Training and Development

Maths course game changer: Dr Sue Black tells her story at London Tech Week

“If I’d not had the course at the college who knows where I’d be now,” says Dr Sue Black at this morning’s Stack Overflow event on developing tech talent.

This was a simple maths course, completed in any hours she could snatch whilst her three young kids were asleep. Yet it was the crucial first step in a prodigious academic career, and tireless community engagement initiatives, which saw her awarded an OBE earlier this year.

Women in Tech is a trending topic. Back in 2013 we published our own research into the shortage. The findings were nothing short of stark, showing that just under a quarter of male respondents thought the IT gender imbalance was a “good thing”. Since then the issues surrounding this topic have become far more widely publicised. Yet even now it can all get all get a bit shouty and sometimes, ultimately, miss the point.

This is why Dr Sue Black makes such an excellent role model and her story ought to get as much attention as possible. She provides an outstanding example of an ‘ordinary’ woman who got into tech for pragmatic reasons and through hard work, passion and good humour did genuinely great things. I also can’t help loving the fact she has bright pink hair, laughs about her “rubbish PowerPoint” skills and is completely down to earth. 

‘Tech Talent: Developing Our Future’ by Stack Overflow was hosted at the iMax cinema, near Waterloo, as part of London Tech Week. Aside from Black, it featured Gerard Grech, CEO of TechCity UK who talked about local potential, Melissa Di Donato, AVP of Salesforce’s Wave Analytics Cloud, who was focused on mentoring, and Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Overflow, who was keen to highlight the potential in developers. Black told her own personal story.

In this she skimmed through a troubled childhood, leaving home at 16, not completing her A-levels and eventually, following the breakdown of an early marriage, finding herself a single mother aged 25 with three young children. That was where the maths course stepped in and paved the way for a degree, a PHD and ultimately a better standard of life for her kids.

What I like about all this is it isn’t an ideological story about setting out to save the world. It is about a woman who found herself in difficult circumstances, wanted to get out of her Brixton council estate and increase her earning potential. But also, because she was a decent human being, spotted a few social things that needed fixing along the way and had a good old go at doing it.  

In fact, Black’s efforts have been tireless. She set up BCS Women – the first online networking group for women in computing – because she attended a lot of tech conferences and everyone there was male. She launched Tech Mums  – which has a tagline on the website “giving all mums a chance to be part of the digital revolution” – and is running in deprived areas like Tower Hamlets. This aims to give ordinary uneducated mothers, like she was, some basic digital skills.

And most crucial of all, she ran the campaign that saved Bletchley Park, a top secret wartime codebreaking operation, that saw the first computer built. This was an incredible feat and deserves as much praise as humanly possible.

All this just serves to highlight the potential in technology careers. It is a growing area, it is gradually infiltrating every aspect of our lives, and if you couple the technical stuff with a few softer skills and a bit of social nous, twee as it sounds, it really can make a difference. And if you’re looking for a belting example, look no further than Dr Sue Black.


Also read:

“Saving Bletchley Park”: Dr Sue Black’s Twitter rescue Odyssey

Bletchley Park: From code-breaking to kids coding

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This month in tech history: June – Alan Turing

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