From a Girl Who Codes, to a Woman Who’s Agile

Jenny Brandon, Agile Coach

  • Agile. It’s a bit of a buzzword, and it’s used in different contexts depending what industry you work you in. But for Jenny Brandon, it’s actually part of her job title. As an Agile Coach, Jenny helps software teams to work in more efficient, collaborative manner.

“Agile software development is a way of more collaboratively creating a product with the customer,” explains Brandon. “With coding, it’s creating a process that means both parties are equally engaged. It’s a constant collaboration process and things change. You need to be able to accommodate that.”

Jenny is a legitimate girl who codes and has had an interesting journey to get to where she is today. From snapping bra straps to travelling Europe as a scrum master, she’s had quite a career. 

Jenny’s first job was as a junior programmer at company that makes machines to test objects to their breaking point. The example she gives testing the resistance of a bra strap to pull it until it snaps. She saw the job as a gateway to the industry. “I had been learning Pascal programming language. I was pretty good at it and could see there was a decent future in programming, so I went for it!”

She enjoyed the role so much that she went to university to expand her skill set and increase her confidence. She was the only female programmer in her first job, and then at university she was only one of two girls in the entire year. “It’s a technical vocation, with modules like advanced maths and ‘blokey’ topics. But I don’t remember gender being an issue at uni. We were all just trying to get through to course and get good grades.”

A lecturer saw Jenny’s potential and put her forward for an internship at Sony Entertainment Europe in London. “I think I got the role because of the novelty of being a woman in the tech sector. If I was a guy, I think would have been asked more questions… But there were more women there who were engineers, and I made good friends and gained great experience before I went back and finished my degree.”

She the went on to work for a company that made e-commerce websites for a few years and had a stint at ITV before landing a role at StepStone, where she still works today. “I went in as an intermediate dev and was hired at same time as another female developer, so I was in good company. It was a great environment; a good opportunity for training and growth. Then in 2009 there was a big transformation: the whole tech team and product team went agile. Everything was carried out in this new way of developing software that allows for feedback from the customer.”

Just another day in the office…

Becoming a Scrum Master

So how did this new way of working change Jenny’s day-to-day job, and her career? “We weren’t producing stuff quickly or prioritising our work. So the entire tech team went on scrum training and started again. I began to realise that I didn’t love programming as much as I thought I did. [With code] you can’t learn your craft and then be done with it; you have to keep up to date with new languages and new patterns. Tech moves so fast and I didn’t have the drive to keep up to date.”

So, when a new role appeared for a scrum master during the agile transformation, Jenny took a chance on herself. “I’d been doing meditation in the morning before work and I had this clear voice that told me to apply for the scrum master job. I’ve got innate organisational skills and people skills, so I’d be perfect for it. I convinced people to give me a chance and it worked! I pivoted from a dev to scrum master, and eventually my career progressed to becoming an Agile Coach.”

On a daily basis, Jenny works with one scrum team. (For those not familiar with the scrum style of working, it’s a “framework of project management that emphasises teamwork, accountability and iterative progress towards a well-defined goal.” ) They have a stand-up meeting every morning, along with a planning meeting and a retrospective every fortnight to improve their process. She also works as an Agile Coach. “The tribe I’m in focuses on internal IT systems – anything from coaching other scrum masters or working with the tribe support group to answer queries about training or access. We have a sister tribe based in Belgium just starting their agile journey – so my time goes into supporting them.”

She also gets to continuously develop her management skills thanks to a StepStone initiative that allows employees to travel around Europe and train in various management techniques while meeting colleagues from other parts of the business. “We went to Warsaw, Vienna, Belgium, London, and Dusseldorf. In terms of networking and getting exposure to other parts of the business was great. You even get to pitch a business idea to a member of the board. Getting the exposure and meeting people was invaluable. The course content was good – reaffirming techniques that I knew, but the pitch and coming up with a new business case was biggest learning point.”

