EdTech and empowering the future of learning


As a CEO and owner scaling up my business, working in the technology sector is an exciting place to be.
Image via Shutterstock

My current focus is on transforming education and training using gamification and Virtual Reality. This has required a mix of problem-solving skills, creativity, the ability to demonstrate a clear vision and a value proposition.

Many entrepreneurs lose out because they do not articulate a compelling value proposition. Yet establishing a substantive proposition is critical if you want to start the journey from your “idea” to building a successful company.

Michael Skok, who writes for Forbes magazine on both entrepreneurship and innovation, describes how you can test a breakthrough idea through the 3Ds. Does it fit with one or more of the following:

Discontinuous innovation - offers transformative benefits over the status quo by looking at a problem differently;

Defensible technology - offers intellectual property that can be protected to create a barrier to entry and an unfair competitive advantage; and/or a

Disruptive business model - yields value and cost rewards that help catalyze the growth of a business.

It is a good sense check to use. It is important if you want to engage investors and the most sceptical of potential customers; something that I have learned from building two businesses. It has been critical recently as I look to reach out to angel investors for SEED funding for my new venture.

My new business, PurpleSmartie, was born from a deep dive into the simple fact that the future of work and the future of learning are strongly connected. A unique personalised training platform powered by ongoing skills data with a global perspective; it is an EdTech solutions business.

Put simply EdTech (education technology) is the study and practice of designing effective instruction using technology, media, and learning theory. While #edtech solutions open up a whole range of possibilities, to be fit for purpose they need both a software/platform delivery model, and content. The quality of the content determines the quality of the learning and development experience.

We have been successfully using Gamification Skills Analysis programmes with a range of clients, including those in the tech sector. We have developed a 30-minute, mobile ready leadership game. It uses typical gaming elements, such as point scoring, competition with others, rules of play, to engage and challenge users to solve problems.

It enables 100% skills gap analysis, business-wide; provides an unbiased skills analysis across departments and can assist with succession planning. With it you can obtain accurate skills data analysis, before and after training. We use it in this way so the client training we provide is focused on a high ROI. It is scalable, cross-generational and cultural, exciting and innovative.

Cloud and mobile computing, artificial intelligence, and increasing automation have created the potential to transform nearly every aspect of a business; learning and development included.

The industry analyst group Gartner produced a paper last year which cited nearly 40 per cent of Chief Information Officers report they are leaders of digital transformation in their enterprise.

What is more these CIOs are being given the opportunity to lead not only in managing delivery, but managing talent and executing effective leadership.

Interestingly, the importance of having both ‘soft’ skills and leadership capabilities as well as expert knowledge is something that I built my first business around. Skills4Stem Ltd is now a mature and successful corporate training business, working within the UK, UAE and further afield. Sister company, Skills4Stem Ireland Ltd, is building on the continued success of Skills4Stem in a growth territory that offers further opportunity and possibility for innovation.

Innovation and talent are closely linked. To encourage new talent into the tech sector we need to get better demonstrating at its practical benefits and multiple points of entry. I did not study Computer Science or Games Development, my first qualification was a BA (Hons) in lighting design.

My career has developed from there because I have an appetite to learn, evolve and am passionate about making a change. Government and educational initiatives are in place to help address the skills shortage in STEM sectors, but I wanted to bring some commercial perspectives to this issue.

Three key points of practical advice to pass on to others:

  • I had the benefit of a senior sponsor who helped me earlier in my career. Mentoring and sponsorship internally within an organisation is something I support as a beneficiary of this approach myself.
  • Networks and the ability to network are also important; and I value the input and feedback I get from these opportunities.
  • Career development and leading your own business requires some risk-taking and advocating for oneself; to paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, traits that girls are sometimes discouraged from exhibiting. But we can make a change – person by person.

About the author:

Sarah Davis FCIOB MCIoD, CEO, Skills4Stem Ltd sarah davis

With many years’ experience in the built environment sector, Sarah Davis founded Skills4Stem Ltd in 2014 with the objective of helping to address the current shortage of skills within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with a focus within the Built Environment.

As a graduate herself in the engineering field of Lighting Design, she is well placed to understand the issues that are currently being faced within industry.

Sarah is an FCIOB Chartered Construction Manager. Sarah was instrumental in setting up the CIBSE group: Women in Building Services Engineering (WiBSE). She was a member of the Royal Institute of Architecture (RIBA) Barriers to Women in Architecture Task Force in 2014 and is a current member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Built Environment Executive.

She was also a key member of the Government Task Force on Gender Diversity within the Built Environment with Meg Munn MP, which produced its Building the Future – Women in Construction report in March 2014. Today Sarah has an active role in the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Women in Enterprise.

Sarah was a finalist for the 2015 Women of Achievement in Construction Awards and she was on the judging panel for the European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards 2015. In February 2017 Sarah won Bedfordshire Business Woman of the Year 2017.

