Interviews

How BT is inspiring women to get into tech

  • Méabh Mackel, Séainín McCoy and Anousheh Ramezani talk about their roles in the BT Ireland Innovation Centre and why they want to see more girls getting into tech.

    What is the BT Ireland Innovation Centre?

    Méabh: BT Ireland Innovation Centre (BTIIC), is a multi-million-pound initiative in Belfast, driving innovation across the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics, Cyber Security and 5G communications.

    BT teams work closely with our academic partner, Ulster University. The Centre’s currently working on 19 separate projects with almost 200 people working together on those projects. So, it’s big!

    It’s a major investment for BT, and with £9m additional support from Invest NI, we’ve been able to create and protect high-quality tech jobs.

    Why did you choose to study tech subjects?

    Séainín: I’m quite easily distracted, so studying subjects that allowed me to understand how and why “things” work sparked my curiosity. With Technology, the pace of change is so quick it’s very hard not have something new to learn.

    Anousheh: It’s simple - techie subjects solve the most impactful of the world’s problems! I want to play a part in that.

    Méabh: I always had an interest in tech, but I chose history and politics at school. After a few years managing charities, I decided to retrain as a software engineer. It was challenging changing careers, but I’m glad I did.

    Now here I am running the Innovation Centre and I love it. It’s a great combination of my new and my old skills. 

    What’s a typical day in the Innovation Centre?

    Anousheh: A typical day involves carrying out research work including experiments, reading, writing, discussions, meetings, attending workshops or seminars and part-time lab demonstrations.

    Séainín: No day is the same! I know a lot of people say that about their jobs, but, honestly, it’s true. It can range from having discussions about the future of technology over the next ten years, to working on the architecture of software that’s solving issues for the here and now.

    Méabh: Like Séainín, every day is different, but it’s always busy! Sometimes I meet with our project leaders for progress updates. Other times I meet teams in other parts of BT to plan how to use the great innovations coming out of the Centre.

    What skills or tools do you use?

    Séainín: I’d say communication is key as I have to articulate the value of what we do really well. Working with other people to create an environment where they can do the best work they can is another key skill and both of these go hand in hand with having first class technical skills.

    Anousheh: I use technical skills to analyse data, using various approaches to extract insights into data and solve the challenges facing BT to provide good customer services. So, attention to detail is important.

    Méabh: As a project manager, I need to plan and organise well. I spend a lot of time problem solving and collaborating across teams. I think the most crucial skill is to stop and take a breath when things get really busy. That’s helpful no matter what you do.

    What kind of projects do you work on?

    Séainín: Part of my work is taking my knowledge from the Big Data area and helping other teams to bring data into their ways of working. This can range from looking at modelling the data we have, or assessing where there are information gaps, to building out new architecture to ensure we able to support our customers with the data we gather.

    Anousheh: I’m currently working on novel adaptive machine learning in autonomic systems. Such systems can recommend a way of resolving an issue before it impacts the customer, so our goal is to use the technology to improve the customer experience.

    What’s your proudest achievement to date?

    Séainín: I’m most proud when I step back and look at the amazing things my team achieve every day, and how we make our customers’ experience better. On a personal level, I was super chuffed to win an industry award, but that wouldn’t have been possible with all the people who support me.

    Anousheh: My proudest accomplishment so far is when I decided to do my PhD and received phenomenal support from my family. Doing a PhD is hard, but all the ups and downs, smiles and frowns, pains and struggles of life, bring a different perspective to the PhD process.

    Méabh: We had a big showcase in November to celebrate the Innovation Centre’s 2nd birthday and everything we’d achieved so far. I was so proud when I looked around at a room full of BTIIC innovations.

    What would you say to girls who aren’t sure if Tech is for them?

    Séainín: Go for it! Tech is in everything we do, why not be part of shaping, designing, building and implementing it.

    Anousheh: When I started a telecommunications engineering course at college, I was the only woman. Now I’m doing my PhD, I’m still the only woman!

    While society has made huge strides towards gender equality recently, there’s still a lot of work left to do to get women into tech.

    I would encourage any girl to consider a career in engineering or technology – the range of careers available is vast – just look at Meabh, Séainín and me! We each took different routes to get here and each do different jobs – but our tech skills and qualifications got us here, doing jobs we love. Good tech skills will take you places!

    Méabh: That’s so true. I used to think, mistakenly, that I had to choose tech over other interests. But technology is in every part of our lives now. Tech skills will help you with almost any kind of career.

    What kind of tech roles are available in BT?

    Séainín: BT provides a huge variety of technology roles. Whether it’s as a field engineer in our operations team, working to make our apps accessible (UX design), understanding whether the software changes we deploy are making it better for our customers (data, and A/B testing), making sure everyone can download the latest games (network engineering) or bringing the Olympics to our screens (development), we do it all!

    The best thing is, the Technology jobs you’ll work in probably haven’t even been created it yet!

    Méabh: Absolutely - there’s no age limit on our apprenticeship or graduate programmes, but doing a placement, or coming on a BT Work Ready scheme are great ways to get a taster of life in BT.

    BTIIC also recently supported a programme called FurtHER, retraining women from differing career backgrounds in software engineering. Some of them even moved from London to Belfast and now work in the Innovation Centre. Check out the opportunities at: btplc.com/Careercentre.

    What’s BT doing to encourage people to get into tech?

    Méabh: Lots! BT recently launched a major programme called Skills for Tomorrow designed to empower 10 million people with skills for the digital future.

    It’s completely free and open to anyone. There are specific programmes for children and young people, young people not in education, employment or training, working adults, older people and vulnerable adults and SMEs. You can find out more at: bt.com/skillsfortomorrow.

    This article first appeared in the Women in Tech special edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download a FREE copy here. 

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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