Celebrating Women in Tech: Helen Atkin-Sloan
Celebrating Women in Tech is our series exploring the achievements of women who are breaking gender stereotypes to build technology-based careers. Helen, from PA Consulting, reflects on her journey towards becoming a technical product manager, her passion for people and what could be done to get more women into technology.
What has drawn you to a career in technology?
I graduated with a master’s in mathematics from the University of Liverpool. With maths being a very broad subject, I had the flexibility to explore many sectors, but with that came a struggle to decide what industry to go into.
I found myself starting out in teaching and grew to owning my own tutoring company for a few years but quickly realised that, although I loved running my own business, forming strong relationships with my clients and marketing myself and my brand, teaching wasn’t my passion.
Due to the numerous links between mathematics and technology, I landed my first tech job: it was a very technical role where I was staring at binary all day. I was coding too. Without realising, I had become a ‘woman in tech’ and I loved it. Nevertheless, I was deeply missing the people side – I am a very people orientated person and I was growing tired of only interacting with my laptop. I therefore decided to embark on a two-year project management scheme, where I had the opportunity to deliver different technical projects. My role had completely changed but I was (and still am) a woman in tech who proudly supports different organisations to implement challenging and ingenious technical solutions.
What do you do now and why do you like it?
After different project management roles, I was introduced to the Agile methodology, and within it I found my place. For those not familiar with it, Agile focusses on short cycles of iterative and incremental delivery, failing fast, getting feedback and delivering value to customers early. I absolutely love its focus on fast delivery and built-in quality, achieved through collaboration and interaction with customers. I became more and more interested in Lean concepts, and coming from a background in government, this is a particular challenge. With lengthy financial delegations, security and approvals boards, I became fascinated by how I could apply Agile under these constraints and help deliver value in defence.
I am now a technical product manager, completing an assignment in the defence industry. What I love most about my job is that I get to see many different pockets of the organisation and support my clients in overcoming problems. It’s daunting at times: the product I manage is very complex, and I sometimes feel like I lack that very technical expertise some engineers have. I rectify that by asking lots of questions and reminding myself that I can always rely on the technical leads for the nitty-gritty details.
The skills that I have, which appear to be a particularly good fit for product management, are strong facilitation and interpersonal skills, and the ability to quickly learn how to form a good understanding of the product and, most importantly, end user needs.
What do you think can be done to close the gender gap in technology?
From my background, it all starts with promoting STEM subjects to younger women and having role models at those pivotal moments, such as picking your A-levels or your GCSEs – that can change your entire direction in life.
We need to make sure more women are recognised as role models in technology, to inspire the next generation entering and growing in the tech industry.
Changing the corporate culture is also fundamental. When women (and men), feel they are a minority in a room, they tend to be less vocal and contribute less. I’ve experienced it myself being in a university class with nine women and 200 men. Any business should ensure everyone has the tools and confidence to have a say and ask questions, even if they are under-represented in the room.
At PA, there’s an increasingly strong focus on ensuring women are supported in their technical career through training, events and campaigns.
The Women in Tech team, amongst others, are making continuous effort to reduce the gender gap. Find out more.