Miss Universe UK contestant, agile expert and all-round geek girl Sophie Johnson talks to Justin Richards about breaking stereotypes and her career in the IT industry.

Tell us a bit about your background, focusing on why you are interested in IT and what courses you did.
I think I’ll go back to how I really got into it. It started when I was in school, when we were offered this course - it was quite a new thing, it wasn’t like the GMVQ. IT was offered in school as a day-to-day subject. It was just offered as a normal school class so I put myself into it. I felt that it was something I could get into. Then halfway into the course the teacher just disappeared, they stopped teaching and I ended picking up teaching the rest of the class. That was when I realised that if you enjoy something, you do well at it, and I got involved with it.

So you got involved with teaching?
Yes, and we all managed to pass in that class, without a teacher in the second half of the course. My friend Anna and I just went round picking up here and there what we could, doing stuff ourselves and then relaying it onto the rest of the class. Then when I went on to college IT was offered as a full course. I did AVCE in IT.

I really enjoyed studying the broad range, right from the really technical programming stuff and the systems thinking. I liked the fact that they did things in IT for different users, for users with special needs etc. I loved the fact that there was such a broad spectrum of learning in IT and I liked the fact that it was never the same thing and that drove me towards choosing it as a course at university and knew I would always be challenged. I knew I’d enjoy it so I went on to university and did the best I could.     

You went to university at Liverpool?
Yes, the University of Liverpool. I did computer information systems and I was expecting a larger amount of women, but there were only five girls on a course of about 100. I think I came top of the class across the three years and the girls that finished the course were in the top few students. It was really good result and showed it had nothing to do with your gender. But I did notice, when I spoke about family backgrounds with the other girls, in each case there wasn’t any pressure on any of us that we had to do a certain type of thing, because we were all girls.

A lot of them had fathers who were biologists, engineers or had worked with computers somewhere along the line, so I think it needs early encouragement to get the girls going, to say to them ‘actually, this just isn’t for men, women can be doing this as well and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be doing it and doing it well.’

Tell us about your career since leaving university.
While I was still at university I got a job at a hedge fund. I’d applied to a lot of finance places because I knew it was very challenging environment and the IT is right at the cutting edge. You have to apply early; you have to apply midway through your second year if you really want to get the best places. I came out and did that for six months as a graduate IT analyst, and you got a taster for everything basically.

With a lot of the graduate schemes, certainly some of the niche ones, like hedge funds, they will let you experience everything before you commit to a path in IT, which was really, really good. It gave me a taste for everything, so you can choose your level of how technical you want to be. You’re not pigeon-holed into one role which, I’ve got to say, at university it did sometimes feel like, as if you could only be a developer and that was it!

It didn’t seem like you had to use all your technical architectural side. I think perhaps they should start to promote the range of roles in IT. I think that would be helpful. I was at the hedge fund for six months, then the financial disaster struck and I was one of the redundancies; the company got cut down drastically. It was just before Christmas last year I started here at Pinesoft, who were offering an amazing opportunity. 

It was a great mix between my technical side and then using management techniques, software management techniques like project management, like learning by agile, lean and SCRUM, which is where I’ve really come into my own. This place has really given me everything. 

You have to have a high level of communication between your teams for the development to work properly. That’s it with agile, it creates an environment where everyone has a level playing field.

My corporate sponsor, Kate Craig-Wood, was drawing on the fact that this environment lends itself to women because women are naturally meant to be great communicators and this environment needs that, so this place needs the women to be there to encourage it and then if you have the technical background to go with it, really that makes it just brilliant.

What are you going to be doing next as you’re moving on, aren’t you?
Yes, that’s right. It’s going to be a very similar role. It’s a bigger company, Trader Media, which is responsible for the Autotrader websites. It’s a scrum master job, so it will involve project management, the type of project management where you need a technical background to be able to sit down with the developers to prepare a programme, so you still get your hands ‘dirty’ with the coding.

I find that if I’ve not prepared programmes for a couple of Pomodoros, where we work in 25 minute ‘sprints’, I can get truly lost and then when my manager comes to ask where we’re up to I don’t know. It’s a role in which you need to be involved in the programme as well as the management side of things. So it’s very much the same thing in the new role.

