Girl talk

October 16th 2012 was Ada Lovelace day and it prompted a small flurry of articles, posts and podcasts bemoaning the lack of women in tech and wondering what could or should be done about it.

Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon
Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon

I didn’t join in at the time – perhaps because I was rather busy launching GOV.UK that night – I and many fabulous and talented colleagues, male and female. We reached over a million people on the first day and made it simpler, clearer and faster for them to interact with the UK government.

I could perhaps claim that being the proud if exhausted Product Manager of that product, on that day, was a more fitting tribute to Ms Lovelace than any tweet or comment or turn at a women’s networking event.

But that would be to suggest that, in the midst of all the hard work and euphoria, I was thinking about Ada, or even conscious of being “a woman in technology”.  And if I’m honest, I wasn’t.

What I was conscious of was everything that can be achieved when passionate, creative, experienced, proactive people come together and listen to and respect each others’ views and skills – regardless of their gender.

So it is only this evening that I’ve finally found and read those articles, and looked for those networks, and that’s because I went to listen to Martha Lane Fox speaking at a Nesta event and the subject came up. Again. In fact, I even tweeted Martha’s comment that women in tech should “Stand up, lean in & shout!” and in doing so I realised I’d sort of joined in, and perhaps it was time to form an opinion.

So here is my opening salvo.

What strikes me is that the discussion too often seems to centre around the relationship between girls and computers and how they need to be encouraged to “do IT “at school, or to write code – as if this alone will redress the gender imbalance at the top of tech companies and in the tech community as a whole. (The Indy took a broader view, but only just).

But surely computers and code are now a means to an end, many ends in fact – digital technology is about connecting people, and understanding their needs, and communicating, and being creative, and solving problems, and collaborating, and creating products that people want to use.

And, unless I’m missing something, I think girls tend to be quite good at those things – in fact possibly better than boys at some of them (I have no data – I’m just jumping on the gender stereotype bandwagon! But I also speak as a woman with a degree in English Literature who’s never written code, but who’s been able to work on some pretty big digital projects).

The computers and the code are the tools that make all of this possible, and yes, we absolutely do need talented people who know how to wield them skilfully – be they male or female. But TV is about more than cameras, newspapers are about more then typesetting, and creating great digital products and experiences is about more than computers.

So maybe, in 2013, we could talk less about IT and more about digital products, less about coding and more about understanding the needs of real people, less about “geeks” and more about creativity. And perhaps if we did that we might do better at attracting the full spectrum of people who will show us where digital technology can really take us… regardless of their gender.

So, what am I actually up to?

June has now arrived, and I’m out of the BBC and into the wild!

This month is really all about reading, thinking, and talking to people who are doing interesting things with digital technology and social enterprise. My aim is to understand more about what’s going on, and where there might be needs or gaps that I could meet or fill. It could be that I end up going for a specific role, or consulting across a range of projects. We’ll see!

And what exactly do I mean by “social enterprise”?!  Well, there are a lot of people way more knowledgeable than me who have come up with various (and not always consistent) definitions, but for what it’s worth, here’s mine:

I think a social enterprise is a viable business whose primary motivation is to meet a social need.  By “viable business” I mean that they are turning a profit, or at least breaking even, or have the potential to do so in the future.

I’m keeping a directory of the sites and services that catch my eye via delicious, and there’s a whole fabulous Guardian site dedicated to the subject if you’re keen to read more.

At the moment I’m interested both in individual enterprises, and also in the organisations that are supporting or enabling them.  There are also some great digital agencies who are focusing on working with social enterprises and charities.

There is a lot going on out there, and for now I’m just diving in and reading and exploring. If you have any thoughts or suggestions then do let me know!

Beginnings

So, this is the story of how I left the BBC, rejected Tesco, and got more involved with society. Or at least, it’s the start of that story.

I’ve spent much of the last 12 years growing things – digitally. First there was eBay, a small handful of people in a room above a furniture shop trying to launch the UK site on a shoestring and wondering if it would ever catch on… It did, and I spent 5 busy years helping it grow.

Then, when it was clear that eBay was here to stay, I thought I’d get involved with developing radio for the digital age and joined the amazing team at BBC Radio & Music Interactive. Seeds I helped to plant and nurture there included blogs for radio, the podcast service, radio in the iPlayer, programme segmentation, and in the last few months the start of a new Radio & Music product.  But there are a lot of keen digital gardeners at the BBC, and the products they’re developing are pretty huge, so after 7 years I felt it might be time to find something smaller.

I thought about “The Big Society”… I started reading about “social enterprise” and “social entrepreneurship”… I started following the work of The Young Foundation… and I wondered about what happens when the power of the web is harnessed to meet social needs, particularly as the state retreats. But then I got distracted…

I was approached by the enthusiastic people at BlinkBox, who needed a Product Manager ASAP, and were certainly set to grow. I thought it would be a good transition – out of the Beeb and into something smaller. I thought I might learn something useful about running a small business.  So I handed in my notice and was all set to start.

Then came the news that BlinkBox was being bought by Tesco and that changed things.

My first (and enduring) thought was that I couldn’t and won’t work for Tesco. In fact, I don’t even use their shops if I can help it, and they stand for a lot of things that make me uncomfortable.  Also, even if it hadn’t been Tesco, the acquisition is bound to mean big changes at BlinkBox – great news for them (and I wish them well!) but less good news for me in my quest for something small and useful to grow.

And so I made a decision – don’t start at BlinkBox, don’t stay at the BBC – use this as an opportunity to really find out how technology might change society for the better. Find those people who are already doing small, interesting, important things with the web; find out how they are getting on, and whether I might get involved.

So that’s where I am, at the end of April 2011. I leave the BBC at the end of May, and the project starts in earnest on 6th June. If you’re interested in finding out how I get on then follow this blog and I’ll keep you posted!