Lauren AllisonLauren Allison is the CEO of #techmums – a not-for-profit founded by Prof Sue Black OBE to support mums in becoming more familiar, confident, and excited about the use of technology in their lives.

Lauren also works for Sulby Media as an international strategic communications and technology consultant. Her career blends together social responsibility, public policy, and technology. She trained as public diplomacy professional at the University of Southern California (USC) as a Fulbright Scholar. A graduate of the Washington Ireland Program (WIP), Lauren also studied at the University of St Andrews (MA Hons), L’Institut des Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and the Centre for Comparative Conflict Studies at Singidunum University, Belgrade

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

I was hired in April 2019 to be the first CEO of #techmums- Prof Sue Black OBE’s not-for-profit that supports mums in becoming more familiar, confident, and excited about the use of technology in their lives. I also serve as the Executive Director of Sulby Media working as an international strategic communications and technology consultant.

My career to date has also been driven by the interplay between social responsibility, public diplomacy, and technology. I was trained as a public diplomacy professional at the University of Southern California (USC) as a UK Fulbright Postgraduate Award Recipient.

Prior to Sulby Media, I worked on the foundation and operation of the first-ever public responsibility department at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). I’ve held research and writing positions at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy in Los Angeles where I supported research into technology and human trafficking, including AI and Big Data, and in the Northern Ireland Assembly for Chris Lyttle MLA and Anna Lo MLA.

For my research, I received an International Peace Scholarship from the Philanthropic Education Organization (PEO) Scholarship Fund and the British Universities North America Club (BUNAC) Education Scholarship Trust Award. I hold a Master of Arts (First Class Honours) in International Relations from The University of St Andrews in conjunction with L’Institut des Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and am a former student of the Centre for Comparative Conflict Studies at Singidunum University, Belgrade.

I currently serve on the UK Fulbright Alumni Council Board, am a member of the US Ambassador to the UK’s Young Leader’s UK (YLUK) Program, am a Fulbright 1:1 Mentor with the Sutton Trust, and speak at Fulbright and other UK-USA events.

I’m based in Belfast, Northern Ireland and I also live online at:
Twitter: @_LaurenAllison_
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/laurenallisononline/
LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/laurenrallison

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I think the first time I really thought about “planning” my goals for what I want from work wasn’t until my mid-twenties and even then, I still don’t plan out what I want my “career” to be- I’m more focused on what I want my life to be like, be full of, and feel like – and then I see how that translates to each area of my life, including my “work” life. I do yearly goal setting and 10-year vision plans, guided by the work of www.karolinemarie.com and I have an amazing network of mentors and coaches that I use regularly.

For me, a “career” isn’t a linear thing, boxed into progression along one profession the way it may have been described a few decades back. For me, a “career” is how you earn a living doing something that brings added value to your life- whether that’s monetary, free time, or a sense of purpose. When I pick projects or jobs to work on, I always reason with myself that I can get two out of three things in a position: 1) work or tasks I enjoy meaning that I find them fulfilling, they give me a sense of purpose, or tangibly help those around me; 2) free time or the ability to leave work in the office (virtual or physical!) and not take it home with me; 3) great compensation. If you choose a role with only one of those three things, it is a sure-fire way to burn out or eventually resent your position. Getting all three of those things is rare and something to hold onto if you are that lucky!

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

Burnt-out! I always say that burning out in my early twenties was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

While unpleasant, burning out allowed me to really hone in what I want and don’t want in my life. The burnout was due to not having two of those above three things. I had a balance before, but if you stay stagnant for too long, somethings going to give. I think I’m paraphrasing Emily Fletcher of Ziva – but she talks about how the universe is constantly expanding and how nature places value on creation. If we spend too much time in maintenance mode and become stagnant, we have destruction nipping at our heels to come in and make space for new creation. I think work is the same – if you’re not growing and fulfilled in your role and the other areas of your life are also suffering as a result. Sometimes you have that moment where you realise you need to make a change (or someone makes that for you) and it’s a good opportunity to take stock and plan out the next great adventure.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Being hired as the CEO to come in and take Sue Black’s #techmums to the next-level.

