Thursday, 25 March 2021
From setting up the first network for female computer scientists to helping save WWII code-breaking facility Bletchley Park, Sue Black’s sense of passion and purpose has driven her throughout her career. Now Professor of Computer Science at Durham University, her latest project is tackling the ongoing shortfall of women in the tech industry. We talk to her about why she’s such a tech evangelist and how active inspiration is essential to happiness...
I loved maths, but had to leave school when I was 16 and didn't go back into education until I was 26, by which time I was a single parent with three small children. I had just come out of a women's refuge and thought about going back to work but realised I wouldn't be able to earn enough to be able to pay for childcare. So, I started thinking about whether studying might be a better option. After getting my qualifications I decided I wanted to try to go to university in 1989, around the time the Internet was really just starting up. I applied for maths and computing courses, which I felt would enable me to earn enough money to support my family — but I was also just excited about technology. I saw that understanding how to talk to computers would mean that you could do so many interesting things. I wanted to understand the world better and to affect it positively, and that’s something that has never changed. I still get inspired a lot generally, and when I see people doing exciting things I want to help them to make it happen.
Key takeaway: Think back to the things that inspired you and excited you in your younger days and throughout education. What does this exercise teach you about where your true passion lies?
This inspiration is one of the reasons I think networks are extremely important for women in tech. When I was doing my PhD, I was encouraged by my supervisor to go to conferences to network. I was extremely shy, but forced myself to do it. At my first conference, I chatted to the speaker in the break but for the rest of the afternoon every time I turned around, he was staring at me. I thought I’d upset him, but in retrospect I think it was just because as a woman I was in such a minority there. At another conference, I started talking to a couple of men, who both looked at each other and then ignored me. I went and sat in the loo, thinking, ‘Why can't I do this?’ Then in 1998 I went to a Women in Science Conference in Brussels. I remember walking in and immediately starting to chat to someone. That continued over two days and I had a great time. It was such a different experience and helped me to realise that the problem wasn't just me, it was to do with the environment, and that if you're in the majority then life is just easier. When I came back, I thought if I created a network, then women in tech could at least chat to each other online — so I set up BCSWomen and ran it for six years before handing it on — and it’s still going strong.
Key takeaway: Niche networks can connect you to people who can fuel and ignite your passion. If you can’t find the right network, start your own.
When I set up BCSWomen I was actually asked why I was creating a female ‘ghetto’ and even criticised in some quarters for ‘being sexist’ against men. But I still thought I was doing the right thing at the time. Thank goodness I had the self-belief to keep going. One of the things I love about getting older is that you can see that things that you've started were actually a good idea. And the more you listen to yourself, the more confident you start to be in trusting your gut — something that is often socialised out of women. I was always discouraged from trusting my instincts when I was younger, but they were always right.
Key takeaway: Commit to listening to the voice inside, even if you feel you’ve made mistakes in the past. If you and your get feels are often at loggerheads, take a look at your tips for sharpening your instincts.
The work that was done at Bletchley Park shortened WWII by two years and saved 22 million lives. Over 8,000 women worked at Bletchley Park during WWII — 75% of the workforce — which was also something I had no idea about when I first visited it. In 2008, when I found out it was in danger of closing, I felt I had to do something to help. I sent an email to all the UK’s professors of computing with a link to a petition and wrote a letter to The Times newspaper, which was signed by 100 eminent computer scientists. Rory Cellan-Jones interviewed me for BBC News and launched a campaign that lasted three years, during which time it took over my life. We did all sorts of things; we set up a blog where I documented the journey; and we won support from Google, which let to them buying the Turing Papers which were up for auction. And in 2009 Stephen Fry tweeted a link to my blog and I became the most retweeted person in the world. It taught me the lesson that if you find key influential people that care about the same things that you do, you can make a massive difference really quickly. I was in a meeting at Bletchley Park when I found out it was to receive £4.1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I started to say something about ‘Saving Bletchley Park’ and the Director, Simon Greenish replied, ‘We're going to be okay. Now we need to talk about building Bletchley Park for the future.’ I sat there and thought, ‘Did that really just happen?’
Key takeaway: Identify the key influencers in your network and work out what your ‘ask’ is of them, whether it’s mentoring hours, sponsoring you for a promotion, or connecting you with a wider network of influencers.
After we secured the funding for Bletchley, I remember thinking, ’Okay. So, what am I going to do next?’ So, I set up Tech Mums in 2012 to teach tech skills to mums in disadvantaged areas. I had lobbied around getting computing into the curriculum for primary schools and we had found that when we got the parents involved in the kids’ tech workshops, the dads would have a go but the mums were apprehensive. I thought, ‘If we can get the mums confident with technology, then the whole family will encourage the kids to do stuff with it — and then maybe they’ll go into tech careers later on.’
Key takeaway: Once you’ve identified your passion, think about it from all angles. Who else benefits from the work you will do? Understanding your passion from multiple perspectives can help move things from ‘dreaming’ to ‘goal planning’ mode.
Throughout my career I've spoken to many tech companies who said, ‘We want to hire more women’, but that women either don't apply, or don't get through the interview process. Companies have asked me what they can do to make a difference. There's so much potential in tech and it’s where the biggest skills gap is. So, we’ve just run a programme at Durham University with three other universities and 15 industry partners. We got the industry partners to tell us which roles they wanted people in, then targeted women of colour, those with disabilities, parents and those from the LGBTQ+ community to train them as software developers, agile project managers, business analysts or data scientists. To date, some 60% of our first 100-woman cohort have found a job in tech, got promoted to a more technical role or gone on to further education. My aim and passion now it to scale this programme across the country, targeting under-served groups and helping them to get into worthwhile and interesting careers.
Key takeaway: Once you’ve identified your own passion and purpose, ask yourself how you can help others to find and develop their own, paying forward any mentoring and sponsorship support you’ve benefited from along your journey.
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