Julie Smith

Julie Smith has been working in the Data & Business Intelligence field for over 20 years. She is an enthusiastic, versatile and able leader, who relishes the opportunity to share ideas with  customers and colleagues at all levels.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role?

As well as being the Director of Data and Analytics at Alation, the data intelligence company, I’m a mum of three girls and a grandma to a beautiful new granddaughter – empowering women to do whatever they want is very dear to my heart!

I grew up in the North West, and I actually always wanted to be an astronaut, but after my studies, I ended up in a graduate IT role, which is where I discovered my love for data. Back then, people were still using AS400s and working off of mainframes, so I got into data right as the sector was coming into its own. Since that original role, I’ve worked across several businesses both in-house and as a data consultant, as well as helping a number of start-ups realise the power of being data-driven.

My big passion throughout my career has been empowering people with good data. In my role at Alation, an enterprise data intelligence company that works with the likes of The Very Group and Vattenfall to deliver a fundamentally better way to manage, find, and govern trusted data, I’ve been able to do just that. Alation plays a role by enabling all data users in an organisation – and these days, I believe that is everyone – to find and understand the data they need and know that it is trustworthy.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not at all! I’m very driven, but driven to do the right thing at the right time, and so I’ve sort of got to where I am today thanks to a series of smaller decisions and career moves rather than any grand master plan. In a way, my career mirrors the evolution of data as an industry. When I first started working, data was just a part of the IT department, and throughout my career, it’s shifted into its very own discipline.

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

I think there have been three main challenges in my career, the first being explaining to executives just how important data is. We’ve come a long way in understanding the business value of data, and the ability to tell stories and make data engaging is critical in this industry if you want to impress upon the C-suite just how vital good data actually is.

Outside of the challenges of the role, perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve had from a career standpoint has been gender bias, which I’m sure pretty much every woman in tech has experienced at some point in their working life. Interestingly, you often don’t recognise gender bias at the time, and it’s only by looking back through my career that I realise just how differently I’ve been treated right through from my male-dominated degree to working in a male-dominated sector.

Linked to that is undoubtedly the challenge of being a mum whilst working full-time. There’s a social expectation that you become a mum, but it’s difficult to juggle doing that whilst having a career. This experience was always typified by the late-night costume creation sessions for World Book Day or juggling parent’s evenings which for some reason are never actually in an evening! You sometimes feel torn between the two roles, but it’s important that you find the right balance and don’t feel the need to abandon one for the other.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

When I look back at where I am and my career journey, having been able to have three children and come back to work each time with a renewed drive is undoubtedly my most significant achievement. I’m also incredibly proud of the work I’ve been able to do to further the careers of others: I love the people side of my role and being able to bring people with you on a data journey and help them to realise their aspirations within the data sector is a fantastic feeling. Getting into a position where I can mentor people and give them all the help I wish I’d had at the beginning of my career has been a brilliant career milestone.

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

Empathy has been a significant factor in getting to where I am. Whether it’s mentoring people or bringing execs on a data journey, you need to be able to connect with others on a human level. It’s a surprisingly underrated skill in technology, but I think it’s one of the biggest reasons I am where I am.

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

You have to realise that technology is nothing without the people involved. I’ve seen so many examples of tech professionals delivering a brilliant implementation program that was on time and within budget, only to find that the tool was utterly useless because they had neglected the change management side of it. You can have the best technology in the world, but without people wanting and knowing how to use it, it’s meaningless.

What barriers for women working in tech, are still to be overcome?

Happily, the data arena is one in which I think the gender balance is much closer to even, but there is still room for improvement. Many of the barriers to entering a career in data are self-imposed due to a lack of confidence. We need to instil that confidence. Many people don’t realise that it is not all about technical know-how and deep data science experience; technical data skills are needed, but a love of problem-solving and an ability to communicate the value & meaning of data is much more valuable. Women looking for a career in data need to stop paying attention to that little voice that tells them they can’t do it and take a leap of faith which is when they will see that they bring an awful lot to the table. But we need to be telling them in a big voice that this is precisely what they can do.

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

The most important thing organisations can do is to acknowledge that there is still a problem with gender bias but also to emphasise the fact that there is a diversity of skill sets needed in the data space. It’s a two-pronged approach: cutting out bias is critical, but so too is empowering women to overcome self-imposed barriers and help them know that there is a place for them in the data world.

In an ideal world, how would you improve gender diversity in tech?

It’s fair to say that we’ve come a long way in terms of gender diversity in tech. However, there is still a long way to go: as soon as girls are brought into the world, there remains a perception of what they should be doing in life – girls aren’t taught from a young age that they can be scientists or astronauts, and that’s creating a big barrier to women getting into technology. To overcome that, we need to show them the positive, strong female role models that exist in the science and technology industry. There’s a fantastic film called Hidden Figures which is all about the women who were responsible for the maths and early computing behind the Mercury and Gemini space programmes, and if we want young girls to grow up and enter into a career in STEM, we need to be shouting about those female role models much more!

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, e.g. podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

The Women in Data conference is a fantastic place for women in the industry and those looking to break into the industry: meeting other women and learning from them is a great way to improve your career and data network. In terms of books, I’d also recommend Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez: it really opens your eyes to some of the biases unknowingly accepted in the world. It gives you a new perspective on how to overcome it!