The first month of 2020 in particular is a major highlight- we relaunched the #techmumsClubs with over 50 mums starting their #techmums journey and it’s been so lovely to hear all of their personal stories over email and twitter. There’s been some personal achievements in there including overseeing the implementation of a wonderful new platform for our mums to access content, resources, and interact with each other and our fabulous partner Guides- but it pales in comparison to hearing the achievements and stories of our mums and seeing their passion for their families and bringing technology into their lives.

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

My parents. I definitely won the family lottery on many fronts. They are both incredible individuals and are where I get so many of values from and they still are an ongoing source of inspiration and support for all three of their kids. They instilled in us three core passions: helping others, a love for music, and a drive and aptitude to learn and use new technologies. I tried for a lot of my career to move away from tech, but because it comes so naturally to me because of them, I now get to blend that passion for people and technology together (I’ll leave the music bit for another interview).

I was blessed with parents who both worked in IT- my Dad caused a bit of a fuss when he went to go work in this “silly computer thing” instead of the shipyard… but his instinct was right on point.

Mum and Dad left school early and went onto set up an IT company together when I was growing up. At one point, it was based in our house so I also had a very intimate relationship with technology, particularly hardware….ever stepped on a defunct motherboard in your bare feet snooping in places you shouldn’t be?

One of my favourite stories of my Mum at work was when a customer’s jaw dropped when she fixed his CD-ROM drive with her earring after he had been so rude to her about not even wanting to explain his computer issue because he needed to talk to one of the “guys in the workshop.”

Mum and Dad always encouraged us to explore technology in positive ways. Just when the Internet was making its way into homes in the UK, my Dad sat beside me when I went on a chatroom for the first time so we could both see what it would be like. I felt supported to come to him if I ever experienced anything negative. That is the sort of open, curious, and supportive approach that Sue set out to encourage with #techmums.

I was one of those kids who grew up *with* technology – and by that I don’t just mean it was around me, I mean that technology was growing up just like I was too (although, definitely at a different speed). My parents are a real example of what an impact having parents who are curious and excited about the use of technology can have on their family’s lives- my Mum was a #techmum before it even existed and that’s why I’m so passionate about #techmums and our approach.

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

This applies to any career and this is the advice I gave to my old school when I went back to speak:

1) Take care of your mental health and physical health. Those are two things that impact everything and need to be your priorities. You cannot pour from an empty cup so put yourself first. If your career, your family, your passions are demanding your attention, the only way you can really show up and excel in those, is to prioritise your mental and physical health so that you can do that.

2) The job you want might not exist yet, so don’t get hung-up on trying to “find” your path or right position. The technology you’ll be using probably doesn’t exist yet, so neither will your role! You might need to lead the way either in an existing company or by setting up your own. Most of the jobs I’ve had didn’t exist before I came into them- I’ve written almost every single job description for roles I’ve had.

3) Learn to Hire- You find yourself in that position a lot sooner than you think and learning skills for hiring will help you in your job search too. A key bit of advice I got from a consultant once was “Never hire a not-nice person” – okay, she used a much more blunt word related to that concept, but she said if you get a whiff of someone being a bit of a jerk in an interview, DO NOT hire them- it will eventually impact your whole team. If you’re hiring, you’re looking for GOOD all round- good skills, good potential, and good-hearted people.

4) Time Management- no matter what you do in life, this is gold! Time is the only thing we are all running out of and can’t get back. Use it wisely and constantly look for new ways to improve your time management. I listen to Randy Pausch’s Time Management Carnegie Mellon lecture at least once a year. He passed away a few months later and knew his time was limited- these are his best time management tips and make a world of difference.

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

Representation Barriers:

On an industry level, representation is key. It is shocking to see that, in 2020, there are still tech conferences that are putting up all-male and often all-white panels. At a high-level, only 13% of the global Fortune 500 senior tech executives are female. On a day-to-day level, CWjobs released a survey in August 2019 that shows the explicit and implicit sexism that women in tech face daily. Reading it was horrifying, but, sadly, not surprising. We need change at all levels in the industry.

I also think we need to challenge the “IT Guy” stereotype. Women were the first-ever software engineers. In the 1960s, if you walked into a room full of software engineers, you would have been surrounded by women. Some of the biggest leaps in tech have been because of women: Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, Jean Bartik, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper… just a few names of incredible women who invented, shaped, and defined the world of tech today, yet so many stereotypes point to tech being traditionally male-orientated.

