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Women in power

Octopus Energy’s Samsam Farah on the female engineers shaping the future of smart, green energy
Sam, Octopus Energysam Farah

This article first appeared in our International Women’s Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 08 March 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Main image: article author Samsam Farah, Octopus Energy

Hardware engineers have a key role in the fight against climate change: creating the building blocks of a clean, green future to challenge our reliance on fossil fuels.

At Octopus Energy, a team of smart product engineers is hard at work developing tools that could come to transform the way society uses and understands energy.

Senior engineers Derya and Carmen work alongside product manager Jess in this crack team. They are pioneers in their field: one of them laid the groundwork for game-changing tech like mobile phone payments and the Hive thermostat.

In an industry where men make up almost 85% of the workforce, it’s time to meet the women building a smart future. 

Tech to transform our energy system

Senior engineer Derya started her career in Turkey, where she designed mobile phones in the pre-internet days. She then moved to Nokia to develop tech like Bluetooth and wifi – and made the world’s first wifi call (via ‘SIP’) on a mobile phone.

Derya also helped to develop the technology that allows us to make payments with our mobile phones today (NFC) – tech so advanced it influenced developments in Silicon Valley. Then Derya moved to Hive, where she was the key engineer behind its cutting-edge, multiple-award winning smart thermostat.

Next, looking to join the most innovative players in the green energy space, Derya went to Octopus. She’s been with us for over two years, using tech and engineering to transform the UK’s energy systems and help us to move away from fossil fuels.

‘I have always been drawn to companies that are leading the industry and changing the world for the better’, Derya says. ‘I love creating efficient, easy-to-use products that are sustainable and drive down costs for customers’. 

Smart homes of the future

Derya’s brainchild is the Octopus Home Mini – a true game-changer in the industry. When plugged in at a home with a smart meter, it beams readings to an Octopus customer’s mobile app every 10 seconds. This offers customers incredibly detailed, up-to-date information about their energy use, which they can see and analyse in real time in their Octopus app. 

‘Knowledge is power, and I want to empower people with all the knowledge they need when it comes to their consumption, data and bills’, Derya explains. 

Her next big feat: making electric heat simple and user friendly, by creating a product that will allow people to control their hot water and heating via smartphone – wherever they are.

One of the people to first bring boiler heating controls to the UK at Hive, Derya was uniquely placed to drive this project at Octopus.

‘My products are intended for smart homes of the future – homes where people control their heating using an app, whether they’re home or not’, Derya shared. ‘Where the solar panels are connected to the electric car’s charging station and home battery. Where a simple app gives customers 100% control over their usage so they can save money and stay sustainable.’

Derya’s next challenge has been to optimise battery storage to speed up the transition to renewable energy. ‘Electrification is the way of the future’, she said. ‘With batteries, solar power, electric vehicles and heat pumps, we can drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. My goal is to make this possible for every home in the UK – and to make it a seamless transition’.

Derya is a true pioneer – and her achievements are doubly impressive in an industry where almost 85% of the workers are men. That hasn’t always been easy; ‘As a woman, and as someone from Turkey working in the UK engineering world, I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider, or like you don’t belong’, she said. ‘But I quickly realised that it doesn’t matter who I am or where I come from; if I’m good at what I do, I’ll be accepted anywhere.’

A connected team

Derya had never worked with another female engineer until her career at Octopus, when she started working with research and development engineer Carmen. Today they work closely together on the Octopus Home Mini and heat pump controls projects.

Becoming an electronics engineer hadn’t been Carmen’s original plan; she made the spontaneous decision days before her admissions exams at the Politehnica University of Bucharest.

‘Young girls need to be told they can do whatever they set their minds to’, Carmen says. ‘Had I known this path was an option for me, I could have been far better prepared’. 

A polyglot, Carmen speaks her native Romanian and English, as well as some French, Spanish and Mandarin. At Octopus, she focuses primarily on firmware development, rigorously testing and certifying every product to a high standard so customers get the best experience possible.