Finding the right working environment

While Jenny now works in a very supportive environment with plenty of opportunities, it hasn’t always been such plain sailing. In her first role as a programmer, she was one of only two women and experienced some (sadly not uncommon) uncomfortable situations. “Unfortunately, there was an incident of inappropriate behaviour. One of the guys had been touchy-feely with me. As an 18-year-old girl, I had no idea what was appropriate. It wasn’t until the other girl joined that we raised the issue together. Even then I was embarrassed, especially when HR just wanted to dismiss it as friendly behaviour and joking around.”

She also recalls working in what she describes as a “toxic, pressured environment” in another job. This wasn’t anything to do with gender, but finding herself pressured into working tight, stressful deadlines to write code that neither she nor the dev team had ratified.

Having worked in both toxic and nurturing environments, she now really appreciates the ethos of StepStone and the people that work there. “Rapport and getting on with the people you work with [is what makes a great working environment]. Even with the best intentions to create a culture, if it doesn’t have the right people it’s not going to work. Trust and freedom of expression are also important. You need to autonomy to not have to ask for permission and get sign off. And the autonomy to talk to different people to ask opinions, or to get help.”

Good times at StepStone

Be your own mentor as a woman in tech

While being a woman in a male-dominated industry can seem like a drawback, Jenny thinks that it can be seen as an advantage. “You will need to work hard to prove yourself, but don’t be put off by being one of a few females – it takes women in the STEM area to push it forward for everyone. If you have the drive and enjoyment, then it’s up to you to do it for others.

“More women are putting themselves forwards for roles, but when it reaches management in tech – there’s far more men. The higher positions is where it drops off. I’m reading Lean In at the moment – what Sheryl Sandberg says is that not many women would say they see their career leading to a C-level role and that’s a contributing factor. We should do more to support them. I, personally, have resisted line management for as long as I can because I personally prefer being on the ground. I also don’t want to be in that boys’ club with the middle age white men at the table. If the leadership teams in industries were more equal, then maybe I would feel differently.

“If you don’t have role models that look like you then you automatically feel on the back foot. We’re starting to make moves in that direction. We’ve started up a women’s network in our company: sharing our experiences of inappropriate behaviour or being passed up for opportunities throughout our careers. There was some talk about the gender pay gap and a lot of responses of guys was that they promote based on skills not gender – so they’re missing the point. There’s still lots of work to be done, but we’re getting there.”

There’s lots of work to be done for female equality, but as more women support and lean on each other, like Jenny is doing with her colleagues, then we can welcome more women into the scrum and climb the ladder together.  

Quick-fire questions

Are you a morning lark or a night owl?    Midday is perfect for me. So I guess an afternoon pigeon!

What do you usually have for breakfast?    Protein shake

Do you prefer a bath or shower?    Shower

What TV series can you watch again and again?    Mad Men

If you were an animal what would you be? A Hare, my spirit animal

What’s your biggest weakness? Procrastination

What’s your favourite sport to play?  Weight lifting

Favourite meal/cuisine?  A good vegan lasagne

Favourite holiday destination?    Glastonbury

Name your favourite female icon  Someone I have a girl crush on at the moment is Esther Peral. Her podcasts ‘How is work?’ and ‘Where Shall We Begin?’ are great. She just nails it

Leading Excellence in Automation Technologies

Suzanne Nichols, Leader of Global Applications & Business Process Automation

  • Suzanne Nichols leads a Process Automation Centre of Excellence for a Global Manufacturer of Consumer Goods. For those of you who don’t know what this means exactly, she sets the standards of how her organisation should use automation technology to ensure best practice and reap ROI on their projects.

I first met Suzanne when I worked with her on a presentation for a tech conference, I was instantly impressed by her attention to detail, positive attitude and technical expertise. So, I was delighted when she agreed to take part in the Strong Female Lead blog.

