Triumphing in Tech & Computer Science

Dr Sue Black OBE, Professor of Computer Science & Tech Evangelist at Durham University

  • How do I introduce Sue? She introduces herself as: Professor Sue Black, Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University. But her list of job titles and achievements extend way beyond that…

She has a PhD in computer science, is a bestselling author, a founder of BCSWomen – the UK’s first online network for women in tech, and founder of #techmums, a social enterprise which empowers mums and their families through technology. Oh, and she was awarded an OBE by the Queen for her services to technology in 2016.

I met her when I worked at Mumsnet; I chaired a roundtable where she was talking about #techmums, but she came to my attention during my first job as a tech journalist: how could she not with all the exciting things she does for women in tech? So, I was honoured when she agreed to be featured on my blog.

Sue’s career is varied and incredible. After she left school with 5 O levels, her first job was as a Clerical Assistant for Essex County Council, before she moved to London where she worked for the British Refugee Council, and then the Ockendon Venture with refugees from Vietnam.

In a whirlwind summary of her career and education, she recounts that she was then a student nurse at UCLH for a year, an Accounts Clerk then Accounts Assistant at RCA Records. She went on to be a stay-at-home mum when she had three children by the age of 23. She then got back into education and completed a year-long maths course at Southwark, followed by a four-year computing degree, and then a PhD in software engineering, both at London South Bank University. From there she went on to found #techmums social enterprise, then wrote her book, Saving Bletchley Park, became an Honorary Professor at UCL, and is now Professor at Durham. Phew! That’s a lot…

And for someone who left school with the equivalent of just 5 GCSEs, she’s gone on put herself though plenty of education, all the way up to a PHD. “[Education] helps you to understand yourself, the world around you and the best way to get interaction going between the two,” she said.

When she spoke to The Guardian in 2018, as she was starting her new role at Durham University, she said, “My focus will be on women in technology and helping to increase the number of women studying, researching and working in Durham computer science.” Her passion for women in tech is one of the reasons that I, and so many others, admire her so much.

Sue being interviewed on BBC One

Saving Bletchley Park

Sue has been instrumental in saving Bletchley Park, the site where mathematicians and scientists broke the Enigma code during World War II – some of you may be familiar with it from the 2014 film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.

“I raised the profile of the 8,000 women that worked at Bletchley Park, and ran the successful campaign to save Bletchley Park from 2008 to 2011 using traditional and then social media [campaigning], particularly Twitter,” recounted Sue. The BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones highlighted Black’s sophisticated social media in her campaigning (his 2009 article Bletchley Park’s social media war is an interesting read, and shows how well Sue did to save this significant historical site).

Sue’s Bestseller

At the end of 2015, she published a book about her experience, Saving Bletchley Park. It was initially funded via Unbound, and became the fastest crowdfunded book of all time. It’s the story of saving the home of modern computing, and praised by Stephen Fry as “a triumph”.  

When I think of Sue, her campaigning for Bletchley Park and work with #techmums is what first comes to mind, but when I question her on the highlight of her career, she quite rightly has a hard time narrowing it down. “I think starting my role as Professor at Durham is definitely up there. Mind you, being on BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs was a life goal achieved!”

But these things all reflect Sue’s heart – she is passionate, articulate and happy to talk about the things that she enjoys and believes are important.

The original #techmum

In the midst of her eventful career, Sue has also had a turbulent personal life. She got married and had her first daughter at the age of 21, before having twin sons at 23 and was a stay-at-home mother until the age of 25. Sadly, it was an abusive relationship and she had to flee the domestic violence of her husband wither her three young children in tow. “I lived in women’s refuge for 6 months, then left refuge for a council flat in Brixton. Once I got the kids settled, I did my one-year maths course at Southwark College,” she said. She now has four children and is a grandmother of five.

Sue with her family, the day she was awarded her OBE

She says it’s easier being a working mum now that she just has her youngest at home. “When my older kids were younger and I was a single parent, it was much harder. I tried to help them to be as independent as possible from a young age so that they didn’t get stressed having to rely on me to do more than I possibly could.”

