5 Mar

Geek odyssey

Claire Mahoney speaks to Surrey resident Dr Sue Black OBE, about her incredible journey from struggling single-mum to becoming one of Europe’s most influential voices in computer science.

If any Year Six girls at Surbiton High School harboured any doubts about what they can achieve in life, they were surely cast aside when the one-woman whirlwind that is Dr Sue Black OBE paid them a recent visit.

Surbiton resident, Dr Black, was awarded the OBE in this year’s New Year’s Honours list for her services to technology. The award-winning computer scientist is regarded as one of the top 50 most influential women in technology in Europe. A senior research associate in the Department of Computer Science at University College London, she founded BCSWomen, the UK’s first online network for women working in technology and techmums, a social enterprise aimed at empowering families through the use of technology. If that wasn’t impressive enough, she was also responsible for starting the successful campaign to save the site of the WWII code breakers – Bletchley Park and has since written a book about it.

The Surbiton students will be paying a visit to Bletchley Park as part of their studies. So who better to help them understand the historical significance of the site than someone who found herself dumbstruck by the fact that the place where thousands worked tirelessly to decrypt German code was, a few years back, threatened with closure.

Black decided that something must be done. She soon discovered that campaigners had been working tirelessly for the last 20 years to prevent Bletchley from being bull-dozed. But this was 2009 and now there was a new tool in the campaigner’s arsenal – Twitter. Dr Black set about putting it to good use.

“One of the great bonuses for me working as part of the Bletchley Park campaign was meeting quite a few of the code breakers. They were really incredible people and it was an absolute honour to get to know them.”

The first person she contacted was fellow Twitter enthusiast Sir Stephen Fry, who at the time had just posted a picture of himself stuck in a lift on the social media site. Dr Black seized her moment and posted: “Does Stephen Fry care about Bletchley Park? Turns out that he did – passionately. He retweeted the link to her campaign to his 220,000 followers and the campaign took off from there. By 2011 the site was saved.

It’s a fascinating story and one that Sue tells with characteristic humour in her book Saving Bletchley Park, which is available on Amazon from March, not only tells the story of how the site was saved, but also about the extraodinary people that essentially helped Britain win the war.

“One of the great bonuses for me working as part of the Bletchley Park campaign was meeting quite a few of the codebreakers. They were really incredible people and it was an absolute honour to get to know them and find out what they did. In fact, the first person to get in touch with me was Captain Jerry Roberts who sadly died a couple of years ago. But he become a family friend.” Captain Roberts was the last survivor of the nine cryptologists who worked on the German High Command’s Tunny Code. He worked alongside Alan Turing who broke the German Naval Enigma code.

Turing, a Guildford man, is widely regarded as the founder of modern computer science. After the war he worked in Hampton at the National Physical Library where he designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). Through the Bletchley campaign, Black got to know his nephew, Sir John Dermot Turing and recently attended a speech with him at Google HQ where they spoke about their respective Turing-related books.

All this is of course a world away from Black’s humble beginnings. Today, she is one of the UK’s leading academics. But in fact she came to education late in life and didn’t do her Maths A level until her early 20s. By that time she had already been married and had three children. But then she had to grow up fast. Her mother tragically died of a brain hemmorhage when she was 12 and with that family life as she knew it ended.

Her father re-married and unfortunately emotional and physical abuse with in the family became common. By 17 she had left home and moved to London on her own. Her marriage was also short-lived. Her husband didn’t like her studying and became violent. So she bravely left and went to a women’s refuge. But she never let these set-backs come between her and her education.

“There is something inside of me that makes me want to make the most of my life. You often find that high achieving people have lost a parent at a young age or something like that. It does bring home to you at a very young age that we are not immortal.”

As her new life began in Brixton she threw herself into study in the hours she had left over from bringing up her children. She completed her Maths A Level and then applied to London South Bank University where she completed a degree in Computer Science. Once she gained her BSc she offered a place to study a PhD which she was awarded at aged 39. The university then offered her a job as a full-time lecturer and she was able to earn a decent salary for the first time in her life at 40. To celebrate she threw all the families’ old clothes away and went out and bought everyone new outfits.

Technology and education clearly provided her with a route our of poverty. “The great thing about technology is that it gives you options,” she says. She has therefore made sure that throughout her career she has given something back. She set up techmums – which offers free online support and also workshops for mums who want to learn more about technology so that it can help them in their careers and so they can support their children’s learning online. (visit: techmums.co.) She knows first hand how support like this can transform lives.

While studying computer science, she also found herself feeling quite isolated as a woman in a very male dominated environment. She therefore set about creating an all-women branch of the British Computer Society called BCSWomen.

“I like solving problems. I see an issue and I try and do something about it. BCSWomen came about because as a female PhD student I was quite shy going to conferences and had some really difficult experiences trying to network in such a male-dominated environment. Then I went to a Women in Science conference in Brussels, where it was all women and I just felt completely relaxed and felt I could go up to anyone and have a conversation. That’s why I set up the online network – Women in Computing – so that women could get in touch with other women working in the same field.”

These days she divides her time between her job enjoying life in Surrey. She has now lived in Surbiton for 11 years. “I adore Surbiton – I really love it here. For me its got everything. I think I got too old to live in Brixton,” she laughs.

She discovered the village through visits to her daughter who was at Kingston College and then went onto Kingston University and now she can’t imagine being anywhere else. “I used to come over and visit her from Brixton in the summer and walk along the Thames and have a picnic by the river and go to Hampton Court and I just thought
I need to live here.”

Her book: Saving Bletchley Park: How #social media saved the home of the WW11 code-breakers is available on Amazon from this month.

You can also follow Dr Black on twitter:  @Dr_Black

To find out about techmums visit: techmums.co