GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post, Rhonda Textor, head of data science at True Fit talks about the changes she had to make to her hiring practices to close the data science diversity gap
I know firsthand that tech has a diversity problem. As a computer science major and a career data scientist with a PhD, I’ve been the only woman in many classrooms and meetings. My experience is not surprising, unique, or unknown: there is a very public conversation about the lack of diversity in the technology workforce. This is a well-known issue. However, what surprised me as a new hiring manager was how institutional this problem is and how challenging it can be to make progress.
I work for a startup company that was co-founded by a woman. Many of our leadership positions are held by women (Head of Product, Head of Data Science, Chief Customer Officer, etc.). We regularly have conversations about diversity issues and our shared frustrations with our industry. But when I was promoted to head of data science, I quickly learned that the best intentions are not nearly enough to build a diverse team.
I am very familiar with pipeline issues, one of the many reasons offered for lack of diversity: there aren’t enough women qualified for technical roles because they drop out of the pipeline at various stages, from girls who opt out of math classes, to qualified technical college graduates who elect to pursue non-technical careers. I have taken part in unconscious bias training, I’ve attended research talks that show how word choices (or even bulleted lists) in a job ad can either encourage or discourage women and minorities from applying. I’ve been interrupted, had my ideas ignored until they were restated by a male colleague, and I’ve been asked all manner of illegal questions during job interviews. All of this is to say that while I was well aware of the challenges and issues, I was sure that by virtue of being a woman in my new position a pool of highly qualified women and minorities would materialise with very little effort.
There are many ways that a lack of diversity can be reinforced in the hiring process. One inexpensive/quick way to build a team is to rely heavily on referrals, which often serve to reinforce the demographics of the people who are already on the team because people are likely to know other people like themselves. The wording of the job ad can scare away diversity candidates. Having too many requirements can scare away candidates who are too intimidated to apply for jobs where they may not meet 100% of the stated qualifications. There is also a tendency to incorrectly associate skills and experience that are not necessary for a role. For example, there are many successful data scientists who have PhDs in physics, however, a PhD in physics is not required to be a good data scientist.
When I had my first opening, I wrote my ad for a Senior Data Science Manager and waited for all the resumes from highly qualified women and minorities to pour in. And I waited. And waited. Meanwhile, I received many applications from overconfident standup comedians, sandwich delivery drivers, and data science students (my ad suggested minimum qualifications of a PhD or equivalent plus years of work experience). I started working with a recruiter and I was soon interviewing many math and physics PhDs who struggled to communicate clearly and did not bring additional skills to my team. I sought advice from friends, one of whom called me out for my preference for PhDs at all (I wasn’t ready to listen). I talked to colleagues at my company about recruiting strategies.
What finally motivated me to move in a different direction was attending a talk that reinforced the same tired recruiting and team building strategies that have been shown to be problematic, leading to hiring the same non-diverse workforce our industry has been hiring for decades. It finally clicked that instead of accepting the status quo and letting myself off the hook because recruiting a diverse team is hard (it is), I needed to take some bold steps. I rewrote my ad and reset the level (from senior manager) to encourage candidates of all levels to apply. This required that I be creative in envisioning how a more junior candidate could contribute to the larger team. I changed recruiters to one that was on board with my hiring objectives, and who committed to sending me resumes from more diverse candidates. Once we opened the recruiting funnel, we started to see many great candidates who had very different backgrounds. We were excited about what many of these candidates could contribute to the team.
My team and I have not “solved” broad diversity problems, but we have moved in a positive direction. While we were optimising our candidate pool to better reflect the population, we also increased the quality of our candidates. For each open position, we had more, highly qualified finalists than we had before.
GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post, Yaara Letz, partner consulting engineer at Tyk, explains why women in tech need to carve out their own career path rather than wait for diversity and inclusion initiatives to slow push through change.
Gender diversity has been a hot topic recently, with efforts to achieve better balance becoming more prominent within the technology industry. Despite the perception of the tech industry’s male-dominated culture, organisations are starting to embrace a rich mix of not only genders, but skillsets and personalities to get the best results. A variety of backgrounds is essential, especially when it comes to creative solutions and critical thinking around problems. However, talented women within the sector should not wait for the industry to catch up and grant them opportunities for the sake of ‘diversity’. They should forge their own path.