How the academia is reshaping the engineering scene

female engineer in ship yard, engineering
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The engineering sector looks to the academic sector as the answer for a workforce that meets the demand of tomorrow, but the challenge to produce graduates that are automatically suited for the job is too large for one institution or industry alone to solve, which is why an academia, industry sector partnership is a formidable deal.

Academia and Industry based collaboration

The world's top engineering companies are being drawn to the educational sector as they seek to form a partnership that will provide for better approach to learning and influence better industry relevant skills. It is important to point out that a university education degree has to be fit for the future.

The engineering industry has been showing involvement in the academic sector by providing visiting teaching fellowships, performance based learning opportunities and access to research grants. This collaboration has resulted in a win-win situation for both the industries and the institutions as students get the opportunity to gain experience with globally recognised industrial brands.

With this system, industries gain access to research result and the knowledge of how to gain optimum productivity with innovative new methodologies, while students and faculty get insight into business and real life engineering challenges.

The number of research partnerships between engineering industries and academic institutions has increased drastically over the years. This is driven in part by companies need to maintain competitive edge by accelerating their innovative process, they do this by sponsoring specific research projects in universities.

This will make industries gain the much needed knowledge and expertise while the academic institutions will get the much needed funding, financial benefits and recognition.

Advantages of these Collaborative Relationships

There are numerous benefits that derive from Academia and Industry based collaboration, including benefits to the society, benefits to the universities, and benefits to the industries.

  • Society benefits: Society benefits from Academia and Industry based collaboration through innovative products and technologies. The result of Industry-sponsored university research is often developed into practical products and applications that benefit the society.
  • University benefits: Some universities seek industrial sponsorships because of the potential financial rewards gotten from patents and licenses that come from the commercialization of the results of academic research. This provides a means by which universities can decrease their reliance on governmental funding. Also, faculty members benefit through access to cutting-edge equipment not available in university.
  • Company benefits: Academia and Industry based collaboration can help stimulate companies' internal research programs. Academic researches help industries identify current research trends that might be useful for the design and development of innovative products and applications. This collaboration also helps to enhance a company's reputation. Sometimes, university and industry researchers will contribute to author articles and publications that describe research results. This can also serve as a PR tool by companies to add to their reputation in the society.

The engineering sector and the academic world are mutually interdependent on each other for new innovations and discoveries to meet the demand and resolve everyday problems in the society.

This collaboration has resulted into more and more students enrolling for engineering related courses in academic institutions and faculty members being better equipped to meet the demands of the job.

Marie Curie featured

The Curie-ous Case of the STEM Diversity Gap


On 7 November 1867 Marie Curie was born. She is widely considered to be one of the most outstanding women in the history of science.
Marie Curie
Marie Curie provided by Shutterstock.com

She was the first person, and a woman for that matter, to win two Nobel Prizes. Marie’s work broke barriers not only in physics and chemistry but also for her gender, cementing the idea that women should very much have their equal place in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Why then, a century after her accolades, is the gender gap in STEM still so prevalent?

In the UK, Tech Nation found that men outnumber women by a ratio of three to one within the technology sector.In the US, women make up 48 per cent of the workface – and yet, within STEM, only 24 per cent of employees are female. Despite progression in gender quality, women are still grossly underrepresented in STEM. These low levels of participation can be traced back all the way to the school years, where a number of influences from society and culture, education and the labour market are all at play.

Science and prejudice

Women have long faced trials when entering jobs that are seen as ‘for men’ – from directors all the way to the Supreme Court. Let’s face it, STEM compromises mainly of white males. People tend to hire people they feel they relate to and identify with. This unconscious bias can foster negative attitudes and lead to damaging stereotypical behaviours. These behaviours can negatively affect the education, hiring, promotion, and retention of women in STEM.

It doesn’t help that there are those who believe that women are not well matched to STEM in general.  Just look at James Damore’s Google manifesto. He still has the old fashioned attitude that women are better suited to social and artistic careers; that they would struggle with making controversial leadership decisions and that they are neurotic and can’t handle stress. Without realising, many men carry these views subconsciously, and – with most STEM decision makers being white, middle aged men – this can influence whom they hire or promote. It is the same reason why holding blind auditions for orchestras increases women’s chances of advancing to the final round by 30 per cent.

However, it’s not only men that believe this. Some women, too, feel that men suit STEM more than they do.  This is why there are so many programmes aimed at getting girls interested in these areas. These on-going drives are trying to eradicate and challenge old fashioned view points held by parents and teachers alike, that girls are less likely to want be involved in STEM career paths – or that they will find it too tough.

Men have a very important role to play in narrowing the gender gap. Invariably they are in the seat of the interviewer, and they need to be encouraged, trained and in some cases forced to create diverse teams. They need training in conscious and unconscious bias, and need to be educated about the benefits of diversity.

Equality within the sector

If there was ever a reason to assemble a diverse team, surely it is because your business will do better as a result? Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, Forbes found. Additionally, a 2015 study from Bersin by Deloitte showed that diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than non-diverse companies did.

