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Winona Sharpe: My TechUPWomen Journey

Headshot of Winona Sharpe in front of a red brick wall, Winona has long black hair laid over her shoulder.
Winona Sharpe. Photo: Elena Rossini

by Winona Sharpe, TechUPWomen Alumna

A lot can change over the course of a year, especially when you throw away your self-doubt and give it everything you’ve got. I have a rule of reading every email I get from the Durham University alumni Community, and that rule has reaped rewards.

The first I heard of the TechUPWomen programme was via the alumni newsletter, and despite my humanities background, I thought why not? Why not me? I live in the North East, and many of my connections work in tech. TechUPWomen opened doors that were previously closed to me, and taught me the importance of taking advantage of other opportunities that come my way.

When I got the email telling me I was accepted to the 2019/20 TechUPWomen programme, at first I thought there had been a mistake. There was no way someone with degrees in English Literature and Medieval History would have made the cut (little did I know, I was not the only medievalist on the programme). I had to shut down that negativity real fast, because it’s the sort of thinking that can really hurt a person. I found my place and committed to the less technical pathway, earning qualifications in Project Management by the end of the programme.

Picture of three women in front of a TechUPWomen Graduation backdrop holding props
Photo: Winona Sharpe

At the third residential weekend at the University of York, Smilyan Pavlov from BJSS spoke about something that hit home with so many of us: imposter syndrome. Comparing yourself to others and holding yourself to their standards is unhealthy and diminishes your own achievements. As part of TechUPWomen, I was surrounded by people who wanted to see me succeed, and that belief and support network had a profound and lasting effect on me.

I completed the TechUPWomen programme and graduated in January. It was really something else being a part of a celebration that imbued us with so much potential and positivity.

From that point, the only way was forward. There’s a gap in my CV and university education due to illness. Living with chronic illness from the age of 16 has changed the way I view myself and the world around me. I know that I have limits, and I am always learning how to excel within those boundaries. The courses I completed as part of TechUPWomen and the talks at the residentials, combined with my new networking savoir-faire, gave me a huge boost not only for my CV, but also to my self-confidence. I realised that I deserved to find a career that I loved, where I could be my authentic self and flourish.

I was made redundant right before the pandemic, which has changed the way we live and work on an enormous scale. Drawing on my networking skills gained during TechUPWomen, I kept putting myself forward for jobs, despite the recruitment processes winding up at a dead end more often than not.

Companies were (rightly so) focused on moving their business to work from home, and were taking down job postings left, right and centre (ouch!). A Women Making Games brunch I attended a few weeks before lockdown introduced to me to many wonderful women working in the video game industry around the North East. That brunch was so much fun, and exactly what I needed after my last day in the office. I took their advice and kept an eye on their job board, and when a role came up that looked like a good fit, I applied.

A large group of women sat around a restaurant table
Women Making Games brunch. Photo: Winona Sharpe

TechUPWomen gave me the skills, training and confidence I needed to get the job, which I was offered after a video interview and some online assessments. I’m now a member of the publishing team at Double Eleven, a video game publisher and developer. It’s my first role in the industry, and I am constantly learning, but I wake up on Monday mornings excited about work, and on the weekends I miss it. I feel incredibly supported and welcome in the business despite never having met all of my colleagues face-to-face.

Starting remotely and working from home has been strange, but it’s what had to be done. Thankfully, we have daily video calls to check in on each other, share pictures of our pets and foster communication. That’s what is so key about this new situation: communication. Who knew a degree in English would be so applicable to a role in tech?

I started my new career in May, and already I’m developing my role and building a network of peers who I can learn from and help change the world of gaming.

I recently became part of Limit Break, a six-month mentorship program aimed at underrepresented genders in the UK games industry. My relationship with my Limit Break mentor has just begun, but already I feel motivated and excited about my future. Over the past few months, I have found some days harder than others, but being open to opportunities and capitalising on them has landed me exactly where I wanted to be, figuratively speaking.

I’ve learned that to be successful and find happiness, I needed to go at my own pace. So many things in my past have led me to this point, most importantly the TechUPWomen programme. Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges, but know your limits and keep a record of the responsibilities you assume, either at work or in your personal life. Everything adds up, and even if you’re not a wizard at maths like me, you can still carve a path for yourself. As Prof. Sue Black said to us at the very start of our TechUP journey, ‘If I can do it, so can you’.