“the question i feared was, ‘who are your female tech role models?’” — natasha sayce-zelem, skyBack
In October, for Ada Lovelace Day, Natasha Sayce-Zelem conducted, in the spirit of Ada Lovelace, an experiment.
Ada died in 1852, but in the 160 years since has acquired a reputation she couldn’t have acquired in life. Before she could be regarded as the world’s first computer programmer, the world had to catch up to her Victorian demonstrations and predictions that machines could one day be used to make music, art, science; the world had to catch her up, and invent computers.
To Natasha, Head of Technology in the digital trading team at Sky in Leeds, Ada is a bit of a hero, although it’s not an admission that always gives her much pleasure.
“I was at a conference a couple of months ago,” says Natasha, “And one of the questions I feared being asked was, ‘Who are your female tech role models?’ I was terrified about that question because the answer is that, other than a handful of known trailblazers like Sheryl Sandberg, Anne Marie Imafidon and Emma Mulqueeny, nearly all the female tech role models everybody discusses are dead.
“Ada Lovelace. Grace Hopper. Hedy Lamarr. Their legacies live on, but we need to do a lot more work to create more visible female role models in the media, and not just in tech.”
Which is why, on Ada Lovelace Day, Natasha posted an article to LinkedIn about eight women who work alongside her at Sky — software developers, senior business analysts, project managers, scrum masters, solutions architects — demonstrating not only the variety of digital roles available, but testing a hypothesis about the routes those women took to the industry.
“There were only two people who had genuinely set out to work in technology,” says Natasha. “Everyone else was like me, a digital stumble-uponer. Which is really interesting.”
As Ada Lovelace would tell you, an experiment is not only about results, but interpretation. On one hand, Natasha’s colleagues form a great advert for the opportunities available to women — and anyone — to stumble into the world of digital work, and for the breadth of career options that don’t obviously present themselves when you think about getting a job in tech.
On the other hand, when you add more data, data that shows women only make up 17% of the wider tech sector workforce, then the story becomes one of late starts, a lack of signposting, a struggle to create a pipeline of young talent ready for digital work that is not 83% male.
“The stats don’t lie,” says Natasha. “In 2015 only 8.5% of the students completing A-level computing are women then something is going wrong, really early, that is preventing us bringing more women into the industry. That’s where the problem lies — it’s pre-GCSE. Young girls are not being sold the benefits of working in tech.
“In my opinion tech is in dire need of a rebrand, because terms like computing and technology and ICT sound really dry. Too many women are put off pursuing a career in IT because of the IT Crowd style, ‘geeks programming in basements’ myths. The terms don’t capture all the creativity and fun, and the fast-paced nature of the industry that we experience.
“Secondly is the fact that there is so much choice, it is a bit overwhelming. Software development is just one route in, I think that we need to be doing a better job of signposting all the other career paths in digital, and how people can side-step into these roles with transferrable skillsets. Like I did.”
Natasha’s own CV bears the proof; over on LinkedIn, her qualifications include a clutch of tech-oriented agile product and project management qualifications, acquired while working in digital development client-side at the BBC and Sky and agency-side before that; and first class honours in Moving Image Production from the Northern Film School, back when Natasha was searching for a definition for her creative impulses.
“Picture me wearing a beret,” she says, “Smoking Gitanes, banging on about how great Jean-Luc Godard is and gushing about a film’s ‘Mise-en-scene’. But joking aside, there are some short films I made out there, and I learnt to code at university too. After university I worked in film and television for a while on things like Emmerdale, then sidestepped into a product marketing role, and some of that work was commissioning and managing websites.
“My husband David already worked in the industry as a kick-ass UX designer so I learned quite a lot about how the tech world worked from him, and as I got experience working with agencies I just fell in love with the creativity and fun I could have delivering websites.”
That already crowded resume — Barclaycard, ITV, Yorkshire Forward, JDA, Numiko, BBC, Sky — isn’t even complete.
“Oh, I didn’t talk about my photography, did I? Before I got into TV I worked as a freelance music photographer. I did lots of work for local and national papers, photographing people like David Bowie, Rage Against The Machine and Blur, getting to know bands like Muse and Coldplay before they were big. For a massive music geek there was no greater buzz than standing in the concert photo-pit trying to capture a photo that would encapsulate the energy of the gig. And this was shooting in a non-digital world, so until you developed your film, you didn’t know if you had got ‘the shot’ or a roll of blurry badly lit pictures to despair at.