Aside from this, the bottom line is that women are just as capable as men. People often ask, “Why should more women get into STEM?” It’s like asking why women should be doctors. These on-going drives to get women into science and technology will continue to happen until the question no longer needs to be asked.

Some women need to be persuaded to consider a career STEM. The opportunities for them in this industry are rife; it’s a growing trade with growing opportunities. But STEM companies need to make sure that they are promoting and paying women fairly. The stats would indicate that this might not be the case. For example, women comprise 20 per cent of engineering school graduates, but only 11 per cent of practicing engineers are women. There is a major drop off in the first ten years – women leave STEM jobs at a rate 45 per cent higher than men. It’s likely that gender bias plays a part here.

The UK has almost two million digital tech jobs, and between 2011 and 2015, the growth rate of digital jobs was more than double that of non-digital jobs. A lot of STEM jobs don’t exist yet.  In fact, Martin Boehm of IE University in Spain believes around 80 per cent per cent of jobs that will exist in 2025 don’t exist today.

Back to school

Encouraging women to get into STEM ultimately starts with education – from school to the boardroom. In school, coding should be mandatory for everyone; complex problem solving and critical thinking should be part of everyday life. When I was a child, we had computers around the house because my Dad was working with Digital in Ireland. I also remember all the Edward de Bono lateral thinking books we had. You will absorb what you are exposed to. As well as that, my Mum was an ardent feminist; she told her daughters they could do and be anything (and her son!). It was only when I started school that I realised people thought and told girls they couldn’t do things. Education and encouragement, fundamentally, is key to overhauling out-dated thinking.

In the workplace, training programmes can help people understand conscious and unconscious bias; both helping people to change the way they think, and call out unfair behaviour. Getting female talent into the industry is only half the story, however. Making sure they rise up the ranks is also key – with the support of women in leadership training programmes.

Overall, an attitude overhaul – for both women and men – is needed if we are to close the STEM gender gap. Through better education and encouragement of both genders, we can chip away at antiquated attitudes and create a more equal workplace.

About the author

This article was provided by Tara O’Sullivan, Chief Creative Officer at Skillsoft

Tas Hind featured

Inspirational Woman: Tas Hind | Technology Director at Essentia Trading Ltd


Tas Hind, Technology Director at Essentia Trading Ltd, a consultancy helping healthcare, science, public and private organisations transform their estates and infrastructure.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?


I didn’t, but I have grabbed opportunities that have been presented to me.

I often imagine myself being in a particular situation or doing something interesting and challenging and I have always achieved that. A year out of University, I joined the IT department at Lucas Industries, a motor and aerospace manufacturer in Birmingham. There, I was given a huge amount of responsibility and flexibility to shape my role and I loved every minute of it.

I soon realised that there was an internal consultancy within Lucas Industries that had some very high calibre individuals doing some incredibly interesting projects. I imagined what it would be like working in that type of organisation and, lo and behold, I got a breakthrough and was appointed as a Consultant in the Manufacturing sector.

A few years down the line, I was proud to lead an award-winning project on EXOSTAR (a workspace for secure information sharing and collaboration) for Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and BAE Systems. By that time, I was also wondering how great it would be to work as a consultant to the NHS. I was very pleased to be part of CSC’s successful bid for the NHS’ National Programme for IT which led to me being on the programme for 13 years.

When I left CSC in November 2016, I had another big moment being offered the role as Essentia’s first Technology Director.

In summary, a lot of my career has been based on luck, being in the right place at the right time, grabbing the opportunities and making them a success and enjoying the work and the people around me.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Yes, I have faced many challenges. I have addressed them through self-belief, holding my ground and relying on people to have the same belief and confidence in me. It did not always mean that I won however. I always knew that we gave it our best shot and for me that is the most important thing.

What advice would you give someone who wishes to move in to a leadership position for the first time?

Be brave. Don’t worry about ticking all the boxes. Believe and have confidence in yourself. Seek validation from others whom you trust and will give you constructive advice rather than say things to please you. Surround yourself with great people who are prepared to work hard and enjoy their jobs.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

I start my day with yoga and a very healthy all-organic breakfast – a glass of warm water with a slice of lemon, spirulina with berries and yoghurt and a very big bowl of porridge with quinoa, chia and sesame seeds, raisins and cinnamon. That is very important to me, as I know that I need to stay fit and well to do my job. I then do a 20-minute brisk walk to the station to catch my 6:24 train to London. I end my day with another healthy meal full of freshly cooked organic vegetables, chamomile tea and walk with my husband to our town centre reflecting on the day that we have had and just generally catching up. Fridays are different as I end my day with a very long swim which helps me to unwind and get ready to enjoy my weekend.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?

