‘My life is motivated by being an unaccompanied child refugee, who came to Britain in 1939 from Nazi Europe. That traumatic start made me determined to live a life that had been worth saving.’


So began the inaugural address at the award-winning BCS Insights Conference, in its virtual format for 2020, by Dame Stephanie Shirley, entrepreneur, philanthropist and former president of the institution. In a seminar introduced by Brian Runciman, Head of Content and Insight at BCS and followed up by Director of External Affairs, Adam Thilthorpe, the day’s event was very much about personal responsibility and doing the right thing.

Dame Stephanie talked about her life journey in IT, from a founding student member of the society in 1957. She went on to explain, that when the society began, it was no mistake it was called the British COMPUTER and not COMPUTING society. In those days, it was all about the hardware. ‘No one can SELL software, it’s given away FREE with the hardware!’

However, undaunted, and facing the workplace sexism we have come to know as the glass ceiling, Dame Stephanie started her own software company in 1962. A company for women, ‘Designed by women, driven by women; the sort of company you’d want to work for with a healthy work / life balance.’ And so, Dame Stephanie became an entrepreneur.

A career of firsts

In a career that has been dominated by firsts, Dame Stephanie explains: ‘for years I was the first woman this, the only woman that. Because in those days, women couldn’t work on the stock exchange, we couldn’t drive a bus [or] aeroplane. I couldn’t even open the company’s bank account without getting my husband’s permission. My generation of women fought the battles for the right to work and for equal pay.’

She even changed her name from Stephanie to Steve in her business development letters to get through the door, before anyone realised she was a woman! However, in 1975, this powerhouse of sisterhood, ironically, fell foul of the Equal Opportunities Act and Dame Steph had to open her doors to male employees for the first time.

Aged 86, still working full time and devoting her life to making things better, Dame Steph has lived through the seismic changes governing computing history, from analogue to digital, binary to machine code and, more recently, from AI to sophisticated software.

Pioneering - from home

In these days of COVID-19, it is heartening to know that professional development and success can still come when working from home, Dame Stephanie asserts: ‘I have been pursuing a vigorous professional career, from home, for the last 50 years.’

‘Who would have guessed that the programming of the black box flight recorder on the supersonic Concorde was done by a team of 30 women, working in our own homes?’

As one of the most influential women in IT, an early adopter and someone who still shares her knowledge, most notably recently at the Oxford Internet Institute, Dame Steph finished her talk, urging all the people working in IT to take a modern day Hippocratic Oath:

‘I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action and I sign this declaration because I recognise that individual responsibilities are the first step on the road to any peace.’

Part two: IT and professionalism

Opening part two of the virtual conference, Adam Thilthorpe, Director of External Affairs, talked about IT and professionalism. In these days of COVID-19, there has been a stress test of all of the systems across the world. There have been some interesting outcomes, but also unintended consequences.

‘During the pandemic we have also seen social networks act as a solid circle of support which is actually the digital promise that Facebook maintains. People have street meet ups, talk to neighbours they haven’t spoken to, support them, do shopping, check in on them. That’s led to a real sense of community driven by digital platforms. That was always the intended goal of the founders, but we haven’t made good with that digital promise.’

The misuse of personal data. Fear about the contact tracing app. Who decides what is right for society or as a planet? ‘It’s easy to say that Google and Apple will do a good job - but who elected them?’ A multi-billion-dollar company might say they will do what’s right - but when did that become acceptable? ‘Whenever someone comes with the promise that they’re going to make the world a better place. You have to ask two questions: you have to ask for whom? And in what time scales?’ 

The promise of hope

While there is a fear of what might go wrong, Adam offers a very positive outcome: ‘The promise of IT is hope. It’s a very hopeful message. It’s about removing barriers of human limitation. Especially AI.’ We are on the cusp of technology changing lives - not just through facilitation, such as Zoom or Teams - but in Health and Social Care. Economics and Retail.

In order to maintain professionalism, Adam advocates that as individuals, we know our capabilities: ‘adopting standards, because that means we’ve learned from other people’s mistakes. And always being open minded and curious. What’s coming down the track? What’s the next practice? If I’ve got good practice tied up in standards, I need to have the next practice coming down the track as well. Then lastly there’s ethics. What are the intended and unintended consequences of our actions? If we bundle all that together, that’s what professionalism means, to me.’

BCS Virtual Insights 2020

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