Throughout my studies and career, I have worked in male-dominated environments. There were only a handful of women in my classes. My first job was in a UNIX system admin team, which was predominantly male. But I didn’t care. The role turned out to be a valuable decision, which has assisted me throughout my career; as a C++ developer in the Hi-Tech world and investment banking industry, all the way through to my current role as a Partner Consulting Engineer at Tyk (an API platform).
I have always approached my career by focusing on myself, the changes I can make, and my contributions rather than my gender. I have followed a set of principles which have served me well: know your stuff, be prepared and, most importantly speak up – even when it feels like a challenge. Share your thoughts, make human contact. Writing code and documents is not enough if you want to climb up the ladder.
I’m confident that in a few years there will be more women in tech roles and more opportunities to make an impact. As these women become more senior, they will act as mentors to younger women who want to enter the field. But women at the start of their careers shouldn’t wait for this to become a reality. It’s important to take control now and carve a path for yourself. Focus on developing inner confidence and becoming an expert in your chosen subject area. This combination will make you stronger, both personally and professionally. While diversity initiatives are certainly needed, my view is that they can only do so much. You are your own brand and it is important to invest in yourself, your education and your career. That’s the only way to remain competitive and relevant.
From an organisation’s perspective, building a truly diverse workforce does not only mean employing different people. An environment must be created where different people are allowed and encouraged to flourish. We need to work together to ensure that everyone is seen for their own merit, not solely for their gender. This requires a cultural and industry-wide shift. As a woman and an engineer this view is part of who I am and a significant part of my day-to-day role at Tyk. But I think there’s more we can do to challenge that mentality.
Within a modern organisation, everyone should be encouraged to speak up and be accountable for their projects. Business leaders should focus on communication and encourage all employees to bring their expertise and opinions to the table. This ‘flat’ approach spurs people to invest in themselves and think through their approach. This creates an environment that embraces new ideas and it’s something that I’d hope to see replicated across all sectors.
It’s encouraging to see businesses incentivise projects that bring more diversity in the office, but it will ultimately take years to reach a natural balance. In the meantime, female technology experts should ensure that their voices are heard in the workplace, contributing to a new culture that is not dictated by metrics. Don’t wait to be told you can be part of a diverse workforce – be the driver that creates an inclusive culture where gender is no longer a blocker but an accelerator.
GUEST BLOG: As companies continue to face an enormous digital skills gap, Helen Wollaston, Chief Executive of WISE, the campaign for gender balance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), calls on industry leaders to set targets to increase representation of women in tech in this contributed blog post.
Targets for diversity are a controversial subject and there are positives and negatives on both sides of the argument. However, I believe that the time has come to take a fresh look at how we can use targets to fill the skills gaps in tech. Not only can women help to fill skills shortages, there is a strong business case for inclusion and diversity that shows increased creativity, productivity and profitability as key benefits.
People think setting a target is in conflict with appointing the best person for the job. This is a myth. What a target does is make clear a serious commitment to change. In the absence of targets, a vague desire to “hire more women” fails to deliver because it isn’t clear whose responsibility it is. How many women? In what roles? By when? Where will you find them? What is the plan? Setting a target and making people accountable for delivery focuses the mind; teams talk about it seriously and come up with creative ideas which start to make a difference.
One of the first targets I’d like to suggest is to give responsibility to a named director on every company board to drive sustainable change for inclusivity and diversity. They must be supported by the full board of directors who also take action and personal responsibility to deliver this culture. At our conference last month, some of the companies working with WISE reported linking diversity targets to bonuses – this really does focus the mind!
With a leader in place, you need to establish your baseline; the target has to make sense in the context of where you are now if you want people to take it seriously. Most larger sized businesses now report their gender pay gap and this provides a good insight to assess where particular issues lie and put in place action plans to tackle them.
There are many different ways targets can be employed to great effect. One target would be that all longlists or all shortlists for roles have 50% women, or as one company I know has introduced, all promotions will have 2 women for every man on the shortlist until they achieve gender parity on the leadership team.