Always aim to do the best that you can, no matter what it is. Make sure that you, your team and the client get credit for it. Do not be afraid to publicise great work. Use your marketing department to promote you and your work inside and outside your organisation. Develop a brand for yourself. Make sure people know who you are, what you stand for and your passions. Be kind to everyone you meet and work with. Always be professional. Thank people for their help and always make sure they are recognised for their achievements.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

Yes, I have been led and managed by some incredible people throughout my career. Many have given me formal and informal advice and support which I have taken on board. I have also been on many leadership training courses where I was given independent advice on my strengths and things that I could improve. Finally, I have observed some great people in action and have learned a great deal from them.

Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbee networker?

Definitely. I will always remember my first day at CSC where I was told that the only way to get on in this large organisation was to network. So I picked up the phone and started to introduce myself and explain to everyone and anyone what I could do and what I wanted to do. It is a skill I have learned and developed over many years and it has put me in a great position to find work that I not only enjoyed but challenged me and helped to develop my career. My top three tips are: don’t be shy about talking to people as you will always find that they are happy to do that; maintain your network and grow it inside and outside the organisation and use social media such as LinkedIn to maintain your network and to connect to people.

What does the future hold for you?

I am thrilled about my new role as the Technology Director at Essentia, which is doing ground-breaking work to help transform the NHS and make it fit for the future. I truly believe that technology has a huge part to play in the future of healthcare and there are so many opportunities to help change the way that patient care is delivered. My focus will be to enjoy it and make a real success of it.

Aparna Mahadevan

Inspirational Women: Aparna Mahadevan | Senior Solutions Architect in the Alexa Skills Team at Amazon


Aparna Mahadevan, is a Senior Solutions Architect in the Alexa Skills Team at Amazon.


Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I did just once, three years into my professional career, when I realised I wasn’t using my skills to my absolute best in the job I was doing at the time. The outcome of that exercise was my decision to do an MBA, which eventually opened up multiple avenues for me. Now, my activities at work revolve much more closely around my professional goals. That approach taught me to be receptive to the countless opportunities that exist in today’s world.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

One of the biggest challenges I faced so far was at the start of my career journey when I had to think about where I wanted to be in the future and how to get there. I had so many options to decide between and I didn’t have a framework to help give me clarity. So I decided to take advice from different people with different backgrounds who I had a lot of respect for. I listened carefully to their success or failure stories, wrote down what I thought my biggest assets were and what my goals were for my personal life.

Having put all of these together, I was able to narrow it down to a few options that I considered and made a final decision to do an MBA. Being open to different perspectives and relying on a framework helped me make a decision that was not just emotionally driven, but had some long-term thinking behind it.

The other challenge I faced was having a constant desire to manage all aspects of my life – be it my career, my classes, managing relationships and running a household - with perfection. I soon however realised that the need for perfection in all aspects of my life was taking a real emotional toll on me, so I approached women leaders I knew to get their help and advice, and I was surprised to see how many of them understood what I was going through. It really resonated with me! Now, I am more organised in both my personal and professional life.

Every morning, I decide the three most important tasks for the day that I want to execute perfectly, instead of splitting my energy and focus on every little aspect of my daily life. The little things in a day that don’t go perfectly now don’t fluster me as much as they used to.

What advice would you give someone who wishes to move in to a leadership position for the first time?

From my experience, I can say with confidence that no amount of preparation before taking on leadership roles and activities can make you the best leader. You only need the courage to take risks and responsibilities, and experience hones and shapes your leadership abilities.

When faced with two equally qualified candidates, how would you decide who should have the role?

I would decide based on two factors – what unique quality they each bring to the team, and which one of these two qualities completes the picture and makes the team more rounded.

How do you manage your own boss?

A core objective for my role is to help my boss by taking on a number of responsibilities on his behalf to ensure the team achieves its goals, so I work closely with him to understand the framework he’s set to achieve the team’s goals.

Not only do I seek assistance from my boss when handling a task or prioritising my work, but I also challenge him when I strongly believe it does not help deliver what we want to achieve. I am fortunate enough to have worked with unique bosses throughout my career, but the common thread with all of them has been that honesty is always appreciated and builds trust.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

I’ve experimented with different working styles and this one works best for me - I start my workday reading emails and writing down the list of all tasks on my plate for the day. I then prioritise tasks based on three categories – must dos, nice to dos and will not do. The last bucket is a conscious attempt to be an essentialist and internalise the decision to not over-indulge. Towards the end of the day, I assess my task completion rate and if any tasks need to be moved to the next day. On longer days, I attempt to make a mental note at the end to see what went well and what can be improved.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?

Identify what makes leaders in your organisation successful to better understand what success can also look like for you. Adopting and tailoring those qualities to your own personality, combined with having the right attitude and patience, I believe helps raise your own profile in your organisation.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

Yes! I am the biggest believer in having a mentor, who can not only guide you in making big decision such as which career path to take; but also help in removing everyday hurdles such as efficiency and productivity. It is important to adopt a mentor that works best for you to suit your leadership style and abilities.

Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbee networker?

