What is a “career” in “technology”?

I was asked recently at a women in tech event about ways to get children (particularly young girls) more interested in a career in technology. This seems to be coming up more and more at events at the moment and seems to be a bigger focus for people than “how we retain staff” or “creating inclusive workspaces”.

It’s an interesting question but every time I’m asked it I can’t help but want to break it down because, whilst improving the diversity of future generations that choose a career in the technology sector is massively important, I’m not convinced that it’s quite the right question to ask.

I think gender stereotyping of subjects, topics and toys from a young age has a hugely negative effect on children and their future choices. I don’t think that’s the only reason that young girls choose to not go into a career in technology, but it is the one that is most frequently discussed.

I think it comes down to a few things:

One: how do we define a career in technology?

There are a lot of studies, surveys and measures across the word that look at how many women, BAME, LGBT+ there are working in technology but each one has a different definition of what technology is. Are we just counting women working specifically as IT professionals? Do we consider everyone who works in a company specialising in digital to work in the tech sector? Does that include the people in that company who are HR or finance specialists? Are they still “technology” people?

This definition might seem pedantic but I think it’s a large part of the problem. Consulting firm PwC recently released research where they spoke to 2000 school and university-aged people about working in technology. A key finding was that only 27% of girls considered a career in technology. I don’t find that shocking when you consider the lack of clarity about what a career in technology actually is, or might look like.

Two: how do we define a career?

Traditionally in the UK, we’re taught that children do GCSEs, then A-levels, which in turn provide the best chance of doing a university course to ultimately get a job. We’re told that like our parents and grandparents before us, we will start a chosen career, work for a company for X years, then retire.

But work doesn’t work like that any more.

Opportunities to work have broadened, and work itself has become more flexible – people can work from home more, be freelance, work flexible or compressed hours.

At the same time, salaries have stagnated and the cost of living has increased. Lots of younger people need to juggle 2 jobs just to pay rent and boost their visibility to future employers.

Many of the perks that used to keep people tied to their jobs have disappeared. Things like final salary pensions, paid-for or low-cost housing, and healthcare.

It’s not unusual for people (especially those who do anything related to technology) to move between jobs more often, and to sidestep across careers and sectors. Transferrable skills are far more important than years of experience within one culture and one company.

So the definition of “career” is not what it used to be.

Three: what skills do I need for a career in technology?

These are things people have said to me about why they didn’t think a career in technology was for them:

  • “I don’t like coding.”
  • “I’m not a geeky, nerdy type of person.”
  • “I like creative subjects like art and music.”
  • “I like physics and biology but I don’t like chemistry.”

Large parts of society (schools, teachers, parents) still seem to think that the choices young people make at school somehow lock them into a specified career for life. Flexibility is frowned upon: changing your choice of degree subject half-way through, or dropping out of university to pursue something else, are both considered failure.

Working in technology is as much about creative skills as it is about any scientific or technological skills, and the best people will have a mixture of both.

If your child has tried coding and doesn’t like it (for whatever reason) don’t try and force them to do it. Find the things that they love. Find new opportunities for them. Find them a challenge or a problem that they need to fix. Introduce them to new and different people and situations.

Your child can learn new skills at any point, but they need to be curious. They need to understand that there are roles for them in “technology” (however it’s defined) even as a creative, dramatic, shy, or code-illiterate person.

I think these things are more helpful for a career in technology than having an A-level in Maths or a degree in Computer Science:

  • Curiosity
  • Flexibility
  • A willingness to listen to others
  • Courage and confidence to make your own decisions and speak your own mind

It’s never too late to learn something new or to try a new career.

And a few resources for parents/people who know kids:

And because it’s never too late:

(There are others but these are the first ones that come to my head.)

On saying no

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while and like most things that are vaguely important I’ve put it off, waiting until I had the right words to write it down. I still don’t have the right words.

We don’t say no enough and the importance of no is undervalued. There’s a negativity and a sense of fear attached to the word that seems to stop people wanting to use it and causes them to react with hostility when someone says it to them.