People will tell you it’s impossible – there simply aren’t enough women with IT qualifications around, or we would love to put women forward, but they never apply for developer roles. This is why you need a target and a plan to achieve it, for example, start by reviewing your recruitment strategy; do you really need someone who has five years’ experience in a set programming language if the right person has the aptitude and ability to quickly pick up the technical aspects? One company I know has taken an approach that divides their vacancies into three categories: ‘ready now, ready soon and ready later’. They negotiate with the hiring manager a proportion of the roles to be ‘ready soon and ready later’ and they build in time for training and development needed for those people, in order to futureproof those opportunities. They are working to gain long-term benefits of growing their own talented employees, creating sustainability, and developing a reputation as a company that women want to work for.
You also need to change the language you’re using in your recruitment. We know that the social-environmental purpose of a role is a stronger drive in women than men. What will inspire women to apply is being able to see the bigger picture to which they will contribute. So simply, without spending any money, just reframing the job description and presenting the bigger picture, for example, ‘you could be involved in generating the technology that will help people live longer independently’, you are more likely to attract applications from women.
Retention, retraining and returners are an additional way you can achieve your target. There is a massive opportunity for empoyers to step up their efforts to ensure they retain the women they already have, as well as opening doors for those who may want to retrain from other roles, switch careers entirely, or return after career breaks.
By adopting policies that support and help existing employees move roles, particularly into higher paid roles, through retraining, and or taking on women who want to return after a career break, companies are set to gain many benefits including retention and development of good employees who will support business growth, a positive impact on their gender pay gap, the ability to grow their own talented workforce by developing the specific skills they need and gain a reputation as an employer of choice.
So, maybe targets are not such a controversial thought after all. Different organisations will set them differently according to their needs. I personally think that setting a figure on the number of women you intend to have in your organisation and through the different management levels really focuses the attention on what you need to do to achieve greater gender balance. Ultimately, it comes down to creating a culture that is truly 100% committed to supporting greater inclusion and diversity.
The Makers Academy coding bootcamp recently put together a list of 30 women in the software industry to showcase the sector’s female talent.
Out of the many women who were put forward for consideration, a handful were chosen to represent the best young females in software engineering based on their ability to master new skills and technologies in a short space of time, influence both in and outside of the industry, and the projects they have been contributing to both in and outside of work.
Making sure these women can be seen and are accessible is important for creating role models for those considering a technology career, as well as proving those who use a ‘lack’ of women in the sector as an excuse for biased hiring or event organising wrong.
Three women who made the final list, Sarah-Beth Amos, Rachelle Mills and Elin Ng, have shared their personal experiences of some of the challenges of being a woman in the software wold, how they tackled these challenges, and any advice they would give someone experiencing something similar.
Rachelle Mills, CEO of KareInn
KareInn is a healthtech company which uses a software platform to improve health and wellbeing in the growing elderly population. Mills has been instrumental in scaling KareInn into a leading business in the UK Care Home sector.
Like any CEO and founder will tell you, there are years where the learning curve is steep, and you are rapidly reflecting on your strengths and challenges in order to adapt and become successful. For me, this felt more challenging because of the absence of female role models and mentors in the tech space. There is a personal gain from sharing your journey with others who have been there and done it. It supports you personally, emotionally and practically for the road ahead. Finding my tribe has been an important part of the journey, but there is definitely more that can be done to make this easier. I would like to see those of us that have broken through to play our part in paying it forward.
I started to overcome this by listening to podcasts, particularly Masters of Scale, but I also looked for ways to grow my real-life network. A turning point for me was when the team won a place on Google’s Residency Programme. I found myself surrounded by other peers who were scaling ambitious software companies, all with a technology for social good bias. Half of those companies were led by clever, ambitious women who had experience building software companies before. They have become good friends, and introduced me to their networks, such as the fantastic 10 Digital Ladies, so I think my key message would be hunt out or be on the lookout for your tribe, and invest time in those relationships when you find them. It pays dividends.
Sarah-Beth Amos, Phd student in computational biochemistry, Oxford University
Amos studied Biochemistry at King’s College London where she became very interested in the physics and mathematics underlying biology. After teaching herself to programme in her spare time while carrying out undergraduate projects in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and computational biology, she was awarded an MRC scholarship to study for her MRes in Molecular Biophysics at King’s, and carried out a project on molecular simulation of antimicrobial peptides.