Networking is an absolute must. It not only helps in knowing what the world is like outside of what you do, but also a chance for the world to know who you are. My three tips for networking are:

  1. Reach out to people and ask for help – most people love sharing their experiences and insights, and these always help at some point in life, if not immediately
  2. Be in touch regularly with your network – you will be amazed to see how you’ll get help in different points of life. Also, it’s not great when you only reach out to someone when you are in need of urgent help
  3. When networking, be prepared but also be yourself – the other person needs to know what you uniquely bring to the table and needs to remember you. They need to know about you as much as you know about them.
What does the future hold for you?

The future holds countless opportunities. Technology has been revolutionising different sectors and as a professional in tech, I cannot wait to be a part of the never-ending wave.

Tell us three things about yourself that would surprise us
  1. I trained for Indian classical singing for seven years but after that, I have not sung outside the bathroom in the last 10 years.
  2. I set up and ran a library with a small collection of books out of my friend’s place when I was 11 years old.
  3. I can speak five different Indian languages and read/write in three of them.

Charlotte Woffindin featured

Inspirational Women: Charlotte Woffindin | Senior Program Manager at Amazon (London)


Charlotte Woffindin, is a Senior Program Manager at Amazon (London).

Charlotte Amazon

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

To be honest, no. I have always done things that interest me and that I enjoy – I think that is really important, otherwise the days just drag. I spent five years working for a big high-street bank before joining Amazon. Whilst there I “tried on” different roles in agricultural banking, strategy, and communications before finding I really enjoyed designing training curriculums. That’s how I got into Amazon and working with the tech community designing onboarding training for Amazon’s global SDE hires. I have loved every minute of it and learn something new every hour!

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

I love a challenge! I studied IT and web design at A-level then went on to major in business at university, so starting at Amazon was a huge challenge as the engineers I worked with appeared to speak a different language, and designing training programs where I knew nothing about the content really stretched me. But I found that asking questions was the way for me to find out more, and identify the people who could really help me. The people who first helped me three years ago are still helping me today – they just bring more engineers to the conversation!

What advice would you give someone who wishes to move into a leadership position for the first time?

Give it a go. I find that I surprise myself more than I surprise the people around me – they know what I’m capable of, more than I do. My advice would be to build a great network around you, find role models and watch what they do. Everything is new once, and until you try it out you’ll never know if you can do it. One of the greatest pleasures throughout my career is when I’m able to help someone reach their goal – whether it’s coaching them to deliver a great presentation, to become a great facilitator or to achieve a result they thought impossible. It’s a great thing to watch and be a part of.

When faced with two equally qualified candidates, how would you decide who should have the role?

Their passion and enthusiasm, and the way they earn trust. At Amazon, that is so important – earning trust opens so many doors, and can often be overlooked. Many of my successes here have been through having the right conversations with great people. When hiring at Amazon, we have fourteen Leadership Principles that help to guide how we work, how our leaders lead and how we all make decisions on behalf of our customers.

These principles aren’t just something we put up on a wall – we use them every day, whether we’re discussing ideas for new projects, deciding on the best solution for a customer’s problem, or interviewing candidates.

Being someone who fulfils these principles is normally the deciding factor for hires.

How do you manage your own boss?

My boss is based in the US, so we don’t get much time to talk. I “manage” him by keeping them informed – regardless of how small a thing it is. I keep him in the know about wins, misses and things I’ve learnt. Especially when I’ve build a new relationship which could benefit the team in other ways.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

My day usually starts with my cycling to work – it’s a great way to get the blood pumping, some calories burned and me focusing my head on what I need to do. Then I tackle my emails; as my team is mainly Seattle-based, most of my emails come through when I’m asleep. An hour of email-admin then I can know what needs to be done that day (that I might not have known about the day before) and continue working on my big projects. Towards the end of my day is when my team starts to come online, so it’s a few calls with them and state-side partners before I cycle the nine miles home.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?

Say yes to new opportunities. You are the greatest cheerleader for you and your career. Sometimes you will get lucky and someone will notice you, but most of the time it’s through being seen (and heard). I remember the first time I was asked to speak at an event, and the reason they asked me was because they had seen me doing the introductions at a conference the previous week.

I put my hand up to introduce the keynote and that was the start of something I do pretty regularly now. Saying yes, although scary, can be really powerful for opening up some great opportunities. So whether it’s speaking at new hire inductions, delivering training or working on a difficult project, say yes and don’t look back. You will regret the things you didn’t do more than they things you did!

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

Absolutely! Although it’s usually pretty informal, I’ll ask for help and advice from people around me, and I also try and attend great training about coaching, speaking and other topics I’m interested in. When I’m at conferences I’ll try and speak with interesting people there, as it’s amazing who you meet and what you gain from meeting for coffee (or wine) after.

I find myself surrounded by amazing people all the time, and make the effort to go to events where there are leaders speaking or panels, even if it means I have to work a little later in the day.

Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbie networker?

