Want more girls in tech? Show them they can make a difference in the world

Last year I organised a Raspberry Pi workshop and competition for 13-year-old girls at Barnwood Park Arts College in Gloucester.  In discussing the events with their Computer Science teacher, Mr. Holland, I mentioned that the original concept was to get the students to create Pi projects that could help vulnerable people or the social workers and family members who look after them.  I offered him the chance to change that objective and do something that he thought would be more interesting to the girls, but he said, “No, that’s it; making it about helping people will get them interested.”

In the months since the competition, I’ve been trying to immerse myself as much as possible in the conversation that has taken off around gender diversity, and, in our industry, particularly, the question, “how do we get more girls interested in STEM?” and one of the things that is emerging for me is that Mr. Holland’s insight into his own students might well apply more generally: many girls want to do things that help others.

In her Entrepreneur.com article entitled “I Belong Here: 3 Ways to Attract More Women to STEM”, Harvard graduate and Head of Business Operations at biotech firm Illumina Merrilyn Datta notes that many of her female colleagues also working in STEM came to it because they saw a problem they wanted to solve and then that science and technology was the route to solving it.  She also points to research that backs this up: the ICRW has found that an effective STEM education programme encouraged girls to use technology to solve problems in their communities, and that University of Pennsylvania researchers found that “altruism has been highly linked to career choice for women.”

There is further support for the theory that women are attracted to careers that enable them to do good in the numbers of women who start social enterprises: according to a 2015 report by Social Enterprise UK, 40% of social enterprises are led by women – twice as many as run small businesses.

Given that women still comprise the vast majority of people undertaking paid and unpaid caregiving roles, from social workers to full-time mothers and carers of elderly parents, it shouldn’t be news that girls and women care about helping others.  In fact, there is an irony in this situation: one of the major reasons why gender disparity persists (e.g. in the form of lower pay, less access to finance, lower representation in leadership positions in business and politics, lower rates of entrepreneurship) is because the burden of caring falls disproportionately on women.

However, I see an opportunity here.  The fact that many girls and women want to make a positive difference in the lives of others is great news for those of us working in the parts of the tech industry that aim to use technology for good.  From fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity, to improving the lives of the elderly and curing disease, there is no shortage of opportunity to use a STEM career to make a positive difference.

So the next question is, “how can we ensure girls know that there is such opportunity?”  We can bring this out more in the outreach work we’re doing as a sector.  We’ve learned a lot in the last decade about the importance of female role models and having higher numbers of other girls in STEM courses so girls can see others like themselves.  Research from the WISE campaign found that girls need to see the context of STEM in the bigger picture, and be shown its application in real life situations and careers.  When we do these things, we have the perfect opportunity to also bring in messages about the careers in tech that have positive impacts.  We should also run our technology workshops for girls with this in mind: can we make these initiatives more exciting and relevant to girls by setting the focus on issues in their community and in their everyday lives?

…which brings me back to Mr. Holland’s students.  When we caught up after the events, Mr. Holland told me that in response to the challenge we set to create a Raspberry Pi project focused on helping vulnerable people all immediately thought of people in their lives their projects could help (usually grandparents).  That got them excited and opened their eyes to the potential of technology to do good.  After a one-day workshop with Sopra Steria mentors, the girls, in teams of four, set to work building Pi projects ranging from alarms that went off when medication hadn’t been taken on time to alerts sent to caregivers if an elderly person living independently had an accident in his or her home.  Many of the students conducted extra research related to the problem they were trying to solve (for example, dementia), so they could improve their Pi solution.  They did this of their own volition, because having been set a challenge they could personally relate to, they were engaged, curious, motivated.

Ensuring girls know about these opportunities is important, but it isn’t the only thing of course.  We also need to continue to contribute to the efforts being made by businesses in all sectors to make work more attractive to people with caring responsibilities, and to welcome people back to work after a career break (a good example of this is the new Returners’ Hub, which is supported by Sopra Steria and being launched on International Women’s Day).  There is a lot of work to be done to ensure more women have equal access to finance so they can start and scale-up new businesses.  As a society, we can do more to ensure both men and women can participate in caring duties, and that we value these duties more highly.