Business Barriers:

Companies need to start walking the walk when it comes to inclusion and diversity. Many talk about their commitment, but don’t actually have substantial and innovative programmes in place to make this a reality and this is needed given the pace of change is so abysmal. The tech industry still stumbles at the gate with Job Descriptions that are geared towards reinforcing their current demographics. Tech companies that are serious about addressing this, should sign up to the Tech Talent Charter as a starting point and – if they don’t have the in-house knowledge on how to bring in, retain, and promote diverse talent – then they need to engage with organisations that do.

Flexible working is also key- we need employers to see the real value in flexible work arrangements, not just for mothers, but for all employees. In the UK, two thirds of primary care-givers are women, so flexible work arrangements will make a massive difference in the lives of women returners. Providing this to all employees will also work to normalise flexible work arrangements so that there is less stigma attached to mums having different working hours.

Tackling Individual Barriers:

Confidence and reskilling can be two big factors that stand in the way and one way to tackle that is to support programmes like #techmums that work to address these. The biggest factor that improves in the Mums who attend a #techmumsClub is, not just their tech knowledge, but their self-confidence. We have stories from our Mums who, after taking the programme, feel more confident to apply for jobs or go on to learn a new skill.

There is currently only 17% 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?

Give everyone a pair of “reality” glasses to see the barriers in place for women in technology so that those in the power to dismantle these, do so.

Failing that? I’d say giving a bigger a platform to those amazing, talented women who are already in tech who are often overlooked. They can provide great role models to other women who want to make the switch, or who might not have even thought this was possible. When we talk about improving the diversity in tech, we also need to make sure that this is intersectional and not just a push that results in more of the same type of woman in tech. Equality and inclusion is not real if it’s one that is based on a cisgender, heteronormative, ableist, and Caucasian outlook on what that should be.
And also, every company putting their wallet where their mouth is and funding organisations and programmed like #techmums that are tackling this in tangible ways.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Inspiration:

  • Sue Black Desert Island Discs- before I went for my job interview, I listened to this and I’ve gone back to it a few times now to refocus and get inspired.
  • Women taking the Lead- I found this podcast by Jodi Flynn a year or two back and really enjoy the conversations on there. There’s such a wide range of guests on that it’s hard not to be inspired by them.
  • The On Being Project- I adore this and it’s perfect for taking a work / tech detox if you switch off your notifications and enjoy while doing something offline. My favourite episode is with my favourite poet who I had the privilege of meeting as a child and who completely captivated me with his words and the way he sees the world: John O’Donohue- The Inner Landscape of Beauty (you can spot one of his poems in Dublin airport if you are ever passing through).
  • Randy Pausch – Time Management (see above!). Randy was a virtual reality pioneer, human-computer interaction researcher, co-founder of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center — http://www.etc.cmu.edu — and creator of the Alice — http://www.alice.org — software project. He filmed this during his final stages of cancer. He also has a “Last Lecture” video called “How to Really Achieve Your Childhood Dreams” which is really worth a watch.

Personal Care (see above for its importance!):

  • Ziva Meditation- I’ve been a Ziva meditator for a good few years now and it’s been a great addition and tool in my life. Highly recommend watching any of Emily Fletcher’s introduction videos if you’re curious (hint: If you’re worried about sucking at meditation, she says “we don’t meditate to get good at meditation, we meditate to get good at life”)
  • Waking Up- Mindfulness course that I’m taking at the minute which is making a massive difference to my work life.
  • Youper- an AI chat-bot based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. If you’re curious about ways to improve your mental health, this is a great way to start.

Productivity and Apps:

  • Packed Pixels- light-weight, portable screens! Game-changers if you work remote or travel a lot. The team are great promoters of diversity in tech and I’ve been using their screens for years.
  • Kanban Flow- I have a bunch of different systems in place for different work and clients, but this simple Kanban has been with me for 6 years or so, and I adore it.
  • MyHours- whether your freelance or want to do a time audit, I love the simplicity of MyHours and it’s been a go-to for a few years for me now.
  • Pocket- I love to read and sometimes I get tab overload- Pocket saves articles and online content for later. It’s been great in #techmums world to build up a library of resources.

Supporting and Following Great Initiatives:

  • #techmums
  • Tech Talent Charter
  • WeAreTechWomen!!