Five minutes with... Dr Sue Black OBE

By Hilary Stephenson | 08/02/2018

Dr Sue Black

Dr Sue Black OBE is one of the leading tech personalities in the UK today, having been recently named in the list of top 50 women in tech in Europe and nominated as the 119th most influential woman in the world. Ahead of her keynote talk at Camp Digital, we caught up with her to see what she's currently working on and what we can expect from her talk. 

At Camp Digital, your talk is entitled ‘If I Can Do It, So Can You’. Why is this topic important and what can audience members expect?

The talk is about my life; what has gone well and what hasn’t quite worked out. My story is one of having lots of difficult situations and experiences thrown at me but I have made it out the other side and have been able to make things happen that I really care about.

When I was a child I loved maths and would spend hours doing puzzles, but I married young and at just 25, I found myself a single parent, living on a council estate with three children.

I decided to fight against our situation and returned to college to complete a maths course, where I came top of my class. I thought, and still believe, that technology is the future, so I applied - and was accepted - to study computer science at my local university. It was tough with three kids at home but I loved the whole experience, eventually going on to become a lecturer and completing my PhD several years later.

Like everyone who goes through tough times, I didn’t know exactly what the outcome would be, but my resilience was the key to seeing me through. The aim of my talk, therefore, is to try and inspire others to believe in themselves.

What projects are you working on at the moment? And which are you most excited about?

At the moment, I’m putting together an online tech show that will be broadcast live from Facebook HQ in London. It’s all part of #techmums – my social enterprise, which is all about empowering mums to get into tech. We want everyone to recognise the benefits of tech and why it’s revolutionising the world in so many different ways. The show starts in February and will run for five weeks.

I’m also currently writing The Pelican Guide to Coding for Penguin – which will be the definitive book on code and how software affects us in our daily lives.

Finally, I just attended a kick-off meeting for an all-party parliamentary group for diversity in STEM. All very exciting!

You’re a passionate advocate for women in tech. Why do you think this is traditionally such a male-dominated industry and what would help to solve the disparity?

There are lots of different reasons.

During WW2 at Bletchley Park and during the 1950s and 1960s, there were lots of women working in tech-related roles and coding, but by the 80s and 90s – essentially when corporations realised they could make money from technology – it was generally sold as a very male endeavour. The media has had a huge role to play within this; you only have to glance at computing adverts from this time to see that it’s only men and boys who seem to have a place in the industry.

However, once you get a situation where there’s a minority, it’s extremely hard to change it. That’s why we desperately need initiatives aimed at all age groups and demographics to encourage a step-change in this respect. Just a few years ago, I remember being asked why I was “ghettoising” myself for setting up a group for women in tech… completely ridiculous, but that was the prevailing opinion at the time.

Thankfully, just as tech moves incredibly quickly, there has been a massive change in the way that people view the gender gap in recent years. Women are becoming empowered by communicating with each other in ways that they couldn’t do before. These days, all you need is an internet connection and a mobile phone to join together in supporting different initiatives - so it’s a really exciting time, but there is still some way to go.

What are you most looking forward to at Camp Digital? 

I have a feeling that the event will bring together lots of like-minded people, who are all excited about tech and how it’s changing the world around us. I want to hear from people; what exciting projects are challenging them and how they are working together to find solutions. I’m there to share my story but I’m dying to hear everyone else’s, too.