What is a scrum master?
Scrum is the project management methodology that we use. A scrum master is an agile project manager. There’s a lot of people who think those things don’t really go together, but that’s what its equivalent would be in the normal, old school style of project management. You do need that technical side, as you do get your hands dirty; it’s a lot more involved.

Where would you like to see yourself in five years time?
Five years? Quite a few organised people have their five year plan, or like to think they do! I’d like to see myself maybe doing some contracting, doing much of the same thing, keeping on the agile side of things. I don’t want to lose my technical background; I really want to draw on that, to keep working in the same kind of environments.

I do find it a joy to work in these kinds of environments, there’s a real buzz about it. I still see myself in the same kind of environment with single or more contracts, moving around, doing different things, experiencing different workplaces.

If you weren’t doing IT, what else would you be interested in doing? Regarding this Miss Universe UK thing - is there a side to you that would like to do some part-time modelling?
There was a time, perhaps, when I might have said ‘yes, I’d love to have done that’, but now I get more of a kick out of somebody saying ‘she’s a really intelligent girl, she’s really useful doing this, she does the job really well,’ rather than going ‘she’s a good-looking girl, she’s nice to look at’, which is why I thought Miss Universe was a perfect match, because you have a lot of time to have interview work and things like that, where you really get to know the person behind the face, more than what people think happens. 

For me, the whole Miss Universe thing was all about me challenging stereotypes. I thought I’d like to make a change in that area. I think the work side of things calls out to me now, but there was a time when I would’ve said ‘yes’ to modelling.

Just touching on that, for a moment, how did it go with Miss Universe?
I got Peoples’ Choice Award. It was very odd; we’d just moved into the office; it was a nice added thing to say, by the way, this is a girl from Miss Universe who got People’s Choice Award and they said ‘What?’, because they’re so used to the working me and they realised there is an extra level to me!

Who votes for the Peoples’ Choice?
They have votes on the website and things like that, so anyone could vote.

Were you pleased how that went?
To be honest the best achievement really was the media coverage. I got myself known as the geek girl, I loved that. I felt I was giving something more than just looking nice on the stage, for any sort of reason and there were so many good reasons behind why I was doing that. Once I’d done it, it made me feel really, really good inside and not really cheesy. Obviously, there was the charity side of it as well. It was an amazing experience, one to share with people, but whether I’d do it again, I don’t know.

Why do you think IT has got such a bad rep to women? Why do you think they are put off?
At one time, it was put out that it’s a bit of a boys’ club and I think that the sort of women who were portrayed as going into that environment were wise to that and they were women who had to lose their femininity to become one of the guys, to actually fit into that working environment. A lot of women, quite rightly, wouldn’t want to do that, wouldn’t want to change who they were to be in that environment. The idea was that it was just a men’s only kind of club.

Like in my first year, my sponsor, Kate, she said that earlier on in her life there was encouragement between her and her sister and her brother. She is trans-gendered, so she started life as a boy and was encouraged to do very boyish things, along with her brother, encouraged into very boyish pursuits and in certain subjects at school. Whereas in the case of her sister, without knowing and without her parents really knowing, they had pushed her into a different direction and she seriously believes that if she (Kate) had been born a girl she perhaps wouldn't have ended up being so successful, with her own hosting company.

I think a lot of it is down to early encouragement. There is still that attitude, no matter how much we think we don’t do it, there’s still the idea that it’s a boyish thing to do. So from early on, boys and girls are encouraged one way or another.

To knit etc.
Yes, I think there was a part of that. I was slightly tom-boyish when I was younger and the femininity came through in the teenage years. I used to hate pink! No way was I wearing it. Maybe it’s an encouragement thing, I definitely believe it. 

My sister is very, very ‘girlie’ and always has been, but I definitely believe that she would quite easily walk into an environment like this and be able to do anything that I do, or any of these guys do; the way she thinks, she is very mathematically minded, so she’d be fine.

Dad works abroad and when I stepped into the male role, my sister became very, very feminine, so a lot is down to your personalities.

