Episode 129 – Go for Promotion and Learn to Network Effectively with Dr. Sue Black

 In Podcasts

Phil’s guest on today’s show is Dr. Sue Black. She has worked in the IT field for nearly 25 years, primarily in education-related roles. However, she has also been heavily involved in other projects and roles.

For example, she is a UK Government advisor, a technology columnist for The Guardian, the founder of techmums. Up until 2011 she ran the campaign to save Bletchley Park.

Sue is currently a Professor of Computer and Technology Evangelist for Durham University. In 2016, she was awarded an OBE for services to technology and, in 2017, won the Social Impact Abie Award. She is also a well-known tech conference speaker.


(1.03) – So Sue, can I ask you to expand on that brief intro and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Sue explains that she left school at 16 but did not go back into education until she was 26, when she took a maths course.

From there, she became a full-time student. She left university with a PhD in software engineering. From there she became a full-time lecturer at senior, then principle, level.

Fairly quickly, she became the head of department at the University of Westminster. In November 2018, she became the Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University, her dream job. Sue, mentions that she has” done a few things outside of that”, which is actually a bit of an understatement. She is and has been heavily involved with a wide range of tech projects and initiatives.

(2.07) – What particularly excited you about working in the field of education?

The fact that education changed Sue’s life so much has been a big inspiration for Sue. When she took her maths course she was a 26-year-old single mum. She had realized that if she went back to work she could not even earn enough to pay for childcare. This realization led her to go back into education.

Plus, she has always had a curious mind and loved learning. She loves learning and really enjoys helping people to understand the world of technology. Sue finds it to be a wonderful thing.

(3.28) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience, something that perhaps they should know?

Twenty-one years ago Sue set up a network for women in technology. Chairing that group taught Sue the true value of connecting with other people. She knew it was important, but, over the years has seen just how effective it is.

When you talk to people you like and who you share similar or connected interests with, a whole new world opens up. Of course, you talk to each other about what you are doing, discuss ideas and get feedback. But, something else also happens. Your work starts to become known. If you are networking with people within your company as well as outside the understanding of what you do and your true value increases.

Getting a promotion becomes a lot easier. Plus, importantly, networking helps you to make good friends.

(4.53) – Please, tell us about your worst career moment and what you learned from that experience. When Sue was doing her PhD, she hadn’t backed up things properly and ended up losing 3 months worth of work.

Naturally, she was devastated. She was also too embarrassed to tell anyone. It took her close on a month to come to terms with what she had done and a further 2 months to catch up. The whole experience shook her and it was several more months before she was able to get properly up to speed.

That was a harsh way to learn the importance of backing things up. Now that everything is in the cloud Sue says that you do not have to worry so much. You just have to remember to set up anything stand up like Word to save every 30 seconds or so.

(6.39) – Phil asks Sue to share her greatest career moment. Winning the Social Impact Abie Award from the technical women’s community at Grace Hopper Celebration was Sue’s greatest moment.

As a computer pioneer Grace Hopper is definitely someone to look up to, so it was a great honor to be chosen. Giving a speech to 17,000, mainly female, computer science graduates from across the world was an amazing experience. It gave Sue the chance to share a bit of her story, the struggles as well as the success. The sheer scale of the event and the fact that most of the attendees were women who were involved in tech was just amazing.

(8.44) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? Sue really enjoys the way tech is becoming involved in absolutely everything we do. As a result, technology skills are going to become increasingly valuable. It frustrates her that more people do not consider an IT career.

Technology careers are not just about sitting there coding all day. There are so many other roles to fill. There is a place for everyone within the technology sector.

So, everyone should be doing their best to learn as many tech skills as possible. There is already a skills shortage. This means that there are jobs available for anyone who is even a little bit tech savvy.

Sue is also excited about the way in which tech connects everyone together. When she was working on the Bletchley Park project it was Twitter and social media that sparked the necessary interest to keep things on track and complete the project. Twitter enabled Sue to instantly find everyone who was interested in Bletchley Park and engage with them. Twitter is an incredible way to find like-minded people.

(11.24) – What first attracted you to a career in IT? Sue says for her it was probably money. When she was deciding on which degree to take she had the choice of math or computer science. At the time, her priority was earning enough to support her and her three kids. So, taking computer science was the most sensible option.

(11.54) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Sue said that was – “Go for promotion”. Apply any time you get a chance, after all what is the worst thing that can happen when you do so?

(12.24) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Sue says that she has always regretted not becoming a stack developer. A role she could not consider doing now, because she feels that she no longer has the energy for it. But, if she were starting over again, as a younger person, that is what she would want to do.

(12.44) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Sue wants to change the world with technology. Right now, her focus is helping people who have come from a disadvantaged background, as she did. That is why she has set up her social enterprise, techmums. Sue wants to empower people through technology.

She is also interested in becoming a University Vice Chancellor. Fulfilling that personal ambition is something she is also working towards.

(13.31) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Sue says being able to chat with people and make friends has really helped her throughout her career. When she was doing her PhD her supervisor told her she had to network. At the time, that was the last thing Sue wanted to do. In fact, she was scared of doing it. But, she pushed herself to follow that advice.

Now, she believes that is the thing that has made the biggest positive difference to her career. Talking to people, finding out what they do helps you to find common interests so that you can connect and collaborate.

Networking has negative connotations, but, when done properly it should not have those. If you are genuinely interested in others and happy to share what you are doing getting to know people can only be a positive thing.

(14.41) Phil says you make a good point about networking. Really, we need to find a different word for it to get away from the negativity surrounding it. Sue agrees. For her networking is primarily about friendship. She remembers sitting alone at conferences not knowing a soul. It took a lot for her to say Hi and talk to others about what they were up to. But, when she did good things happened. Some of those people have been her friends for two decades now.

(15.25) – Phil asks Sue to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Sue’s advice is to do a job that you love. But, bear in mind that it can take a while to get to the point where you enjoy every aspect of your job. It has taken Sue many years to gradually work her way into her dream job. But, with perseverance it can be done.


(3.17) SUE– “Seeing that kind of light bulb moment when someone actually gets something that you’re talking about is just a wonderful thing.”

(9.12) SUE– “Technology skills are just going to become more and more valuable”

(9.44) SUE– “Everyone should be doing their best to learn as many tech skills as possible”

(10.29) SUE– “For finding likeminded people Twitter is just incredible”

(13.57) SUE– “Over my 25-year career, the thing that’s made the biggest difference is just going and chatting to people.”

(15.25) SUE – “If you work doing something that you really enjoy doing, you’re going to do well.”


Twitter: https://twitter.com/Dr_Black @Dr_Black

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sueblack/

Website: https://sueblack.co.uk


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