Vividly, I remember when I went for one of my first interviews to get onto a ‘learn how to be an entrepreneur’ Programme. At the end of what was a good interview, the Head of the Programme - asked a question which made me incredibly insecure. He said ‘one last thing, when you were little, did you ever have a stall - sell lemonade, or sell comic books or wash cars?’
I froze on the spot; surprised at the question because, in all honesty, I never was one of those money making entrepreneurial kids. Truth be told, I wasn’t born with some innate ability to create cashflow forecasts or read profit and loss charts. Instead, I was born with a fascination of technology, computers in particular and specifically, to programming. A passion which went from being a teenage hobby to an incredibly fulfilling career.
Growing up in Inner Birmingham
Between the ages of 7-14, my family lived in Birmingham. My parents ran a fish and chip shop and the closest I got to a computer was the weekly ICT class where we learnt word processing on old Apple Macs. No one I knew owned a computer, instead, my friend’s conversations were dominated by the Spice Girls, Take That and BoyZone.
During 3rd year at high school, we did a module in programming in BASIC. And that’s where I got the bug. There’s a special ‘first time’ moment when the words ‘Hello World’ appears on the screen and you suddenly realise the possibilities of creating anything you like. It’s like Lego, but instead of being bounded by physics, you could create blank screens, flashing lights, pixels that become games: I’m sure it’s the same wonderment that 10 year old kids get playing Minecraft.
My parents, who had no idea what to do with a child that was interested in computing, couldn’t quite justify buying an expensive computer for me. (Indeed, they didn’t do so until I was accepted onto my degree when they realised it wasn’t a ‘phase’ after all.) So I saved up my pocket money and brought a second hand ZX Spectrum. Borrowing books from the library because internet access was rare back then, I spent my spare time learning to program.
By the time I had to choose what I wanted to study at University, computer science was top of the list. It was a decision that I never regretted: the BSc turned into a Masters degree, and then a PhD at Edinburgh University.
Fast forward to present day. I run a technology business - Interface3 Digital - which combines great user experience and the latest technologies to create novel, fun, experiential marketing campaigns. From the gestural-based technology like the Microsoft Kinect, to games on big multi-touch tables, we make apps that help brands engage with their customers.
In addition, we have an education games arm - Tigerface Games - which makes games that support collaborative learning and problem solving skills for 6-11 year olds. Our games have won the Family Choice Awards 2014, and been nominated in the Best Serious Games category in the International Mobile Gaming Awards.
I love my job. There are tough times, but I wouldn’t trade it in for anything else.
As Managing Director, I rarely get a chance to code. My passion has shifted from writing the code to understanding what should be built: specifically, user experience and business strategy. For things that we build, my role is to work out the business case by balancing potential revenues (how many people will buy this) as well as production cost (how long and how much will it take to build this). My knowledge of software development means that I can explore possibilities and gauge scope without running to my tech team all the time. This proves invaluable in a fast-paced industry like ours.
Unusually, I’m the sole founder of a tech company. More often than not, I’m the only woman in senior tech events. A few years ago, I remember being invited to a very exclusive dinner, with 8 other CEOs of high growth tech companies in Edinburgh. I looked around the table, and I was the youngest by a decade, and the only woman there.
Sometimes it’s tough. Sometimes it’s easy to think you don’t deserve to be there. Sometimes it’s lonely because it’s hard to find relatable things to talk about. But times might be finally changing. With the appointment of Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo, and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, we’re beginning a new generation of female tech role models that all of us - male or female - can aspire to.
I still love learning new things and brushing up skills and in my spare time, I sneak off to hack weekends to practice. For instance, I won a ‘Shakespeare Hack Competition’ with an iPhone app, and I also became National Theatre of Scotland’s Geek-in-Residence during the latter half of 2013.
Join the Revolution
Since part of the purpose of this post is to inspire others, please allow me to end on this. As the 21st Century progresses, there isn’t an ‘IT industry’ any more. Digital technology is already prevalent in everyday life. All industries - healthcare, education, oil and gas - are all powered by technology. In no plausible future, will there be less technology than there is today. Whereas traditionally the medical or law professions meant a stable career, the reality is that more doctors and lawyers are struggling to find employment.
Digital tech, on the other hand, is suffering a skills shortage where we are lacking people from all sorts of backgrounds to fill our jobs. The notion that the internet is a fad has passed. Alongside it, the notion that the IT industry is only for sad, lonely geeks is gone. It’s time we get more people - especially women - involved in the fastest growing industry of our lifetime.
Dr Kate Ho is Managing Director of Interface3, which passionately designs and crafts exciting customer branded experiences using innovative technologies (such as Augmented Reality, Mobile Games).
Working with some of the biggest brands in the world including Pearson Education, PBS KIDS, SMART Technologies, they strive to create things that engage and delight people.
In her spare time, she is deeply involved in the startup scene, writing about startups in StartupCafe. She is also a semi-keen runner and full time lifehacker.