You mentioned that role models. Who have been your role models for going into IT?
As far as it goes, it’s down to the engineering route and that’s because of my dad. We have a laugh, my dad and I; he’s not the brightest spark, but when he applies himself to his job he’s been very, very successful and he said to me ‘I can see that side of you, why don’t you look into things, things that’ll call on that side of your personality’ and that’s how the GMVQ thing came about at school. I thought ‘I’ll try it out, I’m happy to try it and if I don’t like it I don’t have to stick with it...’ He was not a traditional role model for somebody in IT, but he was that somebody who called out to that side of me.

What sort of engineer is he?
From the information he gave me, he was working onshore on oil rigs. He was involved in the technical side of things. Whenever he was fixing stuff, I always had to be in there, had to be involved, into everything and he realised from quite early on that I was very like him and my gender didn’t make a difference to him, so it was good having him nurture that.

Do you think the government could do a bit more to encourage women to get into IT?
Certainly. We had a ‘Women in Technology’ bus visit our school; they came once every blue moon. There was a drive to have these amazing pupils and these amazing OFSTED results, so they’d only pick their number one pupil, those who were the best at everything, like my friend Anna. She sat there saying ‘I know what I want to do, I want to do law, send her instead’, pointing at me ‘she’s the one who wants to do this technology stuff’. There just wasn’t the opportunity for me to get on board and go do the stuff she spent doing.

I think maybe if it was more widely available, if that happened on a much more regular basis it would help. I think you need to catch kids early; there should be more of a drive in primary school, I think, and not just have the ‘Women in Technology’ bus just turn up from time to time. Don’t make it such a big issue. Don’t make it ‘we need more women in IT’, because then it’s like a key consideration. Just leave it and make it more part of the normal curriculum...

Don’t make it a bigger issue than it really is?
Yes, because that's it, in my childhood it wasn’t a big deal, no matter what gender you are, whatever you want to do, you can do it. Try it and do your best, that’s it.  

What are your thoughts on professionalism in IT - do you think government should step in more to ensure the best-qualified people have the best jobs or should it be left to industry to manage itself?
I think that can sometimes be quite dangerous; some of the most talented developers in this place don’t have any qualifications to their name. It’s just they come in and demonstrate what they can do on the job. When clients put forward a proposal to them, they ask for CVs and we say ‘come in and spend some time with us and see whether you are happy with the resources that are going to be a part of the process’.

A lot of the time clients just want to know whether we have the technical knowledge skills to do the job, which doesn’t necessarily equate with what we might have on paper.

However, one reason why I was so, so happy when I came out of university with a first was that it does mean that your CV will get seen by prospective employers. If you have a first class degree from a red brick university, it does look good.

Okay, qualifications set a certain standard, they set the bar, so I can understand that from a certain point of view, but as far as making it mandatory, I think some people may be discouraged from IT if they just think it means taking loads of exams. A lot of very technical-minded people don’t really want to sit down and take exams, they just want to get it done. They don’t like the paperwork; they just do it.

What do you see as being the main challenges to the industry over the next few years?
I think probably equality issues and adapting to the changing environments. I’m part of the agile way, which is moving away from the traditional way of doing things in IT. I think if bigger businesses can get their head around that, it will be absolutely amazing; I think that will be the way forward. 

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the silver bullet or not? Basically - going back to university now - Fred Brooks stated that hardware was moving far beyond software, so much faster, he stated that one day something’s going to come that will change the face of software development. I’m not saying it’s agile, that’s the silver bullet, but I think it takes us one step closer to achieving the turnaround of software technology that we need to meet the standards of bigger businesses.

Agile has taken a step forward in software development. I think the problems facing this kind of IT will remain the same, but if larger organisations and the government can make this step forward into agile, which has shown massive improvements in the way software is developed elsewhere, I think this may encourage others into IT (including women) and help software development shake any bad press it may have received, i.e. the NHS IT project.

Government can adapt to that way of working too, which would be an enormous challenge; it’s going to have to change some very core thinking, but they’ve got to do something.

How do think IT has affected industry and business operations in the last five years?
I think the availability and the dependency on IT are the main issues. I think people are really starting to recognise that it’s a huge part of every company now.