After this year’s International Women’s Day has come and gone, I hope we’ll ride the wave of momentum and redouble our efforts to make our sector more diverse now and in the future by getting out and talking to girls and young women and inviting them to be a part of the movement towards sustainable development in tech.

For more information about the People Like Me initiative that has emerged from the WISE campaign research mentioned above, and the new Returners’ Hub, go to www.techuk.org/returners on or after 8 March.

What are your thoughts about encouraging more girls into STEM careers? leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Photo used with the permission of Barnwood Park Arts College

Lending for social good: supporting women to start a business

On International Women’s Day, we are celebrating and raising loan contributions to support the work of Kiva

In January, we created a team on Kiva as a way of promoting micro-loans across our company. Some people already used Kiva, but for most it was a new experience. So far it has been incredibly rewarding.

Sopra Steria is celebrating International Women’s Day by holding events – open to both men and women – at a number of our UK office locations. At these events, we will promote and support Kiva as an excellent way to offer micro-loans to borrowers to start or grow a business, go to school, access clean energy or realise their potential.

What is Kiva?

Kiva is an international non-profit organisation, founded in 2005 and based in San Francisco, with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. We celebrate and support people looking to create a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.

100% of every dollar you lend on Kiva goes to funding loans. Kiva covers costs primarily through optional donations, as well as through support from grants and sponsors.

Kiva lends in 82 countries, with approximately 1.6m lenders and 2.2m borrowers. Currently there are about $937m of loans funded through Kiva.

Why are we using it?

It’s a loan not a donation. We believe lending alongside thousands of others is one of the most powerful and sustainable ways to create economic and social good. Lending on Kiva creates a partnership of mutual dignity and makes it easy to touch more lives with the same dollar. Fund a loan, get repaid, fund another.

How does it work?

The borrower begins by applying for a loan. This loan request then goes through an underwriting and approval process. Once approved, this request is then posted to Kiva for lenders to support. Lenders crowd-fund the loan in increments of $25 and once it is funded the borrower is then lent the money. Over time, the borrower then repays the loan. Lenders can then use the repayments to fund new loans, donate the money to Kiva, or withdraw the money.

What is the impact?

Since Kiva started in 2005 there have been over 1.1m loans funded through Kiva, with 83% of these going to women.

72k loans have helped people get access to clean energy, 29k loans have been for education, and 765k loans have been to people in the least developed countries.

How do I join in?

Start your own team on Kiva, or join the Sopra Steria team and help us make a difference. We exceeded our goal to fund $250 by the end of March 2017, so we are now working towards a new target!

Are you supporting, or would like to know more about, Kiva? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Best kept Secret? Not any more!

I wonder if you also dislike the phrase ‘best kept secret’?

Some things should be secret but whenever I’ve heard the phrase ‘best kept secret’ it seems to be about something that doesn’t need to be a secret. Something that should be more widely known – not a secret at all.

Some time ago I was surprised to see a banner with my name on it at The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park. The image on it showed another Katherine Johnson, a 98 year old American lady who I came to see was another one of these ‘best kept secrets’. When I went to learn more about the woman who shares my name, I was soon very impressed.  Katherine Johnson, born in segregated West Virginia in 1918,  was one of a few women, handpicked by NASA, who were referred to as ‘Human Computers’, using their exceptional physics and maths skills to work out trajectories of rockets before computers were available to do the work.

When you talk about putting a man in space, you think of the astronauts don’t you? You might know the names of the astronauts like John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, but not the ‘best kept secrets’ like Katherine who enabled them not only to go up, but also come down safely. John Glenn knew who she was though and trusted her so much that when they introduced computers at NASA he got her to manually check the computer numbers before he would take off.

Katherine Johnson was one of those people who was essential to make great things – like the first manned journeys into space – happen. What makes her even more extraordinary is that she lived in a time when being a woman and being black automatically put you to the bottom of the pile. A world of segregation that involved separate doors, bathrooms, shops and so on depending on your colour. Employment decisions were made on totally bizarre grounds of sex and colour, rather than just ability or suitability for the job so being a black woman at that time must have been a double whammy. Katherine Johnson is a bit better known now – the Hidden Figures film out now is based on the book about her and her fellow black, female ‘Human Computers’. As well as the Presidents Medal of Freedom, she also has a building named after her in NASA – the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

People like Katherine are important in changing culture.

