Profile Interview: Dr Sue Black

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When you think of the name Dr Sue Black, there are several things that could spring to mind. She’s a technology evangelist with an OBE, an author, a digital skills expert, a revered academic and honorary professor, a UK government advisor, public speaker and a campaigner for women in tech. She’s also appeared on Desert Island Discs and played an instrumental part in a campaign to save Bletchley Park from closure.

Her list of accolades is seriously impressive and she’s pretty much done it all. However, my first impression of Sue as I sit down with her for a coffee in one of her favorite local cafes is that she’s warm, welcoming and incredibly down to earth – not to mention that she’s rocking some truly awesome bright red hair!

Dr Black’s story is an amazing one; I would need a lot more than just the next few pages to even try to do it justice, but indulge me if you will as I recount the tale of a woman who has made a huge difference to the lives of so many over the last 20+ years.

By her own admission, an interest in computing did not come to Sue at an early age: “I’m 56 now and I guess that, in the 60s and early 70s, nobody my age really knew much about computing,” she says. “We didn’t have computers at school, so that opportunity didn’t really come up.”

It wasn’t until a couple of years after Sue had left school – which she did at the age of 16 – and was in the world of work at an accounting firm that she had her first real introduction to computers. “I used a computer for data entry and I remember being quite excited about what they had the potential to do, but I wasn’t the person doing it at that time.”

However, Sue did have a brother who was into tech and writing his own programs. With a smile, she tells me that it was during a visit to a computing exhibition with her brother in the early 1980s where she saw him writing code that she first had the thought: “I’d quite like to do that.” After all, she had always loved mathematics and problem-solving, so the idea of getting into computing seemed like an enticing prospect.

The realities of life proved difficult though and by the age of 25, Sue found herself a single mother with three young children and out of work, living in a women’s refuge for six months before moving into council accommodation in Brixton, London.

“We were starting our lives again I guess,” she says. “I reached a point where I wanted to support my kids; we had come out of refuge and were living on benefits. I thought about going back to work, but I realized I didn’t have many qualifications. Trying to go back to work with the qualifications I had would have only left me on minimum wage, or just above, and even if I worked long hours I wouldn’t have earnt enough to support the kids.”

Sue’s thoughts then turned back to what she always wanted to do, which was to get an education she could use.

Going Back to School

Sue went along to her local college in Southwark and signed up for an evening mathematics course, which met twice a week and required 20 hours of private study, meaning she could still be around to get her children to and from school.

“Me and my friend there actually came top of the class, which gave me a lot of confidence that I could actually go back into education, so I applied to do computing at various universities and I was accepted by Southbank University, which was the closest one to me.”

With an enthusiasm to learn about evolving technology and a determination to excel, Sue spent the next four years of her computing degree developing a solid understanding of the various facets of computer science and using tech to solve real world problems, before the offer of a PhD in software engineering came along during her final year project.

“I told my supervisor I’d love to do a PhD – but what I didn’t tell him was that I didn’t know what a PhD was!” she laughs. After a quick stop by the library to look it up, Sue was delighted to learn that a PhD would allow her to carry out her own research, and would also give her the opportunity to teach mathematics alongside it.

“We were encouraged to teach and it was a great opportunity for me to earn some extra money,” she says, “although it did take away from research time which made it harder as I was one of the ones that had to go home and pick up the kids and stuff, but in the long run it worked out for the best.”

It certainly did, as Sue would soon become a full-time lecturer at Southbank University, something she did whilst also continuing her PhD research. It was that research that led her to attend tech conferences and set the wheels in motion for the creation of the first online network for women in technology, the hugely successful BCSWomen.

“I love the fact that I can tell my story and empower other people to get out there and do things for themselves; to change their life to be the way they want it to be”

Creating BCSWomen

“As part of my PhD research I was encouraged to go to conferences and network,” Sue says. “At that time, even though I was in my thirties, I was really shy and hated going up to talk to people I didn’t know – at the time it was the worst thing you could have asked me to do!”

It wasn’t until Sue attended a women in science conference in Brussels in 1998 that, finding herself among a majority of women, she discovered why she had struggled to network at (male dominated) conferences in the past. “That conference changed my life,” she says. “It helped me realize that it wasn’t that I was useless at talking to people, it’s that when you’re in a majority, things feel so much easier.”

Sue came away from that event with a fresh approach to networking, and more notably, with an idea: to set up a network for women in computing. “There weren’t any UK conferences for women in tech then, so I wanted to create an online network for women so that we could chat to each other about technology. That’s what I set up when I got back from that conference in Brussels, and it’s still going 20 years later.”

Sue tells me that, after the excitement of the network’s launch, her and a few hundred women on an email list began brainstorming ideas for what they wanted BCSWomen to achieve. “One of the suggestions was free training in how to set up a website,” Sue says, which she was able to secure funding for and organize. “That went really well, we got quite a lot of publicity from that and then a lot more people wanted to join the group – it went from strength to strength from there.” Today, BCSWomen has 1400 members.

Saving Bletchley Park

A few years passed with Sue continuing to teach and completing her PhD research, along with developing BCSWomen. As chair of the network, she was invited to attend an annual meetup at Bletchley Park, the site where Alan Turing and his team of code breakers famously cracked German coded messages during World War II.

Of all the things I was itching to ask Sue about, her involvement with Bletchley Park was top of my list. I have always found the story of how the incredible events that took place there in the 1940s not only changed the course of the war, but also inspired future generations in the field of computing, absolutely fascinating. After listening to Sue tell me how she led a campaign that helped save Bletchley Park from possible closure, I am even more enthralled.