Carmen also looks after the devices fleet, resolving any bugs and making sure the smart products Octopus Energy has sent out in the world are functioning as they should. ‘I love how incredibly fast-paced and challenging our work is’, she says. ‘It gives me the chance to prove what I can do and broaden my horizons’.

The team is constantly innovating new products, improving features, developing technical software, connecting with suppliers and building hardware.

‘While we work closely with other departments, we have a tiny core R&D team that is super connected’, Carmen explains. ‘Of course working with new tech all the time is challenging, but this supportive environment has been amazing. My advice to others is: there are no dumb questions and never put any limits on what you’re capable of.’

Carmen and Derya work together as senior engineers at Octopus Energy
Carmen and Derya work together as senior engineers at Octopus Energy
Project manager Jess brings the teams at Octopus together
Project manager Jess brings the teams at Octopus together

Finding female role models

The engineering sector is in desperate need of more female and BAME representation – but the Octopus engineering department is an anomaly.

‘Working with Derya as our senior engineer, Jess as project manager and Rebecca as our director of product and marketing has been a tremendous experience’, Carmen shares. ‘I know some women have difficult experiences in our field, but I never did. And now I feel privileged to be surrounded by such amazing female role models.’ 

Carmen is also working round the clock on a controls project, which kicked off in the middle of the pandemic. Despite delays and challenges with disrupted supply channels, she and the engineering team have managed to compile the components, create a prototype and transform it into a product that will radically change the way heating works. 

‘Our mission is to use tech to make clean energy affordable’, Carmen says. ‘But to solve a problem, you first need to understand it. That’s why we want to offer customers a simple way to monitor, understand and control their energy use.’  

This kind of tech is the key to a better future. In the wake of the current energy crisis, we must find innovative solutions that reduce our carbon footprint and save customers money.

Carmen and Derya have a clear vision of creating smart energy products that are accessible to all. To that end, they spend much of their time optimising their creations and ensuring the interfaces are easy to use. Ultimately, they say, the job of a smart product engineer is to provide the best and easiest possible experience for the end user. 

A customer-obsessed team

As project manager, Jess provides an insight into how customer-obsessed this smart product engineering team is. 

Her role is to make things happen; she brings the teams together to finalise the products and deliver a simple-to-use, intuitive and customer-friendly product – while making it all look very easy. 

‘Customers are always at the forefront of my mind when it comes to our smart products’, Jess explains. ‘The products need to be user friendly, intuitive and deeply useful to customers. I often ask myself, ‘would my mum be able to use this product?’ 

Jess works across the different tech, engineering and marketing departments to ensure the smart products are built efficiently and with a shared vision. On any given day, Jess can be in meetings with manufacturers around the world, working with the in-house design team or, of course, catching up with the engineers.

‘I love working so closely with Derya and Carmen’, Jess says. ‘They’re both incredibly strong women and they make me feel very empowered as a woman in a male-dominated field. My advice to anyone wanting to work in this field is: never turn down an opportunity, because you never know where it might lead you’. 

A green energy revolution

The smart energy industry has evolved heavily over the last few years, and customers are more engaged and informed about energy than ever before. They’re far more likely to want to switch energy suppliers and keep on top of their usage to save money, meaning that products like those managed by Jess are crucial. 

‘My ultimate mission for the department is to pave the way for the green energy revolution’, Jess says. ‘A world of zero-bills homes, where customers have smart products and tariffs that allow them to be sustainable and self-sufficient.’ 

Engaged, empowered customers are the key to upending the old ways of the energy industry, maximising renewable energy when it’s abundant, avoiding fossil fuels when it’s busiest and balancing the energy grid.

With Octopus’ tech platform Kraken, innovative smart products, flexible tariffs and the hard work of these inspiring women, this reality is closer than ever.

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