In addition to strong policy and laws to support equal rights, we need role models and inspiring stories.

A lot has improved since Katherine Johnson’s time at NASA, and even since I started my own career. Work is fairer and safer, and when I look around me at those leaving education and joining our company, I wonder what it will be like in a further 20 – 30 years’ time.

We are celebrating International Women’s Day in Sopra Steria this year and I’ve found out that we are one of the better organisations in IT as 33% of our staff are women – against a pitiful 17% for the Industry overall. I’d like to think that our recent graduates look back in 30 years’ time and say  “wow only 33%…” and that they don’t talk about ‘best kept secrets’.

But how to make it happen and how to avoid creating more ‘best kept secrets’?

Our success, whether at company, sector or country level is a result of our combined efforts and our talents. By considering the widest possible range of sources, diverse backgrounds, experiences and ideas, we put ourselves one step ahead of those with a less diverse search when looking for the best talent. The challenge to each of us is to widen our horizons to make sure we are not missing ‘best kept secrets’ because we are not looking in the right places.

Where else are you going to look?

On International Women’s Day, who do you consider to be an inspirational woman?  Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Inspiring digital skills in the next generation

I recently had the opportunity to go with colleagues on behalf of Sopra Steria to Victoria College in Belfast alongside Digital Shared Service (DSS) to present to fifty teenage girls on Working in IT.  It was a great opportunity for us to give something back to the local community and support Digital NI in promoting STEM subjects and digital technology careers to students.

Sopra Steria has an active role in each of our local communities where we partake in outreach programmes.

We aim to open the student’s eyes to the wonders of IT, the world of digital and its impact on individuals working and personal life.

It was a strange, but nice feeling being back in the classroom, especially being the one talking at the front! I had the challenge of beginning the session, introducing my company and myself to the students and explaining my own journey from a history degree to working in IT as a Graduate Business Analyst. I explained how not all jobs in IT are code based, the unique job roles included within IT and the different skills needed.

We next wanted to highlight the importance of IT within everyday life and introduced “Game Changer” a programme which has the ambition of raising physical fitness and promoting healthy lifestyles in children and that Sopra Steria is working on with Halton CCG and Widnes Vikings Rugby. Through the programme we have developed TRAKKA – a fitness band and associated measurement and monitoring application – and Sopra Steria’s programme lead Louise O’Leary captivated the students, challenging them to think about how simple changes in lifestyle can create big changes in wellbeing. Although the TRAKKA wristband was designed for younger kids they were interested to see how the ecosystem developed from TRAKKA:

Inspire, Inform, Improve

diagram 'trakka' ecosystem - circle of text: Nutrition, Data/Web/Apps, Information, Behaviour & Wellbeing, Academic Improvement, Activity, Content, Ideas - back to Nutrition

Data is at the heart of TRAKKA, highlighting performance and areas for improvement and following on from Louise’s presentation, another of my colleagues Dermot Boyle moved the conversation on to another important topic, data analytics, bringing it to life with real life and familiar examples. This is another emerging IT area where we will see increasing focus over the coming years and where apprentices and graduates will be able to make their mark as they start their careers. Designed to get them involved, we concluded with a quick hands-on session, asking them to answer questions from information in our TRAKKA, Power BI dashboard.

In our work with other schools and colleges across the UK, we’ve been involved in a number of projects providing Raspberry Pi kits helping to building IT and entrepreneurial skills. At the end of our visit we donated a Raspberry Pi to Victoria College to support them in working with the students to develop coding knowledge in a fun and interactive way.

Louise, Dermot and I all really loved being involved in this visit; it was fun and energetic and we really hope the students felt the same. It appears our time was well spent as the school has asked whether some of the children could take up work placements – so we may even see a few of the faces again in and around the Belfast office! It’s a big choice choosing your future career and it would be nice to think that we provided someone with that spark of inspiration to enter the world of IT.

If this is something that you feel interested in or want to know more about, please feel free to get in touch – we would be more than happy to help! You can leave a reply below, or contact me via email.

image of students at Victoria College
Our student audience at Victoria College

Look at how our sustainability programme encourages students to build skills and careers in IT.

Understand more about our vibrant team and work in Northern Ireland.

We offer great training, development and career progression prospects – find out more about our Early Careers opportunities.

