We are kicking off the New Year with another guest blog from a highly successful woman. Dr Sue Black, OBE, award-winning computer scientist and #techmums Chief Evangelist has given us a brief insight into her life, including her climb up the career ladder before leaving us with some advice..
If you told me when I was growing up that I would be an award-winning computer scientist and named one of the top 50 women in European tech, I’d definitely think you were winding me up (I mean, my dream was to be the driver of a big red London bus) but here I am and here’s how I got there..
The Early Years
It’s fair to say I didn’t have the easiest start in life, I wasn’t spoon fed everything, and I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today. When I was just twelve, my world fell apart when my mother died from a brain haemorrhage. My father went on to remarry a year later and the family moved away to start a new life together. I don’t look back on this with fond memories, and that’s probably why, as soon as I could, I left home. My life was full of change for the next 10 years; I was just sixteen when I left to move in with my friend’s family, I left school and then after a year I moved to London on my own. I went on to marry young and by the age of 23, I had three children. Unfortunately, two years later my marriage broken down and at 25 I was a single parent looking after three small children on a council estate in Brixton.
Education for Everyone
As soon as the children were old enough to head off to school I decided I wanted to make a go of a proper education and get myself set up in the working world. I went to Southwark College where I studied maths and to my surprise I became joint top of the class. I was completely delighted (and a little shocked) with this and my success motivated me to apply to study Computer Science at London South Bank. I’m not going to lie, university was not easy. I was juggling my home life with my studies but I finally gained a BSc (Hons) in Computing Studies and went on to be accepted for a PhD in Software Engineering.
A particular highlight at this time was before finishing my PhD I successfully applied for a lectureship and for the first time in many years, I had a salary. I was finally able to provide for my children and take us out of poverty – it felt good. In fact, to celebrate I threw away all our clothes with holes in them, and bought us all new outfits!
Carrying out research for a PhD in computer science and going to academic conferences, I was very much in a minority as a woman. It was a challenge; particularly when I think about some of the negative experiences I had to face, a couple of which left me feeling shocked and mortified. This all changed when I went to the “women in Science” conference in Brussels. It was incredible and resulted in me setting up the UK’s first online network for women in tech called BCSWomen, which has now been running successfully for fourteen years.
So What Now?
In the academic field I became a lecturer, Senior Lecturer, then reader at London South Bank University. In 2007 I became head of department at the University of Westminster. I worked there for three and a half years before moving to an honorary position at University College London.
I have been fortunate enough to travel all over the world with work as I now spend a lot of time writing and public speaking – it’s safe to say it’s all a far cry from a couple of decades ago! I am primarily focused on running my charity, #techmums, which is all about teaching tech skills to mums in disadvantaged areas. I set out to help mums and their families, especially those living difficult lives on low incomes, to have the benefit of a tech education as this is a luxury I did not have 25 years ago.
I also ran a successful campaign to save Bletchley Park, the place where the code breakers, many of whom were women, worked during the Second World War. Their work shortened the war by two years, potentially saving two million lives.
My Career and Life Advice
That is a very quick rundown of my life and career over the last 50 years! With that in mind, here’s my distilled advice for a successful career and life:
- Follow your passion – If you don’t you will ultimately be disappointed
- Trust your gut instincts – no one in the world knows what’s best for you more than you do
- Work hard, but not too hard – family and friends are important, don’t neglect them
- Ask for help – don’t be scared to ask, and if you are, do it anyway
- Don’t give up – shit happens, if you want to finish the race keep jumping the hurdles.
Download our Secrets of my Success guide to hear how 10 highly successful businesswomen, female entrepreneurs and academics like Sue have got ahead.
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