Professor Sue Black

Sue Black is a leading academic, campaigner, and advisor to the UK Government.

Black is a Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University with more than 40 publications behind her as well as a PhD in software engineering.

Her academic career has seen her hold leadership posts at London South Bank University, University of Westminster and University College London.

A champion for women in computing, Black founded BCSWomen, the UK’s first online network for women in tech, and #techmums, a social enterprise which empowers mums and their families through technology. The activist is also widely known for her successful campaign to save Bletchley Park, the wartime campus where more than 5,000 women served as codebreakers.

A figurehead on numerous boards, Black is a Comic Relief Trustee and a mentor at Google Campus for Mums. She has previously been a L’Oréal UNESCO prize judge, an expert evaluator for the European Commission and a Nesta Crucible fellow.

Black was awarded an OBE for “services to technology” in 2016.

She today sits as a Women’s Equality Party candidate for London Mayor 2020.

Black is a self-confessed social media-holic. She is a mum of four and a grandmother of four.

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

I didn’t have a traditional start. I left home at 16 with five O-levels, married at 20 and had three children by the time I was 23.

I was a single parent living with my kids in a Brixton council estate when I decided to study maths at night school (I chose a fast track course because it only required six hours a week on campus).

After this, I went on to study computing at London South Bank University where I also managed to complete my PhD. This is where I founded BCSWomen. I’d been at a computer conference (where around 90% of the guests were guys) and was freaked out by a man who wouldn’t stop staring at me. I couldn’t help but compare the negative experience to the great time I had at a female-only science conference and decided to create a network just for tech women.

Alongside my academic career, I’ve always tried to get people excited about the opportunities around technology. That’s why I set up initiatives like #techmums (mums are the biggest positive influencing factors on young kids so it’s a win-win).

Now I’m at Durham University working with The Institute of Coding on a new programme called TechUP. It’s an online course with residential weekends that specifically aims to retrain BAME and underrepresented women into technology careers. Any woman from the midlands or north of England with a degree can apply and over six months, we train them to become business analysts, software developers, agile project managers and data scientists.

TechUP is a pilot right now, but we’re working with three universities and 15 industry partners. I’m hoping it will be really successful and will roll out on a wider scale next year.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really. I’ve always been ambitious, and I’m always looking ahead, but I’ve never done any real career planning.

My first job was at Essex County Council in the education department, but filing wasn’t very exciting. Then, when I moved to London, I worked with refugees from Vietnam (and learned some Vietnamese) but I didn’t think this would lead to a career. After that, I enrolled as a student nurse working at University College Hospital, but I found it difficult because I was so shy. Eventually, because I liked maths, I got an accountancy job at RCA Records.

One of the subjects I studied at college was programming in BASIC  I’ve always found technology really fascinating.

When it came to choosing a degree I did what I enjoyed and what I thought would help me get a good job, to enable me to support my family.

Obviously, if you know a specific job role that you want, you should go for it. But if you don’t, I wouldn’t worry about it. Just work out what you enjoy the most.

Stevyn-Colgan-Sue-Black-pose-with-Saving-Bletchley-Park

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Saving Bletchley Park was a huge achievement because it wasn’t just about my career, it was about preserving history for everyone.

I first went to visit the site in Bletchley for a BCS meeting. That’s when I learned that more than half of the 10,000 people working there during the war were women—I’d assumed it was a team of 50 men and was shocked I’d never even heard of the contribution these 5,000 women had made. I got funding for an oral history project to help capture their memories and we interviewed some 15 female veterans.

When I heard the site might close in 2008, I rallied all the heads and professors of computing in the UK to sign a petition to 10 Downing Street. We had an open letter printed in the Times and I went on the BBC News to raise awareness.

Being an early adopter of tech massively helped the campaign. If we didn’t have Twitter, I don’t think we would have saved it. I realized that just by typing the words Bletchley Park on Twitter, I could find everyone in the world who was already talking about it and I could have a conversation with them.

When Bletchley Park secured £4.6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2011, the director told me that Bletchley Park was saved. I just sat there, I couldn’t believe it. After three years of day-to-day campaigning, it definitely took a few days to start thinking properly again!