How mentoring at a hackathon helps focus on idea generation and develops potential

I love being a mentor, and recently I was part of a team who ProductForge invited to their three-day, competitive healthcare hackathon at CodeBase, Edinburgh to mentor the teams taking part and get engaged with the exciting projects that were going on and involved in idea generation and helping the teams come up with a single idea to focus on, then guiding in any way that we could.

Participants form small cross-functional teams to work on a product prototype with support from industry experts in the NHS and the wider technology community. It’s an opportunity for participants to develop new skills, network with professionals, meet potential employers or even kick-start their own company.

Image of hackathon participantsAs with any event of this nature, there was a tangible feeling of excitement – everyone was talking intensely, gesturing and sketching ideas. Some of the teams had pretty solid ideas of what they wanted to do, while others were still in the brainstorming stage – whatever their stage of idea development, the amount of energy, always impressive.

For those teams that had an idea to go forward with, I offered to run a breakout workshop focusing on UX design. For those that hadn’t picked an idea yet, we spent some time trying to help to focus their ideas on something they could work on.

Picture of hackathon particpantsThe workshop got the teams thinking about who they were creating their apps for, explaining that the smaller their focus target audience, the better they could target their research and the clearer they would be of their required functionality.

This message was made continually throughout the day, and it was great to see some of the teams altering their projects to focus on more specific user groups.

The whole day was a lot of fun, and everyone from our team was disappointed to leave at the end.

I’m one of many at Sopra Steria who spend time mentoring – especially with young people still in education who might need some help developing their full potential. It’s all part of our commitment to making a positive difference to the communities in which we live and work, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Do you have experience in mentoring outside of your workplace? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Fundraising for Byte Night: supporting Action for Children

One bike. Three men.

Our challenge? To cycle for 24 hours non-stop to raise money and awareness for a charity called Action for Children who support the 80,000 homeless children in the UK. On Friday 3rd August at 4pm we settled down for what was going to be a fantastic experience of tiredness, camaraderie, humour, shouting, generosity, through rain, wind and sunshine.

Back in May when I first suggested a charity cycle challenge as part of our Byte Night fundraising I couldn’t have guessed how much support we would need and receive; where do you start? Picking the team was easy as when I asked John French, Scotty Davidson who sits opposite jumped in and said “I’ll do that!” Next up, venue. Sure we could have done this in the office but that would have limited scope for donations and sounded somewhat boring.

Edinburgh is a fantastic city and every year in August the population swells so much during the Fringe and International Festivals that I thought it would give us a great opportunity to get as many people as possible to see us and donate. With the main festival venues centred around the Royal Mile which is soooo busy we decided on the West End. Busy enough but not too busy to give us any security concerns.

Next came sourcing a bike, informing the local council, clothing, posters, food, drinks, visitors (for support, security and supplies). Aside from friends and family I’ll get the thanks out of the way now. Massive thanks to:

  • Edinburgh Leisure for the spin bike
  • Brewlab for a couple of cases of water
  • Starbucks for breakfast coffee and muffins, and then more coffee and treats
  • A very kind unnamed woman who after watching us from a nearby bar for around 3 hours suddenly appeared with Big Mac Meals for the 3 of us. She’d asked the bar if she could pay them to bring us a bacon roll for breakfast but they said no – not particularly charitable of them but they will remain nameless
  • And finally to my main partners in crime John and Scotty for helping to organise and keeping us all going

And so on to the main event

After picking up the bike and my team mates we quickly set up and settled in for a long night. The weather was unkind for the first few hours with intermittent heavy rain showers but we were soon visited by colleagues leaving the office for the day. The cycling plan was to do 2 hours on the bike then swap while those off the bike shook the buckets and improved their patter. It’s amazing how quickly you lose any sense of inhibition and start shouting out for the cause to attract attention for donations.

