Our Interviews with Women in Tech at the BBC

bbc-blocksWe had the honour of speaking with a number of women with technology-related careers at the BBC about their career paths, and what they are excited about in their current roles.

Here’s what they had to say:

The Podcast Interviewees:

Lesley Mearns is a Programmes Business Analyst at the BBC, which is a Business role; Lia Vipulananthan is an Operations Shift Leader in the 24×7 Team and has 14 years experience supporting all the BBC digital content; and Rosie Campbell is a Technologist in the the R&D North Lab & North UX Research Group.

Rosie is working on the intersection of TV and games – with iPlayer, broadcasting can become interactive – what new kinds of experiences can we create that mix BBC storytelling with real-time rendering? She also recently worked on Smart Wallpaper, where she made an immersive ‘hide and seek’ game and accompanying android app. CBeebies characters hide on the walls, and children use their phone’s camera to ‘detect’ (seek) them.


Women in Technology at the BBC

Interview with Carrie Hall, Software Engineer in the  TV & Mobile Platforms – Radio & Music Group.


I’m Carrie Hall. I’m 27, I’ve been at the BBC for two and a half years and I work as a software engineer on the iPlayer Radio mobile application for Android and iOS.

How did you first get interested in a career in technology? 

I played a lot of computer games when I was younger, and my older brother was into technology so we had a desktop computer and a few consoles which I used to use. I made my first website when I was about 14, in HTML, and attempted to make a few flash games. However at school I preferred other subjects such as English, but still did Computing as an A level and it was when it came time to choose my degree that I decided to follow a career in technology, as there was a lot of interest at the time in websites and web applications, which is where I saw myself working.

What was your career path to this role, and did you have role models & mentors along the way? 

I studied IT at GSCE, then Computing at A Level. My degree was Internet Computing at the University of Manchester, which at the time was mostly Computer Science but with some extra modules in web technologies. I spent one year in industry between my second and final year, where I was working as a software engineer. At this point I was mostly a Java and web developer, then I learned Android to complete my third year project and really enjoyed it. After Uni I took some time out to travel then worked as an Android engineer for a year before getting my current role at the BBC. My biggest role model is probably my older brother, he’s always been excited by learning new things, whether that’s technology or otherwise, and it’s very infectious. He’s always pushed me in my career and encouraged me when I’ve been unsure about my own skills.

What do you find exciting about your current role, and how do you strike your own work / life balance? 

At the BBC there is a real focus around building apps that people love, rather than churning out apps to make money. I love working on the same product and seeing it constantly improve as we add new features. We also have the benefit of being able to reach a massive amount of users which really pushes you to make sure that what you’re doing is right and is going to work across all devices, which on Android can be challenging at times. At the moment, striking a work/life balance is fairly easy as I don’t have to take my work home with me, however as a software engineer I do work on my own projects at home to refresh my skills and learn new technologies.


Extended Interview with Lia Vipulananthan, Operations Shift Leader in the 24×7 Team

Questions asked by members of the Ada’s Community

How did you first get interested in a career in technology?

I was the person in our household who took apart the broken VHS recorder and put it back together having four extra screws left over. My father was a Chemistry and Biology teacher, my mother a nurse so our household was always more science than arts based.

A chance encounter with a BBC Micro brought home for the summer holidays by my father from his school prompted a lifelong obsession with fixing broken things and finding ways to make things run smoother.


What was your career path to this role, and did you have role models & mentors along the way?

Material Engineering at Uni to a computer sales job to a Helpdesk role to Operations with a good helping of fixing other peoples broken computers. My role model was Sarah, my first boss here at the BBC who hugged me my first day and said thank you, there’s now another woman on the team. She encouraged me to look for roles outside of my team, mentored and counselled me on how to further my career and explained the mistakes she had made in order that I could learn from them. Also my father encouraged me to do the best that I could and to takes risks and above all keep learning.


What do you find exciting about your current role, and how do you strike your own work / life balance?

In my current role I have a chance to be proactive and fix things before they break rather than the opposite and be reactively fixing issues. BBC Digital has over 800 products and talking to the programmers and architects always makes me reason how wonderfully creative the teams are.

