Red Hat, where inclusion values tech diversity in all its forms

We spoke to female leaders at Red Hat about their tech careers and how the software business encourages young girls into STEM roles. Next to open up is Director, Presales UKI, Joanna Hodgson.

Having worked at IBM for 25 years in a variety of sales and software development roles, Joanna Hodgson is now the Director of Presales UKI at Red Hat. There she puts her extensive experience in cloud computing, solution architecture and WebSphere, to very good use. 

Joanna, tell us a little about your career

Following my degree in computing science at the University of Glasgow, I qualified as a teacher and was looking for both teaching and industry jobs. I joined IBM to support developers in technical sales, where I had the opportunity to grow, and my role evolved over two-to-three years, allowing me to gain new experiences and skills.

Before moving into management, I had a variety of technical sales roles supporting operating systems, middleware and later specialising in security. Since then, I have led teams of services and technical sales professionals, in particular, architecture teams, of increasing size and complexity. 

After many years at IBM, I moved to Red Hat as director of Presales UKI to join a team of solution architects, helping our clients solve business problems with open-source software.

Why pursue a career in technology?

Pursuing a career in technology wasn’t a conscious decision in the beginning. However, as I had a computing science degree and a teaching qualification, I expected to spend some time in the industry, and then move into teaching, with real-world business experience to support me.

As it turns out, I never left. Large companies leverage their employees for new roles, so I was able to move up regularly, taking on new challenges, gaining more skills and experience, all while enjoying the journey. And I still do!

Was computer science an easy topic for a girl to study at university? 

Actually yes, it was. At school, if you were good at math or science, our teachers encouraged us to go after these subjects, regardless of gender. It was very straightforward. I felt the same at university that there were no barriers, and everyone could study computing science should they want to.

It wasn’t until I was at teacher training college, that I realised everyone’s experience wasn’t the same. The more common experience was that women, at a younger age, had been actively discouraged from studying STEM subjects.

So what has challenged you the most in your tech career?

As a woman in IT for over 25 years, I’ve often been the only woman in the room, within a team, or at industry events. As a one-off, this isn’t a problem, but if it’s the rule rather than the exception, it can be exhausting. 

I’m not suggesting that all women face the same challenges; however, working with other women encourages us to share our stories. It’s a form of support, and it helps you feel included – it’s great to hear from someone who has more likely been in your position with similar doubts and hopes – or at least you get the opportunity to ask if they have.

At workshops, in an attempt to encourage diversity, I often see women split up between teams so that each team has a woman. While this practice is well-meaning, it is another way of driving women to isolation – it is a burden always to be a minority of one. And women are not solely responsible for solving the diversity challenge. 

Have you had any mentors, supporters along the way?

I’ve had many role models along the way, mentors and managers who have inspired and challenged me. They gave me the confidence to do things that were outside my comfort zone, and yet provided the support I needed to thrive and fulfil my potential. It was critical to my career to have the right mentors for me, both men and women. 

What does inclusion mean to you?

Inclusion means being appreciated for what you can bring to a team. Inclusion values diversity, in all its forms, because that brings a broader set of perspectives and skills, and therefore the chance to come up with a better solution. 

How can business help encourage young girls into STEM?

There is a lot that businesses can do. They can help make career choices more visible, and highlight successes of women already in these positions. Work placements for GCSE students can be a good way of doing this -as is offering their teachers insight into the latest trends in the industry and career options. Businesses should also be supporting/sponsoring meetups for young people such as Young Coders London, a local CoderDojo or initiatives like STEM Ambassadors.

Today’s IT and tech companies are looking for multi-disciplined teams – not just the developers but the designers as well. Creative people who are passionate about the arts and sociologists who understand how people use technology, and can make it work more intuitively for the user are the type of candidates needed. This is why I prefer the term STEAM for the tech industry. We need people across a whole range of skills covering the entire brain spectrum to make the most significant impact on society and business.

How can men help attract and retain more women in tech? 

Mentor a woman. Mentoring is often a two-way experience, with the mentor learning from the mentee may be as much as the mentee from the mentor. The more mentors offering help to women, to climb the career ladder as well as men, the better. And having that sort of two-way relationship will help to develop a greater understanding for some of the different ways women experience the IT industry and break down some of the barriers in the process.

What are you doing to encourage more girls into STEM?

Through Red Hat, I have had the chance to support several initiatives that we hope to encourage more girls to get into STEM.

 Co.Lab is a Red Hat initiative introducing girls to open-source principles, technology and collaboration. It started in the US, but we recently ran our first international Co. Lab in London with girls from across the city. This was a really inspirational event, and we’re looking to expand that to many more schools in the UK over the coming months and years.

Another great initiative is the Open Schools Coding Competition (OSCC), encouraging teams of four children to design and develop an app, using a free visual programming environment for a charity of their choice. Participating schools get to select their best two or three projects for a grand finale. Many girls participate in this competition, including on the winning teams of the past two years.

Finally, shadowing/taking on work placement for GCSE students allows young people, including girls, to get an idea of what a future job could be. We see students, perhaps inspired by the OSCC, taking GCSE Computing for example, but with no sense of where it will lead them. Showing them the range of roles, and the sort of work we do helps to bring the possibilities into reality.

Join us at the Women in IT Summit June 30 – July 2 to hear more from Joanna.
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