 I don’t plan to give too much of a blow by blow account but will instead pick out what I consider some highlights :

  • During rain showers we used the weather to our advantage by shaming those sheltering in shop doorways to consider those unfortunate children who would have no such shelter overnight
  • Free coffee from a bar across the street who had no idea what we were doing but saw that we were clearly raising money for charity and had already been there for a good few hours
  • Chatting with a homeless young lad who had previously been helped by the charity and was now in a hostel which was helping him get his life back on track
  • Meeting other homeless people that had very little to their name but still offered some chat and some coppers as they know how hard homelessness is
  • Seeing the city move through a whole 24 hours from one fixed spot; this was fascinating watching it ease from early to late evening to very early morning to morning to afternoon and the different people this brought across our path. We watched and chatted to people heading out for the evening, heading home and then dropping by again in the morning just to see if we were still there!
  • Being visited by colleagues late into the night with smiles, food and supplementary shouting at passers by to spare some change
  • A young man who gave us £40 which we said was too much but he insisted as he’d apparently won £9,000 at the casino the night before!
  • Lots of children wanting to pop some change in the bucket having harangued their parents/grandparents for money to help us

24cycle_2Our fundraising target was a few hundred pounds – but we raised over £2,000!!!

What an amazing experience and what an amazing result! But what’s next?

Tonight, Friday 7 October is Byte Night and a group of us from the Edinburgh office will be sleeping out under the stars to raise more money to help fund projects and services run by Action for Children.

It’s not too late to support us – if you’d like to make a donation please visit our justgiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/soprasteriateam

What crazy things have you done to fund raise for charity? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Sustainability rolls on at Rio 2016 Olympics?

The Olympics has the accolade of bringing nations and cultures together with a backdrop of sporting disciplines. When my home town, London hosted the summer games in 2012, I wanted to be part of the action and celebration, so I volunteered as a Games Maker in the Athletes’ Village. What a great and successful event it turned out to be and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience to the extent that it spurred me on to volunteer again, this time for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Buildup to the Rio 2016 as we all know from the media had been mixed with questions being posed on whether the country could have spent ten plus billions of US$ on more vital infrastructure and services to its citizens and whether the stated legacy would ever be realised. Facilitating Sustainability (Environment, Workplace, Marketplace and Community) for Sopra Steria in the UK meant that my desire was to find out for myself what the locals thought on the ground.

 Rio de Janeiro was somewhat a familiar territory for me. I had travelled through Brazil, Peru and Bolivia in 2014, spending time in the Amazon rainforest. My role for Sopra Steria Group as the Head of Environmental Sustainability had given that trip an added dimension to learn first-hand and share with my colleagues the vital role the largest rainforest making our planet habitable for us and generations to come. I had made friends with several Cariocas (those born and raised in Rio de Janeiro), so I arranged to live with my Carioca friends, walking, taking buses (an experience for the brave) and metros (lines 1, 2 & 4 – does anyone know where is line 3?), eating feijoada (a hearty stew of black beans, sausages and cuts of pork of varying quality – traditionally veering towards the lower end, with trotters, and ears all going into the mix!) and not forgetting my daily dose of Caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça: sugarcane hard liquor with sugar, lime and ice).

It was great to see the first gold medal for Brazil going to a young lady, Rafaela Silva, from the notorious favela, Cidade de Deus or City of God who had to fight inequality, poverty and racism growing up. Perhaps this achievement was a tiny example of a positive outcome to mitigate human rights campaigners’ concern about the impact of the Games on the Brazilian city’s most vulnerable communities. Driving with my Carioca friends through several favelas (too dangerous to walk they say; a black belt in karate is of no value against a gun!) poverty is there to be seen with limited schools and hospitals. Most Cariocas with whom I mingled, spoke (thank you must go to Google Translate for rescuing me in a number of situations) and drank Caipirinha felt that money could have been more wisely spent on infrastructure (hospital and schools), than on transport – which by the way was a big improvement from two years ago – and to ensure planning continues to realise the long term benefits of sports and stadia without the risk of a repeat of Athens 2004.

To conclude on a positive note, my volunteer experience at the Rio Olympic Arena with gymnastics and trampoline was great and I admired the Brazilian skill of thinking on their feet and coming up with successful solutions to issues that develop due to a lack of process and training! I even managed to secure a new Rio 2016 volunteer shirt and trousers to auction at the Sopra Steria Community Matters week in October that champions community involvement and where all employees are encouraged to get involved in community activities, one day’s paid company time to volunteer, matched funds and enabling grants.

As I finish this blog, I gather the Tokyo games in 2020 are planning to use multi-lingual high tech robots. Does this mean my human volunteer skills (underpinned by Google Translate) have had its day?

What do you think?  Leave a reply below or contact me by email.