Real life is seldom as it is in the fairy tales – but one thing is for sure, it is what you make it which is very much the philosophy behind Dr Sue Black’s attitude towards making the absolute most of everything life throws at you and never doubting that you can bring about change to make it what you want. We were fortunate enough to spend some time chatting to Dr Black about her background and why she feels so passionately about tech and its importance for the future.
Black’s life did have that fairy tale start – an initially very happy childhood with loving parents and a younger brother and sister, Black loved nothing more than studying maths and, unlike most school aged children, longed for the weekend when she could go shopping and buy more maths books! Aged twelve, Black’s fairy tale childhood turned into every child’s nightmare when her mother died from a brain haemorrhage. The nightmare got worse when her father remarried and Black found herself in a both emotional and physically abusive relationship with her new step-family. As soon as she reached sixteen, she moved out of the unhappy family home to live with a family friend before moving a year later to live on her own in London at just seventeen.
Having broken free of her family ties, seemed to be the start of Black’s journey to do what she felt was right for her but it wasn’t without further tragedy:
“Some of the tragic things that happened to me gradually have turned out to be to my advantage in away which, at the time, I would never have been able to realise would be the case. In a way, I feel like I was an orphan from the age of thirteen. I didn’t really have any positive parenting experiences from then so whilst you’re saying ‘free spirit’ I didn’t really have all of those parental pressures to do or be anything – I just didn’t have any of it. Those formative teenage years, I could, in a way, do anything I wanted to and I guess I’ve kind of just carried on like that! It’s only really brought home to me when people say ‘oh my parents wanted me to do xyz – study law at university’, whatever it was – I think well I never had any of that! In a way, no one gave a sh*t so that’s bad in one respect but in another way, I was free to do whatever I wanted to. It’s taken me quite a while to get there but I have just really relied on myself! Now, I think that’s a positive thing for me.”
Counselling wasn’t readily available when Black’s mother died so suddenly and it wasn’t until a further tragedy much later in 2009 when her brother committed suicide that she received counselling, and having read about Stephen Fry and Alaistair Campbell’s struggles with depression, she recognised that she too suffered but had been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to label it as such but instead try to work through it with a belief that things will get better:
“My brother committing suicide was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me – apart from my mum dying. They were both pretty horrendous things. Straight away I was in shock like anybody. Then I realised that actually I was sliding into depression and I thought that I was never going to get out of this. I’m not some magical person that can carry on through everything. At that time when I realised I was sliding into depression, I managed to get some counselling which helped pull me out of where I was and set me back on track. When I was younger I wish I’d had counselling when my mum died but it just wasn’t available.
Somehow, gradually I’ve learned that if I do pick myself up at some point, then things do get better. I don’t know where that’s come from; whether it’s innate in me or whether I learnt it from the stuff that’s happened to me. I spent lots of time not being happy and wondering what to do about things. It’s not like everything has been amazing all of the time. I do seem to at some point say ‘okay, I’m just going to get on with whatever it is that I’m aiming for.’ The more I’ve done it, then the more confident I get I think that it will be okay”
Black’s life seemed to be settling into something akin to a more ‘normal’ phase when she held a couple of jobs before getting married at twenty and having three children by twenty three but having had a couple of years at home with the children left her wanting more than being a full time mum so she enrolled in an adult education college. Unfortunately while this reignited her passion for learning, it also fuelled resentment and, in turn, violence from her then husband. Terrified, Black took the decision to flee with her three year old daughter and 1 year old twin sons and went to a women’s refuge.
Undeterred, Black signed up to a maths course which consisted of evening classes combined with twenty hours a week home study which would give her the equivalent on 2 A levels which was enough to apply for University. Black recalls that even though she loved the classes, she didn’t exactly fit in: being one of only a few women wearing Dr Marten boots with a mini skirt while all the others were men in suits was not an easy experience. Having successfully completed the course – and in fact coming joint top with another female, Black was able to apply, and was accepted, to study Computer Science at London South Bank University.