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

When I was a Department Head at the University of Westminster, there was a redundancy round and my team was being cut by 50 per cent — I could either apply for my job or take redundancy. I had to ask myself ‘Do I really want to be a head of department with half the staff but the same amount of students? Is that going to be a great situation?’

My decision to step out of full-time academia was incredibly difficult. But what I didn’t expect was that the break would give me time to write my book, to set up #techmums and start doing all the other things I really wanted to do.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my work with nonprofits is funding.

I think if I’d known exactly how #techmums was going to pan out, I would have set up some sort of for profit digital skills training business. I would have gone for financial stability first and used that to help the people after.

Sue Black teaching how to code at WeAreTechWomen conference

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

Going through difficult times when I was younger has definitely shaped who I am.

After my mum died, I was emotionally bullied and physically neglected by my father and stepmother. We were always hungry. The 40p a week I earned from my paper round had to cover everything I needed, including new clothes, but I usually bought cake and sweets for my siblings because we were hungry.

I basically forced myself to set out on my own as a teenager. It built a kind of resilience, a courage in myself that I could go out and achieve what I wanted. As time has gone on, when I’ve made difficult decisions and life has turned out okay, I’ve gained the confidence to do other challenging things.

I also think that because I know what it’s like to fear being homeless, what it’s like to live in a refuge, what it’s like to be on benefits—to know people are looking at you like you’re a piece of shit—all that gives me the emotional drive to actually set projects up and get things done that can make change for the better.

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

Focus on the things you like doing the most, and try to do those more. I’ve worked hard to not do the things I don’t like.

Even if you don’t love coding or computers, remember that technology is just a massive suite of tools that you can use to do any specific thing you want.

Think about something that you’re really passionate about already, that you really love, and then think about how technology is related or how it could enable you to do things differently.

If you couple this mindset with always looking for opportunities, networking, and finding new like-minded friends doors will open.

I have always looked for mentors in people I admired and have found amazing support in people like Dame Professor Wendy Hall, my first mentor. It has meant that when I get into situations I just ask ‘Can I talk to you about it and get your advice?’

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

When I worked for Essex County Council, I thought it was hilarious that all the men wore suits and shoes and all the women wore heels and dresses—I went to a jumble sale and bought a men’s suit and a tie and wore that to work in a kind of protest about stereotyping.

But the truth is, there are still lots of barriers for women working today, and not just in tech.

It’s also not just women we have to think about: we need to address the barriers for people from underrepresented minority backgrounds too.

For anyone facing discrimination, one of the hardest things is feeling isolated.

It is so important to have a group of people you trust to help you work out the best thing to do: people in the same organization who understand the culture who could advocate for you or advise you and people outside who will have a more objective perspective on what’s actually happening.

If you’ve ever come up against discrimination, you may know it can be hard to work out if it is discrimination—that’s part of the way discrimination works.

Getting time and respect from my peers has definitely got a lot easier since I’ve got older.

Being over 40 seems to make people listen—in my 20s they didn’t necessarily—although I know women in their 60s and 70s who say they now get disregarded as ‘old ladies’ too.

Perhaps I’m in my prime at the moment where I’ve got credibility. I think the only way to get through is to have a great network of people for support.

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

Change has to come from the top, and so much is about company culture.

It needs to be very clear that an organization is keen on promoting diversity and inclusion seriously.

Leaders need to be openly discussing diversity and making sure that there are initiatives which support diversity and inclusion within the organization.

It needs to be fine for people to talk about issues and not be penalized for speaking out.

I realise saying this, that implementing real change is both simple and complicated at the same time.

There is currently on 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 would have a massive retraining program for women in tech so that any woman could retrain into a technology career, and so that women already in tech careers could progress even more rapidly. Knowledge is power.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s all about data and how biased data has been used in decision making. Did you know the first car airbags killed women because they were only ever on tested on male crash test dummies? It’s a brilliant book.

Also, the Women’s Equality Party manifesto. I’m standing for London Mayor next year and in the past, whether our candidates are successful or not, many of our policies have been adopted and implemented. We’re a whole group of thousands of women and men who really want to make life better for everyone by focusing on making life better for women.