Networking can be scary, but the secret is that most people feel the same way. My top tips would be: [1] go with a friend, it’s easier when you know someone and getting into the first conversation together is a great ice-breaker; [2] take a look at the attendee list before (if it’s available), map out who you want to talk to and have a couple of great questions ready and a short intro about you ready; and [3] join a conversation that is already underway, listen for a while and join in when you feel comfortable. Or if you are like me, stand by the bar – everyone grabs a drink and it’s amazing who you can start talking to there!

What does the future hold for you?

Who knows! I’m just about to start a new role in Amazon Web Services, so that should be a great learning curve and something different. I want to continue working with great people and challenging myself in new areas at Amazon. But as long as I am enjoying my job and continuing to learn, I could be doing anything!

Tell us three things about yourself that would surprise us!
  • I’m a classically trained singer and often asked to sing at weddings
  • I’ve had dinner inside the England Rugby dressing room and
  • I cycled the 100-mile Ride London challenge in seven hours 24 mins for Alzheimer’s Society this July!

Catherine Breslin featured

Inspirational Women: Catherine Breslin | Manager, Machine Learning at Amazon Alexa


Catherine Breslin, is the Manager of a team of machine learning scientists working on the speech and language technology behind Amazon Alexa (Cambridge, UK).

Catherine Amazon

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I have never sat down and planned out my career in depth, but I’ve always had some idea of my next step and how I should achieve it. I grew up being interested in computers and technology, and I chose to study Engineering at university. It was only in my final year there that I learned about the field of machine learning and I became interested in how we can teach computers to do complex tasks such as understanding speech and language.

I went on to do a masters and PhD on the topic of automatic speech recognition. Since then, I’ve been fortunate that the field has been growing rapidly and many different opportunities have come my way. At times, I’ve had to think hard about which direction to take, but have normally chosen the opportunity that has given me the most scope to learn new skills.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

It is great to be challenged, but it can be daunting and uncomfortable at times. I find the best way to deal with challenges is to prepare well – by reading as much as I can about new topics and talking to others who have faced similar issues. Then I break the larger problem down into smaller chunks that can be tackled one at a time. I do the same for all challenges, whether it’s something at work like tackling a new and complex technical problem, or something at home like working out how best to juggle family life.

When faced with two equally qualified candidates, how would you decide who should have the role?

I would hire them both! As machine learning is such a fast growing field with large potential, we struggle to find enough qualified candidates to fill our roles.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

My day starts with a strong cup of coffee as I’m not a morning person! After the school run, I sit down at my desk to go over emails. Our daily team ‘standup’ meeting is also in the morning, where I catch up with the team and the status of our work.

We work closely with other teams in both the US and in the EU, and partnering with colleagues in multiple time-zones means that good communication is key.

Hence my workday often ends with a video call between different teams to keep our joint projects on track.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

I have had a number of great mentors who have helped me at different times in my career. I think that having someone to talk to and bounce ideas off who is outside of your immediate team can be very useful as they have a different perspective and are less influenced by the dynamics of your particular team. Outside of formal mentoring programs, I’m fortunate to know a great network of people to turn to who have a breadth of experience and lots of helpful advice.

What does the future hold for you?

Machine learning has a lot of potential to impact the world, and I think we are only just at the beginning of seeing the benefit it can bring. When I was growing up, the thought of being able to speak naturally to a device and have it respond was still the stuff of sci-fi films. But now, speech and language technology has advanced and is in products like Alexa, and used by a large number of people. Voice is the future and can fundamentally improve the way people will interact with technology.

We are still a long way off being able to converse with a computer in an entirely natural way, but the systems are getting smarter every day.

Women in Tech

Pioneering change for female leadership


Women in Tech
Just 24 per cent of respondents to a recent Skillsoft survey reported that they felt their organisations had a strategy in place to develop women leaders.

Whilst there may be unofficial women’s groups within companies, often programmes specifically designed for female development are not implemented. This seems a counterintuitive business strategy when research shows that getting more women into leadership positions can make a significant difference to the bottom line.

In 2012, Bloomberg published a study of 2,360 companies, conducted by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, which compared company financial results based on the makeup of leadership teams. It found that companies with a market capitalisation of more than $10 billion and with women board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 per cent worldwide. DDI, a global human resources firm, also found that in the top 20 per cent of companies – in terms of financial performance – 37 per cent of their leaders were women. In the bottom 20 per cent, women comprised just 19 per cent of the leadership.

More than 9 out of 10 of respondents in Skillsoft’s recent survey agreed that there is a lack of women in leadership. Most companies have a lot of capable women who simply are not making it into leadership roles, and organisations cannot afford to underutilise this significant percentage of their workforce. The key question that needs to be answered is how to best use this untapped resource, which comprises almost half of the country’s total workforce.

Businesses need to ensure talent pipelines are realising the full potential of the female workforce. The best performing companies in this area are taking small, simple, yet effective steps to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions.

