My life before computers
I never planned to have a career in technology.
At school, I had a wide range of interests and achieved highers in Maths, Chemistry, English, German, Geography, History and Modern Studies. While I went through phases of liking particular subjects, my favourite subject throughout secondary school was English. A career in computing was nowhere on my radar – there weren’t even any computers in schools at the time!
When I was in my final year at school, I bowed to pressure from teachers to apply for university. At the time I was interested in African politics, prompted by the brutal murder of Steve Biko by the apartheid regime in South Africa, so I thought ‘if I’m going to be forced to go to university I’ll study something I’m really interested in and go as far away from home as possible!”
I went to the University of Sussex to study African and Asian studies but, as I had neither the confidence nor the desire to survive at university and missed home, my stay at Brighton was a short one!
I returned to Scotland and spent the next few years in and out of jobs at a time of economic recession and high youth unemployment. In the mid-1980s, aged 25, I went back to full-time study to do a BSc Computer Information Systems at Glasgow College of Technology.
My husband and I had just had our first child, taken out our first mortgage – just as interest rates began to soar – and we needed to increase our family income. So, my motivations for choosing a computing degree were vocational and financial – it was a growing industry sector and I knew I was likely to get a good job with decent money when I graduated. And I did!
The early signs that I was a techie
Although I didn’t set out to have a career in technology, when I look back to my childhood and early adulthood, the signs were there – but neither I nor my parents and teachers spotted them. Seems like I’ve always had an affinity with technology and gadgets – I just never imagined how that could link to a career! Here is my retrospective detective work on how Jackie ended up in tech.
When I around seven years old I asked for a ‘modern’ electronic till for Christmas. This was cutting edge technology at the time! I had just started to see them in large shops and was fascinated. You can see from the buttons on the till that this was before decimalisation (basing currency on multiples of 10 and 100). On 14 February 1971 when I was eight years old, there were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. The next day the pound was made up of 100 new pence!
I got a tape recorder for my tenth birthday and used it to record family sing-songs, the chart countdown every Sunday on the radio (we couldn’t afford to buy singles), and spending hours asking family and friends “What do you think of polo mints?” (a popular TV advert at the time although I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers this!)
When I was eleven, I won a prize for General Excellence in Primary 7. The prize was a book token – worth a mighty 15p! – and the book I bought was ‘The Telephone’, a Ladybird book about telecommunications. Two men were responsible for my interest in telephones – the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and my dad who was a telephone fitter. In the 1960s and 1970s, my family moved around Scotland as my dad helped setup telephone exchanges from Lanark to Inverness. Communication is a thread that weaves through my career.
As a young teenager in my third year at secondary school, I asked for a Chemistry Set and microscope for Christmas. I had chosen Chemistry as one of my O-Grades (older readers will remember these, in later years they were superseded by Standard Grades, Intermediates and now Nationals). I became interested in Physics and did a crash O-Grade in fifth year at school. I started the Higher in sixth year – the only girl in a class full of boys. That didn’t bother me, but my teacher was openly hostile to having a girl in his class. I decided that I wasn’t going to subject myself to his taunts and I left the course. Decades later, I’m still annoyed at myself for letting him win!
In the early 1980s, I campaigned against rising rates of youth unemployment. I had a talent for designing leaflets but it was becoming a chore to type these on a manual typewriter when it was very difficult to judge the space required for text. I bought a Canon Typestar 5 electronic typewriter which revolutionised how I drafted documents. I could now type a line of text, review it on the 15-digit display (yes, you read that correctly) and make any changes before hitting return to print it onto the sheet of paper! I used this brilliant wee machine to type up essays throughout my degree study. It wasn’t until I worked in industry that I had access to the new personal computers (PCs) which had just arrived on the scene.
A couple of years before I started my computing degree I bought my first computer – a Commodore Plus/4! Fairly radical at the time, I was able to programme in Basic. It even had some rudimentary application software built in, for example a word processor and spreadsheet.