My concession to a work / life balance is that I do not take my mobile to the bedroom and spend times doing hobbies that do not require a power outlet such as crocheting and cycling, reading and diving. If I am anywhere near a computer or phone, I end up checking work email and answering them and retrying to resolve issues when I should be switched off from work.


What changes would you make to your current job to enable a better work/life balance?
Not look at phone for the days I am not on call


Did you encounter problems returning to work following having children/maternity leave in terms of work/life balance, childcare, flexibility.

I cannot answer for myself but I do know people when I first started at the BBC who encountered issues, however now the managers and departments are much more flexible. I believe the ubiquitousness of broadband is the main reason, when I started they were still putting in ISDN lines for the work from home staff. Now there are not enough seats in the building for all the staff with the assumption of many people will work to work from home. Also the BBC have made it much easier to use your own equipment to work with use of certificates for whitelist access and use of mobile messaging apps such as Good to receive work emails.


Were you happy returning to the same role or would you have preferred to have returned to something less demanding on your brain/body/time (I hope that doesn’t appear patronising – I ask because a number of female developers I’ve spoken to have told me that they would prefer something simpler/less technical and/or more creative following maternity leave).

I cannot answer for myself, two of the ladies I have worked with who went on maternity leave, came back to less demanding roles and were quite frankly over qualified for the roles they settled into. However both needed the freedom to not have to worry about work and not have too much of a demand on their time and brain. The other lady went on to manage large project and do very well for herself. It is a balance and I think your partners support matters the most.

For the two ladies who downgraded their jobs, they were not supported in childcare or household chores from their partner so had to take on the full responsibility on top of a normal workload (both husbands expected their dinner on the table when they got in despites the ladies working a full day’s work and taking the children to and from nursery / school).

For the lady who did not let having children make a difference to her role, her husband was both very supportive and understanding of his wife’s job and the fact that he needed to step in and should his share of the chores.

Did you feel worried about returning to work due to the speed technology evolves and your skills being out of date?

I cannot answer for myself but I know a lot of the ladies used to feel this way. Staying in regular touch with your manager and colleagues, coming in to show off the new offspring keeps you in touch with your team and they never need an excuse to keep you updated with what is happening and allowed you to assess what is going on. 


How long did you take off after having children before returning to work, was that influenced by work and would you have preferred it to be longer/shorter?

I cannot answer for myself but most ladies I have worked with wanted to come back later (longer than a year) but felt pressured to come back to keep their job.


What’s the hardest problem you ever solved in this role?
People. One was a shift partner that was utterly useless and did no work. A second was someone I could see within a month had the ability but no work ethic. In both cases, I was too scared to put a formal complaint into my boss. In the end, both people were sacked from the team on the basis of other peoples complaints (from outside the team).


What’s a mistake you made in this role, and how did you overcome it?

Not being more forceful and standing up for myself specifically letting someone else take credit for my ideas and being too timid to demand recognition from the department.


Is there scope within their role to initiate projects? Are they creatively fulfilled at the BBC?

Yes and yes but its knowing the right people. If you network and talk to people and ask them what you are working on, you find out about all these amazing things we do at the BBC. But it is not communicated out very well. There are initiatives to promote this within teams such as 10% time.

You can use 10% of your time to work on your ideas – anything goes as long as it has something to do with our work. More details on the BBC Blog here


Do you feel you are recognised for what you do on an equal footing? Can your voice be heard?

Yes and yes but you have to be forceful and project your voice in the room full of men and large personalities. You have to be concise and knowledgeable and above all be practiced in asking for the recognition.


What do you think is the number one top most important skill for your role, and what are the things that you do to keep learning it and getting better at it?

Women are better at the people and personal skills. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLG4A2BQ-SM . Vanessa Vallely from http://www.wearethecity.com/ is a great speaker and has a very relatable story to tell about being a woman in technology. (She has spoken at a BBC organised event that I attended)


What do you perceive as being the biggest barrier for women entering the tech industry and what are your ideas to overcome these?’

Ourselves. My physics teach told me I would fail Physics because girls generally do. I believed him rather than myself. Spend time talking to other women about their experiences and you will see a common thread in all their stories.