YOU ONLY GET ONE LIFE, MAKE THE MOST OF IT
An Interview with Sue Black
Sue Black is an English computer scientist. She is a Senior Research Associate at University College London, England. She was previously Head of the Department of Information and Software Systems at the University of Westminster, London. She founded BCSWomen, a Specialist Group of the British Computer Society, in 2001, and was chair of the group until 2008. She has been instrumental in championing the saving of Bletchley Park from destruction due to lack of funding. Most recently she has founded #Techmums. The Guardian newspaper declared Sue as one of the Top 10 Women in Tech. Sue has done all this despite not finishing college (first time around) and being a single mum to 3 children by the age of 25. She escaped her violent husband and rebuilt her life with huge success. She's gone on to inspire women everywhere and is the last in our series of just how far you can get if you persevere.
When you were growing up did you imagine that you’d end up with a career in technology or science?
I think I wanted to do something with Maths. I wanted to be an astronaut at some point. I remember at school seeing the moon landing and get very excited about that. I could still vividly remember that when I was six or seven. But in terms of career, I don’t think I really knew what I wanted to do.
Both my parents were nurses, so I used to read their textbooks as well. And they were mental health nurses so I used to read a lot of mental heath textbooks. I was already interested in why people do things.
When I was a teenager, I thought I’d end up either a psychiatric nurse like my parents, or some sort of psychiatry, or something to do with human behaviour. I was always very interested in what motivates people to do things and why people do the things they do.
And do you still have that same passion?
I am still very interested in that area, but my mum died when I was 12 and then my dad remarried and things didn’t go so great for me. I wasn’t happy at home so I left when I was 16. I lived at my friend’s house, because my friend’s mum took in lodgers.
When I started my A-levels, it was incredibly difficult. I lived 25 miles away from my school, and had to pay rent for my stay at my friend’s house, so I had to work three or four evenings a week at a café as a waitress. I found that after a few months of that I was going to school and just falling asleep.
Yeah, I’m not surprised.
I got behind on everything. After a few months of that, I just thought that I’m not going to make it and I’m not going to be successful. I decided to leave and get a job. And so that’s what I did.
Looking back now, do you regret leaving college early?
I just couldn’t do it. I physically could not do that amount of work and studying at the same time. My friend’s parents were really good to me. They gave me reduced rent. I think everyone else was paying 20 pounds a week (in the 70s), and I was paying six pounds a week. But because I was earning 30p an hour, I had to do a reasonable amount of work to pay six pounds a week and to have some money for other stuff that I needed. I thought I was just working all the time. I used to get up at 7am and go to school and be at school the whole day. Then I would go home at 5pm, start work at 6pm, and get home from work at 10pm. Plus, because my rent was cheap, I also helped around the house when I got home since there were around 10 or 12 people living there. I did all the washing up for everybody – I was washing up for 12 people. Once that was done, it was then time for me to do my homework.
“I did all the washing up for everybody – I was washing up for 12 people. Once that was done, it was then time for me to do my homework.”
It sounds pretty brutal! I am not surprised you had to leave in the end. I’ve read that you got married quite young, and that you had three children by the age of 23. Do you think that you maybe got married young because your younger life was difficult, and that you just almost needed some company?
That is definitely part of it. I think my mum’s death had a big effect on me. I didn’t realise exactly what that effect was, but at the time it was very traumatising. I think another effect it had on me was she was 34 when she died and after that I thought I could be dead by that age. I can remember thinking as a teenager ‘I wonder if I’ll make it to 21’.
And do you still have that thought?
I still think quite often that I could be dead next week, so I need to get on with stuff – not in a morbid way – just in a ‘there’s no point sitting around’ type of way. That’s always driven me. I am sure that is part of why I ended up getting married at age 20 and having three kids straight away. When I had one baby I thought I’ll have another one and I’ll get two out of the way and I’ll get back to work after that. The next child turned out to be twins. That is how I had three children by the age of 23.
I think I also read that it was at age 25 that your marriage broke up?
Well, it’s quite a lot strain on a relationship with two people at age 23 to have three children. Looking back, I think I could cope with it and he couldn’t really. My relationship broke down. My ex-husband could be violent so I left him and we moved to a women’s refuge for six months before getting a council flat.
Looking from the outside in, it looks like you have six or seven years of incredibly difficult times. How do you lift yourself out of that? It must have felt like a spiral?
