find my way into product development and while I didn’t have the “Product Manager” job title previously I found it’s more about how you frame your experience.
Can you tell us a little bit about the different paths people can pursue in the engineering world?
There are lots of different types of engineering and you can find out about each one more through the engineering institutions directly which you can view here.
Broadly engineering can be divided into specialisms such as Electronics, Structural, Mechanical, Civil, Chemical and IT/Software or it can be divided by industry application such as Aerospace, Vehicles, Rail, Medical, Buildings, Energy etc too.
It is really about what interests you most and websites like Tomorrow’s Engineers have some really useful examples of what each specialism means in the real world.
Do you have any advice for a young female looking at entering the engineering industry?
I would say never stop learning. The engineering and technology space changes all the time and that’s what makes it fast paced and exciting but you need to continue to keep pace with those changes and understand what new opportunities they present. Find something you’re passionate about and learning about it can really help you find your motivation again.
Are there any non-engineering related skills you have that you feel have been essential to your successful career?
Loads! I think communication is the biggest one, I don’t think people realise how hard it is to clearly communicate between technical and non-technical people – I often act as that bridge between engineering and the wider business.
The other main one that people wouldn’t usually associate with engineering is empathy. I spend a lot of time talking to customers and I have to try and understand their needs then create a solution to meet those needs. Being empathic to the needs of our customers ensures we build the right products in the first place and that customers love having our products in their lives.
I spend a lot of time talking to customers and I have to try and understand their needs then create a solution to meet those needs
The Internet of Things is very quickly becoming common in our homes. How do you see the industry developing in the next 10 years?
Ten years is a long time in technology, when I started my doctorate the app store didn’t exist and there was no iPhone – I promise I’m not that old! I think things that will become big are the use of batteries in home and using this to power more within the home when energy is really expensive, say in the evenings when everyone is using it. Also I think there will be a big shift in the relationship between your car and your home with the rise of electric vehicles. For example using the battery in your car to store the solar power your roof generates rather than give it back to the electricity grid or having to pay to charge your car.
Has there ever been a point where you struggled to keep motivated in your career? What did you do to break through this?
Yes there has, sometimes if things are tough you have to ask yourself whether this is the right thing for you. You spend a lot of time at work and with your team, more than with your partner or friends, so if it’s not right you need to fix that.
I think making a decision is important in these situation. I reviewed what my options were, decided on one and when I would review it (3 months). Then when things were tough I could reassure myself this was the right choice for now and to stop feeling sorry for myself. It can be easy to think the grass is greener elsewhere but often the difficult periods are good for learning about what you don’t want. If I am in a similar situation in the future I would feel more confident in making decisions about what is the right thing for me.
A very topical debate is whether or not young people should go to London to develop their careers in their twenties. What are your thoughts on this?
I totally fall in this bucket! With the roles that are on offer in London it would take a lot to tempt me away, despite all the bits people hate about London. Saying that I’ve definitely seem more innovation happening across the country, especially around Bristol, Cambridge and Edinburgh. This is great to see as the technology and engineering sector can offer such great careers and London isn’t the be all and end all!
What has been your proudest moment of your career?
I’ve got a few, it’s hard to pick just one:
- Launching Hive Active Heating 2 in the UK (July 2015)
- Making sure our app was accessible for blind and visually impaired users.
- Having a product at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2018 where we showcased the Hive product including Hive Active Thermostat for the North American market. It’s the biggest electronics show in the world so it really felt like we were a proper technology company being there!
What has been your biggest challenge?
Learning to compromise. I want to offer the absolute best engineering solution to the market but sometimes for business reasons you need to launch without a feature and add it later. Having an engineering mindset coming to the company I’ve had to learn more about the business side and why the two need to sit side by side. It’s not something you’re taught about at university and you have to learn more on the job.
Having an engineering mindset coming to the company I’ve had to learn more about the business side and why the two need to sit side by side.
If you could go back in time, and give yourself one piece of advice when you left school, what would you say?
Don’t put so much pressure on yourself! I was really hard on myself, always striving for the best grades but actually that shouldn’t define me as a person. A lot of the time good is good enough. I heard someone say recently “excellence is the enemy of extraordinary” and it really resonated with me. Excellence is boring and being extraordinary involves taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them.
If you could recommend one book or podcast that has helped you get where you are today, what would it be?
I am huge podcasts fan so I’ll recommend two:
Tech Talks which has a great backlog of conversations with great role models across the tech industry.
Tough Girl Challenges which isn’t technology related but has a number of hugely inspiring women talking about their challenges. In your career you’ll have to push yourself outside your comfort zone a lot and build your resilience so I see a lot of parallels between the advice in this podcast and pushing yourself at work.
If you could have a coffee with any woman in the world, who would you choose?
That’s so tough!! I think I would pick Merci Victoria Grace who worked her way from Product Manager through Head of Growth to Director of Product at Slack really quickly. I saw her present once and she blew my mind. She was so honest about the things she liked and loathed about her own product and she was so passionate about driving change within Slack and the industry too. She lives by her principles, even funding more women to have access to conferences and you can follow her on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/merci she is hugely inspiring!