Whilst I have been incredibly fortunate that my academic supervisors have been very supportive, there have been a number of episodes throughout my career where I faced blatant discouragement and pretty sexist behaviour. I attended a recruitment event where the company CEO asked me if I was lost on arrival (I was the only woman there). In the last year I have been told that I should just let my partner ‘earn all the money’ rather than being ambitious with my work. One colleague said I wouldn’t be able to do a certain type of job, until I started getting interviews for those positions.
I am always amazed when people complain that ‘their’ job was given to someone else only because of equality initiatives. Who said it was ‘your’ job in the first place? It is a constant challenge to confront the gradual erosion of confidence that is the result of instances like these.
To overcome these challenges, I think you have to accept that you probably will have experiences like this, and maybe prepare for them by having some short responses to hand, and know that you need to be ready to ignore comments from people who don’t have your best interests at heart. At the same time, be a good role model yourself by working hard and advocating for others where you can.
Elin Ng, co-founder of Salve
Salve is a mobile app that improves patient service and outcomes for clinics. The firm is currently working with IVF clinics in the UK and across Europe. Salve is automating clinic workflows to free staff time for better care and improved patient safety by allowing patients to access treatment information via their smartphones.
Salve, the startup I co-founded, is a patient management platform, guiding patients through fertility treatment via mobile and automating clinic admin processes, so staff have more time for better care. The idea for this came from supporting some friends who were overwhelmed when undergoing gruelling fertility treatments. They were emotionally exhausted with daily injections, hormone treatments and invasive weekly appointments – on top of work and other responsibilities.
I originally came from a finance background and completed the Makers Academy software development program with the intention to launch a tech startup. This is where Salve began!
As a female founder, I had empathy for the women experiencing fertility issues and the substantial workload upon nurses and doctors to provide consistent and time pressured care.
Many of my product management and partnership meetings are held with technical specialists, where I’m the only woman. My confidence has sometimes wavered in managing technical conversations as I don’t come from a traditional tech background – whilst at the same time, I’ve undervalued my deep understanding how clinic staff & patients want to interact with our product and also the greater vision for the business.
When product development and partnership meetings become quite technical – I encourage the team to create a visualisation of the issue and solution – this helps create a common understanding of the topic. We also do weekly learning sessions where our tech team talk about what they’re developing & answer any questions from the other team members. This helps everyone communicate better on technical aspects to our customers.
I’m also building a network for fellow female health-tech founders, to share our learnings, resources and connections.
My advice? Don’t be afraid to ask for people’s time, advice and connections. Think carefully about how you can contribute to them. We’ve hired quite a few people who’ve taken the initiative to reach out to us.
Ex-basketball star, philanthropist and entrepreneur Shaquille O’Neal made an interesting appearance at SuiteWorld 2019, not just to DJ at the show’s closing party but also to talk about his various activities in the business world.
NetSuite has a history of inviting sports personalities turned business experts to talk about their adventures in the business world – sometimes it’s relevant to the technology industry and sometimes it isn’t.
Last year, for example, Magic Johnson shared his thoughts on adapting to the millennial customer, especially in the wake of a technology driven world.
This year was the turn of Shaquille O’Neal, and his session highlighted to me the connection between this particular NBA Hall-of-Famer and diversity in the word of business.
As part of his Q&A session, O’Neal explained how he is an investor in various different businesses, and has advised some of his more recent partners he wouldn’t be involved unless they implemented more diversity in its boards and leadership roles, which will eventually filter down to those running the franchises.
He used his partnership with Papa John’s as an example of this attitude: “Papa John’s pizza, everyone is welcome and we accept everybody.”
There is often an emphasis on how people in privileged positions, the white men who hold c-suite positions in tech companies being those most often mentioned in Computer Weekly, should do what they can to use their privilege to shift the world towards a more balanced and fair place.
O’Neal shared details of other investments he has made too – those more focused on the tech sector.
His first investment? Google.
He invested in Google, and he did so by accident.
O’Neal claimed his involvement with Google came out of a simple conversation about an idea that sounded cool.
