Emily Allinson leads a team of content designers, interaction designers, user researchers and service designers to deliver user-centred and service design projects for central and local government, financial services, and higher education, including HMRC, DWP, FSCS and Newcastle University. But her sights weren’t always set on a career in design…

I have a degree in Japanese, so nothing to do with design, or tech! In fact, I never imagined I’d be in a role in tech, even though I was interested in creative ways of working, partly because it was just never talked about in school as a viable career option. Once I figured this out later in my life, it was a complete revelation. I then started working in user-centred design (UCD) at an agency, dipping in and out of different kinds of client work, which proved to be an invaluable experience.

In 2020 an opportunity came up to join Opencast, which at that time was setting up its first user centred design department. Keen for a new challenge, I moved over from agency life and started as a consultant.

My old boss then left, which created a job opening for her job to lead this newly created user-centred design department. Initially, I was hesitant to apply, as I never really saw myself in a leadership position. But I had encouragement from some people who thought I would be a good fit and I decided to take a chance on the role. So I gave it a go! Excitingly, I got the role – head of user-centred design – and I have now been in the role for more than a year and a half.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

My career was never planned out, as nobody talked about tech or creative design as career paths for girls in school. Honestly, if you had come up to me when I was 15 and said that I’d be working in tech, I wouldn’t have believed you at all! I never imagined myself in a tech position, or one of leadership.

When I was starting out my career, around 10 years ago, I thought I’d never want to go for leadership positions. Back then I lacked the confidence to say I can lead and develop a group of individuals in my field, and the role models I saw made the job look tough and quite macho. Fast forward to 2023, I am in this role and I am absolutely loving it.

What career challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?

There’s a common misconception that you have to come from a major technical background to thrive, and then more specifically to the UX industry, there can be this view that it isn’t a ‘serious’ part of tech.

As a result, I still struggle to accept that I’m part of the tech industry because I don’t come from an overtly technical background, despite working in it for 10 years! When I was at school, I barely used a computer. I remember when I first got an office job, I felt massively out of my depth working with tech. I think if you either haven’t been brought up and encouraged to use tech from an early age or to dream that you can be part of the tech sector, it is a huge barrier that normally discourages people from pursuing a career in the sector all together.

When it comes to UX, some can be quite dismissive of the work we do even though it is pivotal for technology – not a nice-to-have that some can see it as. It’s the continual struggle of – ‘please, take us seriously, this is important!’ That’s exhausting. So, those two things are the biggest challenges – on the one hand not feeling that you are part of that industry yourself, then on the other, the industry not always taking you seriously.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The biggest achievement, and absolute pleasure, of my career is establishing and growing the UCD team here at Opencast from 19 people at the start of 2022, to over 70 strong at the moment. All of them are just phenomenal at their jobs, supporting and cheering each other on and it is just such a great environment to be a part of.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

It was incredibly stressful for many years not having a plan and not really having a destination, or knowing where my career would end up. However, what that meant was that I gave a lot of things a go. For example, I moved to the Netherlands for a while and tried out teaching English and copy editing to pay rent. This experience certainly made me more confident whenever I needed to try something out for the first time. I might not know how to do it, but I am going to give it a go!

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

I think as a woman, it can be very difficult to feel safe putting yourself out there, to push through a culturally-ingrained sense of perfectionism and be a bit vulnerable. It’s that classic case of imposter syndrome, and not wanting to take risks as you fear colleagues will think less of you if you do. So, being able to push through that and over time develop a muscle to just experiment and speak up is really important.

What barriers for women working in tech, still exist?

Yes definitely! When I first started working in tech, I felt very peripheral, thinking how lucky I had been to snatch onto the edge of something here, particularly as a woman. This can act as a barrier when women feel they are lucky to be there, instead of an asset to the company they are working for – so that needs to change.

What companies can do to enact change is adopt the right tone and find out what’s really important for women, what topics they feel strongly about and initiate open discussions. Create an honest professional culture that women truly feel part of. Mentorship programmes and meetups play an instrumental role in such a nurturing working environment. By hearing other women’s stories and experiences you realise you are not alone in the industry and support is always available when you need it.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

The barriers facing women in tech are multilayered, so naturally, the solutions have to be too. It starts with the younger generations, after all these are the people that will spearhead the future of tech, so it is important companies get as many young women excited about technology as possible.

Companies should play an active role in encouraging younger people to explore STEM as a viable career option – this could be going into schools or offering apprenticeships. There is so much evidence out there that a diverse workforce leads to better work overall – after all if you are all from similar backgrounds then you’re likely to think the same as well.

Additionally, organisations should question their own assumptions and biases, so when women decide to enter the industry they can thrive. For instance, businesses can employ technology that examines gender bias in their job descriptions. They can also cultivate mentorships for women to support each other in their careers, talk about their experiences and share advice. In short, it’s about encouraging women into the sector in the first place, and then making them feel welcome when they get there.

If you could do anything, what one thing would improve gender parity in the tech industry? 

I’d let women know that there are many career paths for them in the tech sector. I would encourage women to be curious and explore their options because they have valuable skills and knowledge that the industry very much needs right now.

On top of this I would love to see more positive success stories of females in tech across the media and less about Musk and Zuckerberg. So, taking away that kind of “machoness” that can can exist in the industry and getting rid of the “tech bro leaders”, that would also be great.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

One book that I would recommend is “Content design” by Sarah Winters. It’s my go-to, and I chatted to my friend who’s a copywriter when we were out for dinner earlier this week and she was raving about it too. I think it does a really good job of breaking down working with words in a digital setting, which is essentially everybody’s job, right? After all, most people send emails.

There are lots of different podcasts out there. My advice would be to have a browse around, listen to a few from different angles that grab your fancy. There are podcasts on literally everything nowadays – from UX to product design to complex subjects such as AI. Again, this goes back to trying out different things and discovering new interests and passions, as well as becoming more aware of all the fields of tech available to you.