Most of that time I was happy. Yes things could be difficult, especially after my mum died. When I was at home, I wasn’t happy with my dad and my stepmother. I was just so restricted. I couldn’t do anything about the rules that were being forced on me. I wasn’t allowed to go out and I wasn’t supposed to tell people that my stepmother wasn’t my mother. I had to pretend that she was my mother. All sorts of things were going on and emotional cruelty I suppose. After having three years of that, and managing to get out of it, I just felt like nothing could be that hard again. I know it doesn’t sound like I’m painting a really happy life, but actually, I was quite happy – especially getting out of that home. I wasn’t really depressed at all.
You said you were a single mum, and I’m sure there are a lot of mums in a similar situation to you. Do you have advice for them on how best to cope or flourish even?
Just keep a long-term view and not a short term view. I think that it takes time to get yourself in the place that you want to be. In general, you can’t make massive changes really quickly when you have three kids to look after. You have to think about where you really want to be in 5 years time, 10 years time or 20 years time, or what sort of environment you want your kids to grow up in. I wasn’t getting any maintenance; I was on income support. And I didn’t want to be on income support forever. The way out that I saw was to go back to where I was at 16 – to gain an education. I knew that if I got a degree, I’d get a better job, and there would be a way out.
I just had five O-levels. I wasn’t going to get a well paid job with five O-levels and three kids. I just thought I’m going to look at the long term, and I found that what I needed to do was to go to university and get a degree. I worked out I needed to do something I loved, which was Maths and I could do that at my local college. I talked to them and they told me about a fast-track one-year Maths course that they had. This course could get me into a university within a year. It was only 6 hours of contact time. But I had to do 25 hours of reading at home during the week. This suited me as I could try to get a baby sitter for two nights a week, and I could do all the reading when the kids were at school or playgroup. And that’s what I did for that year.
I remembered going into the first class. At 26, I used to wear a mini skirt with a biker jacket. I had massive, black, curly, Afro-type hair, and I walked into this room where practically everyone was in a suit. I was a bit traumatised by the fact that I was so different. But actually, it was great. I met really lovely people and made some good friends. I had to laugh and it really built my confidence going there.
Is it fair to say that you are the kind of person who finds solutions, and not the type of person to wallow?
I go through phases. It’s not true to say that when faced with adversity I immediately think “Oh, look on the bright side!” I had things go wrong and I still do. And I have to sit for a while and think, “Oh Shit, this isn’t good”, and go through that stage of feeling sorry for myself. But then stuff starts happening in my head. I work on a ladder to climb out of it I suppose. I definitely have dark days, even if things go wrong now, sometimes I can’t sort it out. I know that when that happens to me, what I need to do is just take it easy, for just a day or so. I take it easy, and watch loads of uplifting stuff, like TED talks. I watch comedy shows usually or anything to just kind of give my brain a bit of rest until it stops whirring around and the worrying stops. I just give my brain a bit of a rest, have a laugh; I watch a lot of stuff that makes me laugh a lot. Then I find that within a day, I am back on my way again.
“I watch a lot of stuff that makes me laugh a lot.”
That’s good advice for anybody. So you ended up getting the fast track maths qualification. How did you go from that to ending up with a PhD in computer science?
So yeah I went to get a degree, which wasn’t easy. Several times, especially in the first year, I thought I don’t know what I’m doing here. I felt like I couldn’t do it and having 3 children was incredibly tough.
I was in a class with 90% 18 year-old boys. Again, I was the odd one out but it was really good fun and I had a great time. It meant that I could be a bit of a teenager which I’d never been. That was quite good fun. But I had to take my kids to school in the morning. I would drop them off at 9am, and I did not get into university until 10am. My lectures started at 9am, and ended at 6pm but I would leave early to pick up my kids from school at 3:00pm. This meant I was coming in late and leaving early so I was missing lectures which made things very difficult. The first year was so hard. Everyone else had the time they wanted to do everything. I had to get the kids, take them home and cook dinner. I also had to do their homework with them, which was fun and I enjoyed that. Then they would go to bed and I would work on the stuff that I had to do for my course.
Was it very difficult to juggle?
It wasn’t easy. And I did go to my tutor two or three times crying that year saying, “I can’t do it all, I can’t do it all.” And he said, “No, no, no, you can don’t worry. What are the main problems, let me help you…” He helped me stay on track. You have to get 50% to get into the second year, and I did, just. So I passed my first year and got into second year, then it became a bit easier, because the twins were five then and I could pick them up at 5:30pm so that made it so much easier.
It’s amazing that you were able to juggle it. It’s incredibly inspiring and I am sure a lot of people reading this will take something really positive from your experiences. I wanted to ask – why go down the Computer Science route?