Ring, the smartphone-connected doorbell with a built in camera, is another firm the sport titan has invested in and offered help to after using the products in his home.
Professional security firms were offering O’Neal extortionate prices for home monitoring equipment, so he went to a local store, came across some Ring products and now has 30 of them across his property.
He said: “I see this doorbell thing and I thought I’d try it out. The crazy thing is I installed it, I don’t install anything. That’s how easy it was.”
After meeting the people from Ring at tech event CES, he began to do what he could to give the firm exposure, including appearing in commercials.
Quoting Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, O’Neal said: “If you invest in things it’s going to change people’s lives. It’s a win win.”
This quote has formed his strategy as an angel investor, and he said it’s going well.
O’Neal admitted: “A lot of times it’s just about meeting people and it’s just about having conversations with people and I have a lot of people working for me that are really into this stuff.”
And apparently, he’s into this stuff too.
He’s a self-confessed geek, and proud of it, sharing his experience in a computing class in the 80s.
Role models is another topic I cover regularly, so I feel it’s particularly relevant for O’Neal to talk about the “geek that saved [his] life” in a class he was failing.
He admitted: “I just looked at it and I figured I couldn’t do it. But there was a guy and his name was McDougal, and he broke it down for me and showed me how to use it and ever since, being intrigued by that I always considered myself a geek. I always wanted to be at the forefront of new technology.”
By the end of the session, he said he wanted to do an internship at NetSuite. He quickly gave up on the idea when asked if he could code.
O’Neal shared two pieces of advice during his talk that resonated with me in particular:
- Make people laugh
- You can’t make it on your own
Claiming the world to be “too serious”, O’Neal wants to be the person in the room who will make you laugh to forget the modern day stresses that impact us all.
He claimed: “It’s a proven fact that when you laugh it releases endorphins in your face, in your body and it helps you relieve stress.”
As for the importance of others in one’s success, O’Neal began with a sports analogy to explain why teamwork is so important.
“You have to utilise your teammate for ultimate success. I’m not here by myself,” he said. “Nobody can win a championship by themselves.”
Tying in (loosely, I’ll admit) with the women in business event that ran on the same day, it was said many women find it difficult to lend each other a helping hand, but could go so much further when banded together.
O’Neal is under no impression he could be where he is without his team, and those he has worked with in the past.
And it seems now he’s using his privilege to try and be that helping hand for others too.
Yes he’s rich, and yes he’s famous, but there are just as many people in his position doing nothing to support others who don’t have as much as them.
Say what you will about sports personalities sharing their experiences at technology events – his advice was relevant, and I liked it.
I’ll leave you with a final quote from O’Neal that everyone should keep in mind: “If I had tried to do everything by myself, I would have failed miserably.”
GUEST BLOG: In this contributed post Claudia Harris, the new chair of software bootcamp Makers, discusses the challenges and solutions to the UK’s tech skills gap – could encouraging more women into the tech industry be the answer?
The UK’s digital skills crisis is well documented. There are 600,000 digital vacancies at any one time at an estimated annual cost to the UK economy of £63bn. A key feature is the role of gender. Only 17% of employees in the UK technology sector are women.
Solving this challenge requires much better engagement in our education system. Take up of computer science and maths A-levels has been increasing in recent years. Maths is now the most popular A-level. However a gender gap persists. Fewer than one tenth of A-level computer science students in the UK are female, and men are almost twice as likely to take Maths.
For young women, interest in certain subjects drops dramatically at the age of 13. Women look up, can’t see people like them in techy roles, and don’t think it’s for them. We know that role models are one route to solving this problem. The Careers & Enterprise Company, which I lead, works to link schools to employers to help provide this inspiration.
Given its urgency however, the digital gap also needs to be addressed by mid-career switchers. This is something that Makers looks to address with its software coding bootcamp.
The programme puts Makers through a 16-week bootcamp focused on learning to problem solve in coding. This equips them with the tools to continue to be confident learners even once they have left be bootcamp. Employers from the Financial Times to Deloitte have recognised the power of this model, using it to recruit talent. Conversely, for the individuals involved the experience is life changing.
