Podcast: The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload – Episode 50

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Clare McDonald, Caroline Donnelly, and Brian McKenna are joined by CW production editor Claire Cormack to discuss the Everywoman in Tech Forum, the vulnerability to hacking of smart cameras and baby monitors, and the utility of the traditional annual performance review

Just ahead of International Woman’s Day, on Sunday 8 March, Clare McDonald, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna were joined by CW production editor Claire Cormack to discuss the Everywoman in Tech Forum. Also discussed were the security of domestic smart cameras and baby monitors, and the fading value of the traditional annual performance review.

Claire first gives an insight into the work of the five-person production team at Computer Weekly, which produces 120 ezines every year, as well as sub-editing the tide of web stories the rest of the editorial team either writes or commissions.

Claire and Clare McDonald attended the Everywoman in Tech Forum and its awards event on Wednesday 4 March, and they got the podcast episode underway with their accounts of what was plainly an inspiring and uplifting day. The winners of the awards were announced in the evening, with Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, president and chief executive of NMiTE, being named Woman of the Year.

It was the sixth annual Tech Forum for Everywoman, which was set up by Karen Gill and Maxine Benson in 1999 to advance the cause of women in business.

Clare tells how her day at the event got going with her facilitating a fireside chat with the global CIO of Adidas, Fumbi Chimba, who spoke on a personal level about bringing one’s whole self to work.

Claire, who was in the audience, says that’s how the workplace should be, that there’s always a need for empathy, and that you never know what’s going on in people’s lives.

Clare and Claire went on different tracks at the event. Clare went for “turbo-charging your tech career”, for aspiring leaders; Claire went for “fostering a diverse tech team”, for leaders and middle managers.

Claire’s track was mainly about building diverse teams to make artificial intelligence programs that avoid appalling practices akin to the modelling of car crashes using man-shaped dummies – which has caused more women to die or be seriously injured in car accidents than would otherwise be the case.

The team, at Caroline’s prompting, then discuss how conference sessions like these – interactive, ideas-rich, inspirational – can be translated into office reality once back at base. Claire and Clare say breaking old habits is really hard, and that managers also have to take their teams with them.

Clare’s track featured a talk by Shrouk El-Attar, an electronic design engineer, who has been living, since 2007, in the UK as a refugee from Egypt. Shrouk is an LGBT rights activist and belly dances – dancing Queer – to raise funds for LGBT people in Egypt.

From that uplifting story, the team moves to an internet of things (IoT) tale that reminds us of the dark side of digital connectedness.

Caroline relates how the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has issued a fresh warning about smart cameras and baby monitors, and how they are vulnerable to remote intrusion by hackers – NCSC issues smart camera security guidance to protect consumers from unauthorised snoops.

While the centre has assured consumers that the risk of someone remotely gaining access to their smart devices is low, it still urges people to change the default password that devices come equipped with, ensure smart products are regularly subjected to security software updates and, if not being used, ensure any features that enable remote access to devices are disabled.

Although the security bods say the risk is now, there have, recounts Caroline, been incidents – many in America – where snoopers have got through, threatening parents and spooking their children.

Lightening the darkness somewhat, Caroline has an amusing tale about the smart camera used to keep an eye on her guinea pigs – who feature as entertaining characters in her Twitter stream.

The NCSC guidance is part of a UK government push to make the UK the safest place to be online. It does raise the question, which the team ponders, of why these IoT security vulnerabilities have not been dealt with, since they have been known about for years. Moreover, children are, these days, used to talking to digital assistants like Alexa. So, device makers – sort it out! Stop putting the onus on users, it’s not fair.

In keeping with the women in tech theme, from the start of the episode, Brian talked about a case study based on an interview with Bahar Rasouli – a female business leader who is director of global people performance at Volvo Motors Group. This is a global company, based in Gothenburg, that employs 100,000 people, with a 50/50 blue collar/white collar balance.

Volvo Group has broken with its traditional annual performance review process to stoke entrepreneurialism, says Bahar. The company is using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) performance management system from Cornerstone, which also provides their learning platform.

Bahar says its previous way of working did not fit well with its blue-collar workers. The company wanted to treat both kinds of employee equally, and have them all working within the same philosophy of setting short-term goals that are reviewed continually, linked to other people’s goals, and connected all the way up to the company’s top-line strategy.

As well as the global nature of the workforce, she highlighted, says Brian, the inter-generational nature of it. She told CW: “Young people want immediate dialogue about performance. They cannot wait for three months for a quarterly conversation, or twice a year for a half-year review.

“Yearly goals are sleeping pills in big companies. You think you’ve got time till 31 December, you wait, time goes by. But, as an entrepreneur, you have short-term goals, you break your bigger goals down into two- to three-month goals.”

Every culture is different, she says, and gives the example of the UK, “where you typically get sugar coating of feedback, very diplomatic and too indirect. It is okay when one British person is talking to another, but someone from another culture can emerge from a meeting wondering what exactly happened. So, we train people to ask more questions to get more clarity”.

Brian then widened the discussion to ask what the team and their guest make of the annual review process. TechTarget itself has recently moved to a SaaS performance management product from Clear Company.

This shift to a more formally collaborative, short-term goals setting, and continuously reflective way of working does take a bit of getting used to, all agreed. But in any case, continuous feedback has surely been best practice anyway, says Claire.

This leads on to some discussion about the minefield of language use in companies.

The team and their guest close out the podcast by noting that their plans for the following week have been largely – but so far not completely – scuppered by the march of the Covid-19 coronavirus through the landscape of IT conferences.

Brian notes that Cliff Saran, Computer Weekly’s managing editor, technology, has been prolific on the topic – see Coronavirus readiness: Three technology-led steps the NHS is taking and Tech readiness for coronavirus.

Also, as a postscript to the podcast, Computer Weekly’s Singapore-based executive editor Aaron Tan has written about the virus, from an Asian perspective – How Asia’s tech firms are helping to stem the Covid-19 outbreak and China’s tech sector to shrink by 10% in Q1 amid virus outbreak.


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Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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