Six weeks in to my NI Digital Experts interview series and we’ve heard from freelance digital marketer Emma Gribben, all-round digital marketing expert Niamh Taylor, digital industry veteran Gareth Dunlop, awesome front-end developer Derek Johnson, and online reputation ninja Wayne Denner.
This week we’ll hear from someone who’s made a strong name for herself in only a few short years: Sheree Atcheson. She is best known for bringing the Women Who Code movement to the UK, and is a fierce advocate for gender equality in the tech industry.
I first met Sheree at the BelTech 2014 conference where she chaired a panel about women in IT. I was immediately impressed by her intellect and the passion she expresses for her cause. Gender equality is something I also care strongly about, so I’m really chuffed she agreed to participate in this series.
So let’s hear it from Sheree and her journey in to the digital industry.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover IT and become so involved with it?
I originally became interested in tech from a very young age. My cousin was a prominent developer for Wombat Financial Software and what he did always interested me. I realised when doing GCSE ICT that I wasn’t content just using applications, but rather wanted to make them.
I did A-Level Computing and then Computer Science at university. From there my career stemmed into a software engineering position and now into a more client-facing role in tech business analysis.
Your formal education is in Computer Science. Now that you’ve worked in tech for a while and have the benefit of hindsight, if you could go back would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether?
I would say that I would have most likely chosen a different university, perhaps one that focused less on the “theory of computer science” versus the actual doing. Ulster University works to change its software engineering courses to fit what the industry wants and because of that, I would have chosen to go there.
Regarding my topic, I chose CS because in secondary school, I loved programming and the processes around that. Now, after being in industry for a few years, I know my strengths are in the Business Analysis side of things – the client-facing roles at the start of the software cycle.
That may sound like I might think that I would have been better doing Business and IT. However, due to my now strong technical and coding background, I have a set of skills that I believe is very important for any self respecting BA; the ability to assess the technical feasibility of something whilst being able to explain it in a non-technical way.
You joined local NI software company Kainos straight from university after you had your placement year with them. Why did you choose Kainos, and how did they help you grow and develop as a coder?
I chose Kainos at that stage because I was very interested in their Evolve Healthcare product and I wanted to work on something that actively made a different to everyday people. Unfortunately, I did not get to work in that business unit, however I was able to work on several UK government projects – some as high profile as the Online Register To Vote panel.
Working on those kinds of projects (the projects that actively change everyday people’s lives and ways of doing things) is something that has always interested me and the realisation that millions of people were using my code was phenomenal. Being given the responsibility of such a large project so quickly into my career is something I am forever grateful for, as it helped me strengthen my coding ability (because you can’t be a part of a project like that without being trusted to know what you’re doing) whilst allowing me to fully realise that I wanted my career to move from development to the earlier stages of the life cycle.
You’re now most known as the woman who brought the Women Who Code movement to the UK. Tell us about this initiative and why it’s so valuable to get more women in to IT.
WWCode now has 80,000 members throughout the world. Let’s think about what that means. That means we have reached 80,000 members, from all walks of life, careers and ambitions – that’s a pretty amazing thing. We’re here to eradicate the gender bias through free hack nights, tech talks and career trainings – and it’s working! We have the support from tech giants such as Heroku, Capital One, Nike, Google, Etsy, and many more. When giants like that take notice of your work, you know you’re doing something right.
If we stick with looking at the UK tech scenario, we can see that only 8.1% of A-Level Computing students are female (2015). This lends to our average % of females in UK tech positions being around 17% and around 21% of women in leadership. Unfortunately, 33% of women in technology leave the tech industry mid-career through a lack of representation.
Through WWCode, we’re actively showcasing local women to other women that may need that leadership. We’re also providing women with the skillset they need to excel in the tech industry. And as we’re well aware, we cannot have a tech industry that flourishes without half of the population – that’s why this is so valuable. Realistically, we’re all here to make money, and it’s been statistically proven that companies with women in high level management/board roles has a much higher turnover and profit!
Do you see your future career more in the WWC movement or as a hands-on coder? Or do you see yourself combining those two aspects of your professional life?
I would definitely not consider myself a hands-on coder anymore – that’s not what excites me. What excites me is working with clients, helping them find their requirements and how they want their software/system to work and being the person to fine-tune that on whatever scale necessary.
I fully believe I have already combined both of these aspects in my new job I am starting in two weeks (Tech BA with Deloitte). This is the job I have been working towards since university and it allows me to combine my technical background, alongside my client-facing skills that I have obtained through my work with Women Who Code, speaking at conferences, reaching out to sponsors, and being the face of WWCode in the UK.
Finally, tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office?
As anyone who knows me, I am a huge fan of my dog, Alfie – my fiancé Sean and I are pretty much just here to enable his fabulous lifestyle. So in my spare time, I spent a lot of time with them or in the gym because I like my “off time” to be entirely cut off from work, so both the gym and relaxing with my family allows me to do that.
About Sheree Atcheson
Sheree is a Computer Science alumna from Queen’s University Belfast. As well as her day to day life in the tech industry, Sheree is working diligently to eradicate gender bias in the IT industry and has brought Women Who Code to the UK. Sheree has spoken at events like Webit.Fest 2016, InspireFest 2015, DojoCon, techUK, Women Who Code in San Francisco, BelTech14 and many more.
Sheree on Twitter: @nirushika