“I got to Bletchley Park, had the meeting, and wanted to have a look around afterwards,” she tells me, and she found herself talking to a couple of men who were half way through the rebuild of one of Turing’s codebreaking machines. During that conversation, Sue discovered that more than half of the 10,000 people that worked at Bletchley Park were women, something that came as a great surprise to her. “I had no clue about that,” she says, and she couldn’t find anything about it online either. “I was completely blown away that more than 5000 women had worked at Bletchley Park and I didn’t know anything about it.”

Sue left Bletchley Park with her next challenge in her sights: to raise the profile of the women that worked there. “I really wanted to capture their stories for posterity, because it was part of the story that was completely missing. I eventually managed to raise some funding to record the oral histories of some of the women that worked at Bletchley Park.”

At the launch of that project in 2007, Sue gave a talk about why telling the story of the women was so important, before learning from the director of Bletchley Park that he feared the center, in disrepair and in need of substantial renovation, was facing closure due to a lack of money and a drop in visitor numbers. “If they closed, they would never be able to open again, he said,” Sue adds.

With a determination to preserve the site's history Sue, once again, set to work. In her role as head of computer science at the University of Westminster, she was well-connected, and she contacted her fellow heads of computing across the country urging them to sign a petition to keep Bletchley Park open. To her delight, some of the most well-known computing professors in the UK pledged their support, as did a handful of journalists who helped Sue to get her voice heard on national television.

“That was the start of the campaign,” she explains, “but once I’d done that I didn’t know what to do next – I was an academic, I didn’t know how to run a campaign.”

A eureka moment came in 2008 though, and it was in the form of Twitter. “I realized I could use Twitter to find everyone who was already interested in Bletchley Park and tweeting about it. Quite quickly I realized that was the way to reach the people I wanted to reach, the people who cared about Bletchley Park.”

Remarkably, Sue tells me how one of those people was none other than actor, writer and activist Stephen Fry.

“I was on Twitter one evening, saw that Stephen Fry had tweeted a selfie of himself stuck in a lift in London, and I thought ‘Stephen Fry you must be interested in Bletchley Park!’” she says.

He certainly was, and what’s more, he was already following Sue on Twitter. “I sent him several private messages that night, asking him to get involved in the campaign and I sent him a link to my blog. The next morning he tweeted asking people to read my blog and to sign the petition – that day I ended up being the most retweeted person in the world.”

Sue’s campaign was instrumental in not only raising awareness about Bletchley Park, but also in securing its future and transforming it into the world-class heritage and education center it is today. No wonder she wrote it all down in her best-selling book, Saving Bletchley Park.

Dr Black has learned to love public speaking, which she now does regularly at events all over the country
Dr Black has learned to love public speaking, which she now does regularly at events all over the country

Public Speaking, #techmums & a New Book

Sue’s time in full-time teaching came to an end in 2012, when staffing cuts at the University of Westminster led to redundancy.

“The university decided that computing didn’t have much of a future,” she explains. “They were cutting staff by 50%, so I decided it wasn’t a great time to be head of computing and decided to leave.”

She didn’t sever all ties with academia though, accepting the offer to become honorary research associate at University College London, before becoming an honorary professor there too.

So, with some more time on her hands, what’s been keeping her busy since then? Well, aside from receiving an OBE for services to technology in 2016 and acting as an advisor to the UK government, Sue has spent the last few years making a name for herself as a public speaker, setting up #techmums and working on a new book on coding.

“Almost every week there’s one or two talks in different places with different types of audiences,” she says. I ask her if public speaking is something she enjoys. “I do now – I didn’t to start with,” she says honestly. “I love the fact that I can tell my story and empower other people to get out there and do things for themselves; to change their life to be the way they want it to be. Yes, there’s the whole positive technology story, but there’s also the fact that you can overcome any hurdles in life.”

Sue’s current social enterprise #techmums teaches mothers tech skills to encourage them into education, entrepreneurship and employment. “I started running workshops for seven-year-olds, teaching them coding and app design, because at the time there was no coding in schools,” Sue explains. “They went really well, everyone loved it, but when we got the parents in at the end of the workshops and encouraged them to have a go too, I noticed in general the dads would step in and have a go and the mums would be quite hesitant.”

That sparked yet another idea for Sue: “If I want to try to change the way everyone sees technology to being a more positive thing, maybe I should start with mums,” she says. “I found some research which showed that the main positive influencing factors on kids doing well in literacy and numeracy at age 11 are their mother’s education and their home environment.”

The #techmums program was therefore launched with a sole focus on giving mothers the confidence and knowhow to use technology to enrich both their personal and professional lives. “The whole idea is not to learn absolutely everything in detail, but just to feel more comfortable and have some knowledge to feel you can get out there and do stuff in technology rather than being scared of it.”

It’s certainly been a whirlwind of a career, and so has my interview with Sue – the time has flown by. There’s just a few minutes left to ask my last two questions: what’s your proudest achievement and what’s the next challenge?

“I’m most proud of my kids,” she says glowingly. “I have four children, and I brought them up mainly on my own, but they supported me through thick and thin. I’m just really proud of how they’ve all turned out, and now I’ve got three grandchildren too, it’s just amazing.”

As for what’s next, Sue hopes that she can continue to empower women all around the world, and take #techmums to one million users by 2020. “I’m just really keen to change people’s lives, particularly people who haven’t had the best chances in life, and help them to empower themselves by teaching them tech skills so they can create a better life for themselves and their kids.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about you Sue, it’s that when you set yourself a goal, you not only achieve it, but you go well beyond it. It’s been a pleasure to hear your story!

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