Jo ShannonThroughout my career in the geospatial industry I have held a variety of roles, ranging from Customer Support, Project & Programme Management, Strategic Customer Account Management and Operational Delivery.

But it all started for me when I joined a small software vendor on the outskirts of Cambridge at 19-years-old. Despite having no degree, they gave me phenomenal opportunities to explore different roles in technology which then turned into leadership roles. I was able to gain an understanding of how technology can be commercialised and the fundamentals for running a successful tech business.

As Director of Technology and Design at OS, I lead the implementation, maintenance and continuous development of the IT and Geospatial Systems and Services. OS maintain one of the largest databases in the world, and we are constantly capturing, maintaining, and expanding our database, which is then delivered to OS colleagues and customers in Great Britain.

Away from work I’m married and have a 3-year-old daughter that regularly makes appearances on my MS Teams calls – and loves all the attention!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really, it was all by accident to be honest, at least at the start. I joined a small software vendor as a receptionist at just 19 years old with no formal technology qualifications.

Once I was in the industry, the software engineering sphere is where I found my heartland. I find problem solving and delivery both enjoyable and exciting, and to me this industry ticks those boxes. I also like the concept of continual evolution – it’s never perfect and it’s never done – that’s what is great about tech.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I feel I have been fortunate because I’ve never had any challenges about being female, which isn’t the case for every woman. But I have because of my age. I was generally the youngest person in the room and at times I felt I wasn’t being taken seriously because of that.

I’m generally a confident person, but I have suffered from imposter syndrome too. It’s probably down to my lack of formal qualifications and part of me feels like there will be times where I’ll always feel like this. Am I ever going to get found out? I keep telling myself I must challenge and constantly fight against those feelings.

In terms of overcoming these challenges, having a great support network, and being surrounded by people who champion me is invaluable. I’ve worked for organisations who value aptitude over formal qualifications and I’m very appreciative of that and it’s a value that has stayed with me.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Becoming a director at OS is without a doubt my biggest career achievement to date, but it has nothing to do with the title or status. When I was in my mid-twenties, and I started working alongside OS, I knew right away that I wanted to work there one day.  They are a huge organisation that add serious value and do a tremendous amount of good. To be in my position now is a real highlight and I’m very proud of our phenomenal capabilities and the positive impact we make for our customers.

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

This is an easy one. Feeling uncomfortable and just doing it anyway. I am generally a confident person and I think this has been a major factor for me. Whether I was feeling scared to make a point or put myself out there, I just made myself do it anyway.

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

I honestly believe that we’re only limited by our own ambitions, so that said, be as ambitious as you can be and just go for it. For women, or anyone in an underrepresented community, be brave and be bold.

Generally, women are less likely to put themselves forward, but we must recognise that the world has changed. I call them superpowers, but women often have so many skills that come more naturally like coaching skills, compassion, and a real willingness to help people develop. This can be a real advantage today so don’t be shy about it.

Finally, look for a role you can grow into, not one you will grow out of.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There is no denying that barriers exist, but in my experience they are not as formidable as they used to be. We must recognise the changes that have been made and I feel that employers, individuals and organisations as a whole are generally way more aware of their responsibility.

Whilst recognising progress has been made, these issues have obviously not been completely overcome. To achieve that, we can’t stop having these conversations and we must do our utmost to keep them going, and not just about women, but other underrepresented communities too. Tech leads the way culturally, logistically, and practically and I believe the tech industry can play a vital role in ensuring those barriers are broken down and overcome.

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

I think an important first step is to review their policies and practices, particularly around parental leave. More flexibility is crucial.

Pre-pandemic we had this old-fashioned view that you leave your personal life at the door when you get to work. I don’t know about you, but I’m yet to find the off switch – I can’t stop worrying about my daughter just because I’m at work. The pandemic and home working changed this.

If we want the best we must be flexible about how and where work is done. I think this is particularly beneficial for women.

There are currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I can’t claim credit for this idea, but someone who works for IBM said they don’t start interviewing people until the candidate pool is diverse. The lack of progress here is frustrating because implementing policy like this, is not just good for women or other underrepresented communities, but it will benefit the organisation and industry as a whole.

If your candidate pool does not represent society and is full of a certain type of candidate, then you’ll continually end up with the same answers. A real commitment to real diversity requires difficult and sometimes inconvenient change. I believe strong rules like this will go a long way to actual representation and address the lack of diversity, it will likely cause delays and be painful in the process, but definitely worth it.