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

Making it as a Journalist

Michelle Johnson, Editor & Journalist

Michelle Johnson

  • Michelle is all about collaboration, the little wins, and resilience – all of which have helped her to climb the ladder in the competitive world of journalism and media. She worked for over six years at HELLO! before her latest role as Director of Editorial at Vantage Media.

“I always wanted to be a journalist, I always wanted to write. But I didn’t like the cutthroat nature of journalism,” said Michelle. But after university graduation, she did what many budding journos do to cut their teeth in a short-course magazine NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course to get experience and develop expertise and she loved it.

Following some time freelancing and a stint of work with local papers, she secured a 6-month placement as the acting editor for West Essex life, a local free distribution mag. It was a trial by fire, but the role put her in good stead for her career-defining position at HELLO! She initially took a job as an editorial assistant to the managing editor, and ended up staying with the publication for six and half years, working her way up to an international features writer, before seguewaying into her passion: film.

Michelle Johnson BAFTA
Michelle at the BAFTAs

“There was an opportunity to make more of film, but nobody [at the junkets] was talking to tabloid or print press. So, I campaigned for a video camera and created an in-house film department to get access to A-list actors. Soon we were getting interviews every week. I’ve never been afraid of talking to people, so interviewing seemed natural way of telling stories… Red carpets are fun, not least because people think its super glamourous, but a lot of it is waiting in rain for a celebrity to ignore you!”

After six and a half years, Michelle wanted a new challenge. She took on the role as digital editor of Tempus, a small luxury lifestyle mag. They had no website, app, or digital presence, so it was a great opportunity to take everything she’d learnt and apply it to a niche audience. Tempus found a new publisher in Vantage Media in 2018, where Michelle is now director of editorial and editor of Tempus.

Now her average day at work is all about making sure she’s abreast of what’s going on in the world of luxury lifestyle, planning and coordinating a variety of editorial projects for clients and in house, and working with writers and interviewees. She also has lots of meetings. “Relationships with PR and marketing are crucial. It’s important to work very collaboratively.”
It’s clear collaboration is something she values highly, as she also recalls one of the standout moments in her career as seeing the publication of her first magazine as editor. “To see that come together after working so closely with our creative and sales teams was amazing. The collaboration process was incredible. I felt very lucky.”

For the love of film

There’s no doubt that Michelle is a hard worker, but she also admits that she’s had some luck in landing her role. “The cool thing is I love it, but it’s challenging. In the early part of my career especially, I managed to lilypad between different roles and jobs and met some incredible people.”

She has had some amazing opportunities. She recounts when she had the opportunity to interview Angelina Jolie when she launched her preventing sexual violence initiative. “As a subject matter, it’s something that I’m very passionate about. I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do an interview on such as serious topic, and her answers were amazing. That was a real privilege. It was cool to do something that could impact someone’s life in print. I’m very interested in charity, so I want to talk to ambassadors and bring attention to deserving causes.”

But it’s not just speaking to superstar A-Listers, she celebrates the day-to-day too. “I talk a lot about the little wins. One of the things I like to do when I’m stressed out or got a lot on my plate is find those tiny wins.”
She isn’t afraid of a challenge and her drive and passion has helped her career, for sure. Michelle is a huge film fan, and thanks to her determination to chase her dream, a large chunk of her career so far has involved watching, writing about, and interviewing the stars of films.

Michelle Johnson
Michelle hosting a panel

When I asked her when she felt most star struck, she struggled to pin down just one person. “I’m a big geek about directors, so when I met Joss Whedon [Director of The Avengers] or Martin Scorsese at the Wolf of Wall Street premier. I was obsessed with Casino, so I asked him questions comparing the two because I think the beats of the films are so similar.

“Ah, and then there was Dame Judi Dench – she’s so nice, but if she doesn’t like your question, she’ll tell you. The vast majority of my interviews have been positive, and both celebrities and press are at a premiere or junket for the same reason, so it’s actually quite hard to be star-struck during these events… Tom Cruise is still the pinnacle of a ‘Hollywood star’, though. When you’re face to face with him it’s a bit surreal. And every co-star will have something nice to say about him. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

How to make it as a journalist

Michelle has three tips for anyone who wants to make it as a journalist:
You have to be resilient: People who go into journalism will likely intern for a long time; you can expect to be doing that 12-18 months. It’s about not giving up and taking every opportunity you can. Even when you feel like a task might be quite boring, it might turn into an opportunity.