Suzanne is located in Racine, Wisconsin, USA, which is on the shores of Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago. But she manages a global team, which means trying to schedule meetings across multiple continents. “Is there ever a good time for a single meeting that includes Europe, Asia and the Americas?!” she says.

Her job certainly keeps her on her toes. She describes her day as less of a routine and more like “a wonderful dance between clients (who help me understand business needs), architects (who help me define solutions) and delivery management (where I monitor performance and identify ways to get better). This is an extremely fulfilling way to spend my workday.”

Specifically, her current role revolves around Digital Process Automation where she is helping her organization gain efficiencies by leveraging Workflow and Robotic Process Automation tools. “I love the fact that no two days are alike, because it means I’m always learning, growing, and discovering new ways to help my employer thrive.”

Her IT journey started with an Operations & Service Desk role at Computer Center, before she moved on to Applications Programming, then on to Desktop and Network support. “Those roles helped me to see that I had an aptitude and passion for delivering solutions that helped meet business needs. From there, I journeyed toward EDI (Electronic Data Exchange), and Integration Services, and then moved on to Website Delivery.

For anyone who wants to get into the tech field, she advises getting exposure to multiple jobs/roles early in your career. “Internships are a great way to start!  Having good breadth of experience will not only help you find your passion and talent, but it will also help you to better understand end-to-end impact that your work can have, which will definitely increase your overall value.”

Suzanne speaking on a panel at Bizagi Catalyst tech conference

Global success

One thing that is clear from Suzanne is that she is modest about her success. Even when asked what the highlight of her career has been so far, it’s all about team effort and the result for the company, rather than personal gain.

“I think the achievement I take the most pride in is the fact that I was able to step into a situation with a struggling team, immature processes, new technology and overrunning costs and turned that situation into a success. The end result was a high performing team; clear, continuously improving processes; proven technology; and 70% reduction in costs. Beyond that, the team involved became a loyal, close-knit group that thrived.” And just to prove it wasn’t luck or an ideal situation, she’s achieved this more than once with the same results. 

She clearly takes pride in her team. And she admits that global team management has its challenges, including language barriers and building relationships remotely. “These challenges require a lot of extra management time to help global team members to thrive as valued, engaged, motivated team members who clearly understand what is expected of them.”

But it also has a number of rewards. Suzanne says that her global team brings diversity of thought, which can help drive innovation, follow-the-sun support, which can improve everyone’s work-life balance, and the enjoyment that can come from learning about cultures and traditions around the world.

Suzanne and her colleagues

She also recalls a sense of achievement from a project early in her career when she had an opportunity to do some pretty innovative work for the local county jail. “I may be revealing a bit too much about my age here, but I was involved in digitizing two aspects of the Inmate Booking process.

“Firstly, building a digital ‘mug-book” so witnesses didn’t have to flip through pictures of suspects manually, but could search on characteristics such as height, hair color and tattoos. And secondly, digitizing the inmate’s fingerprints and doing an immediate check with the NCIC to see if they’re wanted elsewhere. While that is a given nowadays, it was REALLY cutting edge at the time, and when I later talked to my kids about it, they thought I had really worked for one of those popular TV crime shows. Gee, maybe I did?!”

While that may not seem innovative now, it was for the time. And that’s what Suzanne continues to do now: find innovative ways to deliver solutions for her organization through technology.

Female mentors and sisterhood in the tech world

Like many women in the tech space, Sue has sometimes found herself lacking in female colleagues, and struggled to get her voice heard, literally. “Once, when I was the only female on a leadership team, I had a recurring experience where anything I said in a meeting seemed to be ignored until a male counterpart would repeat the exact same words.  It was rather surreal – I felt like I was being punked or living in a sitcom! 

“Thankfully, I am no longer in that situation.  And I’m really fortunate to have spent much my career surrounded with talented peers and leaders who value results over gender, or other characteristics.” Perhaps a female voice being ignored in a room full of men is a common occurrence in business. Sue appreciates that there are more barriers for women to overcome, but we need to have the confidence to speak out.

