We are delighted to present the first in our new series of Q&A interviews entitled “In Conversation With” where we aim to showcase the movers and shakers in the cyber security and tech industries. For our first Q&A we are honoured to feature Professor Sue Black OBE, who is one of the UK’s most influential women in tech.
Professor Black has an illustrious CV and biography, overcoming much adversity in her life to forge a successful career in tech. She married at 20 and became a stay-at-home mother but by the time she was 25, she sought shelter in a women’s refuge with her three small children. At 26 she found herself being a single mother, living in a council flat and wanting to return to education.
Despite this she famously campaigned to save Bletchley Park, started her own consultancy in 2010 and founded “BCSWomen”, an online network for women in tech, as well as “#techmums”, a social enterprise that exists to offer mothers courses to enhance their technology skills that are completely free of charge.
In 2017 she was awarded an OBE by the Queen for her services to technology, and became a Professor of computer science and a “technology evangelist” at Durham University last year. She is also a government advisor and is widely recognised as one of the most influential women in IT today.
Our CEO & Founder saw a recent talk by Professor Black at this year’s Infosecurity event, sponsored by Titania Ltd. Having followed her work and looked up to her as an inspirational figure in tech she decided to contact Professor Black to see if she would be willing to take part in our “In Conversation With” series, and we are over the moon to present the first in this series of interviews.
You’ve done some amazing things despite a lot of great adversity in your life, and what would you say has been your most career defining moment, the moment that you are most proud of?
Getting my degree in the first place was a huge achievement for me. Very early on in my career when I was living in a refuge, when I and my children had no money, getting a degree to me was a life defining moment, and something I wasn’t sure that I could achieve. It took a lot of work like it does for anybody, and at 26 I only had five O-levels and didn’t have any other qualifications. Having lived in a refuge for six months, and then living on a council estate with three children as a single parent meant that getting a degree was a huge thing for me.
Going to University was a struggle, but something that got easier and easier for me as I went along. Getting my degree was something that I never dreamed I could do just a few years before, so I would say that is probably the one thing that I am very proud of. I’ve gone on to do lots of other things, but getting my degree gave me the confidence to go on and do those things.
Do you think that more should be done to encourage girls to enter a career in tech?
I think that there’s lots more things that we can be doing. It is amazing to see women in technology careers and girls out there getting excited about careers in tech. Women are doing great things in the technology industry, changing people’s lives, creating great software and being role models for those who want to enter the tech industry. It is so much easier for women to be excited about a career in tech if they can see others in a position that they want to be in.
If it becomes normal in society to be a woman software engineer, for example, then everyone starts thinking that that is normal. There are lots of different initiatives around normalising women being in technology. So, it’s not like one thing that we can do, but I think we really need to work on making women entering the technology industry seem like a normal thing, and then it will become normal by default.
What challenges have you faced within your career and within the workplace, perhaps in particular related to any male dominated environments, and how did you overcome those challenges?
I have spent my whole career in a male dominated environment, but to me it felt normal because that’s where I’ve always been. The main challenges that I’ve had, particularly early on were related to attending conferences and computer science events. When I was studying for my PhD and being told to network at conferences and approach people it was mainly men who I chatted to at these events. Sometimes I would have a great chat with someone and then other times men who I talked to got completely the wrong idea about why I was talking to them. I think when you’re not very confident, which I wasn’t then, it impacts on how you see yourself and that had a big impact on how I saw myself, and felt about myself, and my career.
It wasn’t until I went to a “Women in Science” conference in Brussels and was, probably for the first time, in an all-female environment that I realised that life is a lot easier when you’re in the majority. So now and again it is very nice to be in an all-female environment as a woman, and having that confidence changed my life in terms of helping me to adapt to different environments.
On the back of that I sent up the UK’s first online network for women in tech, “BCSWomen”, the British Computer Science and Women’s group because I wanted to meet and network with more women that are interested in technology. At the time I told one of my male colleagues where I was working about setting up “BCSWomen” and his response was to ask me, “why are you ghettoising yourself?” This surprised me because I thought I was doing something positive to connect women together to network and talk about technology, but he thought I was creating a ghetto. People do see things in very different ways.
What would you say is the biggest deterrent to women succeeding in the workplace today?
I think one of the biggest deterrents goes back to our culture as women, and what is acceptable in society today. As girls we are brought up to make sure that everyone else is okay and looked after before we think about ourselves, and by contrast boys are brought up to compete against each other.
When you are an adult in the workplace as a woman, you’re then told that you should put yourself forward. You should compete, be confident and get out there but you’ve spent your whole life being told that you are not supposed to do that, that you need to make sure that everyone is okay first. It is the opposite of what women have been brought up to do and then suddenly in the workplace women are told that if they want to succeed that is what they have to do.
Similarly for men, they are brought up to compete with each other, but in the workplace they have to have good interpersonal skills and nurture others, especially if they are a manager. But they have been brought up to not do that, so there are often negative effects of the way that both men and women are brought up in our society which aren’t good for anyone.
What job did you dream of doing when you were growing up? Your Plan A career path, so to speak?
When I was five my dream was to be a big red London bus driver. It was the most exciting thing that I could think of because I always loved cars, buses, trains and planes. As a child I loved vehicles and things that had an engineering slant to them, and I wanted to move to London and thought it would be very exciting to be a London bus driver. I’ve not achieved that aim yet though, but one day!
