Tell us a little about your background
I'm from a very small town called Crieff in rural Scotland, a little town of 6,000 people. I'm not the first to leave, but my family was born and bred there. Very working class, if we still have a class system - I don't know whether people consider that we do anymore. There have not been a lot of people who come from my kind of background in my career as a lawyer, I mean we couldn’t afford to have carpets until I was three...
I grew up in a council housing estate until I was about 10. I was obviously smart, which wasn't always easy in that environment and I got an assisted place (which doesn't exist anymore, unfortunately) to the local private school. For me, that was what made the real difference.
Around the same time, my dad got himself into the position financially for my parents to be able to buy their first house and that made it much easier, because I didn’t have to go in the private school uniform from the council estate to school every day. In all honesty, I had been terrified of that prospect.
What about further education?
At 18, I went to university in Glasgow. I was the first in my family to go to uni and was also terrified of that. I recall on my first day in high school and, similarly, my first day at uni, locking myself in the bathroom and weeping in terror.
I probably over-proved a point; I have three law degrees from three different countries, nobody needs that. I wanted to go and spend some time in the States, so I went and found myself a scholarship. I had a scholarship from Rotary International and spent my years from 22 to 23 at New York University, which was then the most expensive law school in the States at the time. I had a full scholarship that covered that and my accommodation from Rotary, so it was a big deal for me and really life-changing.
Having come from this small town, going to Glasgow was daunting. It didn't occur to me to apply for Oxford or Cambridge. I knew people who'd been rejected from my school who were probably about the same level, intellectually, as I was, but who were much posher than me. That most likely stood against them, but I didn't understand any of this; I didn't have anyone around me who could really explain all of that to me. I also didn't have a very good understanding of the world and the opportunities that were out there.
Were you aware of the issues surrounding social mobility?
It was the ‘80s, it was an age of social mobility - that was being sold to us all. I think my parents were very conscious of it. They were very conscious that I was bright enough that I could do anything and my dad in particular would tell me that I could do anything, I could be anything.
I am perhaps too independent, but I was very much brought up to be somebody who could look after themselves and I have never depended financially on other people because of that - that's been a big driver for me.
How did that affect you on a day-to-day level?
One of the things that I remember is being 17 and being taken out to a restaurant for my birthday by my then boyfriend, who was much posher than me. I'd never seen silver service before. I'd been taught how to use cutlery and go from the outside in, but I didn't know that when they put my plate down with the main course on it and there were no vegetables, that there were vegetables coming.
Afterwards, he teased me about it and of course I denied it. That is a first world problem I know, but it's a reasonably gentle way of explaining that there are some things you just don't know and make you feel like an outsider, like everyone is looking at you disdainfully.
That’s not a nitty-gritty poverty problem but when you're trying to navigate a world that isn't your world, on top of what everyone else is trying to deal with, it’s the sort of small thing that can stop you in your tracks.
It’s about confidence being instilled in young people, not learnt letter. A lot of where you get that from is a mixture of your parents, your teachers and inspirational adults who input into your life at a relatively young age.
Who helped you along the way?
I had some teachers who really inspired me at different stages. Not just one, I had multiple teachers who really thought I could do something and encouraged me. I remember my private high school as being progressive and bringing businesspeople in.
There was a guy who was CEO at Christian Salvesen who came to speak to us when I was maybe 15 or 16. And he was talking about having ‘fire in your belly’ and that that was what business was all about for him, that drive. Here I am, between 35 and 40 years later remembering him talking to us because he was really inspirational, it really stuck with me.
How do you think the social mobility options now compare with your experience?
How are things now? I worry that it's worse. I really worry about it. It stunned me through my legal career how rarely I met anybody else in England and the US who had come from a working-class background. Scotland was quite different and Glasgow uni, where I did my undergrad law degree, specifically brought kids in from certain parts of the city with lower grades who clearly were bright enough to achieve those grades in relative adversity.
It had a number of places for those kids to access education, which I consider a very important thing. I don't know if that's still the case, but it really mattered and it meant that law actually was something that people who wanted to create social justice and make social change did there.
When I went to the College of Law in England, it was very different. Maybe all those people who wanted to do the social justice stuff had naturally self-selected out into different environments, but I have been really stunned through my career - as a lawyer more than in tech - about how few people came from a background where their parents weren't already professionals. In tech I meet more, and I think in OpenUK, our work and open source attracts a more diverse group, with many who focus on equity and want change.
What advice would you give to a parent to encourage their child?
Take absolutely every opportunity that anybody gives you, even if you're not sure about it, say yes. Even if you mess it up, you'll learn from your mistakes, but just take absolutely everything that you can. If someone says, ‘Would you like…’ the answer is yes. It's the only way.