I just thought that technology is the future. And I still do now. I just see technology as connecting everyone in the world in different ways. I think it is really exciting. I really believe that technology will save the planet.
We recently interviewed Grace Garey from Watsi.org who echoes your thoughts exactly. Her company Watsi is connecting people from all around the world and is enabling healthcare for poorer countries by providing a platform for people to donate money towards medical procedures for the less fortunate.
That’s what I mean. Technology is enabling the break down of traditional power structures. And it means you cut across all of that. People who want to sort out various problems around the world can connect to each other and will find each other. And that is how we can really save the planet, in any kind of way that you can think of. The environment, alleviating poverty, education – for the first time ever we have the power to influence real change and how exciting is that?
“…for the first time ever we have the power to influence real change and how exciting is that?”
People with diverse backgrounds can now come together to solve problems, rather than it always being a certain section of the society that has power and the money.
You touched upon something there that I wanted to ask you about. You are fairly well-known for your activism, for example you set-up the British computer society’s network for women. Where did that all stem from? I don’t know if activism is the right word, but that kind of streak in you, have you always had that? Or is it something that has developed over time?
I can remember the time when I was 13 to 16 years old, I was just going to school, coming home, and sitting in my bedroom thinking about a lot of stuff. I didn’t go out, and I didn’t have a lot of people to chat to. I didn’t have many friends. I just used to sit and think about problems around the world and trying to work out how to solve them. I realised then how important other people were, because I didn’t really have access to people or to knowledge since this was before we had the Internet. I spent a lot of time in those three years reading stuff, thinking about it, thinking about the world’s problems, and wishing that I had someone to talk to about it.
I did not have anybody most of the time. I was a single parent living on a council estate in Brixton. Some people were nice to me, but a lot of other people were just plain horrible. Practically nobody is horrible to me now but in those days because I looked a certain way, and I had three small children, and I lived in a council estate, I would get treated like shit by lots of people and that is just so wrong. I am still connected into that, and I just can’t stand any kind of sexism, racism, ageism and all of that stuff. People who are living in bad circumstances aren’t any less worthy than anyone else. I really want to help people to empower themselves and create better lives for themselves and their families.
That’s brilliant. Do you think the world needs more activists?
Yes, absolutely. And now is that time when you can really do something with it, because you can connect with many people and work together to make things happen. “United we stand, divided we fall.” You find the right people and suddenly everything starts happening.
Exactly. Moving on to Bletchley Park , I think it was in 2008, you noticed the park was being neglected, and you wanted to do something about that. Why were you so passionate about Bletchley Park and what compelled you to step in and help?
I was doing my degree and then I started my PhD in Software Engineering. It was a reasonably male dominated area. We’d go to conferences, it was mainly guys and only a few women. In a nutshell, I could hardly meet any women. I started chatting to some women, and realised it would be quite nice to actually have a group of women to get together with just to get a female perspective on our lives within the same area. So I set up an online group in 1998 for women in computing in London. It ended up being really popular. It was called LondonBCSWomen and we even ended up in the Daily Mirror. Many women throughout the country wanted to join. It took me a while, but I set up a national group, which we then called BCSWomen.
I was Chair of the group, that now contained over 1000 women in computing. As Chair of the group, I went up to a British Computer Science meeting at Bletchley Park. I didn’t really know much about Bletchley Park apart from that the code breakers worked there [in WW2]. In my head, it was like 50 year old blokes wearing tweed jackets doing code breaking and doing The Times’ crossword.
I went to this meeting and I walked around the site because it was a 26 acre site and I wanted to see what else was at Bletchley Park. I walked around and saw this guy tinkering away with this amazing feat of engineering in one of the huts. I started chatting to the guys who were doing it, and asked what it was. They were rebuilding Turing’s Bombe machine used in World War 2.
There wasn’t a working model of them anywhere, because they were all destroyed after the war. Now, they were rebuilding them – this was in 2003. I just thought it was really cool, so I started chatting to them and asked what it was. John Harper, one of the guys said, “Why are you here?” I said, “I’m representing this group of women in computing BCS women.” He said, “Did you know that more than half of the people who worked here were women?” I didn’t know any women worked there. I asked how many worked there – “More than 10,000.” More than 10,000! So that meant more than 5,000 women worked there.
I was a big champion of women on computing, and I never heard of something like that before. If anyone was going to know about that it would be me, since that was one of my main areas of interest.
I went away thinking I need to raise the profile of the women who worked here. I tried to get funding for an oral history project to interview the women that worked there, so we could find out what they did. It took a while but eventually we got funding for that.