Makers is focused on inclusion – 35% of its software engineers are women, twice the national average. It attributes its success in attracting women to its inclusive learning environment and to its application criteria. It does not ask for A-levels in its recruitment. Its focus is on problem solving and mindset. The positive learning experience of female Makers then leads to word of mouth referrals.
As well as addressing the digital skills gap, these female coders will become the very role models who can go back into schools and show younger women what is possible.
The bootcamp model holds some vital clues on how to build the digital skills that are in such great demand, and shows that it is possible to do this while beating the averages on gender. It is a model that has the potential to benefit both the economy and our society.
WOMEN IN TECH PROFILE: Laurelin Chase, student at Clacton County High School and FDM everywoman in technology awards finalist in the “One to Watch Award” category, talks about the role models that encouraged her into tech, and how we can get other girls to consider science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
What do you love most about STEM?
What I love the most about being a student and working in STEM is the fact that it’s a great starting point for me, I have teachers and technicians to guide and help me as I experiment with new materials, processes and projects. Not only that, but being a student also means I have access to programmes such as STEM and Women in Technology that allow me to work both independently and alongside peers and professionals to create innovative and unique projects. However, my favourite thing about being a student is being able to positively influence and encourage younger girls to join STEM and embrace their creativity.
Did you benefit from having a role model when starting your career in the tech industry?
When I was younger, I didn’t really have a role model in tech, I just knew that I liked making things and so I made them! However, as I got older and learned more about design and technology, I considered my role model to be my grandmother who studied and taught engineering, at the same time as raising three kids! She and my mum both encourage me to work hard and be creative, and seeing another woman succeed in tech inspired me to get more involved with and STEM and encourage other girls to do it too.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I think the best advice I’ve ever been given is to not listen to what other people say. I think this is important because I let what people thought of me affect the way I lived my life for a very long time. It made me miss out on some great opportunities and experiences, however, when I embraced this new attitude, nothing could stop me! When all my friends dropped out of STEM I didn’t, I kept on going, and I’m so glad I did! It helped me discover something that I love doing and gave me a lot of courage to try new things!
Are you actively involved in any initiatives promoting gender diversity in the tech industry?
At the moment I am not involved in any initiatives promoting gender diversity other than the women in tech programme that my school runs, which I’m not directly involved with, but it encourages young girls to do things such as STEM and product design. Although I may not be directly involved with any initiatives currently, that hasn’t stopped me from speaking to younger girls in my school and encouraging them to join the different STEM clubs our school has to offer or to consider taking GCSE product design as an option, and to my delight a few of them already have!
How can we make young girls more enthusiastic about STEM subjects?
I think the way to make young girls more enthusiastic about STEM subjects is to give them the chance to try them out, a lot of young girls may not realise what STEM is really about and haven’t had the chance to find an aspect of it that they enjoy or can relate to, thus encouraging them to pursue it. Another way I think we can draw girls to STEM is by making it relevant and giving them the opportunity to create something they care about, or solving a problem they never knew they had the power to solve, and showing them that they really can make a change.
WOMEN IN TECH PROFILE: Nelly Kiboi, software engineer at American Express, and FDM everywoman in technology awards finalist in the software engineering category, answers questions about her role and the importance of role models for future women in tech.
What do you love most about your role? What does it involve?
At American Express, I’m granted the opportunity to lead projects and work on solving complex problems.
Moreover, the position allows me to work on tasks that are key to my values, such as accessibility and improving diversity in the workplace.
I get to work on new and emerging technologies with supportive team members, while creating new innovative products for our customers.
What initiatives are most effective for women for supporting women in the workplace?
A supportive company fosters a culture of inclusion for women within the work environment where they are heard and supported by their colleagues. This gives them the opportunity to grow and flourish within their careers.
Women also ought to be presented with stretch assignments and innovative projects, which provide them with visibility within the organization to showcase their technical knowledge and support their career progression.
Creating and sharing success stories of roles models also is important, as they allow women to be able to see what they can achieve, what’s possible within the tech industry and their organizations, as well as opportunities that are available to them.
Why are visible role models so important for women who might want a career in tech?