Also don't be put off, be determined and just keep finding ways around everything. If you're young and you're creative, you can find solutions, find ways around it. Don't give up on things, just keep pushing. The more opportunity you take, the more things will come to you, it’s almost like karma.
How should a parent or an educator help?
I think the language we use is really important. From my perspective, I've done a huge amount of personal development work. It's coming out of my ears, I've done so much of it. One of the things they teach you is to not personalise behaviours and not personalising feedback. So, something may be a bad thing to do, but you are not a bad person. That stuff really matters in children, as we learn our patterns of behaviour - including confidence and insecurities - young.
Allow people to be different, don’t undermine confidence, allow people to have flair, don’t try to fit them into boxes and let them just evolve and develop into their own people. That really matters. Encourage them in anything they want to do and offer more suggestions wherever you can.
Would you do anything different if you had your time again?
If I had my time again, I would do art and I'd probably learn to code. I didn't get to do those. On the occasions I could code, my code wouldn't run. I was taught to code in binary... it was a surprisingly long time ago. These days, I'd be learning python using an editor, which it would fix it and it would run. I was told just to stay away from computers because my code didn’t run, you see.
This is slightly heart-breaking, but I have a ZX Spectrum and it's in my parents' attic. It never ran, never booted. In 1982, they'd saved up and bought me this thing for Christmas and we were all sitting looking at this screen with all the lines of green code on a black screen and… nothing happening. We didn't have the wherewithal in terms of contacts, knowledge and understanding, like somebody in our community who could mentor me or help me to make it work; it just never worked and I gave up.
I remember that a lot at the moment.
There's an interesting point - local people to mentor and help - it’s become even more relevant during COVID
Community leaders and mentors really matter. With OpenUK this year, we're doing another kids’ course and we’ve secured funding from the ODI and Nominet to do a minimu glove kit giveaway again. We've got this amazing young woman, Ashleigh Monagle, who has gone out and tracked down all the different organisations that have given kids devices in the last 12 months and we're hoping that we will give kits first to those who need devices most. Some just haven't got access to the funds to buy the stuff.
But there's no point in just giving them kit without having some kind of resource for them to come back to for support. We're not a big enough organisation to build that, so we're trying to find the organisations that already interact with children and we'll do two things: we'll encourage those who already do that around coding like the Coder Dojos, Stemettes, whatever to use our course with their kids and support kids who want to do our course.
We’re also planning a series of videos to do ‘train the trainer’, which will help people, who, for example, may be a community club leader with no technology experience, to have the skills and confidence to help the kids doing the course. We’ll point out the things that may go wrong for the kids and help the trainers to support that. I think that's the next step that really matters for us. You can give kids kit, but they don't just need kit, they need access to internet, they need data and content, they need people that they can talk to about who can help them.
Have you faced sexism?
It's an odd one because I still live in a mixture of worlds. The legal one was difficult; it was very sexist. There's no way around that. Fundamentally, whilst I might have put a brave face on it long enough to get through it, I didn't enjoy law firms. Escaping that and getting into companies where there were ‘real people’ and a much more mixed group was much more comfortable for me.
I was on a panel for International Women’s Day, discussing inclusion and belonging with someone who quoted Verna Myers, ‘Diversity is when you're invited to the dance, inclusion is when you're asked to dance, and belonging is when you choose the music.’ It's brilliant, isn't it?
What I felt when I heard this was that when I started as a lawyer in 1993, it felt like we were standing on each other's shoulders trying to see what the dance looked like through the window. We couldn’t even get in. Law started with more than 50% women and if you look at the numbers who make it to General Counsel as I did, or law firm partner, you can see how enormous the drop out is.
Social mobility is not just about gender or religion or creed or colour. It's all of this stuff and more. Nobody is a single thing - everybody's made up of a whole bunch of experiences and everybody's unique and that uniqueness has to be given tolerance.
We need to be encouraging kids from a really young age to feel that they belong and feel that they can do anything, have every opportunity within their abilities. You don't want to be telling somebody who's never going to be able to do x, y or z that they'll be president, but to encourage them to find what it is they're good at and will live to enjoy and thrive in without limiting horizons.
I also don't think sending kids to universities to get degrees that they're never going to be able to use and which cause them to have a lot of debt is sensible. I like the apprenticeship schemes, which we're seeing more and more of. At OpenUK, we're trying to build an open-source module, an open knowledge module. Some of the best developers I know who have made way more money than me, didn’t fit the current academic system.
Education was the way out for me - so if you're smart, then definitely get as much education as you can. If you're smart and you don't feel like you fit in that environment, don't be constrained by it, go and develop your skills through something practical like learning to code.