BLOG – Women Transforming Tech – QuantumBlack
By Natasha Clarke*
I recently attended QuantumBlack’s Women Transforming Tech event. It was a fantastic day, and in this post I talk about the day’s activities, what I learnt and women in technology.
QuantumBlack, a data, analytics and design company, had three goals that they wanted as take home for the delegates: learn, connect and enjoy. We started with breakfast at the QuantumBlack office, which was a great start and a good opportunity to talk with other attendees immediately. The day was opened by QuamtumBlack’s Jeremy Palmer (CEO) and Helen Mayhew (COO, Europe). Helen outlined some sobering facts about gender and tech: when you ask six year olds, equal numbers of boys and girls like computers, however, at the middle level of the tech workforce, only 17% of workers are women. The higher up you go, the proportion decreases further. It is well known that diverse teams and companies perform better in every metric you can think of, and achieving gender parity in tech would increase UK GDP by £3.6bn. The message from QuantumBlack was clear – diversity matters. With that in the forefront of our minds, it was on to the first talk.
Jacomo Corbo co-founded QuantumBlack and is now its Chief Scientist. He outlined how his work in Formula 1, modelling optimal stopping of cars for Renault, led to the creation of QuantumBlack. After the first coffee break, we then heard from Martha Imprialou, Analytics Engagement Manager. Martha spoke about algorithmic fairness and explainable Artificial Intelligence (AI).
She took us through three key concepts to building trust in AI, which is crucial, in that AI is embedded everywhere we go and services we use. This can be built through algorithms that are 1) explainable (can humans understand how it has come to a decision?), 2) fair (is it biased in some way?) and 3) resilient (is it repeatable?). Martha explained how to try and achieve each of these in our work, and I found the discussion around fairness particularly interesting. For example, an algorithm can reflect societal bias – if there is less data available for a small protected group, then it cannot learn well, and this can lead to decisions which would negatively impact the group. You can see how this is critical for tasks such as making parole decisions, or University admissions.
She finished with a quote from John von Neumann – “In mathematics, you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” – and likened this to AI. We’re getting more used to AI the longer we live with it and at the same time society is evolving. We should write our tech in a way that reflects our ethics and beliefs, learning from mistakes. (side note – Martha is nominated for a Rising Star award that recognises female talent across industry sectors! If it’s something you’re interested in you can check it out at https://risingstars.wearethecity.com. Martha’s presentation was brilliant!
After lunch I joined the Software/ Machine Learning Engineering group breakout session. This was a practical session, which provided tips for writing reproducible code. It also introduced the cool new piece of software from QuantumBlack, giving a behind the scenes look of developing a new product.
The final talk was from Professor Sue Black. Her story is incredible, whereby she moved from living in a women’s refuge with her three children at the age of 26, to one of the 50 top women in tech in Europe, and an OBE. The title of Sue’s talk was ‘If I can do it, so can you!’, and she described some of the highlights of her career, including running a successful campaign to save Bletchley Park. An interesting fact she shared with us was that were 8000 women working at Bletchley Park during the Second World War! She started Tech Mums, teaching mums computing basics. For some of the women this had been truly life changing, leading to them getting jobs or improving their business, and having a massive impact on their confidence.
Finally there was a careers Q&A with Helen Mullings (Chief HR Officer, QuantumBlack) and Michelle Gregory (Senior VP of Data Science, Elsevier). It was interesting, and new for me to learn that Michelle Gregory, whilst working in a male dominated field had not been affected as a gender minority in the workplace. She prefers to ignore gender and instead focus on technical skills during interviews. I’m not convinced that without active efforts to increase the number of women in the workforce, gender parity will be achieved. But it was good to hear a different perspective. She also spoke about recognising your own bias and supporting people that might need it, such as introverts regardless of gender, all of which was great to hear.
Michelle had shared invaluable advice, particularly around the importance of having a mentor and how to approach the relationship. For mentees, don’t be shy, ask the questions you want to, and then allow time for general advice from your mentor. Always be respectful of their time, as they will be very busy, and if they give you advice about something specific, like a conversation you need to have at work, let them know how it went. For mentors, care about your mentee’s life outside of work too.
Fear of networking was an accidental theme that ran through the day! Helen Mayhew suggested at the beginning that by seeing it as making friends it was a lot less scary, and Professor Black spoke about how shy she was when first attending conferences. I think making it a goal of the day to connect with others was helpful. It meant everyone had a similar mentality of wanting to chat and find out what other attendees were doing, and ample breaks meant there was plenty of opportunity to do so.
I met women who were studying or working in a range of fascinating areas, from a mathematician working at a start-up, to other PhD students researching the spread of disease and homelessness. It was interesting to hear of different ways machine learning is being used, other women’s career paths, and exchange tips, such as using Twitter. By the end of the day I’d made a few firm friends and we all swapped LinkedIn/ Facebook/ email details, and I hope to continue the relationships with my new found connections.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the event, but I’m really glad I had the opportunity to attend. Personally, it met all of QuantumBlack’s goals for me. I came away feeling genuinely inspired, by both the speakers and other attendees, and it’s great to know that there are companies who care about women in tech and want to support us. This was the second time QuantumBlack have run the event and I hope they will do something similar in the future, as I can’t recommend it enough.
If you’re a woman in tech, keep an eye out for it and apply!
*CamAWiSE is pleased to have collaborated with QuantumBlack in promoting its “Women Transforming Tech” event which took place on 17 May 2019. Natacha Clarke was one of 77 women selected for the programme. You can follow her on Twitter – @psychinthecity_