“It’s a bit of a private joke with my friends that I tried my hand at so many things — photography, TV and film, marketing, a small stint at radio — and then landed in digital. But I’ve found having that experience has really helped me in my career, particularly the creativity I could express and a capacity for problem solving across different domains.”
Sky are now supporting journeys like Natasha’s through Get into Tech, a programme of free courses for women in London and Leeds, aimed at women starting out, changing or returning to their careers, who may not have otherwise considered technology jobs.
Creative and digital industries are often thought of as opposite ends of a job fulfilment spectrum, but the crossover potential is clear once you look; the differences are of degree, not genre.
“The first thing I did in digital was to build my own website, to create a music blog called Unharmonic for my photography, gig reviews, local music news,” says Natasha. Reaching for her laptop, she soon brings it back from the Internet Archive, snapshots that take us back to 2002. Ten years later Natasha was making websites again: project managing the largest overhaul of the BBC Sport site in nine years, then delivering the BBC Live platform that is used for online broadcasts of events like the Olympics, Glastonbury, the General Election and Springwatch.
“There are so many strands to digital, and so many industries are now going online,” says Natasha. “Look at BBC Three becoming online only, the growth of movie streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime — and at Sky we’ve just launched Sky Q. With so many changes, the traditional media routes that say you need to work in television to work in media are, rightfully, being dismissed.
“What I find exciting about digital is that you get to work on cutting edge projects and products like Sky Q, and we’ve got Sky Mobile coming up, exciting stuff that millions of people around the country are going to see and and use. There are few industries that shift the way the world lives and functions the way technology does. It aims to make everything — no matter how trivial — easier, faster, and better.
“Working in digital you get the benefit of realisation much more quickly. You might shoot a film for six months to a year, but in digital we can get our ideas out quickly to our audiences, and that sense of rapid Agile innovation is one of the things that excites me. That, and the sense that nothing is impossible. If you work as an architect there are going to be limitations to what you can do, just due to physics. But in digital it’s very rare that we say something is impossible, and that’s pretty cool. It’s a feeling of, not quite invincibility, but that there are no boundaries to what we can do.
“Those lines between film and digital are already blurring. I work in an incredibly creative, fast-paced atmosphere, working on a variety of projects, and I’ve never looked back since moving away from television.”
Natasha has moved around, working in London and for the BBC in Salford, but last June she cut the cross-Pennine commute and began working again in Leeds, for Sky.
“Working at the BBC was definitely career defining stuff,” says Natasha. “It was an honour and a privilege to work for them. The BBC is known worldwide, and I got to work on products that millions of people use every day, worked on high profile events like the London 2012 Olympics and Sochi Winter Olympics. They’re once in a lifetime opportunities, and very exciting.
“I was one of the first employees at BBC Sport digital when they moved up to Salford. All my family and friends thought I was utterly bonkers in proposing to do the daily commute from Leeds to Salford, and a mate even wagered me £50 that I’d only stick it out for six months. I ended up spending four-and-a-half years travelling over the Pennines every day, and I got that £50 too.
“The M62 is an unpredictable beast and there were nights that took over three hours to get from A to B. It was only bearable as I was in a carshare with a great bunch of folk. There were four of us mad enough to do the journey, a Radio Four drama producer who’d do the driving, a web developer, another Head of Tech who is now here at Sky, and me. We’d listen to Radio 4, have quizzes in the car, even sing-a-longs — we became a surrogate commuting family. But by the time I’d had a child, the commute was becoming harder for the family balance; Sky were expanding in Leeds and it was a brilliant opportunity to start a new chapter, and a really exciting project.
“As a Head of Technology at Sky, I’m responsible for the end-to-end delivery, support and maintenance of our Digital Trading estate.
“This is basically supporting Sky’s eCommerce platform, using the latest technologies to allow customers to purchase Sky’s products easily. We’re big on continuous improvement and iterative development, using data to understand user behaviour in order to optimise the site.
“The Leeds team was just me when I started in June 2015, and we’re just over seventy strong now in March. We’ve been busy moving the work up to Leeds, hiring an amazingly talented bunch of people, establishing strong ways of working and moving into the fab new offices. It has been fast-paced but absolutely thrilling.”
We met Natasha in the communal canteen of the more hectic of Sky’s new buildings at Leeds Dock, where operations for Sky News and Sky Sports give our conversation a pleasant background thrum.
“The two buildings definitely have their own atmospheres,” says Natasha when she shows us round; she’s happy to work in the more tranquil of the two, where a ping-pong table on a mezzanine overlooks the Dock, and is happy to be able to roam its boisterous neighbour. The canteen tables have been made from the graffiti’d hoardings that hid these buildings in their derelict days, and the spaces feel unlike any other corporate offices we’ve been in in Leeds.