“So many studies have shown that there are some basic differences in how men and women are wired, and some of the characteristically ‘male’ traits can make women feel overpowered or bullied.  But as smart women who are aware of these differences, we can more than overcome them – we can embrace them and use those differences to our advantage! How? By being aware and prepared! Our differences can be leveraged as strengths. But that can take effort on our part: to define how we want to be known, find a coach/mentor to help if needed, and take charge of our own destiny!” 

Suzanne comments that she’s been fortunate to have a couple of great mentors throughout her career, and that has helped her to recognise her own strengths and address areas in need of growth.  “To me, it’s especially helpful to have had female role models who could demonstrate how a woman can be a strong, no-nonsense professional while maintaining the parts of her personality that make her unique.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Quick-fire questions

  • Are you a morning lark or a night owl?     A morning lark
  • Cats or dogs?     Dogs
  • Favourite book?     Eragon, by Christopher Paolini
  • Go-to karaoke song?     That Old Time Rock and Roll
  • What are you watching on Netflix right now?     I don’t watch much television! 
  • Favourite holiday location?     A cottage on a lake in the “Northwoods” of Wisconsin
  • Where do you do your best thinking?     During my evening walk
  • You’re favourite food/meal?    Mexican food!
  • Favourite gadget?       My apple slicer/corer
  • Your favourite female icon?      Eleanor Roosevelt

Conquering Cloud & Championing Talent in Tech

Nabila Salem, President of Revolent Group, Board Member of Tenth Revolution Group

  • Nabila Salem has a quiet confidence about her. She is calm, poised and eloquent when she speaks, but it’s clear she means business. The topic of confidence comes up several times as we’re talking. It’s what she believes got her to where she is today, and what others need to instil in themselves as they pursue their own ambitions.

As the President of Revolent Group, a leading cloud talent creator, she tackles the global tech skills gap and helps build a new generation of cloud professionals. “We recruit, cross-train, place and continue to develop ambitious people for the Salesforce ecosystem, but it can be applied across all cloud technologies as well,” explains Nabila. “So, we’re training the next generation of certified tech talent and making sure organisations have access to the skills that they need.”

Technology has been present throughout Nabila’s career in one way or another. Her first job was at an internet café in Spain. Then, after graduating from Brighton University she worked in Internal Comms at IBM before she made the move to a smaller company where she felt she could make more of an impact. At FDM Group, a professional services group, she worked alongside the founders for 12 years. She saw the organisation grow from 300 employees to 4,000. “What was a small, UK family-run business transitioned to become a FTSE 250 company that was operating globally,” she says proudly. “In the 12 years that I was there, I wore lots of hats… it was a fantastic part of my career.”

Now she is President of Revolent Group, part of  Tenth Revolution Group, the arm that creates talent. “For me, launching careers in tech and diversity and inclusion in the workplace are two things I’ve always been passionate about and my role at Revolent encompasses both,” she says.

Nabila was the first and youngest woman to be appointed to VP at FDM. “It opens the door for others, but also it can be a lonely space, being the sole woman there. So, at Revolent I didn’t want to be the only person in this role. I wanted others to follow. Of the management team that reports to me, 40% are women. And I love the fact that two thirds are working mums.”

No two days are the same for her, although it was slightly more varied prior to the COVID lockdown. She still gets up early and does an hour’s exercise before she starts her day working from home in London, which is efficiently planned out. She makes lists of things to do the night before; so she knows what to focus on the next day.  

“We use Teams and Zoom to conduct meetings now, so they go on as normal, but just virtual. We have various exciting projects in the pipeline, so I’m busy with those. But ultimately, my role is to make sure the team at Revolent is as efficient and productive as they can be. It’s about communicating targets and monitoring performance. I believe performance is driven by having the right people and the right processes in place.”

