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.

Young Scot Awards 2015: celebrating young people in Scotland

Last week I was privileged to attend the 2015 Young Scot Awards in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. The night is a celebration of the success of young people in Scotland who have made various amazing contributions to the improve the lives of people in their communities.  A suite of celebrities were involved in the hosting and presentation of the awards, including Edith Bowman, the band Prides (definitely the loudest contributors, especially from my seat), Conor Maynard, Stevia McCrorie and Pudsey the Dog (the only one I recognised …). young-scot-performingFrom our table in the front row we got the full 360 degree sound experience – music to front and screaming to the rear. All the nominees and winners were very impressive, with the overall award going to Jak Truman for his inspirational fund raising efforts before his untimely death from cancer in February 2015.

The event made me think about the importance of young people to a company like Sopra Steria. Every year we recruit a significant number of graduates into all areas of the company (104 under 24s in 2014). Working with young people challenges us all to take a fresh approach to our work. Our graduates are invariably keen, work hard, liven things up, and bring a fresh perspective to digital technologies. Some of our projects may not involve the sort of systems they imagined they would work on while at university, e.g. paying farmer’s claims, court case management solutions and prison management systems but they always adapt quickly and successfully (although without the reward of meeting Pudsey).

All our graduates start with an induction programme and then move on to work on various projects, potentially involving a range of technologies and types of clients. We make sure our graduates have more experienced people to mentor them, as well as a buddy to help them settle in. See information about our Graduate opportunities.

In a similar way the Young Scot Awards show that with a little support and encouragement young people can achieve great things and make a real difference.

Many thanks to my hosts SOLACE (the UK representative body for Local Authority Chief Executives), Young Scot for organising a very inspiring and professional event, and above all to the many fantastic young people who were nominated for, and won, the awards.

On a personal note, my 16 year old daughter is part of a Young Scot focus group and was also enjoying the show. However no thanks for the text telling me I looked bald from her seat in the Grand Circle.