Women of Silicon Roundabout 2018 Conference Takeaways

 

On 26th June I joined 4500 other women and a sprinkling of men at 'Women of Silicon Roundabout 2018' to feast on a veritable smorgasbord of inspiring talks and workshops by some of the leading lights in tech and diversity.

Over the course of two days more than 160 talks, workshops and seminars were delivered by industry experts. There was something for everyone, from newly minted graduates to CEOs. Topics included personal and professional development, performance management and leadership, entrepreneurship, hands-on coding, tech trends, and talks by thought leaders.

There were also stands from some great companies looking to recruit the best skills in tech. Choosing what to go to, knowing I’d miss out on so many others was an almost impossible task.

It's all about role models

The opening keynote speakers broadly addressed the lack of women in technology and what might be holding us back. Lack of role models was a key theme.

Damien Hooper-Campbell, VP, Chief Diversity Officer at eBay exhorted us to “Remember the convention breakers”. Who in our lives, broke with convention and achieved things we didn't think possible? 4000 women turned to the stranger next to them to animatedly discuss the inspiring convention breakers in our lives. We should keep their courage at the forefront of our minds as we push the boundaries and step into the unknown.

“Now you’ve got your foot in the door, kick down the damn door to let everybody else in.” Damien Hooper-Campbell

Joanne Hannaford, Head of Technology, EMEA & Global Head of QA Engineering Goldman Sachs and Baroness Martha Lane Fox, Tech pioneer and Entrepreneur in separate talks took us through the history of an industry that was founded by women. Talking through the rich seam of female tech pioneers from Ada Lovelace who wrote the first computer programme in the early 1800s and Margaret Hamilton who developed software for the Apollo space programmes. Both talked with enthusiasm about their friend Dame ‘Steve’ Shirley who founded Freelance Programmers in 1959. She specifically employed stay at home mothers and projects included programming Concorde's black box flight recorder. At the time, computer programming was a female-dominated profession, clerical roles transitioning naturally into writing code.

Joanne talked through her career in tech and questioned why so few women today are choosing a career as software engineers. When she started as a programmer over 20 years ago there were no barriers to women in technology, nobody questioned that a woman should want to be a programmer. In more recent times STEM subjects are suffering from increasingly negative perception by girls. They are seen as Geeky and the domain of men. Now 97% of computer programmers are men and even the language of computer programming is masculine.

“We are shouting at a woman in the corner without saying please or thank you and expecting her to do what we ask” Martha Lane Fox on why she’s banished Alexa from her home.

 The early promise of the internet as a global, inclusive equal opportunity for all has turned into a space consumed by a handful of behemoth corporations that have adopted the patriarchal structures of businesses hundreds of years old.  

So how do we get more Women in Technology?

  • The issue must be tackled at source by encouraging girls to code and increasing access and appeal of STEM Subjects throughout the education system.
  • Encourage more role models for women in technology, taking inspiration from the pioneers past and present as well as those closer to home.
  • Find a supportive nurturing place to work who will encourage and develop you and not marginalise you and then…

“Just get over yourself and learn programming” Joanne Hannaford

Tech wow moments

Raia Hadsell is a senior research scientist at Deep Mind, the world leader in AI research and how it can be applied for positive change. Her area of specialism is navigation and how a machine can learn to navigate 3-dimensional spaces through visual clues.

Considered to be the toughest exam in the world, Black cab drivers take 3 years to acquire The Knowledge, which includes 25,000 streets, 20,000 places of interest and hundreds of routes in London. Black cab drivers are known to have an enlarged hippocampus as a result of the vastly increased navigational processing in the brain.

Could a machine learn to navigate the streets of a city using only visual clues to learn the routes? The following video uses no map, only Google Streetview to navigate from one city location to another. Enjoy!

https://youtu.be/2yjWDNXYh5s

I also got chatting to the lovely team at Wikimedia Foundation. I was amazed to learn that Wikipedia and the Wikimedia sites are kept up and running 24/7 by a core team of only about 20 engineers around the world and just 280 people work for the Wikimedia Foundation in total. What an astonishing achievement for such a small team!

Addressing psychological wellbeing

Marteka Swaby of  Benevolent Health works closely with the NHS identifying opportunities to use emerging technology to address mental health issues. One in four people in the UK suffer from a mental health episode during their lifetime however only 11% of the National Health budget is spent on mental health.  Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issues in the UK and affect 1 in 10 children.  They are difficult to treat because so many of these are caused by environmental factors that are very specific to the individual. Furthermore, referrals to treatment such as talking therapies is lengthy, limited and very expensive. This is where technology can have an immediate effect. Marteka took us through some pilot projects which triage patients through a series of questions assessing the mental wellbeing. Depending on the outcome it can accelerate access to treatment pathways or provide mechanisms for self-help. If, through technology we can address and provide support for those suffering mental health issues we can reach more people, immediately and cost-effectively and the socio-economic impact can be reduced. Pilot programmes are already being run using CBT and AI in apps, resources targeted at the new generation of children born into technology.  There is even a question of whether AR and VR could be used to simulate ECT electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) used to treat severely depressed patients and eventually replace it.