Revolent Group remote working during lockdown

Backing women in tech

Nabila has always been an advocate for other women and minorities in business. In fact, she started the Women in Tech initiative at FDM. “In 2011, we had clear goals in terms of diversity. We grew the company to have 50% women on the management team. And that’s something I’ve always been really proud of.

“I thought at Revolent Group, we’ve got to do the same thing. So, we’re now at 40% women on the management team. But diversity obviously goes beyond gender, and if you look at Revolent Group, 63% identify as BAME [Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic]. So, it’s not just diversity in terms of gender I’m passionate about, also ethnicities and social mobility and giving people opportunities,” she says.

She (quite rightly) points out that leadership is not about you, its about others. “Once you’re a leader, your job is to help other people grow and progress. True leaders don’t focus on their role, they focus on the goal.” She says that working directly with two founders of successful businesses has in turn given her the confidence to push boundaries in her own career, which helped her to become FDM’s youngest VP.

“The tech sector has always been male dominated. I’ve been lucky because I’ve always had supportive managers. The big challenge I see in women is having the confidence to go for it despite being the minority –being the minority can give you a competitive edge. The barrier exists in our own minds. So, if we can overcome that, there aren’t any barriers. Women have to believe in themselves.”

Boards, summits and mentoring

Her confidence to push boundaries has not gone unnoticed. She was named in Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 List 2019. “It was a nice surprise,” she says modestly. “Being recognised amongst so many other inspiring women was quite humbling. It’s important to highlight achievements and celebrate accomplishments of women in the industry, but more so to give others something to look up to. Wherever possible, showcasing the achievements of women is a good thing because there aren’t that many women in tech. But honestly, I’ve never chased awards for myself. I was usually the one nominating people for awards!”

Nabila is also on the advisory board for the NY Women in IT Summit. She was asked to help shape their inaugural New York summit two years ago. She moderated a session, sat on various panels and participated in workshops where topics varied from mentoring to cyber security.

Nabila presenting a ‘Star of the Month’ award at Revolent Group

One of the topics she spoke about at the event was diversity in Artificial Intelligence. “AI has some serious flaws because the majority of those developing AI are white men. A self-driving car was more likely to run over a black person when tested, because it hadn’t been tested with that group of people. Then AI on Google phones wasn’t recognising black males because the black community wasn’t involved in the development of this AI which is ludicrous.”

Even during her down time, Nabila likes to get involved in helping people. “There’s a group called Migrant Leaders, a non-profit that trains aspiring leaders from migrant backgrounds in the UK. “Generally, I tend to get involved in these sorts of things because I’m passionate about it. In the past [when she was based in the US] I mentored Veterans who wanted to launch a civilian career,” she says. But she does also find time to relax by losing herself in cooking or unleashing her creative side by painting with oils and acrylics.  

The future is in the Cloud

“Almost everything digital is already connected to the Cloud. Companies used to keep data in local storage for security purposes, but we’ve advanced so much. Cloud will continue to become an integral part of our lives. And it’s just much more practical: it doesn’t take up physical space and you can access it whenever and wherever we want… It’s 100% the ‘now’ and the future,” she says.

“[Cloud] is the fastest growing industry in the world. The thing people misunderstand is that a career in tech does not have to be super technical. There’s a lot of people who work in tech, like myself, who aren’t that technical. There are opportunities for everyone.” Indeed, the tech space needs all sorts to work, people skills, creativity, leadership and management. It’s not all about building circuit boards and writing code.

And the velocity of this year will require more minds than ever to forge a path forwards. “All the tech trends that were predicted for this year have gone out the window now,” she says. “I think by the end of the year, 40% of jobs will be fully remote – if not more. The world has changed. 90% or more, I think, will have some sort of flexibility in their jobs if they didn’t previously. It’s a huge opportunity for business; you can save costs, target different demographics… the world has gone virtual. This is no longer the future, it’s the now. The next normal has arrived.”