Accept and learn from criticism: When you do get the chance to write, take any criticism that comes your way. It’s not about you and what you’ve written. Any red pen teaches you more about the style of your publication. It’s about the collaborative approach. If a young journo sees their writing has been significantly edited, find the Sub Editor and get them to walk you through it. Writing is a collaboration.

Don’t pigeonhole yourself: For example, if you want to be sportswriter, but opportunity comes up at a local paper, take it and you can refine your skills. Your first job is not necessarily what you end up in. Always take the opportunity to learn.

Michelle Johnson’s mentors:

Marie Dawson – taught Michelle on her NCTJ course. She’s an author who worked in UK and New York, published a book, then went on to teach budding journalists. “She had the most amazing stories about her freelance career both in London and New York, and was always happy to share advice to help you pull out the real heart of your features.”
Linda Newman – another NCTJ mentor, who recommended Michelle her first editor role at West Essex Life. “Linda is an editor, writer and teacher who is super positive about magazines, full of brilliant stories and insight and always really fun to be around. She’s the biggest champion for her students.”
Juliet Herd – former International Managing Editor at Hello! “I started at Hello! as Juliet’s assistant and so learnt a lot about the practicalities of working for international magazines at high pace and quick turnarounds.”
Amanda Nevill – former CEO of the BFI. Michelle interviewed her a few times, including when she was leaving the BFI after 17 years, when she told Michelle inspiring stories about her about leadership and being a CEO as a woman.

Early in her career, Michelle was focused on print, before she moved over to video for her film work. But she is astutely aware of the importance to move with the times and embrace digital. In her role at Tempus, she created the daily news website that the publication now has and was able to flex and push her digital skills in the process, including playing with analytics.

The front cover of Tempus, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio

“Many journalists think [SEO] takes away creativity, whereas I’m of the opinion that it’s just another facet of your creativity. In fact, news writing itself is almost algorithmic, it’s the basis of what SEO is now. You wouldn’t write a Q&A in the same style as a long form piece, so why would you write an online piece in the same way as a print piece? It’s all about adapting to your media.” Flexibility and a willingness to learn have obviously contributed to her success.

Working with women in media

The role of media is so important, but also at a unique turning point at the moment, as Michelle highlights. “You have leaders of countries accusing CNN of ‘fake news’. It fascinates me… Whether the media we consume is aspirational, escapism, current affairs, it’s all essential.”

Michelle Johnson Iron Throne
Michelle on the Iron Throne

She has a real love for magazines as a medium, thanks to the huge variety you can get in one publication. But she’s enjoying the challenge of shifting to digital. “People talking about the golden age of newspapers, but I also love being in the industry at this sometimes-difficult time; we see new things happening all the time. Who’d have thought social media manager would ever be a job? It’s amazing seeing the industrial changes in real time.”

Reflecting on the gender balance in her industry, she recognises that magazines, in particular, have a lot of women in leadership roles, and for the majority of her career she has worked mostly with women. “I’ve felt very supported as a woman in my industry, but I’ve internalised certain things… You can start to paint a picture of how to assert yourself more kindly and more authentically.

“I think I’ve got a work persona; you’ve got to have tough skin if you’re going to put your work out there. I’ve had a few ‘Silly little girl’ comments from online commenters when I wrote for the Guardian as young journo. That filled me with absolute fear. But you get over it quickly and find that resilience. We have so many amazing women breaking barriers in every part of our industry: war reporters, content creators, editors… it’s really inspiring to see.”When asked if she’s experienced any sexism in her industry, she says she’s experienced a healthy dose of mansplaining – particularly in the world of film. But for the vast majority, no, she has not.

“Journalism is seen as a middle-class profession, so I had more doubts about my class than my gender. I was worried I would stick out like a sore thumb, but you learn to adapt very quickly. I don’t think I’m easily intimidated.”
But what she does admit she’s struggled with is asking for a promotion or pay rise. It’s important to know your worth, she says.