 Implementing change

 Tapping into this talent requires changes across the board. This includes changing behaviour, process and the culture within an organisation. Companies have had some success by fostering greater senior leader accountability, by becoming less biased in decision-making processes and by changing their cultures to be more inclusive. In reality, however, there is often a lot of talk and little action.

The 2016 McKinsey ‘Women in the Workplace’ report found that approximately 75 per cent of US CEOs felt gender diversity was a priority. But is this reflected within the organisations? When Skillsoft conducted primary research on the topic, 71 per cent of respondents felt that their organisations were not doing enough to address the lack of women in senior leadership roles.

While the intention to change is often present, when attempting to implement strategies, good intentions often meet a lack of will across an organisation. A variety of common factors contribute to the ineffectiveness of change efforts.

 Addressing the gender gap

HR leaders are often pressured to deliver results that demonstrate they are addressing the gender gap. They need to produce evidence that programmes are in place and projects are underway. Many efforts do in fact produce useful outcomes, but they often fall short of their full potential because they are not fully integrated into the organisation. When training is not consistent, widespread and fully integrated into the culture of an organisation, it can very easily turn into a check box activity.

Women’s leadership training has a much higher efficacy when integrated the whole organisation. Too often, a selected group of women are offered sporadic professional development opportunities, where they attend one or a few sessions without any specific follow-up, measurement of progress, or any attempt to link the programme to particular leadership skill gaps. Women return to their daily work environment, and due to lack of on-going reinforcement and environmental support required to cement any changes, the organisation as a whole fails to make any meaningful change.

 Identifying areas to change

Women often predominate in human resources and marketing but are less represented in operations, finance, R&D and other areas of the business. Some businesses do exceptionally well at talent development, but struggle with promotion. Others excel at helping women get into positions of power but face challenges in keeping them there. Identifying what the organisation already does well and where it needs to change enables the challenge to be broken down into more manageable aspects. These can be assessed, changed and measured for success against specific progress criteria.

Myriad changes have been identified as effective, including expanding the talent pipeline in recruitment, job diversity, and middle and senior leadership by broadening where the talent is identified. By identifying and changing the unconscious biases embedded in the decision-making processes around talent, mind-sets will open up and women are empowered to realise they are capable of moving into positions of leadership. Continued professional growth and development, including focused training with follow-up and implementation support, then helps ensure these benefits are sustained.

Starting small

Widespread, lasting changes are not easy to make. Large organisations are often successful at creating lasting change by starting the process with one team, in a single business unit or defined area of the organisation. They learn what works, and the effort can then be scaled into other areas of the organisation.

Businesses need to start small to provide an opportunity to experiment and create a comfortable pace of change. Commitment to company-wide leadership programmes that are relevant, time efficient and flexible is key. Leadership education must focus on key competencies required for career growth at all levels. To meet the time demands of all workers, education programs should be efficient and tailored to fit the experience level of each employee. Starting small creates built-in change agents for a wider rollout and means everyone can become comfortable with the pace of change. It also yields examples that can be shared organisation-wide to increase understanding and reduce resistance. Like any area of sustained change though, the development of women for leadership roles requires continuous, on-going education.

About the author

This article was provided by Tony Glass, VP and GM EMEA at Skillsoft.

Zelica Jones

Inspirational Woman: Zelica Jones | Founder of VASS


Zelica Jones is the founder of Vass; a virtual assistant business which provides administrative, accounting, legal, HR, event co-ordination, marketing (including social media management) support, which in turn frees up your time to focus on the activities that bring in the most income for your business.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No.  When I was younger, I wanted to be a Barrister and then an Athlete.  But I was really good at Maths so my Head Teacher suggested I should be an Accountant.  I was never sure whether that was something I actually wanted to do and didn’t make a firm decision about my career until I started my business in 2014.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

I have faced many challenges! Racism, sexism, feelings of not being good enough and doubting myself.  But my mum and kids are my biggest cheerleaders and soon have me feeling great about myself. Whenever I feel down, I just spend time with my family who will have me hysterically laugh and feeling a lot better. Exercise also helps.  If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I head to the gym and run.

What advice would you give someone who wishes to move in to a leadership position for the first time?

Make a five year plan. Decide where you want to be in five years time and then work backwards. Where you want to be in four years, three years, two year, one year, six months.  Make sure you look at that plan at those intervals to make sure you are still on track or if your goals need adjusting because the plan has changed.

How is your own company/organisation improving diversity and balance?

I am black, female and a working mum so I tick a few boxes myself! I also want as many different people working with me so we can appeal to as many clients as possible.

How do you manage your own boss?

Badly! I am the boss and find it hard that I’m not accountable to anyone sometimes.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

I’m awake by 6am to get my son ready for school and we are out of the house by 6.50am.  Once I drop him off at 8am and get the train into Central London, I check emails and social media.  Before I go to bed, I go through my diary and organise my next day and add any tasks to my to do list which have come up.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?