Achieving a diverse  culture will also become easier, which Nabila says is harder to create than it sounds. “People join companies and look for people like themselves. It’s difficult to be what you can’t see. So, we encourage and support all our employees with progressive ways of working…You can’t expect one size to fit all. In my experience, if you’re flexible with people they actually work even harder.”

“At Revolent Group, we built an inclusive culture that encourages meritocracy. So, we highlight role models internally and give others something to aspire to,” she says. Indeed, Nabila has made herself visible, and someone that women and people in tech can aspire to be like.

Quick-fire questions

  • Are you a morning lark or a night owl?    Morning
  • What music are you listening to at the moment?   Cher – she’s taken me through lockdown
  • Favourite film?  The Green Mile
  • What’s your signature dish to cook?    Spanish tortilla
  • Most used app?   LinkedIn
  • If you could have a superpower, what would it be?   To be invisible
  • Favourite holiday destination?    Aruba
  • Where do you do your best thinking?     Kitchen
  • Favourite gadget?     Fitbit
  • Favourite female icon?     Oprah Winfrey

Mastering Marketing & Rising to the C-Suite

Laurie Ehrbar, CMO

  • Laurie Ehrbar is someone I speak to nearly every weekday. She is the CMO of the company where I currently work. So, she is my boss’s boss! We obviously talk about work a lot and have the occasional chat about our family and leisure time. But it was great to hear about her career and quick ascension in such a male-dominated industry to the C-Suite at a software company.

Laurie began her career in the B2B and the technology space of event marketing before she ventured into financial services. “My combined interest in marketing and technology found a home in the banking industry at Waterhouse Securities,” she said. “I was hired to aid in their rebranding, strategy, and announcement of the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of TD Waterhouse across all online media.” 

She obviously made a good impression; immediately following the IPO, she was asked to co-head Customer Acquisition for both the bank and brokerage arms of the company, making VP at just age 26. “The rest is, as they say, history. I went on to attract the attention of other large financial institutions like Citigroup and software companies like ServiceNow, and continued to work in digital strategy, media, and partnerships in some form ever since.”

Now she is the CMO of Bizagi, a Business Process Management and Automation software organization. She describes her average day at work as making her way through a very long laundry list of both strategic and tactical initiatives – a list that seems to grow throughout the day. “I try my best to catch up with members of my team and department heads around the organization every day. I think internal meetings, over those with external agencies and vendors, should always be where I spend most of my time,” she said.

Solving problems and paying it forward

Laurie has done well to crack the world of financial services and tech marketing. I asked her what she liked so much about finserv, as it’s the area that she’s spent the majority of her career. “Simply put: creative solutions and problem solvers are celebrated,” she said.

Both in the financial services and software spaces, her marketing expertise has helped her to succeed. For anyone who is considering a career in marketing, she says that internships are key. “It’s that foundational, on the job learning, that can really help you find what you enjoy. Marketing covers a lot and not all of it is for everyone so finding what you enjoy and where you can add value is essential.”

She also credits where she’s got thanks to people who she’s met along the way. “The people who inspired me the most were those that had faith in me, gave me more responsibility and supported me and my career. It’s because of them that I pay it forward and do the same. I often think about how their faith in me, made me have faith in myself.”

Now she’s paying it forward by supporting her co-workers at Bizagi. Managing a global team, and various projects, she’s spread thin but always makes time for everyone. She’s keen to use new initiatives to push the boundaries and is well aware of the importance of tech trends in tech marketing.  “I think companies will begin to use all the data they’ve been collecting more efficiently. For example, they’ll use data to create more intuitive customer experiences. Also, cloud will be viewed as the only option and on premises will be considered no more secure than a rusty old file cabinet.”