Role models show women who want to take up careers in technology that there’s a place for them in this male-dominated industry. I’ve been fortunate to get to see women achieving great success in their careers, and I’ve been encouraged to believe that I can achieve and succeed as they did. I learn from their successes and the unique challenges they’ve faced. This teaches me how I can forge a fulfilling career for myself and others within technology.
What challenges have you faced as a female software engineer during your career journey?
People sometimes make assumptions about my technical abilities. It means you have to work harder to prove yourself. Personally, I’ve experienced a lot of imposter syndrome – the lack of diverse female role models in the industry and reference points for African women in tech definitely contributes to this. This is why I’m deeply involved with helping to build the diversity within my workplace – I want the next generation of female and minority software engineers to see what’s possible for them.
WOMAN IN TECH PROFILE: Finalist in the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards Innovator Award category, Megha Prakash, founder of Earthmiles and Earthmiles@Work answers questions about her role and her career.
The Earthmiles platform helps use behavioural psychology and data analytics improve its users’ wellbeing.
What do you love most about your role?
There are a huge number of things that I love about my role. Although I wear the hat of CEO, which many people would tend to look at as a primarily business role, in reality creating and growing a product from scratch requires a multiplicity of skills, skills that I am constantly striving to learn and enhance in myself.
There is a lot of creativity in deciding which problems to focus on and which approaches to use in solving those problems. You’re looking constantly across a breadth of areas from product and strategy to commercial partnerships and sales, and working all the time in lockstep with technology because ultimately tech is the medium through which we deliver our innovative approaches.
I love that we are working on fundamentally improving lives and for solving broad issues that exist in workplaces and our lives today and that really need solving. Having a mission-oriented mindset really gives me something to look forward to every day, and an enthusiasm for tackling the issues of the day.
What the importance of behavioural psychology in the workplace?
Behavioral psychology popularly refers to the various shortcuts and heuristics that our brains have developed as we have evolved over millenia. Rational behaviour might dictate that we do one thing – exercise every single day, never be addicted to cigarettes or sugar, save for old age, etc. However reality is very complex and there are myriad forces actually driving the decisions we made from day to day.
A lot of the decisions that are said to be “impulses” are actually driven by our subconscious minds (rather than our conscious minds) and have their roots in complex evolutionary triggers that have nothing to do with conscious rationality. There are well-known cognitive biases that may lead to suboptimal decision making. We seek to harness some of this hard-wiring within our brain to drive better life outcomes for e.g. can we harness reward-seeking to drive positive behaviours by creating a reward or incentive for it?
This remains as important at the workplace as outside of it. We spend half our waking lives at work, and today its becoming very apparent that our environment and habits at the workplace are major determinants of our overall health and wellbeing. The view of the workplace as something just yielding a paycheck at the end of the day is changing. At Earthmiles we seek to give employees various “levers” to engage with their wellbeing at the workplace. For some, this is healthy rivalry with their colleagues (step challenge anyone?) For others something like this would do the opposite, and they’d be intimidated into not even taking part. For those with other motivations we provide rewards in the form of financial incentives, social cues, team play, and personal self-improvement “small victories” to grab their interest.
How is tech evolving behavioural psychology in the workplace?
In fact, tech is changing the very nature of the workplace. Today a huge number of companies are operating teams that are geographically dispersed, employees that are working remotely or flexibly, the “gig” economy is changing the nature of employer-employee relationships, and many other changes are at play. The younger generations who are entering the job market now also have a very different set of expectations from their employers as opposed to prior years, and this too is driven by information and technology.
These changes make it difficult today to apply traditional thinking to creating and maintaining an organisational culture and identity, loyalty and retention in employees, and other new challenges. But on the flip side of the coin, with the help of tech platforms including mobile phones, there are now new ways to reach and interact with the workforce. Employers can create meaningful programmes that are more immediately usable and available to employees and (with their consent of course) supply them with modules, incentives, and communications to affect better awareness and behavioural change.
For example, in the Earthmiles app, employers can create “group mission” which involve the entire firm in a cause of their choosing. Everyone has to walk during a certain period of time and all their steps will go towards releasing a corpus of funds towards that cause (say, cancer research). This motivates and incentivises activity levels in employees but also creates opportunities for team building, organisational identity, loyalty, retention and recruitment. The app offers a range of modules to cater to different such goals.
