As we approach International Women’s Day (Sunday 8th March) we’re talking to some of our amazing female clients about their successes. Next in our interview series, Forward Role’s Leilah has been chatting to Suzanne Angell about what it's like working within the technology sector.
Hi Suzanne, thanks so much for chatting to me, let’s start with talking about what your job entails?
Hi Leilah, no problem, I am an Account Lead in the Public Sector Digital Services Team at Kainos. I am responsible for developing our strategy to work closely with some of the largest UK Government Departments, leading our teams of designers and engineers on the ground and ensuring that we deliver fantastic digital services that improve the lives of UK citizens within the customer’s budget.
What do you love most about your role?
I love the straight talking and warm family culture within Kainos that comes from the company roots in Northern Ireland.
I am also really excited about the fact that the services we deliver, impact people’s lives. For example, the new passport application service Kainos developed with the HM Passport Office team means that you no longer need to visit the post office to collect a form, buy printed passport photos, get the photos signed and then send the whole lot away in the post. Instead you can apply online, using your phone to take a photo. The system emails the person you nominate to confirm it really is you and they respond directly into the app. Our work has reduced the time and cost to the applicant, as well as the costs to the passport office - and your new passport often arrives within 48 hours. When I realised on a Sunday night I only had a week to renew my 11 year old sons passport, this was a lifesaver!
How did you end up working in the technology industry?
I was sponsored by ICI do a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College in the early 90s. I enjoyed the day to day work on site after I graduated, but I realise looking back that I spent a lot more time building a Lotus notes system, which helped us collect the data to understand why things failed, than I did solving mechanical engineering problems!
In 2000 I left ICI to set up a .com business with a friend. Unfortunately the day we started was the day the .com bubble burst, so we both moved to a firm of independent financial advisors who wanted to modernise their IT – I built them a new server and network (teaching myself from books!) and then built a bespoke app to manage all of their client accounts with a 3rd party supplier using an agile development approach.
I had really enjoyed the problem solving aspects of the work so I then moved to Actica Consulting as their 8th member of staff. I progressed through the ranks quickly by demonstrating I was good at selling to customers, generally by spotting their next problem and working out how to solve it, along with running delivery teams. Over my 15 years at Actica, as well as growing the company, I worked on some fantastic projects with a range of public sector organisations including the Ministry of Defence, the Care Quality Commission, GDS, HMRC and the Ministry of Justice.
After 15 years at Actica however my ambitions had changed - I wanted to get involved in bigger projects that could make more of an impact, so I moved to Sopra Steria to head up their new Government Consulting team. I was effectively building a start up within a multi £bn business including setting the strategy, hiring a team, finding the work, winning it and delivering it. We achieved a lot of success in the team and I am particularly proud of our work with the Scottish Government, building their new disability benefits system and Broxbourne Council. I learnt a huge amount about how to run a bigger business, however I realised that the pace of change which is possible within such a large organisation was just too slow for me. I was also spending more time away from home than I wanted to, with relatively young children, so I decided in late 2019 it was time to move on.
I had worked alongside Kainos for a number of years so I was delighted when they were just as excited about the fact I wanted to join them as I was about the fact they had the perfect role for me.
What have been some of the main challenges you’ve faced?
Moving from London to Teesside at age 23, as a single woman working on a chemical plant with mostly men was hard and that was a lonely stage of my life. I had to work hard to find a community outside work and joining the local sailing club was a real lifesaver.
I had two children whilst at Actica and returned to work on 80% hours after both, which was the right choice for both myself and my family. I have always worked more than a standard week, so I think I did approx. 80% of the work I did before, but the company still got great value from me! I do think this was easier for me because I was very senior within the company and I didn’t have customers who expected me to turn up 5 days a week on site. I had complete control over my own diary and working hours. I know a lot of female consultants who found it impossible to return to work after children, as their employers were not supportive of finding them work near home, to enable them to do some aspects of the nursery run.
I remember a horrible day when I got a phone call as I walked into a pitch, saying my 12 month old child had a temperature of 40 degrees and they could not reach my husband (who was unusually offsite spending his day in a secure data centre with no phone). I had to make my apologies and leap on a train and travel 2 hours back home. After this my husband and I realised we had to get much better at planning. In the end we made it work by my husband making a conscious decision that he would take a “non-travelling” role nearer home with the reduced career prospects this came with... he was the first man in his company to request flexible working and it was very unusual for a man to walk out of meetings at 3:00 as he had the school run to do! Fortunately he now has his dream job at McLaren, still only 15 mins from home, so his career has recovered.
There are lots of times I have not got the balance right and I do feel guilty that I have missed school plays and sports days. My children appear to care about this less than I do, but I do think that there are times I should have been more open at work about the fact these things are important to me and blocked them out in my diary early/prioritised the time.
Why do you think there aren’t as many women in leadership roles within technology businesses?
I recently read the book “Lean in” by Sheryl Sandberg and I agree with many of her views - women often don’t take on challenging roles early in their career as they are worrying far too early about whether they will be able to juggle a high flying job with a family. It isn’t easy to juggle, but the time to worry about this and make choices is when it happens, not when you leave university!
It is also often hard to have a clear view of your potential when you don’t have role models who you can relate to, and there are far fewer female business leaders or entrepreneurs who women can see and think “this person is like me, I can do that too”. I also believe that women are more likely to have a low level of confidence in their own abilities than their male peers so we need more support to help us take a leap of faith and set up on our own.
What would your advice be to women considering going for a big promotion or setting up on their own?
I have found the Lean in Group I joined hugely supportive in terms of helping me understand my strengths and build my confidence – build your network.
If you have children and have had a career break, take a conscious look at the workload split within your household and redistribute the tasks around both the home and children between you and your partner to give yourself the time and space to be successful.
Remember that other people believe in you and you don’t have to do it all alone… when I told my mother that I was worried I didn’t have enough money to support myself whilst we set up the .com company in 2000, she called me back 10 minutes later and offered to pay my rent for 6 months. My parents were not well off, but she told me that she believed in me and that she didn’t want me to look back in 20 years and regret not taking such an exciting opportunity over a relatively small amount of money. The money was a lovely gesture, but I was just as touched by the sentiment that she wanted me to take an opportunity to do something that she would not have been able to do at the same age. Whether it be a mentor, a business partner, a coach or a family member think about who you are going to bounce ideas off and help build your energy back up when it is low.
Click here to read through our other International Women’s Day interviews.