The culture and the building have been designed in tandem. “Collaboration and innovation is at the heart of what we do,” says Natasha. “Working collaboratively, developing cutting edge engineering practices, creating a flexible and open culture.
“At our old building architects followed us about and absorbed how we wanted to work, so that this building could be designed around us. Lots of wallspaces we can write and stick things up on, lots of TV screens, open spaces, movable furniture; all these meeting areas that are unbookable, but that we can jump into, freestyle, get on with what we need to do. We’ve got visibility of everything that’s going on, and every Friday we have a spotlight in the canteen, to share all the work coming out of all the different departments. The building — I can’t stress enough how brilliant the building is.”
It’s not insignificant that the buildings — there will soon be three, a major event for the forever sleepy beauty Clarence/New/Leeds Dock — are in Leeds. If Natasha sounds to you like an evangelist, switch that thought to advocate, and understand that hers is an advocacy for a strong tech scene in Leeds, not only at Sky. For ‘homework’ Natasha runs the @LDSDigital Twitter account, the city’s most-followed, by more than five thousand, for news, events and connections across every aspect of digital and tech work, leisure and life in Leeds.
“Picture Me Wearing A Beret, Smoking Gitanes”
“I became bastion of the account in around 2012-13,” says Natasha. “It had been set up to look after bits and pieces for the Leeds Digital Festival, and I was really saddened when that didn’t happen the next year; so we repurposed the account as a place where I could basically retweet what was going on in the region, from jobs to events to useful links.
“It’s a fun pet project, because the whole objective is to shine a spotlight on all the great events and meetups that are happening, that it can be easy to miss.
“People should go along to a local meetup or two if they haven’t already. You’ll meet a thoroughly welcoming bunch of folk, the events themselves are really relaxed and usually free to attend. You’ll get to hear some great presentations, learn some things, probably not always understand some things that are discussed at first but that’s alright, we’re all learning. It’s such an exciting time to be in digital, and outside of London I think Leeds is where it’s at.
“I would obviously say that. I was born here. But I’ve worked in London and Manchester, and I genuinely think Leeds is a brilliant place to work. There are the big companies, Sky, William Hill, DWP, JET2 and EMIS; plus great local agencies, like Numiko; Dubit, 26 Leeds and Engage Interactive. Then there are the universities, who are at the cutting edge of their digital degrees, so you can come to Leeds to study and then there is a vibrant scene here waiting to hire you.”
In many ways the tech scene in Leeds has been an unheralded locomotive force in the city, at least when compared to its better known food, indie retail and music scenes. Perhaps that’s because so much of it takes place in curtain-walled office blocks at Leeds Dock or Wellington Place, not in shabby chic venues in the city’s repurposed rather than rebuilt industrial areas — or seems to. The tech meetups and user groups actually take place in many of the same old-city pubs, bars and restaurants that are the traditional haunts of musicians and artists, and the only difference would be that the tech folk have iPads, Twitter accounts and websites, if only so many musicians and artists didn’t have iPads, Twitter accounts and websites too.
Natasha helped work on the first incarnation of the Leeds Digital Festival back in the day, and is part of the steering group for its return in 2016 when, for the first time, it will link up with Live at Leeds and bring together music and tech in Leeds — and the strands of Natasha’s career.
“That link up is thrilling,” says Natasha. “I’m so excited that it’s coming back, and as a musical and digital collaboration, like SXSW has become in Austin. There are lots of brilliant synergies between digital and music, lots of convergence.”
Creativity is cool, and creativity takes many forms, beyond the forms known as ‘creative’; so when Live at Leeds and Leeds Digital Festival meet, it’ll be creative like creative, and more people, like Natasha was, might be tempted to let the blur of the boundaries take them to a clearer, cooler place.
“Tech is constantly changing, and is constantly evolving,” says Natasha. “That’s the reason I love it. It’s changing the way we work, changing the way we live. We’re a world surrounded now by digital screens and through that, communication now is instantaneous, simple and cheap. Working in tech, you’re always learning through innovating, you’re trying new things. That’s so exciting. We get to spike, to experiment, to try new ideas out; we get to work on things people use every day. And that’s cool, right?”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 34
Our feature film about the digital scene in Leeds, The City Talking: Tech in Leeds, launched with a premiere at Leeds Dock as part of Live at Leeds Music & Digital Festival in April 2016. It’s now available to view in full online; read more about the film here, or click below to watch.