April 3, 2019
When Professor Sue Black left home at the age of 16, she was forced to leave school too. Within ten years, she was a single mother living in a women’s refuge in London.
Alone and responsible for three children under five, it was technology and education that would prove to be the 25-year-old’s salvation.
“I’d never expected to end up in that situation and I just kept asking myself, ‘what am I going to do now?’
“I thought about going back to work but with only five O Levels, I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay for childcare. I then went to my local college – Southwark College in Waterloo – where I was told about a fast-track course to get the equivalent of two A levels.
“It was six hours in the classroom and 20 hours home study, which was ideal.”
Professor Black successfully completed the yearlong course and in 1989 she applied to London South Bank University to study computer sciences.
“Computing was an area where I thought exciting stuff was going to happen,” she says.
The mother-of-three admits she initially struggled with the demands of a degree; “I just scraped through the first year” she reports. But by the second year, Professor Black was able to manage her responsibilities more successfully and after four years she gained a 2:1.
It was while she was completing the final stages of her undergraduate degree that her supervisor asked Professor Black if she would be interested in studying a PhD. ‘Yes’, she eagerly replied – omitting the fact she didn’t actually know what a PhD was.
“I knew that it was something cool and something to do with academia but I didn’t know more,” she remembers.
After leaving her supervisor’s office, the student – who was by this time living in a council house in Brixton – researched what a PhD was and found it was indeed for her.
Over the next seven years, Professor Black completed her PhD in software engineering, while embarking on a lecturing career.
Early on in her PhD, she was told she needed to build a network and was sent, reluctantly, to her first computing conference.
“I was very shy at the time and the thought of going up to someone I didn’t know was horrific to me,” Professor Black explains.
“I decided to go up to a guy who had spoken at the conference. I started talking about my research and I thought it went ok but he then stared at me for the rest of the day. I felt I must have said something to offend him.”
Left traumatised by the experience and convinced she was terrible at networking, Professor Black was filled with dread when she was told to go to a Women in Science Conference in Brussels. Thankfully, it proved a far more positive experience.
“When I went in, everyone was talking to everyone. It didn’t feel like networking; it wasn’t an effort at all,” she says.
“Being in computer science, I’d never been in an all-female environment. It’s not something that I’d thought about before but that two-day conference made me realise that being in the majority makes life that bit easier.”
Professor Black returned to the UK determined to provide a community for women working in technology and science-based subjects.
Already part of the British Computer Society’s (BCS) London branch, she established BCSWomen in 1998, initially inviting women from the capital’s computing sector to join the online group.
Professor Black was soon inundated with enquiries from women from all over the UK, and around the world.
“It was great to see so many women in the sector, chatting to each other and asking questions,” she says.
BCSWomen, which continues to this day, soon began holding meet-ups and events, further broadening its reach and appeal.
As chair of BCSWomen, Professor Black was invited to speak at Bletchley Park – once the top-secret home of Britain’s World War II codebreakers.
While there, she got chatting to some of the engineers who were rebuilding the bombe machine of Alan Turing (widely considered to be the father of modern computer science).
“They asked if I knew that almost half the 10,000 people who worked at Bletchley Park were women,” Professor Black recalls.
“I was so surprised. I’d assumed it had been 50- odd blokes. I asked myself ‘how come thousands of women worked at Bletchley Park and no one knows anything about them?”.
The university lecturer returned home determined to help raise the profile of the women who had worked there.
During her subsequent research, she found that around 8000 women had worked at Bletchley Park and its outstations.
“I got some funding from the Oral History Project and started interviewing women to capture their stories,” says Professor Black.
The technology academic was then incensed to discover that Bletchley Park – the facility that it is estimated shortened World War II by two years, potentially saving 22 million lives – was to close.
Professor Black started contacting the heads of computing at universities around the UK, urging them to sign a petition against the closure.
She also contacted all the journalists and media professionals she knew in an attempt to further her cause. She remembers: “One of those people was Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent at the BBC. The next week I was interviewed on BBC News and the Radio 4’s Today programme.”
The media appearances raised awareness but Professor Black wanted to reach more people and began using Twitter.
“Back in 2008, Twitter was still relatively new but I found that all I needed to do was type ‘Bletchley Park’ into the search box and I could connect with everyone who was talking about it,” she says.