And in between all this, she still finds time to do charity work. “I enjoy all of the not-for-profit work that I do. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve managed to get to where I am today and want as many other people who haven’t had the best chances in life to be able to realise their potential.

“I’m currently on the board of #techmums, Comic Relief, UK Government Digital Service, Fawcett Society Commission for Gender Stereotypes and spend much of my time encouraging and supporting people to get out there go for it.”

The Director of Communications at The Open University describes Sue as “a phenomenon: she brings to life social media and IT.” And indeed, if you reach out to Sue on social media, she will likely respond. She is a self-confessed social-mediaholic. She tells me that she spends her mornings drinking a cup of tea in bed (brought to her by her husband) and drinks it while she checks her phone for WhatsApp messages, her diary for the day, the news, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and email before getting up and tackling the day ahead.

Infiltrating the Computer Science boys’ club

Her days at work vary widely, with no such thing as an average day. “I could be at Durham University, giving a talk somewhere in the world, recording a podcast, in a meeting with my book editor, at a TechUPWomen residential, chatting with some of our #techmums or 100 other things…. All great fun,” she said. Although during the current Coronavirus lockdown she says she spends her days working from her laptop.

The #techmums crew

The tech and computing industry has a reputation for being something of a boys’ club. It’s unsurprising when you look at the gender divide even at school when pupils pick their A-Levels – boys tend to take the science and maths route, while girls usually opt for humanities and the arts. At Durham University when Sue began lecturing, just 12% of the department’s undergraduates were women.

Sue has seen the gender divide in the industry and wants to break down the barrier for women. She has spent the last 20 years campaigning for more recognition and support for women in computing.  “I set up BCSWomen (British Computer Society Women’s network) – the UK’s first online network for women in tech in 1998 to do something about it. BCSWomen is a women-only virtual community which supports and encourages women in tech,” she said.

Like many other women who have climbed the ladder in their career, she used to doubt herself, but with her success, her confidence has grown. “I used to suffer massively from imposter syndrome, but as I’ve overcome challenges which I never thought I could during my life and career, I’ve gradually lost that, and don’t remember the last time I felt intimidated. It’s taken a lot of work to get to where I am and kind of came as a by-product of trying hard to be successful so that I could earn enough money to give my kids the life I wanted them to have.”

Listening to Sue’s incredible story, it’s clear that she’s a fighter. She’s driven by love for her family, a passion for computing, and the determination to give other women a voice, helping others infiltrate the tech space as she has done.

And what would she say to any women considering a career in tech? “Go for it! Think about the things you like doing most and then work out what tech and which job roles that relates to, or think what your tech start up could be. What problems do you see in your life that tech could help solve?”

So if you ever want to pursue a career or hobby that you love, but are worried about your lack of education, or concerned that you won’t “fit in” (whether it’s due to gender or anything else), take Sue’s advice and just go for it! I think we could all do with being a bit more like Sue.

Quick-fire Questions

  • Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Night owl
  • Cats or dogs? Both
  • TV or books? Both
  • What are you watching on Netflix right now? Just finished Ozark season 3
  • What music are you listening to right now? The Weeknd, Lizzo, Cardi B, Travis Scott, Faure’s Requiem, Kendrick Lamarr, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Mozart’s Requiem.
  • Snack of choice? Gluten free chocolate chip cookies
  • Favourite gadget? iPhone
  • Where do you feel most at peace? In my back garden with my husband, kids and grandkids
  • When did you feel the most star-struck meeting someone?        Meeting Stephen Fry after getting him involved in the campaign to save Bletchley Park campaign in 2009
  • Your favourite female icon? Arlan Hamilton

One thought on “Triumphing in Tech & Computer Science

  1. Leonie Briggs

    Great read and had the excitement of meeting and talking to Sue at the inaugural Hopper Dowunnder conference in Brisbane last year.

    Like

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