Laurie and the Bizagi marketing team, October 2019

Marking the calendar for family time

Laurie’s professional life has had some incredible highlights so far, including making VP at age 26, and even doing a deal with former Microsoft CEO, Steve Balmer. “All were very exciting, but I’d say career highlights pale in comparison to family highlights. I’m most proud of how I’ve found balance during it all. I should rephrase…how I insisted on balance and wouldn’t budge,” she says with a wink. “It’s made it possible to do what I do and be a good mom.”

Juggling a family of three children and a dog means it’s hard to turn off, but Laurie says it is necessary to take the time to be present with her family. “I work from home and that allows me, when I’m not traveling, to be there for dinner, sports and the day to day. The most important part is being available to listen when they have a problem. As my kids have gotten older just being present as much as possible is the most important thing I can do.”

Laurie is very organized at the work, and the same can be said of her personal life. “My family calendar is everything. My kids often mimic me by saying, ‘Is it in the calendar? If not, I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ which is my go-to statement if something falls through the cracks like a birthday party or sporting event. If it isn’t in the calendar, then it’s not on my radar!”

When she’s not juggling work and whatever is written in her calendar, she’s certainly not one for sitting still (unless it’s in a yoga pose or reading a book). “I’m a mom of three, so my spare time is spent doing anything and everything for them. I try my best to incorporate the two. For example, cooking involves trying new recipes, often desserts, with my kids helping me create and eat them. I even read side by side with my youngest on my evenings.”

Challenging male bias

Like many career-women, Laurie has experienced sexist behaviour and male bias, and says it is far more prevalent in software than in any other industry she has worked in. “My list of examples is long and 90% of them are in software.”

“An example of one of the many ‘boys’ club’ conversations I’ve experienced in software was with a man I respected both personally and professionally – as a result it stung a bit more than if I didn’t like him. However, this example illustrates how male bias slips into daily conversation.

“Me and this person, we’ll call him Mike, were talking about someone in another department who kept dropping the ball and on everything we requested from them. The person who dropped the ball happened to be a woman. I explained to him that I honestly didn’t know how to get around her to accomplish what we needed. And Mike’s response was, ‘Laurie, you just don’t like her. That’s all.’

“I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. He boiled down my valid concerns into a ‘girl’ thing. I’m 100% certain that he never would have said that to a man. Can you imagine? Jim, you just don’t like Bill. That would never happen. It’s those comments, however small, that pile up.”

Rather than seeing it as active prejudice, she sees it more as bias; conclusion bias. Laurie highlights the dichotomy that women are so often faced with: if a woman is quiet, she’s seen by men as weak. But if she’s vocal, she’s seen as bitchy. She’s not the first woman I’ve heard use that example.  

“No matter what a woman says or does those conclusions are stuck in their heads. I think as women we get used to being talked over, so we become either much quieter or much louder.  The middle is simply not an option. In a room full of men, all day, every day, it certainly makes those more prone to shyness, shrink in certain situations.”

One thing’s for sure, Laurie is no shrinking violet. She is confident enough to speak her mind in the office and get things done, which has driven her success to where she is now. And perhaps most importantly of all, she’s found the balance between work and family life. If you want to have some time with her though, just make sure it’s in the calendar!

Quick-fire questions

  • Are you a morning lark or a night owl?    Morning 
  • Active holiday or relaxing holiday?   Active, definitely! 
  • Cats or dogs?    Dogs 
  • What are you watching on Netflix right now?   Ozark, and I just finished Tiger King 😉 
  • All-time favourite music album?    WOW that’s hard. Maybe Prince Sign O The Times but I like all kinds of music so it’s hard to name one album 
  • Biggest weakness?   Personal – I care too much. Food related – Cheese covered French fries 😊  
  • What’s your favourite season?  Fall 
  • Favourite snack?   Avocado on wheat toast 
  • Favourite weekend activity?    Hiking  
  • Your favourite female icon?   Louisa May Alcott or Harper Lee (I love great female writers). But also Helen Keller so inspirational

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