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Helen Durrant

Helen is a front end engineer, mental health advocate and part time digital nomad, who works remotely for a Boston based healthcare analytics startup.

Helen portraitWhat do you do on an average work day?

My average work day is very varied! Both in the work I do, and where I do it.

My company is in Boston but I work remotely, so if I'm at home in New Zealand I might start my day at Atomic (a cafe) with a good cup of coffee, catching up on anything that's happened overnight and triaging the day's work. We're a small startup and you have to be able to change tack if something urgent has come up that needs addressing promptly.

Depending on what else I have going on I might go back and work from home (where I have a sweet standing desk) - or I might get into the flow at the cafe and work from there a while. If I feel like company, I'll head to a workspace.

I'm primarily a developer so I'll usually be working on some coding tasks, but I also try my hand at design every now and then. I have a catch up with colleagues who are online in the same timezone as me at about midday, and sometimes we'll have longer catch ups just to say hi and have those 'water cooler' chats you don't get to have when you're not in an office with someone.

Because I work remotely, sometimes I combine work and travel. Right now I'm working from Palermo, in Sicily. I'm here with a bunch of other remote workers on a program called Hacker Paradise. The group is diverse, and full of super talented, interesting people - they're really inspiring to be around, and my work days are currently punctuated with great conversations and ideas shared over coffees and lunches.

What did you study at school? And after high school?

I studied a pretty wide range of subjects at school, because I didn't know what I wanted to do at university. I enjoyed physics and calculus, and I took Spanish the whole way through - which has come in very useful since I started travelling!

Helen in front of lane graffiti

After school, I really didn't know what to do, so I made a spontaneous decision to move to Wellington and study jazz piano. I'd played for years, but not very seriously - and while I loved my music course, I knew it wasn't something I was going to be able to make a career out of.

So after six months I moved back to Auckland and worked for a while, trying my hand at studying business.

I hated that, so the next semester I enrolled in a bunch of very diverse papers - psychology, physics, calculus and computer science. I only enrolled in computer science because my brother was a programmer, and he thought I'd like it. I honestly didn't even know what programming was.

I didn't enjoy calculus as I had at high school, so I dropped it after a few weeks, replacing it with a music paper. Conversely - I loved my programming paper! I decided after just a few classes to change my degree to computer science.

In the end, I completed a BA in music and computer science, followed up with an extra year of computer science to get my honours.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

Yes and no. Computer science teaches you algorithms and languages, it gives you an understanding of how computers work, and the performance impact of different approaches. It was less practical than I think some software engineering degrees are, and I picked up a lot of what I do day to day now on the job.

But a lot of what I learned - how to think about programming problems, developing debugging skills and an eye for detail, language learning and choosing the right tool for the job - are skills that I continued to develop after university and still use today.

My music degree helped my writing and communication skills, but obviously I use little of the content in those papers in my current job. I don't regret taking it though - the Beatles paper was probably one of my favourite papers of my whole degree!

Helen with her cat

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

I'd really encourage you to consider programming as a career option. We need more women in technology and it's just such a great career choice. Technology is everywhere - so you can work in a domain that appeals to you, like healthcare, music, or absolutely anything else.

It's a career that allows for incredible flexibility - which is where I think a lot of jobs will go in the future, but a lot of tech companies are leading the way allowing people to work remotely and make their own hours.

Lastly, it's interesting, challenging, fun, and always evolving. I can't recommend it enough. Join me!

What are some of your career highlights so far?

I have a patent registered in my name in the US Patents office for something I designed for my company! I think that is pretty cool.

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?

We need science (and scientists) to solve the biggest problems the world is currently facing.

Having more people engaged in STEM is only going to becoming increasingly important and, as a country known for innovation, I think New Zealand is well poised to be at the forefront of upcoming advances in technology and science if we keep working hard at it.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

I strongly believe that more diverse teams lead to products / solutions that better serve diverse audiences.

I think at a young age boys and girls probably have a similar interest in STEM, so it makes no sense that there should be such a gender imbalance in the industry. And I think that should be solved!

Helen at Tomorrowland

Helen Durrant is a front end engineer, mental health advocate and part time digital nomad, who works remotely for a Boston based healthcare analytics startup. Find her around the web as @goodforenergy.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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