Women in Tech: Catherine Campbell

Chief Technologist at Hewlett Packard Industry, Catherine Campbell, discusses her career as a woman in the tech industry

What does your job involve? 

My job title is “Chief Technologist”. In practice that means that I work with HPE’s largest partners and customers to help them understand how the technology that we create can help them deliver what their business needs. A lot of that is about listening to what they really want to do, and drawing parallels with what people in completely different industries are doing with the technology. In order to do all of this, I do need to understand how stuff works, but at the same time it’s really important not to blind people with science or talk in acronyms. It’s a process of translation, and a very rewarding one which constantly changes and challenges as the technology, the industry, and HPE all change and evolve.

What’s the favourite part of your role?

There is a moment in all good discussions when you can almost see a light bulb going on over someone’s head. They have stopped being worried about what the features and functions (or, as we are fond of calling them, “speeds and feeds”) of a technology are, and have started to imagine what difference it could really make to them – that’s usually about the same time that they grab the pen and start doing most of the talking – and the buzz from that moment is what I absolutely love about my role.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

 I am really looking forward to the time when technology finds a way to translate what is in our heads and in our notebooks (in my case mostly interspersed with complex doodles of everything from system architectures to dragons) into a system which can tell our colleagues what they need to know. CRM systems like Salesforce have made huge leaps forward, but I still often feel like we all spend too much time telling each other what we have done, and what we are going to do next, and not enough actually doing  it. 

What inspired you to do what you do?

The more work I do with women in STEM, the more I realise that I was very lucky. It never occurred to me that there were careers not open to me as a girl. I knew that I wanted to do something “science” orientated, but like most people, I think I chanced upon the IT industry since I had no real idea what it involved (other than programming). I was offered a holiday job, and subsequently a sponsorship, by a British IT firm (ICL) and my brave manager put me, age 18, in front of a board level customer to explain the demo that I had written for them. It was my first experience of that “lightbulb moment”, and I was well and truly hooked!

What education options did you choose to get your role?

I nearly didn’t choose the right A levels – my initial choice would not have got me into any of the courses that I wanted to do, and I only just realised that in time. I am very glad to say that I think schools are much more switched on about guiding choices than they were. I chose Engineering Science at Oxford for the extent to which it kept my options open (translation: I had no idea which branch of engineering I wanted to go into!) and then moved to the Engineering and Computing Science joint course as I started to realise the real possibilities of computing. 

My other, earlier, choice, was to stay in an all girls school for my A Levels – not a popular choice amongst my peers at the time, but without the support and encouragement that I got from all of my teachers I suspect that I would not have done as well as I did.

When you were considering your options who influenced you either way?  Were there any barriers to STEM in education? 

My parents were probably the key influence – they are both scientists – and my wonderful grandfather who left school at 14 and worked his way up the hard way to become a very distinguished engineer. My mother also encouraged us to participate in public events and competitions – the forerunners of today’s STEM outreach programmes – and some of those definitely inspired me.

I suspect that there were barriers, but that I largely chose to ignore them – I was that kind of child/teenager. I do remember that touch-typing was only offered to some pupils (in our all-girls school) and at that time it was seen as a skill that people thought was only needed by secretaries – but, typically stubborn, I could already see that touch typing would be a huge benefit in the era of computers, so I badgered my parents for the software and taught myself. I am so pleased that this is now routinely taught in schools, as the ability to type as fast as you think is a huge enabler in life (and a great leveller for those who find the physical process of writing hard).

Once at University, I guess it could have been intimidating to be the only woman in the year (in Engineering and Computing Science – Engineering as a whole was about 10% women) but it honestly never bothered me so I can’t really regard it as a barrier! 

What would you say to girls considering their education options?

Listen to what those around you have to say, and then set it all aside for a moment. Try to describe what makes you feel happy / fulfilled – and then go and ask everyone and anyone you can find whether they find that thing in their job. If you start with an idea of a job title, you will be limiting yourself. If you don’t know anyone in a given industry, try finding someone through Twitter (I know you don’t use it, but the old people do!). There are loads of fantastic people (men and women) tweeting about STEM, and most of them would be more than happy to answer your questions. 

Keep your options and your mind open. You don’t necessarily have to do a “STEM” degree to go into a STEM career. Many of the skills which the STEM sector will need in the future can be nurtured in degrees as diverse as Music and Classics – so if you don’t know at 18 what you want to do, why not study something you love and see where it takes you?

What might put them off a STEM career?  And how can these barriers be overcome?

STEM has an image problem, in that it is often presented as being the opposite of a “creative” career. I regard myself as a creative person (my twitter feed is a strange mix of technology, diversity, cakes and sewing!) and I find huge creativity in the