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What’s TechUK’s most inspiring data science story - Harry Potter, Mission Impossible or Susan Bowen?

Nick Booth gets inspired talking about programming, coding and the next generation with Susan Bowen, VP and general manager at Cogeco Peer 1

This will sound awful, but don’t you ever get bored with all these worthy but dull IT diversity initiatives? Don’t get me wrong, I’m desperate for the IT channel to be revitalised by an injection of new talent.  But shouldn’t we concentrate more on inspiration and less on slogans?

As they say in the movie business, don’t tell the audience, show them.

Take Susan Bowen, VP and general manager at Cogeco Peer 1. Bowen is working to solve our skills crisis by chairing TechUK’s Women in Tech Council and directing The Tech Talent Charter. But to me, the best of her story is making a fortune and globe trotting on a sort of IT mission impossible in the face of the millennium meltdown. That’s the bit they should make a film about!

As a failed IT person myself, I’m in awe of people who are good at it and envious of Bowen’s adventures in the Millennium crisis. To be a young programmer, traveling the world troubleshooting the impending Y2K apocalypse (as the media described it then) must have been fantastic. What a time to be alive. This should be held up as an example to today’s would be techies.

In the coming years, according to Bowen, data scientists will find themselves being similarly feted for saving us from disease, fame, pestilence and whatever the other Horseman of the apocalypse is called. Surely this is the story we should be telling young people if we want them to take up careers in IT.

Here Bowen describes how the excitement built in her career. It started quite quietly.


Why train as a Vax programmer? Wasn’t that an outdated skill when you were getting into IT?

 As an intern at Digital Equipment in 1994, coding and supporting VAX/VMS was my job for 14 months. Some of the team are still working on these systems today. My first coding language was Ada and I was C / C++ when I left university. I joined EDS working on the Met Police CRIS project.


What it was like to travel the world, fixing the Millennium Bug?

I was in my early 20s and my second project at EDS was to work on AMEX bank changing code fore one of their trading systems. It was an amazing experience traveling between London, New York (Amex Tower and the World Trade Centres) and Singapore. A lot of hard learnings too.

It was remarkable, there were such different cultures and environments that were all reacting to this Millennium threat. There were so many companies and vendors that were approaching this in both similar and distinct ways.

Some say this could be compared to Brexit, with such a clear division of opinions.


You must have had to pinch yourself sometimes surely?

It was very exciting and I’m very fortunate to experience it when I did.

I worked hard to get the opportunity to go and there were many challenges and learnings. I was keen and eager to grab all opportunities and I worked with some talented individuals and managers who supported me well and enabled me to become the person I am today.

The traveling was such a unique experience, that I sometimes take for granted, admittedly!


Were you nervous about the magnitude of the task? Reports in the media predicted that planes would fall from the sky, world trade would end and hospital life support machines fail.

There is always a sensationalised reporting of the technology world, but it shows how Digital is impacting our society and how integral it is to how we live.

I honestly don’t recall it being all that dramatic. As a team we did feel a lot of pressure to get it right. Making technology changes on trading floors was as pressured then as it is today - although these days the traders are coders themselves. We mostly worked nights and watched the clock to try and be finished by 6:30am.


What places did you get to visit? Did you get time to enjoy each country?

New York and Singapore. As a team we made the most of the opportunity, but it was no different to business travel today, you have to make a conscious effort to see the places. I recall going to Vienna once and I think the most I saw was the view from a hotel. Something that I try to do a better job of now is to look up and around me when travelling so that I don’t miss out on any of the opportunities and experiences of different cultures. You never know if you will have the chance to visit these destinations again!


You say data science will be in short supply. What advice would you give young people thinking about this trade?

Expertise in data science will be the next rarified skill. Data Scientists are probably the most valuable resource in our industry today.

The digital skills gap is ever growing and we need to do more to showcase the opportunity and impact on society these skills can have. By emphasising the need for these skills and the ways in which they are crucial to future industries we can boost the pick-up rate of people entering into these fields.


Programming or coding never sounded like much fun, so what attracted you to it?

I grew excited by the prospect of what technology could enable – coding was one of the many ways for me to get here. My dad used to buy me the BBC magazine and I would spend hours typing in the code on the BBC Basic. Also, games like Frogger, Munchman and Donkey Kong which I still have.


What’s the most exciting thing about data science?

It enables innovation and changes the future. One of the most exciting things is seeing where the next generation of data scientists will take the future of the industry. Having seen how far technology has enabled data science to develop over the last decade, I am so excited to see how far the industry is going to progress with new talent and skills coming through the pipeline.


How do we explain Blockchain to kids?

‘Blockchain is significant because of the way it can produce an audit-able trail of data and enable fast and secure sorting of the data. For Kids today I would refer to it as the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter.

It knows everything about you. Not only that, in can reproduce a complete record of you in perfect order. The only difference being that each entity tries on - and passes on - the sorting hat in a millionth of a second.

By 2025 10% of global GDP would be stored on Blockchain technology.’

I still think Bowen’s Mission Impossible is a better film than Harry Potter

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