Whirlwind tour of my career
I started my career in manufacturing at Motorola Semiconductors where I did some programming, supported the computer network and trained staff on packages like Harvard Graphics (Microsoft Office hadn’t yet appeared on the scene!) I wasn’t the best programmer, but my boss described me as a ‘great de-bugger’ (at least I think that’s what he said) because I could spot a misplaced punctuation mark a mile away! My forensic approach to grammar and punctuation served me well here and in my future careers as a lecturer and civil servant!
Next, I worked at AVEX Electronics where I was responsible for introducing and installing a computer network across three sites. This is where I really discovered the power of digital networks, and the potential they opened up for individuals within and outwith an organisation to share information and collaborate on projects.
Designing and delivering training courses to support employees through a major systems change sparked an interest in learning and I applied for a lecturing post at the University of Paisley. Here, as well as teaching about computer networks, I became interested in learning with networked technology and I was an early pioneer of developing online courses.
I took this interest forward when I became director of learning at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, and assistant chief executive at Learning and Teaching Scotland, where I lead departments responsible for educational software development and technology training courses for schools, colleges and universities.
In 2000, I organised one of the first large-scale educational conferences to be broadcast live online across the world, and managed a project team responsible for implementing the National Grid for Learning (the precursor to Glow) to enable schools across Scotland to access educational resources on the Internet.
I became interested in the policy underpinning education and lifelong learning in Scotland, and developed this further when I joined the Scottish Government in 2003. In my ten years in government most of the roles I had related to skills and employment not technology, although I was responsible for e-learning policy for a couple of years.
I took up a role as vice principal at Ayrshire College in 2013 where I had a wide range of responsibilities which include our management information systems and data analytics. I am now principal at West Lothian College where I see digital as central to almost everything we do.
So, although I’m involved at a different level than when I set out 30 years ago, I’ve kind of come full circle in my career!
Skills for success
The skills that I’ve used most throughout my career are communication, problem solving and managing change. I enjoy innovating and am always looking for better ways of doing things.
Challenges as a woman in a man’s world
I only became aware of gender imbalance in computing when I started my degree, as just around a quarter of my classmates were women. Looking back, I can see that the way the course was delivered by some lecturers (male and female) was geared more towards men. Some lecturers made it obvious that they didn’t think computing was for women.
When I started in the manufacturing industry I noticed that there weren’t many women doing the same sort of job as me. In my workplace I just got stuck into my job and I was only ever really uncomfortable when I went to industry conferences, where I was often the lone woman in a room full of men.
These were lonely places to be.
Sadly, in the ICT and digital sector, this hasn’t changed that much over the past three decades. Proportionately, there are fewer women working in computing now than when I started, and I know from speaking to young female programmers that women still experience isolation in many workplaces.
The good news is that there is a lot of determination to change this and, hopefully, in 30 years time the young programmer I mentioned won’t be telling us that it is still a lonely place for women!
Tips for success in a digital career
Stay interested, keep learning and embrace change!
If you don’t, it’s unlikely that you will get the most out of your career in the frighteningly fast-moving field like digital technology. Thirty years after I started my learning and career journey in computing, the technology we use today and how we use it is unrecognisable. For example, if you’re under 30, you probably won’t know what these are:
Build your networks!
A huge advantage today that I couldn’t even have dreamed of when I started out in my career is the global reach that social media has and how accessible it makes access to experts in your field.
Connect with industry experts on LinkedIn – a great way to keep up-to-date with new developments, seek advice and get yourself noticed for that dream job you’re looking for.
Go to meetups like the ones organised by The Data Lab where you can learn new things in an informal setting over a beer and pizza!
Join professional associations like the British Computer Society and the Institute of Engineering and Technology to connect with people in similar roles.
Seek mentors and support your peers
Engage with mentoring networks which connect students, employers and influencers in the world of tech.
Many of my mentors over the years were men (as I’ve said, there weren’t that many women in IT) and I learned a lot from them. The nice thing is that I know (because they’ve told me) that they learned a lot from me too!