It’s ubiquitous and we all take it for granted. One of the problems going forward is we don’t have enough people in IT to continue the present trend. We need to inject new blood into the system or it’s going to get stale very quickly. 

IT gets blamed for many projects going wrong. Do you think that IT tends to get bad rep and how do you think it could improve its PR? Why are so many project failures being blamed on IT?

The traditional way of doing it was you took this whacking great specification document and that’s it, it doesn’t change; exactly what users think they want originally, that’s what gets developed.

I’ve mentioned it before. Agile, it’s a continuous cycle of taking a specification, giving the user a piece of working code and getting them to review that and continuing the cycle again, so it’s all iterative.

I mean the traditional methods have got a bad rep, but that’s why IT has moved forward and that’s why agile has been so successful. Hopefully, if that can be covered it will help. The media tends to emphasise the things that have gone disastrously wrong and that’s going to happen. But I don’t think it’s a particularly bad rep though.

Do you like gadgets?
I’m not a huge gadget girl. I do like to have my kind of geeky arguments with people, such as one of the guys I work with. We do the whole ‘I am an Apple person; I’m a PC person’ - the whole Apple / PC thing. I’m not hugely gadgety -I think it’s still a boyish thing. I think they’ve done a study recently that really gets women going and I think even the female geeks still have that line where the hormones take over and enough is enough! I like them, but not as much as some people.

Are your parents happy with your career choice? Have they been very supportive?
Yes, very, very supportive, they’re very, very proud. We’ve had some odd moments. I got a long-winded email from my dad telling me how glad he was the other day, that’s from a guy you don’t expect it from.

How did he feel about you entering Miss Universe?
He knows what I’m like. We’re a family of very extrovert people. He just had a good laugh about it and said ‘Have fun kid’. My mum was the same. I think they knew I wouldn’t flaunt myself in any way. I didn’t just want to be, as I put it, a pair of breasts on a page, they knew I’d make it more than that. As long as I’m having fun, they’re very supportive.

Do you have a core message you want to get across to any young up and coming IT students? What would you want to say to them if they’re thinking the IT profession wasn’t for them?
I’d say, find yourself a good mentor, a really good friend in the profession. It may not be very easy. Take the chance, just do it and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, it’s not a big deal.

Get into a workplace and you will find one person in there that you will connect with. I’ve found it in most places. Sit and listen and take in as much as you possibly can, because that is important. I have a few people who have been the driving force behind any success I’ve had in the workplace.

That’s from university and from my first place of work, the hedge fund. Find yourself a mentor and don’t fill yourself with these ideas that there’s only one type of stereotypical environment because each one is different, each has its own quirk. You’ll find a place where you are truly comfortable. 

No matter who you are or how technical you want to be IT has just so much to offer that I can’t imagine that if you’ve already studied in IT, there isn’t a place for you. Obviously not everybody would like to do IT, but if you’ve already made that decision there will be a role for you.

Quick questions

Which do you prefer PC or Apple?
I think my mind changes, but I’ve always been a PC girl, but as I call it, I’m thinking of going over to the dark side!

Blackberry or iPhone?
I’d probably say HTC Touch, because you can adapt them. It’s not always the best product that becomes most popular. Although I can recognise that the Blackberry or iPhone are not the best products, they appeal to the mass audience, because they do lots of cool things and you have to think very little about what you’re doing. However, like I said, the dark side, for me, might begin with owning an iPhone!

Play Station or Wii?
I think I’d probably say Wii, because the whole family can get involved. When I play the old school, normal controller games, I like exciting games, I’m better at the shoot ‘em up sort of games, but I found myself on the driving games moving with the controller, so the Wii’s just the perfect thing. With the games side of things, I tend to go into my own bubble and never come out and the Wii means you can have your family playing too, which I guess is more sociable.

Nerd or geek?
I think I’m a geek girl. I have my geek-out moments. I heard on the internet that geeks are cool. Nerds are the really nerdy ones who may not even be the super intelligent ones; they’re just nerdy, whereas the geeks have the intelligence as well and are into their computer stuff, plus they’re a little more social.