If mental health issues are costing the UK economy 168 million lost working days it is self-evident that investing in building technological solutions to address them is a huge opportunity and will be a big growth area.

I was delighted to have an opportunity to speak to Viola Sommer, COO of Auticon - an IT consultancy that only employs highly skilled consultants with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  The technology sector particularly lends itself to the unique cognitive skills of people with autism. Excelling and surpassing the majority of their neurotypical colleagues at pattern recognition, logical and analytical thinking as well as sustained concentration on often repetitive tasks. Their eye for detail allows them to easily spot errors and quality issues. When seeking solutions to a problem an autistic team member can bring a completely fresh perspective to that of their neurotypical team members with frankness and honesty. In fact, Auticon has a number of loyal clients who come back again and again for this unique skill set, for example, to provide a fresh independent bottom-up review of all bank’s security protocols.

Whilst the benefits of neurodiverse teams are clear there is scant understanding of or adaptation made in the vast majority of workplaces to meet the specific needs of autistic employees. As a result the stresses of trying to adapt and conform to the expected social norms of the modern workplace results in high levels of anxiety and depression, which often lead to unemployment and increased mental health issues. Auticon directly seeks to address this by getting people out of long-term unemployment and into highly skilled and valued work.  Consultants are supported with professional coaching to adapt to the client’s environment, but crucially Auticon also coaches the clients and ensures the environment has been appropriately adapted to the needs of their consultants. It’s a win-win-win. Employees benefit from the coaching and support of the Auticon team who develop individual strategies for each employee as well as gaining improved well-being from inclusion and employment.  Clients benefit by augmenting their teams with specific skillsets, improving quality, whilst being supported to get the very best out the consultants. Society benefits by reducing the burden on the state of long term unemployment and associated health issues. I hope one day all companies will embrace and adapt to a neurodiverse workforce, everyone will benefit, but in the meantime, Auticon will pave the way to teach us how it should be done.

Every organisation undergoes change, it is never easy, and in spite of the best intentions and planning, it often fails. One of the most common impacts of change is a significant reduction in employee engagement. Becca Brighty deconstructed the neuroscience that lies behind the brain’s response to change. She explained how to minimise the threat response and maximise the reward response to ensure staff remain engaged throughout the process.

Where there is uncertainty the pain and fear areas of the brain are activated. When the brain is in survival - or fight or flight - mode all but the most essential functions are switched off.  Uncertainty causes anxiety, forgetfulness, lack of engagement.  The brain simply can’t be productive, inventive or think creatively.

Humans are also tribal by nature and the colleagues who were part of a person’s ‘tribe’ can become a threat during periods of change, disrupting the delicate social structures of the workplace.

When there is certainty the reward areas of the brain are triggered. The brain needs to be able to predict outcomes. When change initiatives are open and transparent and are aligned to company values and culture the brain can jump to the right conclusions and help reinforce the intended outcomes of the change. With a shared vision and values, colleagues are more likely to bond as a tribe rather than see each other as threats. Similarly increasing social activities during periods of change reinforces company culture, strengthens connections and the tribe mentality.

In summary:

·        Align organizational change to your company values. This makes it easier for the brain to understand and process.

·        Involve staff where possible in defining the change. This will reduce uncertainty, ensure they’re aligned with the purpose of the change and have a stake in its success

·        Reward staff with social activities and fun to keep them engaged and bonded as a team.

The workshop on overcoming perfectionism and the power of vulnerability by Bethan and Gareth Davies of The Bravest Path was packed to rafters and yet you could hear a pin drop as the spellbound audience faced some tough home truths. Rarely have I seen a group of strangers come together in such an open supportive way, as they shared their crippling battles to stave off the feelings of shame, judgement and blame that ride shotgun with perfectionism. There were tears as people recounted the life paralysis and missed opportunities that came from the fear of putting something out into the world that was less than perfect.

Drawing on the groundbreaking research of Brene Brown into the impact of shame, courage and vulnerability on wellbeing we were asked to practice self-compassion, simply show up and do our best, dismiss perfectionism and embrace healthy striving.

We were shown how perfectionism is other focused and focuses on "What will they think?", whereas by contrast healthy striving is self-focused and asks "How can I improve?"

A simple and effective exercise had us drawing a 1”x1” square. We were asked to write in this box the names of the people who we base our self-worth on. The people who knew us best, whose opinion is most valuable to us.  These are the people whose opinion actually matters, who will constructively help us be the best version of ourselves, the people who will pull us up if we are being unkind to ourselves - our Integrity Partners. The only people whose opinion truly mattered was those in the box and we ourselves should be firmly in it.

Here’s how we can all be braver

This conference is not to be missed and should be on the annual agenda for any women working in the tech space.

#WinTechSeries - where can I book my tickets for next year?

 

 
Rebecca Willis