Talking with Black, who is such a respected speaker and who seems very much at ease with herself, signing up to University and academic life must have been a natural and easy step. It wasn’t. Not only did she have to juggle being a single mum to three young children, she’s often battled feelings of anxiety, some of which are eminently relatable at a time when working mums were often made to feel guilty about the choices they were, in many cases and certainly in Black’s case, having to make:
“Bringing up my older kids, when they were younger, I used to feel extremely guilty about the fact that as soon as I could get someone to take them to school so that I could go to Uni (it was a friend who would walk them to school), then I did. I didn’t walk them to school every single day when they were seven, eight, nine. Even one of the school teachers said to me ‘you should be bringing your kids to school every day, you shouldn’t let anyone else do it, and that’s why your daughter’s work is suffering’. I suffered massive anxiety and guilt over that but I think it doesn’t matter who walks your kids to school as long as they’re safe. There are always things that you’re going to be anxious about and you really don’t know half the time I think whether you’re doing the right thing or not but you’re giving it your best shot. If you’re giving it your best shot with anything then that’s all you can do.”
Even having successfully passed her degree and having moved on to study for her PhD, Black felt insecure and her experiences networking at research conferences perhaps sparked one of the pivotal moments in her career to date. Black had previously been used to being in the minority when attending academic conferences which had led to several uncomfortable encounters, particularly when having approached fellow male delegates, she was made to feel almost invisible as they ignored her attempts at starting conversations. On a Women in Science Conference in Brussels, Black was in a majority; conversation and a collaborative spirit were the order of the day. Black came home a changed woman and wanting to help others feel the same so, with the help of British Computer Society (BSC), she set up an online group for women in computing in 1998. She chose internet technology because that’s what the women said they wanted to get from the group.
Although the group was based in London, it sparked so much interest that it was featured in the Daily Mirror and Black had to find a way to reach out to the many women who wanted to join the group. One month after finishing her PhD in 2001 and after becoming a chartered member of the BCS and getting board level approval, the national group for women in computing (BCSWomen) was launched. Black went on to launch Tech mums in 2012 which has the brilliant mission statement of ‘creating and connecting kick-ass, tech savvy mums’ although it being a female only group sparked controversy in the early days but Black doesn’t regret the decision to keep it a female only group for a second:
“I created Tech mums because I think mum swill get more self-conscious about what they are doing with technology if there are men in the room in general, even if their kids are there with them. My whole idea of having it as just mums only was because, in general, mums can bean insecure group when it comes to technology which is why I started it – to boost their confidence with technology. If you feel insecure, what you really don’t want are other people that feel very secure, even just in the environment because it just changes the whole atmosphere. That’s why I created Tech mums to be mums only but I feel there should be loads of initiatives for parents; there should be initiatives for dads; initiatives for mums and kids, dads and kids, whole families… We need loads of initiatives so I’m not saying that this is the only thing that we should do, but I feel that for a group that is particularly insecure about something, then the last thing you want is people in there that are going to disrupt that because it negates what you’re doing. So we’ll keep Tech mums as mums as it is now but in the future, we might do all sorts of things and I would welcome other people doing them too – it doesn’t have to be me.”
Black’s passion for tech is obvious and she has nailed her colours firmly to the mast when declaring that her aim for her new role as Professor of Computer Science at Durham University is to raise the number of females students on computer and engineering courses to 50% if possible. Black promotes greater diversity in all fields but particularly when it comes to tech:
“At the moment most technologies are created by men but not all tech users are. Technology is a really great career [for girls] and you don’t have to be the biggest maths wizard. Technology is involved in pretty much every job now and going forward into the future, that’s going to be more and more the case. Technology jobs are also really well paid so not only do you have an interesting job, you also have a well-paid job. Organisations are really missing a trick if they are not encouraging females to go into technology. I think all universities/colleges/schools should be really trying to persuade girls to study – or at least use technology and create technology as part of other subjects as it is the language of the future. If we don’t have enough girls in technology, we won’t have enough diversity in technology which will affect all of us in the long run, and not in a good way.We need diverse teams and women need to be a part of that.”
There are concerns about the amount of time people – and particularly – children spend glued to screens and whether attention spans are getting shorter but with three out of her four children being dyslexic, Black recognises the part that advances in technology have played in helping her youngest daughter:
“it’s been really, really great for her to be able to use technology such as ‘ask Siri’ or to ask her laptop or phones questions about stuff because she wouldn’t be able to spell half of it. She is getting a lot better now but particularly when she was younger, she wouldn’t have been able to get the information she wanted. Now she wants to find out things. She’s doing research for her history at school and she can just ask her laptop questions and she will get the answers on her phone.”
