Grant Powell spoke to Dr Sue Black about her career to date and the exciting Techmums initiative that’s encouraging more women to forge their own successful careers in tech.

I left school at 16. Maths had always been my favourite subject at school, so when I found myself at 26, a single parent with three kids, living on a council estate in Brixton, I knew that education offered me the chance to improve our circumstances.

I was excited about technology and about computing, so I did a maths course at college and I did a computing degree, and then I did a PHD in software engineering and became an academic. That was nearly 30 years ago now. Since then I’ve had a career in computing, in academia mainly.

How did you come up with the idea of Techmums? What was the thinking behind that, and what inspired you to start it?
Techmums came about around six years ago. I was really fed up with the way the media quite often portrayed technology as a bad thing, and to me it had changed my life, it had changed my circumstances, and also, it was exciting 30 years ago and it’s still exciting now. It offers a ridiculous amount of opportunities for everybody, in different ways, depending on what their interests are. 

To start with, because we didn’t have coding in schools at that time, I thought I would try teaching kids to code and to design basic apps. I ran workshops with seven year old kids in a local school, and they absolutely loved it. When the parents arrived at the end of the day I encouraged them to have a go too. What was eye-opening was that, in general, the Dads would step in and have a go, but the Mums were a lot more hesitant, maybe a bit more worried about not knowing what they were doing. So that set off the spark of an idea!

Was it interesting to see the unconscious stereotypes in action?
Yes - and it really made me think - we don’t have enough women in technology anyway, so if I could focus on Mums that could hopefully encourage more women to go into tech as a career. Also, if Mums are on board then, if they’re more confident about technology at home, the kids are going to be more inclined to have a go at tech stuff and have a more positive attitude within the family towards technology.

There are studies from the developing world that show that if you want to get a whole village to take up an idea, the best people to target are the Mums; get the Mums on board and they will spread the word across the community. All of this sat together as a good idea in my head. I also found out from some research that the main positive influencing factors on kids doing well in literacy and numeracy at age 11 are the Mums’ education and the home environment. So that fit the picture as well.

I decided to put a 12 hour course together for Mums and found a school in Tower Hamlets were I could start running it. I started that five years ago and had great success straight away.

When you were starting this up, were you mindful of where you had come from yourself, and did you have a sense of giving something back to the community?
I think someone else looking at what I was doing would have been able to see that straight away, but I didn’t recognise that in myself. But then when I started bonding with the Mums, I started thinking - some of these Mums are just like I was 25 years ago - so I’m sure that’s totally linked up. I was really keen to start in Tower Hamlets which is a similar sort of area to where I was living in Brixton, in terms of the demographic, so I think absolutely I was trying to give that opportunity to people who were like I was back then. To be able to boost their confidence and see them go on to take up opportunities is wonderful. It’s a great feeling to be part of helping people to realise how they can improve their lives and their kids’ lives.

When you started Techmums did you have any goals beyond wanting to help Mums; wanting to introduce them to tech? Was there an ultimate vision for where Techmums might go in the future?
I always wanted to go out to a lot of people, and that’s still my goal. We’ve got a target of reaching 1 million Mums by 2020 and that’s only two years now, so we need to get our skates on! I put the programme together, tested it out by teaching it in various schools around the country and in Ireland and Wales too. We ran for a couple of years in several schools and then some colleges became interested so we ran with several colleges, and then the austerity cuts hit and so the schools and colleges that were funding us didn’t have the money to run it anymore.

For the last couple of years we’ve been trying to work out what the best options are. We know the programme works because we’ve had some great results, but we want to scale and we can’t do it on zero budget, so we need to bring in some money to make stuff happen, and at the same time we want to get out to lots of people.

We’ve been thinking about how to do that for some time and so we’ve been putting together, over the few months, an online course which hopefully will go live this month. It’s not far off being finished now. It’s an introductory course - how to set up a twitter account, how to set up a facebook account, how to keep your kids safe online, that kind of stuff. So that should be up in the next few weeks.

What more do you think can be done to greater inform women of the value in tech and in pursuing a career in IT?
We really need that to happen, and it’s not like there’s one thing we can do to make it all happen. But what I quite like about how things are moving now is that there are lots of people that have come up with all sorts of different ideas over the last few years and really started acting on them.

Also, I think organisations are really taking this seriously as well. I’m being invited more and more to speak about changing the culture in the organisation to make it more female friendly or Mum friendly, thinking about hiring Mums, thinking about setting targets for recruiting women as well as men.

And mentoring schemes are pretty common now - women’s leadership groups are becoming much more common. When I set up BCS Women 20 years ago there was almost nothing like that at all - or any of those things - they just didn’t exist. I can really see that we’ve made a lot of progress in 20 years - it’ll never be as fast as I want it to be, but I’m happy that we’re moving in the right direction.

The decision to be involved in tech or not be involved in tech is being taken away because it’s now around us all of the time. Does that make things easier, or does it increase the challenges that you face?
It’s becoming more and more important to have at least a basic understanding and a bit of confidence with using tech. One of the things we teach on the techmums programme is that no-one knows all of the answers. It’s not like in the old days where you were taught things and you had to remember all of them… you know, because we’ve got Google now. Anything that you don’t know how to do, the chances are that someone else had the same issue some time ago and has written about it, so you can find out what to do at the touch of a button. It’s not like you have to know how to do everything anymore, but it’s hard trying to change people’s mindsets.

The information is out there but you have to know how to tap into it
Yes, how to search for it, and the confidence to know that you can just search for it and you don’t have to know it all yourself.

Is there an argument that in a more diverse and inclusive world there would be no need for Techmums, or perhaps that the day Techmums isn’t necessary anymore is the day that you’ve achieved your goal?
Absolutely. Yes, I completely believe that. I wish I didn’t have to do it (laughs). Because I feel like I’ve almost lost focus. I did a technical PHD -  and I’m quite a technical person - and then I became a manager, and then got very passionate about trying to help other people take up opportunities that are around them. I kind of feel that if I hadn’t had to do all of that I could have had a very solid technical career, but I kind of got side-tracked, I suppose, by wanting to help other people to improve themselves.

So yes, I’d love to see the day where I don’t have to talk about it anymore or do any of this! (laughs).

No, obviously I really do enjoy it.

Read more about Techmums

Covering new ground with Techmums TV

We’ve been running a tv show called Techmums TV. In early February we broadcast a pilot of the show on Facebook Live for five weeks, directly from Facebook HQ in London. The aim has been to reach Mums across the country.

It’s a one hour live-streamed tv show - it’s basically like a digital skills magazine programme which focusses on areas such as how to buy and sell online, how to stay safe online, as well as focus segments on Mums who’ve set up their own businesses, Mums who’ve been successful online, for example.

We’re delighted to have Facebook as partners. We’ve also got five other partner organisations which have been working with us to produce the content. We’ll hopefully broadcast it in a much bigger way after we’ve had all of the feedback from the pilot episodes and reviewed what we’ve done.