“In general, I feel women could be served better by knowing how to negotiate… And we could all do with trusting ourselves a bit more. Certainly, I don’t remember being taught about business or leadership in school, but I don’t know why. I think this is why I’ve become interested in leadership as a concept – what makes a someone a great leader, an innate leader?”

It’s a great question. But as the editor of a successful magazine, and a firm believer in determination and collaboration, it looks like Michelle is on her way to becoming a great leader, herself.

Follow Michelle on Twitter, @chelleajohnson to see what she what films she’s watching, how work is going, and how she’s handling life in lockdown!

Quick-fire questions

Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Night owl.

Sweet or savoury food? Savoury.

Summer or Winter? Winter

All-time favourite film? Impossible question! Interview with a Vampire.

All-time favourite music album? Any 80s compilation album (currently obsessed with the ‘You spin me right round, baby…’ playlist by Audrey Mathena on Spotify).

Biggest weakness? Wine

Where do you feel most at peace? At home

Drink of choice? A Sauvignon Blanc

Favourite holiday destination? The last place I went to was Belize and it was amazing! We went trekking in a rainforest and had a Maya temple site to ourselves due to lack of tourism. It’s a must-visit.

Your favourite female icon? There are too many to count! Once I learn of someone I find inspirational – whether it’s Emma Thompson, Hillary Clinton, Ava DuVernay, Papusza – I just learn everything I can. Currently I’m recommending Naomi Alderman, because I’m STILL obsessed with her novel The Power since reading it last year. Plus, I found out she wrote the Zombies, Run! Game, which has been a lifesaver to me during lockdown.

Growing a Marketing Agency

Renaye Edwards, Director & Co-Founder, Digital Radish Marketing Agency

Renaye Edwards

  • – Renaye is a great leader, full of grit, tenacity and resolve. But she also has a nurturing side, she loves to help her ‘Radishes’ grow, as she fondly calls her employees. I should know, she gave me my first job in marketing.

Renaye started her career in the post room at Reed Business, a publication company. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I had no idea. I started with maternity cover, stayed there and I was able to network around. I weighed up marketing vs sales, but I took the marketing route. Having done a performing arts degree at university, I liked the creative element.”

As a goal-orientated person, she started to climb the ladder at Reed and worked her way up to Senior Marketing Executive. Then she moved to eMap, now Ascential, where she worked her way up to Head of Marketing. She realized that the tech boom was just beginning and decided to grab hold of it with both hands. “An ex-colleague of mine asked me to help him out with some marketing, and I liked that better than my day job, and felt there was a gap in the market for a B2B agency.”

She teamed up with her eMap colleague Lorna Charlish, and they set out to do some consultancy work. “Neither of us had worked in an agency before, but we felt like there wasn’t [an agency] out there that got under the skin of the audience. We had felt the disconnect ourselves. We had consultants and agencies but the two needed to be blended. Since then more agencies have been pushed to do that, so it’s not quite so niche now.”

Renaye Edwards and Lorna Charlish
Renaye and Lorna

The two of them worked together consulting other marketers, and built up a good word-of-mouth through recommendations from friends and colleagues. And soon, Digital Radish was born…

Named after the world’s fastest growing vegetable, Digital Radish’s motive was to accelerate clients’ growth, using a mix of insight and creativity. They began working with a mix of start-ups, as well as more established companies, such as gaming platform Unity, and even Sport England. Fast forward five years later and the agency has an established team of marketing professionals and provides content, creative and helps businesses with their go-to-market strategy. Not to mention, they have won numerous B2B Marketing awards for their campaigns.

Building a business from the ground, up

Renaye appreciated that it wasn’t going to be easy starting up the agency, but she tackled the opportunity with gusto. “Some people can get lucky, but the set-up of a business and getting the wheels in motion does require long days and nights. You need to be in the right place mentally and financially and have the right framework around you. It’s good to have family and friends to support you. You need to have your mind 100% on the job.”

Digital Radish
The Digital Radish Team, 2016

She and Lorna are both very diligent and have devoted themselves to their start-up. Their bond and shared tenacity are certainly what helped to get the agency off the ground. “If you’re looking to go into business with someone, choosing the right partner is key. You need to set expectations and boundaries from the outset and know the value you can both bring to the table.”