I’m not talking about personality clashes or when people say no to out of spite or the times when you have no choice but to say no to something because of external circumstances. Of course ‘no’ can be negative and it can be used to hold up progress but it isn’t only that.

I need to start by saying that I don’t see saying no as negative. Very few things or ideas are great right from the start, things are made better by someone saying that something isn’t right or that it doesn’t make sense. Yet.

For me:

saying no is a way of protecting ourselves in uncomfortable or dangerous situations

saying no is a protest against complacency or injustice

saying no is as powerful and positive as saying yes


Saying no is a way of protecting ourselves in uncomfortable or dangerous situations

Sometimes we need to say no to protect ourselves, sometimes that’s physically but most often we’re trying to protect ourselves from being put in situations that make us uncomfortable or that are dangerous for our wellbeing. If it’s important to say yes to new experiences it’s as important to feel confident saying no. That might be feeling comfortable saying no to a drink on a night out, or going home instead of going to the pub because you just really want to put on your pyjamas and watch TV without having friends or colleagues making you the butt of their jokes. Or it might be at work where someone tries to put you in a position that you think is wrong. It’s important to say no for yourself at an early stage rather than later when you feel trapped by the decision.


Saying no is a protest against complacency or injustice

Saying no can be seen as being difficult and at its worst it is. It’s a person in a position of authority refusing to move with the march of progress. But at its best it’s that lone voice in the crowd challenging the status quo and refusing to simply say yes without questioning. Saying no is difficult. It’s easier to say yes, especially if everyone around you is saying yes. Saying no to your peers is hard and it’s harder still to say no to those in a position of power, but in my experience they are the ones who need to hear it the most because they hear it the least. If you don’t have anyone to challenge your ideas and to help you to improve them you end up with leaders who think that they know everything, who don’t seek advice from experts, who make decisions based on little to no evidence because no one challenges them when they say or do stupid things.*

As civil servants (although this doesn’t in any way only apply to civil servants) I think we have a duty to say no, to question and to challenge. I don’t think that challenge should be viewed as brave or as being difficult. It shouldn’t be viewed as an unusual action. We should all feel comfortable (or able) to say no to things that are wrong, or that just aren’t ready yet. We have a duty to do it so that public money isn’t wasted, we have a duty to make sure that ministers have the right and best information. Honesty is part of the civil service code for a reason and the ability to say no is part of that.


Saying no is as powerful and positive as saying yes

When people come to me with an idea I say no 80% of the time. It’s not that I think that their idea is stupid, it’s that I don’t think it’s quite right or ready and I want create the best possible things to explain or showcase their work. Saying yes straight away or indiscriminately might make me popular but it won’t create better things. It will just create more things. And this world doesn’t need more things but it does need better thought out and questioned things.

Having people who feel empowered to say no challenges a project in the best way, it forces you to look at a something from a different angle or to push a concept further, or to speak to someone else outside of your team to seek advice.

Saying no is part of the process that gets you to yes.

If you’re writing a book you want an editor that’s going to cross out the bits that don’t work and correct your grammar, it should be the same no matter where you work or what you do. Not that you should want an editor, but that you should want someone to challenge you, to help you make your thing the best it can be. Or to stop it before you spend too much time and/or money on it.

If you’re building a team you don’t want people who are going to say yes unquestioningly, you want people who are going to question, who are going to stop you from looking like a fool by making bad decisions. Bosses who welcome being challenged and respect someone saying no make for the best leaders because they inspire their staff to strive for excellence.

Saying no shouldn’t be innately negative. It’s far too complex, too positive, too powerful for that.


*Personally I think this is partly why women at senior levels are so brilliant. We (we = those who identify as women) are so used to being constantly challenged over every suggestion (whether it’s brilliant, mediocre or terrible) that we are more likely to seek advice at an earlier stage, we’ll over prepare, making sure that we know our suggestion inside out, that all weaknesses have been considered and resolved or can be defended. Because we will need to defend them. But this is a side note and you know #notallwomenetc.