One day, Professor Black saw a tweet by Stephen Fry saying he was stuck in a lift.
She direct messaged him to tell him about her Saving Bletchley Park campaign. The next morning he tweeted a link to her blog and it became the most retweeted post that day.
Professor Black ran the campaign for three years until, in 2011, the facility successfully applied for a £4.1 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, securing its future. She later wrote a book about the Saving Bletchley Park campaign.
While Professor Black championed women in tech and the future of Bletchley Park in her spare time, she also managed to carve out a successful career in academia.
She made it her mission to apply for every promotion she could and went from being a lecturer to a senior lecturer, to a principal before becoming head of department at the University of Westminster.
Professor Black fully recognises the impact technology and education had made on her and her family: “I had dramatically changed my life and my kids’ lives and it was technology and education that had helped to make it happen.”
Professor Black began thinking how she could let others know how many potentially life changing opportunities there are in tech.
Convinced that young children could be taught coding, she began developing computing workshops for seven-year-olds.
She recalls: “This was in 2011 when the Minister for Education was Michael Gove. He was saying that computing was too difficult for anyone under the age of 14. I thought ‘that’s a load of rubbish and I’m going to prove it’.”
The academic successfully ran her workshops for seven-year-olds, which included app design and coding using a Raspberry Pi.
At the end of the workshops, she invited parents to have a go at coding.
“In general, the dads would get stuck in but I saw a look of horror on the mums’ faces,” Professor Black remembers.
She realised that the key to getting people more interested in technology was to help mums become more comfortable with technology.
Professor Black started developing her #techmums programme (two hours for six weeks), which provided mums with knowledge about basic IT admin (email, documents, spreadsheets), the Cloud, web design, social media, staying safe online, as well as some coding.
Professor Black surveyed the mums’ progress throughout the process and she found impressive results in terms of their confidence and self esteem.
“One of the mums told me before she started the course that she was afraid of touching a keyboard, but by week two, she told me it had revolutionised her business,” Professor Black explains. “She ran a school uniform business in Borough Market and every time a customer wanted a sample her son had to cycle over with it. By being taught how to add an attachment to an email, she was now able to do it electronically.
“I met up with Amena last year and she told me she now has ten times more customers and she’s taking on staff.”
Professor Black began running similar programmes in other regions, working with Brunel University, An Cosan College, in Dublin, and Essex County Council, as well as various schools.
Professor Black then secured funding from Nominet (now the Social Tech Trust) to run the programme with Home-Start UK, the family support charity, working primarily with young mums.
The university lecturer then launched #techmumsTV, in partnership with Facebook, a live-streamed magazine show.
“As well as information on things like how to set up your security settings on Facebook and doing online banking, we had young mums talking about their stories, as well as mums from the world of tech,” she explains.
“The first series, which you can still find online, ran for an hour a week for five weeks, and we’re currently looking into running a second series.”
Meanwhile in her professional career, Professor Black was enticed to the North East last year to become head of computer sciences and tech evangelist at Durham University.
“I was very excited when I was approached about the position, she says. “My son studied at Durham and I have historical family links to the area; my grandad is from Sunderland and his mother hailed from Sunderland.”
Taking up the position six months ago, unsurprisingly the socially conscious academic has put diversity at the fore.
Professor Black – who was awarded an OBE for services to technology in 2016 – is determined to improve the ratio of females studying computer sciences at Durham (currently 15 per cent, which mirrors UK statistics at universities across the UK).
She recently visited Harvey Mudd College – an undergraduate science and engineering college in California – which has successfully grown its ratio of female students from 10 to 50 per cent over a four-year period.
Professor Black is now looking to put some of the things she learnt there into practice at Durham University.
In addition, she is currently seeking participants for a programme – in partnership with the Institute of Coding, two other universities and multiple businesses – to retrain 100 women from minority and under-represented backgrounds in the Midlands and the North in tech-related fields.
“There’s this misconception that a career in tech is all about coding but that’s simply not true; there are so many different careers in tech – cybersecurity, data science, agile project management, business analysis – the list goes on. And these are good, well-paid jobs,” she says.
“Tech is such an exciting area to get into, and it’s moving all the time. You can really affect what happens in the world through working in tech and we need more people to take part in that.”