Later I became interested in maths, and as a teenager I wanted to be a psychiatrist as I was interested in mental health, and the way people behave. I’m very happy being in computer science J
Who was, or still is, your biggest advocate, mentor, in your career so far, and why?
I think having an advocate early on in your career is important. My first real mentor was Dame Professor Wendy Hall from Southampton University. 20 years ago, I saw her give a talk at the British Computer Society, and I sat in the audience thinking, “I want to be like Wendy”. After her talk I asked her if she would mentor me, and she said she would love to but that she didn’t have time. I said, “Could we just meet up for 1 hour a year?”, and she replied, “Oh, how can I refuse?”. Luckily, she didn’t!
We met up for lunch and got to know each other a bit, and we have met up regularly since then – that was 20 years ago now! Today we are friends, we bump into each other at events around the world. The last time I saw Wendy was in Singapore, we met up for dinner, she has had a big impact on my work and career and I’m delighted that we are friends.
What would you say is some of the best, and also some of the worst workplace initiatives you’ve seen, or heard of that were aimed at helping promote women in tech and diversity?
I feel like we are going through a transition with lots of companies now realising that it is important to have a diverse and inclusive workplace. Some companies are doing that in more of a “tick box” kind of way and attempting to be more diverse and inclusive because they feel they should be, not because they want to be. Other companies are doing it in a much more wholehearted way and really want their culture to be diverse and inclusive. I just despair a little bit with the tick box kind of companies because I think they don’t believe in what they are doing and seeing being inclusive and diverse as something they think they need to be seen to be doing.
I think we’re all moving forward, things have changed from 20 years ago, and the companies that are going to be the most successful in the future are those that have diversity and inclusion as part of their core beliefs. For that, they need a champion at the highest level – if the person at the top doesn’t believe in diversity and inclusion, it won’t happen.
Have there been any particular role models that have influenced your career to date?
When I was studying for my degree, I was reading books by Maya Angelou and watching Oprah Winfrey on the TV, and I really looked up to them both. I think they both showed that you can come through extreme adversity and still make something of your life and make things better for other people. Without realising it at the time, that’s the sort of person I wanted to be as well.
There weren’t many role models around in technology when I started out who were women, and when I first heard of Helen Sharman, I got very excited by her and what she was doing and read her book. Later, I found out about people like Steve Shirley, she now Dame Stephanie Shirley, and the work that she did back in the ’60s with F International.
Why would you say that role models are so important in the workplace?
I think that role models help you to work out what you want to do, and where you want to get to. Not only that, but they help you put together a pathway to get to where you want to go. When I first met Wendy Hall, for example, I could see all the things she was doing – she was advising the government and speaking at conferences around the world about the research that she was doing, and I knew I wanted to be like her. I applied the things she was doing to myself, and if she didn’t exist and there wasn’t anyone out there to show me the way, how would I know what things I should be doing? How would I know what my path was to get to where I want to go? I think having role models are critical to success.
You’ve had many life challenges, and you’ve overcome them all, and a lot of adversity too. How do you look after your mental health and ensure a good work-life balance?
I worked out early on that I needed to remove some of the negative people in my life and surround myself by more positive people. Having those around you who are positive, who support you and who care about you makes a massive, massive difference. Doing work that you enjoy is also key and I enjoy everything I do now. I don’t just have one part of my job that I love and I hate the rest, I love everything I do, and I have gradually manoeuvred myself into that situation.
I don’t ever get stressed about work anymore, well sometimes I might get overwhelmed with everything I have to do, and I worry I might be letting people down. But in general, I don’t get stressed about work anymore, although I did get stressed in my career in the past.
Taking the weekends off is important to me, as I spent a lot of my career working weekends because I felt I had to. I don’t work weekends now, and I spend quality time with my family and having a laugh with them and my friends. I enjoy watching comedy or mucking around with my children and now my grandchildren. My husband always makes me laugh and he is always joking about everything – I feel that before I’ve even had my breakfast, I will be laughing about something with him or my younger daughter who still lives at home! Laughter is absolutely the best medicine!
Taking time out for myself, doing things that I care about, not surrounding myself with negative people and having supportive people around me all helps hugely with my mental health.
Are there any pieces of advice that you wish that somebody had given to you at the start of your career?
Find mentors and connect with people. I’ve met many inspirational people over the years because I’ve got out there and talked to them, which at first, I was really scared of doing. I forced myself to do this and it has helped me a lot over the years. People who I met 20 years ago who were very supportive then turned into my friends.
As you go through your career and climb the ranks, so do those you network with or become friends with. Some of the people I’ve made friends with over the last 20 years are now in very high positions in all sorts of roles all around the world. It didn’t occur to me back then that that might happen. If you’re looking for a new job, and you’ve got contacts in different areas all over the world, you’re much more likely to find a job that you’re interested in and one that you want to do.
Finally, is there just anything else that you’d like to share with the readers of the UK Cyber Security Association site, for example, any other hints or tips that you’ve gathered from your career?
I think diversity is going to be critical, and the companies that are going to be the most successful in the future, in 5 or 10 years’ time, are the ones that are taking diversity and inclusion seriously now. Companies who are smart will think hard about diversity because we are now operating in a global marketplace, companies who are creating products and services that are going to used by people all around the world need to think hard about who their users are going to be. They need the teams creating those products and services to be inclusive and diverse to be able create products that are fit for purpose. Companies that understand diversity and inclusion in all its richness are going to be the ones that are successful in the future.