That doesn’t mean to say that Black doesn’t acknowledge existing concerns which is perhaps why Tech mums is successful in helping mums feel more confident around tech so that they can talk knowledgeably with their children not only to remain up to date with how they are communicating but also to ensure that they doing so safely.
Black recognised early on that tech can be a powerful ally that she used to her full advantage in her successful campaign to save Bletchley Park which then became the subject of her book Saving Bletchley Park: How #social media saved the home of the WWII codebreakers. Fascinated to learn that the work of the codebreakers was said to have shortened the war by two years, potentially saving 22 million lives, and that some 10,000 people had worked at Bletchley Park during the war, more than half of whom were women, Black went away determined to ensure more people should hear about their contribution. It embodied everything that Black loves – how technology and women were a positive force for changing the world.
On hearing that Bletchley Park may have to close due to lack of funding, Black emailed heads and professors of computing in the UK to ask them to sign a petition on the 10 Downing Street Website. Buoyed by the positive response, she went on to write to The Times and again had some success– the story got air time but didn’t really gather momentum. Black admits that as a computer science academic, her knowledge of PR and marketing was limited. However, it was 2008 and the use of social media and twitter in particular was in its infancy. When Black decided to type Bletchley Park into a twitter search she realised pretty quickly that she could reach everyone in the world who was already talking or tweeting about Bletchley Park. She had what she called a ‘lightbulb’ moment and came up with various ways of interacting using twitter. A major turning point though was when Black messaged Stephen Fry (who was already following her on twitter) who then tweeted a link to Black’s blog on saving Bletchley Park. Suddenly Black’s number of hits increased from around 50 a day to over 8,000 over night and she became the most retweeted person in the world on that day – a feat that she doesn’t think will happen again unless she gets into a twitter war with Nicki Minaj or Donald Trump (and with the latter anything is possible!).
When discussing the future and one of the fears that Artificial Intelligence (AI) may one day be responsible for the automation of 20% all jobs in the next 20 years, Black takes a different view. Rather than eliminating jobs, Black believes there will be more jobs created:
“Artificial intelligence is there – but nothing is there yet that can compete with the human brain at all. All I can think of is like chess – so a very specific computer can compete in a very specific way with a human brain but nothing else. In general, it is just so far away that I don’t think we will ever have a computer that can do everything that a human can; it’s just not going to happen. So I don’t think that we should even worry about that at all.There are so many things that humans can do that machines and computers can’t do. They’re great at following step by step instructions but humans are great at doing loads of different things which aren’t following step by step instructions. We should just appreciate that and think about how people can add benefit in so many ways. You have a core of technology but there is a massive periphery where all of these jobs are going to created where people need to be tech savvy to be employed. For me that’s what we should be focussing on; government should be focussing on retraining people with technology skills so that they can work in these areas.”
Looking at how we are going to be able to fill these positions, it is refreshing to hear Black be so honest and outspoken about the role of education and the use of technology:
“Education needs to be future facing and at the moment, I feel it has gone backwards from where it was when I was at school which is ridiculous as that’s 45-50 years ago!Particularly the exam system now, even just simple things like having coursework taken out of the exam system is backward. What is the point of memorising stuff? We’ve got the internet, we don’t need to do that anymore. Of course we need the capability to it, but we don’t need to cram kids heads full of facts anymore because they can just ask their laptop or phone what the specific information is that they need and it will tell them. So that’s not a skill that is necessarily needed anymore. What we want are analytical thinkers and problem solvers. I think education should be focussing much more on that type of skill and, from my education, that’s what we did at primary school. I feel like we should build more on the type of things we did at primary school and bring that into secondary school. Secondary school just seems to be about memorising loads of stuff and sitting down and passing exams which is 50-100 years out of date for me.”
Having battled through some pretty tough challenges, Black is loving life and although it’s not been an easy journey she says: “gradually over the years I’ve worked out what I like and don’t like doing and I’ve gradually done a bit less of what I don’t like so much and more of what I do. I’m in a position now where I like everything that I do”.
Dr Black is an amazing lady with a great drive to make things better, born out of a sense of loneliness from her childhood that has given her the strength to appreciate and love her life and those people in it. Straight talking, considered, insightful and above overwhelmingly positive and forward looking – the world could do with more people like her.