Be visible and speak up. Women stereotypically just get on with things and can fade into the background.  Make yourself known to those who are the decision makers.  Be vocal about your ambitions and show initiative.  Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

It has helped gain clarity over various aspects of my life; made me accountable; keeps me motivated; have someone I can offload/brain dump to.

Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbee networker

Networking is great but network where your ideal client or people who are where you want to be in the future will be.  Networking isn’t about having fun, it’s work.  Have any agenda or plan of action about what you hope to get out of attending that event

What does the future hold for you?

The next two years I plan to grow the company to a stage where I only handle a maximum of two clients and start The VASS Community Project (VCP).  VCP will a fully funded version of VASS where we help train people in Accounting, Admin, Marketing/PR, Design, Social Media Management skills to give them a flexible way to work.

Perhaps they have been a stay at home mum who wants to get back into the working world but has found that she can’t afford to because childcare is too expensive.  I want to train as many people as possible in Virtual work.

Laura Holland

Working to bring expert science to everyone


The ‘expert’ has had a troublesome time in the past few years. The rise of ‘fake news’, widespread issues of trust in the media, and the apparent increase in scepticism towards the scientific community are all signs that being known as an ‘expert’ may no longer hold the meaning it used to.
Laura Holland inside the synchrotron hall at Diamond Light Source. © Diamond Light Source

Scientists are true experts. The adage of ’10,000 hours to master your sport’ applies to scientists too – that’s roughly how much science a graduate emerging from a PhD will have completed. Being an expert doesn’t always make a person right, just as mastering a sport doesn’t guarantee that you win every game or race, but it certainly means that you can’t underestimate the time and dedication in understanding their craft.

The enormous amount of knowledge accumulated by most scientists is often overlooked by scientists themselves – they can find it hard to shake off the jargon, or remember that for most people, the laws of science which are engrained through study in academia, were either never learnt or are long forgotten.

However, science is more than theory – it is a living discipline which every human interacts with daily. From the worry of a warming world, to the race to find new antibiotics, we must all engage with science whether we choose to or not.

The darker side of expertise rears its head here – one of the stand out moments in the Brexit referendum was Michael Gove stating that ‘the public have had enough of experts’. The findings from research are often uncomfortable – they urge us to change our behaviours in ways we might not like, they present frightening or unpalatable versions of the future, or they run counter to many people’s lived experience. The tension between studies linking drinking to cancer at a population level, for example, will always be contrasted with personal experience of the uncle who drank pints every day until he died age 103, and the pleasure of a glass of wine feels tainted with new threats when these links are pointed out.

So how can scientists take their work to public audiences, and create a playing field which enables them to communicate their research fairly? Their role as experts is undeniable, but a didactic and one-directional mode of engagement is clearly not effective.

Science communication and public engagement are the disciplines which aim to help scientists communicate their work with diverse audiences. Communicators are experts in language and message, and are there to help scientists see the world through the eyes of others, be that patients, school students, local communities or even funders and politicians.

I am a science communicator at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s synchrotron light source. We are home to a 562m particle accelerator which produces light brighter than the sun, allowing researchers to study the atomic and molecular structures of the world around us. We are home to over 9000 experiments every year, producing light around the clock for researchers from all over the UK and further afield.

The facility I work in is incredible. It is a feat of engineering, and the work we do to tackle issues as diverse as malaria and HIV to improved battery technology and perfecting concrete mean that it’s impossible to get bored.

One of the most amazing moments of any day is taking a school group through the doors and watching their eyes widen as we enter the enormous experimental facility – as big as Wembley stadium and unlike any other lab they’ve ever seen.

Big science has a really important role to play in linking scientists with public audiences. Our size and the range of work we do make us a perfect place to talk about how science works, what it can achieve, and most importantly, how people can get involved and contribute. Encouraging young people that science is ‘for them’ is a huge challenge – it can seem daunting to many young people, and the perception that science and engineering are hard and elitist subjects is hard to shake.

One of the most important things we can do is enable young people to meet our staff actually doing the science and engineering, and to prepare our staff well for engaging publics with their work. Our philosophy of opening our doors as often and as widely as possible is key to our engagement programme, and we currently welcome around 7,000 visitors each year.

Our next open day will be a special one for us, celebrating a decade of science at the facility. Researchers from around the country will be participating, and we will have interactive arts, virtual reality demonstrations and a chance to get into our awe-inspiring facility. We hope that the people who attend will leave feeling excited about the possibilities of science, curious about the way science is carried out, and empowered to engage with research and the way it impacts on their lives.

If you’re interested in the next Diamond open day more information can be found here.

About the author

Laura Holland, Public Engagement Manager, Diamond Light Source

Laura Holland is the Public Engagement Manager at the UK’s synchrotron light facility, Diamond Light Source. After studying cell biology and medical biosciences at university she has now worked at Diamond since 2007, and has brought her public engagement experience to @DLSProjectM, Diamond’s biggest ever public engagement project.