What does success look like in the workplace once these practices are implemented properly?
Success can look like a number of things because different types of employers are dealing with different types of challenges. In the case of a traditional workplace, success may be seen as a culture enhancer that ultimately leads to better productivity i.e. a good wellbeing programme creates communications and incentives for them to step away from the strains and stresses of everyday work and focus on their wellbeing in a number of ways. The ultimate goal being able to view the workplace and the employer as an enabler of better wellbeing, not a distraction from it. Over the long term this would lead to lower sickness, high productivity, better employee engagement and motivation. In a different set up, such as a young company with a distributed workforce, success may be measured foremost by recruitment appeal and the employees’ involvement (regardless of geography) in their roles and their team. No matter what the nature of the workplace, in every situation successful programmes and practices would drive up employee engagement and enable better overall wellbeing.
How have you helped support women in the tech industry?
Tech is still a space where women are still finding their voice. It is important to be part of the dialogue and the process, being involved in women in tech communities and forums and most of all to listen to and give opportunities to other women through employment, partnerships and mentoring, all of which I strive to do.
GUEST BLOG: In this contributed post, Helen Lamprell, General Counsel and External Affairs Director, Vodafone UK, talks about how technology can be used for social good
We are living in an age of change. There is political and economic uncertainty as we go through one of the greatest constitutional changes in memory; an aging population; rapidly increasing urbanisation and more.
At the same time, technology is bringing sweeping change to long-standing industries – changing business models, customer expectations and the job market. Much of this change has been enormously positive: connectivity and technology are helping to level the playing field and enabling plucky entrepreneurs to compete with much larger businesses.
As we enter a new era of communications and technology – with the rapid development of the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and more – the possibilities for innovation are truly endless.
The power of technology to drive positive change
Here at Vodafone, I’m delighted that we have some great examples of technology delivering real social good.
The Vodafone Foundation is a charity that invests in the communities where we operate. It focuses on projects across the world where communications technology can deliver real benefits, in areas such as health and education.
The DreamLab app, launched in the UK the foundation in 2018, is a fantastic example of social innovation in action. The app works by using the collective power of people’s smartphones when they are not in use to help speed up cancer research. We’re working with Imperial College, London to help them analyse huge datasets using an algorithm they have created. The aim is to uncover new uses for existing approved drugs and drug combinations. Researchers believe that this could speed up access to effective drugs and enable truly personalised treatments for patients.
We must foster technology for social good
There is enormous potential to develop solutions for social benefit using technology. If someone has an idea, there are many avenues and resources available to help build the technical element. In the past, you had to have a computer science degree or developer skills to do this; today, technology is much more accessible to everyone. Technology can help us address our most challenging and pressing social needs in areas such as health, education or inequality.
However, we need to make the process for bringing such ideas to market easier. Industry and investment bodies can play a big role here. It’s one of the reasons we teamed up with Social Tech Trust, a leading charity in the technology for social good space, to launch our new social innovation award programme – Vodafone Techstarter.
We launched it in September 2018 to help UK social tech ventures scale their ideas. We’re offering not only funding but also access to industry expertise in areas such as technology or commercial development. Support like this is particularly valuable to ventures who are developing prototypes; it’s an area where there is a gap in support and where larger companies can help.
On 7 February 2019, we celebrated some of the most incredible social tech companies in the UK. I was honoured to announce our Techstarter winners: Code 4000, Full Fact, The Children’s Society and Wayfindr in the not-for-profit category; and Alice SI, Blakbear, Lettus Grow and Walk With Path in the for-profit category. I’m really looking forward to seeing what these amazing small businesses will be able to achieve.
Why the UK can lead in social technology
The UK is one of the greatest places in the world to develop technology ideas. We have some of the best research and education institutions, amazing networks of truly innovative people and real entrepreneurial spirit. We have a great history of innovation in this country and we’re pragmatic – we recognise the challenges we face and know we need to think differently to address them.
We all have a role to play
We are seeing more and more companies embracing their social responsibility. I think, and hope, we’re going to see greater collaboration and sharing of ideas across industry, government, charity, research and education. This can only be a good thing.
No one organisation has the answer, but working collectively and collaboratively has the potential to be hugely transformational.