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Stop being ‘apologetic’ for differing skillsets, says Most Influential Woman in UK Tech 2021

There are many routes into technology, and many different skillsets that contribute to making great tech work, so people need to be ‘less apologetic’ for a less technical skillset, says Poppy Gustafsson, this year’s Most Influential Woman in UK Tech

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A mix of skillsets is important within a technology business to achieve its goals, so people should be “less apologetic” when that skillset is of a less technical nature, says Poppy Gustafsson, CEO of artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber security firm Darktrace.

“We’re using AI for cyber security, so there is a whole bunch of really complicated mathematics that underpins all of that,” she explains. “But when you’re trying to talk to a customer about how that can benefit their organisation, you’re not going to be saying, ‘If you integrate this end of Bayesian recursive inference...’, you’re going to be saying, ‘Let me show you how this works, let me show you what it’s doing for your business’, and you need a different skillset to be able to do that.”

Gustafsson adds: “People need to be less apologetic about it and see it as a sign of strength. There are other people that can do that and that’s great and it’s really important useful talent, but that doesn’t preclude you from being part of a technical role. Just because you don’t understand the ones and zeros doesn’t stop you thinking about how you can use that technology to solve different problems.”

This is the 10th year that Computer Weekly has run its list of the most influential women in UK technology, and although there have been a lot of changes to the amount of diversity in the tech sector, in many ways things are still slow to change.

Gustafsson was initially a mathematics graduate, and remembers that it hadn’t been “apparent” to her that there were few women in the field until reaching university and seeing only a small number of other women at lectures.

But it was at university when she began to realise that complicated subjects such as mathematics can be accessible to everyone if the concepts behind them are articulated in a more creative way, after a professor used a visual representation to explain the Pythagorean Theorem.

“Just because you don’t understand the ones and zeros doesn’t stop you thinking about how you can use that technology to solve different problems”

Poppy Gustafsson, Darktrace

She says: “Kids today always say ‘I don’t understand mathematics’ and ‘algebra is hard’, but they do understand maths because maths is rational, logical thinking, it’s just that you’re not equipped with the language to interpret the way that it’s written down.

“Seeing that possibility that you can convey and articulate these complicated principles but using a different language, I thought it was really interesting, and I think we sort of do a little bit of that today in terms of what we do at Darktrace.”

After working as an accountant, and then as part of a venture capital fund, Gustafsson joined Darktrace as CFO in 2013, and is now CEO.

The firm uses AI technology to help businesses defend against cyber attacks, and according to Gustafsson, the business is 30-40% women.

But this gender split was not something the company originally aimed for – it just hired the best and the brightest for the job, making it clear what it wanted to achieve.

Gustafsson says people have, in the past, thought that to be part of something like Darktrace, you have to be “really awesome at computer science, and maths, and science” – but that’s only one part of what achieves a company’s goals, even a tech company.

She says innovation is creatively applying the skillset you do have to solve a problem. “Maybe they don’t understand the language of the ones and zeros written to create the code, but they absolutely understand the problem and they absolutely can think of a creative approach to that problem,” she says. “Then, paired with those mathematicians, they can write down the answer in that mathematical language.

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“That’s what we do as a business. We’ve got a whole bunch of people within the dev team with a whole different wide range of backgrounds.”

Often, women are more drawn to jobs they feel will enable them to have a positive impact on the world around them, so understanding how a particular role, company or technology works in the real world could be important for encouraging more women to pursue technology careers.

Gustafsson points out how relevant cyber security and AI are to current real-world events, using a recent cyber attack in the US that left many unable to access fuel as an example, and she argues that people need to be helped to understand how different skills can contribute towards solving these problems.

She explains: “It can’t just be ‘You’re a girl, and despite having studied the wrong skillset, we’ll give you a shot anyway’, it’s them realising that their skills and the knowledge that they’ve gleaned from whatever it is that they’ve studied is very relevant to solving problems that have previously not been solved.”

Soft skills are extremely important for tech industry roles, but many other deterrents still remain for groups under-represented in tech, such as misconceptions about what technology roles involve and the skills required to work in the sector.

There are many reasons why women end up not joining tech firms, and Gustafsson points to recruitment methods as one of them, saying that businesses and employees should start to “challenge their preconceptions about what it is to deliver a technical role”.

She adds: “If you’re not weighed down by sort of preconceptions about the way these problems have been solved in the past, you’re much more likely to be so open-minded about new and creative ways of solving that problem.”

“We just wanted bright, capable people to be able to come into the organisation, which is why we were naturally able to get a really good gender mix”
Poppy Gustafsson, Darktrace

Using Darktrace as an example, Gustafsson says businesses are already using cyber security – it’s not a new concept – but the way Darktrace has approached cyber is new, making creative approaches to problem-solving extremely important and, in a way, extensive industry knowledge was almost “irrelevant”.

She says: “We just wanted bright, capable people to be able to come into the organisation, which is why we as a business were naturally able to get the really good gender mix we’ve been talking about.”

As far as applying AI to cyber security, these are two technologies that Gustafsson feels go together naturally, because “you’re dealing with a whole tonne of data, and you need to be able to make decisions at the same speed as a threat, and the threat is happening at machine speed”.

It is also a type of technology that applies to everyone, and so requires the input of lots of different types of people.

She adds: “Cyber security is such a relevant problem for everyone and it is completely indiscriminate, and it’s not something that’s a particular challenge for particular verticals, it’s every type of organisation. So you get real joy out of being able to meet a whole bunch of different people from a whole bunch of different backgrounds doing a whole bunch of different things, but they will be brought together with this common idea about how we’re going to solve what is a bit of an increasingly complicated threat.”

Gustafsson summarises by saying there has been some progress when it comes to increased diversity in the technology sector – Darktrace has achieved gender diversity just by hiring “the best people”, she says – and that by challenging the misconceptions of what a technology role involves and the type of people that do them, the future may look brighter.

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