In 2008, it was the launch of the Bletchley Park “Women of Station X” project. The CEO of Bletchley Park at the time gave a talk at the launch. He said that they were “teetering on a financial knife edge”. He was worried that they might have to close if they didn’t get enough money. I was horrified by that and it was going around my head for weeks. Then I was invited to a reception at Bletchley and had a tour around the site for the first time. I had this moment of epiphany when I was standing looking at the blue tarpaulin over the end of Hut six. This guy, who I think worked there during the war, was telling us about all the major code-breaking achievements that happened there. He said that the work at Bletchley Park was said to have shortened the war by two years. And since 11 million people were dying per year, essentially their work there saved 22 million lives. I stood there with a tear in my eye.
It was ridiculous that this amazing place was going to close. It saved 22 million lives for goodness sake. I knew I needed to do something about it. In 2008, at the same time this was going on, I was head of a Computer Science department at the University of Westminster. I decided to email all the heads and professors of computing in the UK. I asked them to sign the petition on the 10 Downing Street website. I looked a few hours later to check if anyone had signed, and saw that famous professors from all over the country had signed it. I realised that it wasn’t just me who cared about this. The top professors in the UK did as well. I decided to write a letter to the Times to try to get more people on board. I also contacted a few journalists, and Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC was one of them. He got in touch and interviewed me at Bletchley Park. He got me on the Today program and onto BBC News on July 23, 2008. I got 200 emails that day, but then realised a week later, “Well, that’s it. It’s all finished now. What do I do next?”
Yeah, you have to sustain it don’t you?
Absolutely. It was a few months before I started using Twitter. I realised that it would be a massive help in the campaign because it helps you to connect to like-minded people and you can connect to people really quickly, and get stories out there. I started using Twitter and I started finding people from all over the place who were interested in helping out. I saw Stephen Fry was stuck in a lift, I knew he surely must be interested in Bletchley Park. I sent him several direct messages and luckily the next morning, he tweeted out my blog. Instead of the usual 50 hits a day, I got 8,000 that day.
Yeah, that made quite a big difference. And then I also did various things over the next few months, helping build up the community over twitter. I tried to find influential people in various ways such as in the government and big companies, to try to raise awareness and do various things. In the end Bletchley park was saved, and it is now thriving. If you look at savingbletchleypark.org, that’s the blog that I started in 2008. I recently noticed that it has had over 1 million hits!
What a great story. I’ll check that blog out as well – sounds fascinating! So you’ve saved Bletchley park, what drives you today or are you resting?!
Well, I’ve now written a book all about the campaign to save Bletchley Park called, not surprisingly, “Saving Bletchley Park” which is out Spring 2015.
What I’m doing now is teaching mums about technology skills and helping them realise the benefits technology can bring. The project is called #techmums, I want to empower one million women worldwide by getting them excited about technology. That’s my aim ☺
I know that it’s important. But why is that particular segment of society so important to you? Is it because of where you came from?
Yes it’s partly because of where I came from. I look back when I was 25-26, a single parent with three children. I would’ve loved this type of opportunity. What I wanted to do is show mums that there are opportunities out there, in particular show them that they are able to get in contact with the larger world. And importantly I want to give them skills so that they can work in the technology field. #techmums is all about getting mums excited in technology and their potential, and building their confidence. What we found from the research project looking at the mums, and as we work with them, is that their technology skills and attitude towards technology improved dramatically. However, the main difference is their self-esteem through the course; they flourish, and what’s more important than that? We are working with them on basic office skills, app design, web design and social media. We also do a bit of coding in Python. They just come in for 5 weeks for two hours per week and in that time they look and feel like different people at the end of the course.
“They just come in for 5 weeks for two hours per week and in that time they look and feel like different people at the end of the course.”
At the moment, we are mainly working in disadvantaged areas, to try and help mums realise what opportunities are out there. If you don’t understand what’s out there, you’re cut off from the world and all the opportunities that go with it.
The last question, do you always need a campaign in your life to motivate you?
Yeah, probably, I don’t know. What I do know is if I don’t make any positive changes in my lifetime, then I have wasted my life.
Yeah. What a great line – that’s nicely summed up the interview!
You only get one life, make the most of it, and positively affect as many people as possible. My dream is to empower millions of people around the world, to make life better for us all. That is really what I want to do. I feel like I’m only just getting started.
Brilliant Sue! Thank you for a really interesting, and inspiring chat!
No worries! It has been fun!