Lorna is very analytical and detail orientated, while Renaye is excellent at networking and drumming up new business. And their both brilliant at thinking outside the box and rising to the challenge.

“Confidence is really key,” says Renaye. “I was told by a grey-haired old man once when I started out that I wouldn’t succees because I didn’t have at least 10 years of consulting experience behind me. When you get the bumps in the road it’s easy to question yourself… But you have to have self-belief – people can smell it on you going into a pitch. If you’re not confident, then the person you’re speaking to won’t buy what you’re selling.”

As the agency grew and they employed more full-time staff, Renaye, Lorna and the business all went from strength the strength. “We won a few awards which gave us more exposure. Then the more interest we had, we were able to carve out more of a niche for ourselves, concentrating on what drove the most value… We like to put a twist on things. We have a strategic offering, and a creative side, and are very results-focused, which puts us in good stead. When it comes to awards entries, we have the data and insight to back up what we say and do.”

Growing a successful team

While Renaye values the awards Digital Radish have won, when questioned about the highlight of her career, she talks about the team that she’s built up at the agency.

“I love now seeing things happen with little input from me – I love watching other people grow in their roles; I love watching them step up to the plate and see them flourish. I get more satisfaction out of that. You know that you’ve influenced it in your own way and nurtured the staff.

The Digital Radish Team, 2019

When hiring, they look for people that would make a good ‘radish’. “It’s someone who shows that they’re hungry for development, a willingness to succeed, that wants to climb the ladder, and has a focus on what they want to do. You need the over-achievers and someone who’s a team player, you need a balance.

The agency world is fast-moving and requires people to do all sorts of work, and at a start-up like Digital Radish, that sometimes means working outside your remit. Renaye says it’s easy to see who those people are, which has helped them build their Radish family.

Running a business and a family

Renaye and Lorna both had their first children within Digital Radish’s first few years. Renaye took maternity leave in 2016 to have her daughter, and, understandably, saw a significant shift in her life.

“In the early stages when they’re young, you feel guilty and dead on your feet because they’re up all night and you’re still trying to work. I felt like I wasn’t being a good enough mum, and two steps behind at work, not being a good wife or friends. But you need to be kinder to yourself. You can’t do all of it.

“I learnt to be better with time – and we’ve developed a second layer of management in the business so can get back for bath time. We’ve made the business work for us. And I’ve seen a shift in the business, since I went on mat leave as other staff had to step up to the mark.”

At Digital Radish the two-tier management means that Renaye is not as entrenched in the everyday, but she can quickly add value to accounts and be involved in the strategy or content. “My role is in New Business; I go out for coffee and have speaking slots at events – that takes up the majority of my time.”

Renaye Edwards
Renaye at work in the office

Running their own business, Renaye and Lorna are fortunate enough to be able to make being working mums feasible. But she appreciates that it’s not always that easy for women in business, whether you’re a mum or not.
“I would like to think that things have changed a fair bit, but I still feel in some industries it can be the old boys’ club mentality. Although with women like Sheryl Sandberg and Michelle Obama around us, the world has changed, even in the last four years. People are more in tune with the issues. But there are women who are higher up are feeling that they have to behave a certain way… women potentially take on a harder character at work rather than show their true persona. They still prove themselves every day and work harder and faster to earn their right there.”

One thing’s for sure, with a successful marketing agency, a team of keen and bright staff and a string of awards under her belt, Renaye doesn’t need to prove herself anymore.

I chose Renaye as the first woman to feature on my blog because I admire her work ethic and appreciate the opportunity that she and Lorna gave me in my first job moving from journalism to marketing. I enjoy seeing the new work that they are doing with Digital Radish, and I recommend you check them out… www.digitalradish.co.uk

Quick fire questions

Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Morning lark.

Sweet or savoury food? Savoury.

Cats or dogs? Neither . not an animal person!

What are you watching on Netflix right now? Tiger King, or Safe – I love crime & murder mystery.

What music are you listening to right now? I always go back to Whitney Housten, the classics.

Biggest weakness? I’m not good with detail and I hate negativity.

What’s your favourite season? Spring.

Drink of choice? Vodka Lime and Tonic.

Favourite holiday destination? Thailand.

Your favourite female icon? My mum.