When future historians write about women’s contributions to technology, Dr Sue Black is sure to get the top billing. The tech evangelist delivered a stimulating keynote at The Drum Big Bang conference, in partnership with Marin Software, on Thursday, to talk about her life journey and how technology can be an enabler and a positive force in our lives.
“If I can do it, so can you” were the words with which Dr Sue Black opened the closing key note talk, which charted her journey from when she was a single mother in her 20s with three young children and how she got into computing that helped her get a PhD and enter the profession as a full-time as a lecturer. She came on stage minutes after Dr Black received some devastating personal news which made the 30 minutes that followed even more moving and inspiring.
Tech for good
To say that Dr Black is a pioneering force behind the power of good in technology is an understatement. Her achievements to date include a position on the Government’s Digital Advisory Board, a trustee for Comic Relief, honorary Doctor of Science awards from three different universities, an OBE and meeting the Queen. Not to mention her personal favourite – being interviewed on Desert Island Discs.
Dr Black sits at the forefront of the progress of our digital economy and crucially, she has used her knowledge to help other women, and to help reduce the gender imbalance in science and technology today.
These achievements have not come easy. At age 12 she lost her mother and was plunged into a new family dynamic. She ended up leaving school at 16, with few qualifications, and working part time to pay rent. She was married by 20 and had three children by 23. By 25, she was living in a women’s refuge with her children, attempting to start her life over.
“I’ve had lots of challenges in my life. Lots of difficult things that I’ve had to cope with. But in some way, I pick myself up and keep going. That’s actually the main thing that I’ve done, and the main thing that’s kept me going through the difficult times to get to the good times again.”
It’s something that Dr Black repeats throughout her talk. “I felt I had to do something.”
Dr Black returned to education, this time receiving the equivalent of two A levels in maths in a year – all from home-based study – and going on to get a degree and then a PhD in computer science from Southbank. All while working part time in a lectureship position to pay for childcare.
It was during her study and attending technology conferences, that Dr Black first noticed the gender disparity in the business, with the attendance being around 80-90% men and 10-20% women.
“I then went to a Women in Science conference in Brussels. It was easier to connect with people, because it was a mainly female environment - rather than feeling in the 10%. If you’re in the majority, life is just easier. I came back thinking that I’ve got to do something about this. I want to connect with other women working in computing.”
Saving Bletchely Park
It was this realisation that inspired Dr Black to set up a network called BCS (British Computer Science) Women’s Group. That was in 1998.
It was representing this group of women that Dr Black first went up to Bletchley Park, once the top-secret home of the World War Two Codebreakers (who Dr Black assumed were all ‘blokes in tweed jackets smoking pipes’).
During her visit she bumped into two men tinkering away with a ‘strange feat of engineering’ – which turned out to be a remake of one of the famous Turing machines, the blueprint for the world’s first computer. These machines, according to Dr Black, were all destroyed at the end of WW2 with the people that worked on them instructed to ‘cut up the machines into little pieces, no bigger than a fist, and buried in the ground’.
The codebreaking achievements are said to have shortened the war by two years. At a point when 11 million people a year were dying each year from the war – the work done at Bletchley Park potentially saved 22 million lives.
More than half the people that worked at Bletchley Park at the time, were women.
“With my interest in women in tech, I’d never heard of any woman’s contribution to technology, ever. I went away that day – googled it and couldn’t even find anything online. I felt I had to do something to preserve the women’s story, to let everyone know their contribution. And in fact, 10,000 people worked there. The contribution of all of them.”
At the time, Bletchley park was facing significant financial difficulties, and faced closure. “I did a full tour of the site with a veteran who told me about all the history… and it might have to close because they don’t have the money? I had to do something about it.”
The Save Bletchley Park campaign resulted in the site receiving £4.1m from the heritage lottery fund in 2008. Bletchley Park was saved.
“I’d been in tech for 20 years and I was fed up from the media and people being negative about tech. I hardly ever saw the positive side. It was all about robots taking our jobs. I wanted to try and help people to understand how positive technology can be.”
In addition to her work teaching, Dr Black ran coding and app design workshops with seven-year-old kids, as a response to Michael Gove saying at the time ‘computing was too difficult to teach to anyone under the age of 14’.
Which was, in Dr Black’s own words, “a load of bollocks.”
She went on to launch Tech Mums in 2012, helping build confidence in mothers around use of technology by offering free programs and training on basic IT admin skills, app design, web design, social media, and how to stay safe online.
“I found out that the main positive influencing factors on kids doing well in literacy and numeracy at age 11 are their mums’ education and home environment so I thought, why don’t I try and do something to help build mums’ confidence with technology.”
Recently, Dr Black was awarded the Social Impact award at the Grace Hopper conference in Orlando, Florida. At the end of her acceptance speech, she held up a sign that said, ‘I am going to change the world’. She asked the audience, over 17,000 women, most of them students, to join her in saying it too.
“I thought, how cool is that – I had the opportunity to get 17,000 young women to say that they are going to change the world.”
Currently, the Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University, Dr Black said: “Coming from very difficult circumstances, I never ever would have believed I’d become who I am. Education and technology have changed my life. It’s changed my family’s life. I love technology.
If I can do it, so can you.”