5 women who have inspired and influenced my career in technology - Ada Lovelace day post

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 24 March 2010

Last year, for Ada Lovelace day, I wrote about Professor Karen Spärk Jones, who famously said that "computing is too important to be left to men".

I've been very lucky. The companies I have worked for have tended to have many, many more women involved than seems the average in the business of computing. This year, I thought I'd mention 4 of them who have been big influences on my career, and to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude, and one other woman who significantly shaped the fact that I work in technology today.

Jennifer Rigby hired me into the BBC as part of the small search & metadata team that existed at that time. She had the unenviable task of introducing a new unified search system to the BBC website, at a time when a lot of the Corporation neither understood it, or wanted it. Jennifer was the first person who encouraged me to go and watch usability testing sessions, and she also pushed me into doing presentations around the BBC that became the basis for some of the earliest articles on currybetdotnet.

Margaret Hanley was the first person I'd met doing a formal information architect role. She was working on a fearsomely detailed content audit of the BBC's local websites as part of a project to move them away from Dreamweaver and into using a 'content management culture'. It was the first time I'd seen the building blocks of content atomised in that way. I nearly joined her Information Architecture team when it was initially formed at the BBC, but I ended up taking the 'producer' route. We did work together though in my final role at the BBC, where she was my boss as Executive Producer of the 'core web' group. Or 'miscellaneous and other' as it might have been better classified. Margaret strongly encouraged me to improve my project management skills, and working closely with her was instrumental in my decision to switch from being a producer to start calling myself an information architect when I went freelance.

I've worked with Karen Loasby at both the BBC and at FUMSI. I've always admired the quiet thoroughness of her work, and been somewhat intimidated by her broad academic understanding of the information science behind IA. In her current role at the RNIB, she is undoubtedly the world's foremost expert in making accessible information architecture - not just an accessible end product, but in producing accessible information architecture project deliverables along the way. She has always placed a big emphasis on nurturing and mentoring junior IAs, and the way that she seems to be able to balance 'getting things done' with allowing staff time to learn new skills and develop is inspirational.

Julie Dodd is one of the most thought-provoking digital designers that I have worked with. I particularly recall one project we worked on to redesign the BBC Two website. At a time before /iplayer had become the dominant manifestation of BBC television online, the channel strategy for BBC Two involved having a significantly enhanced digital presence. Julie designed an immersive 'environment', and the prototype didn't so much call for page reloads, as page 'transitions', with users able to interact with video clips in a myriad of ways. It was well beyond the technical capabilities of the BBC's web platform to deliver it at that time, but the first time I saw a video of a magazine application running on the much-vaunted iPad, I immediately thought of Julie's BBC Two designs as having been perfect for the device, 5 years ahead of their time.

Finally, I'm sure my nan would have been astonished to hear herself described as a technology influencer, as she was an intensely private person, who I remember being ill at ease with something as new-fangled as the telephone. Nevertheless, she played a huge role in you reading this today. When, at some point in 198x, I announced my intention to save up to buy a ZX Spectrum, there was every chance that, like the giant train set, Subbuteo floodlights and telescope before it, my enthusiasm would falter before I'd amassed the necessary money. My nan obviously saw some educational value in it though, as she contributed, as I recall it, the vast majority of the money. It meant that within a couple of weeks of deciding I wanted one, I was unboxing my first computer. I'm absolutely certain that without that early exposure to home computer programming, I wouldn't be doing what I do today.

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.

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