What were your earliest interests?
I’ve always been interested in computers although I had a wide range of hobbies. Some of my first childhood memories are my dad – an engineer – bringing home a very early Apple 2. It was very much a component-based architecture where you were plugging things together to make them work and software was so immature. It’s amazing how far technology has come since then.
All the way through school, I thought I wasn’t very good at maths. Looking back, I fell into that traditional trap of believing “girls just weren’t good at maths”. However, I knew girls could be good at science, as my mom is a scientist. One of my early experiences with “real-world” science while at school was volunteering at a sleep laboratory studying narcolepsy. The scientists, many of whom were women, fascinated me with their ability to understand the brain activity of the sleeping subjects in their quest to better understand this neurological condition.
Which study route did you take?
I was educated in the US and came out of secondary level school still lacking confidence in maths, but determined to continue studying it. I attended the University of Pittsburgh and initially majored in the classical languages of Latin and Greek. Fortunately, we were required to take a wide variety of classes though in our first years, and I kept going with maths. I soon learned there was more to maths than just arithmetic and rote learning, such as real analysis, logic, and the philosophy of mathematics – and I was good at it! After a year or so, I decided to change to study maths and philosophy.
When I finished my first degree, I had planned to go to New York University for post-graduate study in Maths. However, my advisor at Pitt suggested applying for the Marshall Scholarship, which invites Americans to study at post-graduate level at any university in the UK. The University of Bristol offered a Masters degree in Mathematical Logic and the Theory of Computation which I was particularly interested in – but I had never travelled abroad and didn’t think for a minute that I would be awarded such a competitive scholarship. To my surprise, I was awarded the scholarship, which changed my life forever because I came to Bristol. After the Masters degree, I stayed on to do a PhD in Computer Science at Bristol, researching techniques to automatically optimise programs. Rather ambitiously, we were trying to teach computers how to code.
Which steps led you to start OnCorps, the business you have today?
I think it would be fair to say it has been a 20 year journey with many twists and turns, but every experience has built on each other.
After my PhD I worked briefly on “safety-critical systems”, such as air traffic control, train control, and even process control software in factories. I became very familiar with best practices in testing, software development standards, and the analysis of software. Little did I know, but this experience was really helpful later on when I was working on business critical systems.
During this work, I started specialising in the design of dependable networks. This led to me joining a startup in Bristol working on how to guarantee quality of service for different types of traffic in a network. Again, with hindsight, the research I did then in queuing theory ended up being really helpful when I was responsible for delivering batch operations for a financial services company a few years later.
Next, I returned to the US to join Accenture in their enterprise architecture practice, based in San Francisco but travelling all over the US. Working with Fortune 500 clients, my role was focused on how to optimise systems architecture and I specialised in rationalising system architectures post-M&A and replacing legacy systems. In this role, I learned: it’s not all about technology. When you are designing architectures, you must consider people, processes and technology. I also learned a great deal about enterprise systems and the challenges large companies face when transforming their systems.
My work in Accenture led me to join TransUnion, a global consumer credit reporting agency similar to Experian and Equifax, to lead the transformation of their US batch operations division. During my time at TransUnion in Chicago, we replaced 3 out of 4 of the core legacy systems and transformed the delivery of batch credit information to lenders. From this experience, I learned first hand how to work with huge databases and how enable predictive models to be built from this data.
So, my varied career up to here was a mix of enterprise architecture in corporate systems, engineering safety-critical systems and networks, and data mining with very large and complex databases. All of this has directly contributed to OnCorps. Bob Suh, CEO and co-founder, was formerly the Chief Technology Strategist of Accenture. We originally created OnCorps to streamline data gathering for consulting firms, so they could run a diagnostic or benchmarking study and get results from it real-time. However, OnCorps has evolved based on our clients’ needs to be a platform for creating intelligent “digital nudges”. The system is configured to deliver timely recommendations to employees or other decision makers on the next best action and these actions are driven based on analytics. Our clients call us “Fitbit for business”. We also build in behavioural science approaches to overcome known decision making biases. OnCorps is a way that companies can experiment with approaches in their company to achieve the benefits of marginal gains. At scale, improving a decision by a marginal amount can result in major gains.
How would you encourage other women to consider innovation or technical roles?
My advice to women would be not to overlook this sector because there is great flexibility and creativity in a tech career. With a background in tech, there are so many directions you can take your career, and not all of them are writing code. It’s easier than ever to start a tech company or work remotely if this is the flexibility you are looking for. And even though it is called “computer science”, it’s as much art as science.
My advice to girls would be to persevere in maths at school. Being comfortable with data and maths at a basic level is a requirement for life in modern Britain, even if you don’t move into a “technical role”. Decisions in all sectors will continue to be more analytically-driven, and being able to understand and analyse data will give you an advantage. And seek out your own opportunities to experience real-world science and tech. Don’t just consume technology, create it.
What changes would you suggest businesses could make to encourage diversity?
Networking and mentoring are an important element for businesses to facilitate. Ideally, you need a female mentor who is a few steps ahead of you acting as a role model. Formalising the networking opportunities would help women support each other and stay closely aligned as a community, even if only once a quarter.
Walking into meetings can be daunting when you’re faced with a room full of men as the only woman – there’s an element of helping to soften the blow of how that will feel and reminding the woman that she has every right to be there!
Written by Debra Penrice. See more of her work at 27 Marketing