Professor Sally Smith

Dean of Computing, Edinburgh Napier University

Tell us about your background and your journey to your current role?

I studied Maths at Aberdeen University and my first job was as a software engineer in London. I realised that I perhaps didn’t have all the skills I needed to pursue it as a long-term career so I studied for an MSc in Computer Science whilst I was working. After five years, I moved back up to Edinburgh and got another job as a software engineer. A few years later, I got a fantastic opportunity to become a lecturer in software engineering at Edinburgh Napier. I’ve been here ever since. I started out as a lecturer and then became a senior lecturer – working part-time for a while – and in 2016, I received my doctorate. In 2018, I became a professor.


Amazing! What was your PhD focused on?

Professional identity in the IT sector… I know we have a huge problem with the IT sector not attracting enough people and certainly not attracting enough women. I was looking at some of the barriers preventing people coming in to the sector and progressing on to leadership roles.


Do you have any relationship with front-line research now, or do you supervise at all?

I am part of a research group called the Centre for Computing Education Research and we have researchers and PhD students that are researching computing education pedagogy and systems that support education. One of the focuses of this research group is to look at student experiences of computer science and their transitions from school or college to university, and beyond into the workplace.

I run a project called e-Placement Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Funding Council and the aim is for students studying computing at any university or college in Scotland to find paid work placements. We increase access to the IT sector through work experience for anyone across Scotland. Employers all want work experience, it’s so important. We have also conducted research on student placements – research into why students might not take up placements or what are the outcomes if they do. More recently (since 2017) Edinburgh Napier University have been running Graduate Apprenticeships and we are applying similar research questions to find out about apprentice experiences in Scotland, for example exploring routes into the apprenticeship.


So can you tell me what a typical day at work looks like for you now?

Well, I’ve just finished teaching a mobile app development module. So I’ve been looking at student assignments and enjoying seeing their ideas come to life. Much of my time is spent running the School of Computing, meeting with staff and project students.

I’m Dean of Computing here so I also deal with some of the challenges in the higher education sector – making the case for funding of higher education.


In terms of those challenges, do you find your line of work supportive of women?

Yes – we have a relatively good proportion of women in the department.

I think it’s important to emphasise that there are different lines of work women can go in to from a degree, such as research or teaching. It doesn’t have to be the pre-conceived, traditional career in IT, sitting at a computer all day!

However, I must stress that we do better at attracting women as lecturers than attracting women on to our undergraduate courses. That is not something that is unique to Edinburgh Napier, it is a problem for the whole UK. The Scottish Funding Council strategy has set a target of 25% of women on computing courses and we’re currently at about 16%, so a long way to go.


Are you confident that these targets will be achieved?

(laughs) We’ve been working at this for a long time, I’ve been working on it throughout my career of 26 years. I’m hopeful that the increased awareness will make things change but it will take a long time for this to be visible at the university level. We need to be intervening at a primary school level and keeping up this energy at secondary school and then through to university. We have a few ideas about how to attract more women in to computing. Some of our courses have a better gender balance that others and it’s important to ask: why is that? What do women look out for, what are they attracted to?

I have great hope that data science will enjoy immensely better gender balance than other STEM areas, as it is a relatively new discipline and combining many exciting areas like maths, software engineering and coding, so it has a bright future for women.


Would you recommend your line of work to other women?

Yes! I’ve had an eclectic career.

My work is a chance to try out the latest technology, it’s incredibly rewarding and has a great deal of flexibility and autonomy that’s often in line with women’s ways of working.

There’s a lot of team work involved as well, which women are often attracted to, the collaboration and the diversity involved with IT teams.


What is your passion in your day job?

Seeing positive applications of technology and asking questions about what benefits are brought by having technology all around us. When I teach, we’re often looking at the ways that apps can transform people’s lives. That’s the thing that sticks out to me most.

There is a downside to it, however. Over my time, I have seen the ways that technology is misapplied, such as, at times, on social media.

I hold on to the positives and am excited by how technology can solve some of the biggest global challenges of today such as climate change.


Do you have any interesting data sets, technologies or favourite analysis techniques you’d like to talk about?

(laughs) Developing apps using the Android Studio has been cool!

We have some very cool data visualisation tools in the department. When we think about data, we need to be able to visualise it in ways that people understand so we have some really nice animations capturing and showing data on students, such as how they move into and through our courses, the pressure points of the academic year (where people may drop out or transfer courses, for example).

Student data being presented in engaging ways to programme leaders allows us to understand, design and redesign our courses for the better.


Is there anything you wish you would do more of in your work?

I think this is a challenge for all women in tech – I heard Dame Wendy Hall at a conference saying that she realised that while she was going out and talking to girls in schools about studying STEM, her male colleagues were busy getting on with their careers. I wish women could share more of that burden and male colleagues step up and get involved. They can play a very important role, with the influence that they possess, and it would allow women to ‘get on’ with their careers more!


Looking back, is there anything you’re particularly proud of?

I’m immensely proud of e-Placements. What we’ve done with employers across Scotland is to make sure that students have more equal access to paid work experience, connect employers directly with students, which helps with getting started. We’ve created more than 2000 placements thus far and offered them to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to these networks that can find them good work. We want the widest possible educational opportunity. It’s been so successful.


What is your vision for data science in Edinburgh?

Well, we are delighted to be part of the Data Driven Innovation Skills Gateway project and we’re appointing someone this summer (2019) to design an undergraduate programme at Napier in data science, and we’re focusing heavily on recruiting women on to this. Then, in four years’ time, they’ll be coming out in to Edinburgh ready to start their careers in data science.

We’re going to embed more data analytics on to our other programmes, such as Business and Nursing, so they have data skills to accelerate their careers. Lots of activity going on – we’re also creating data placements for students.


An exciting future to look forward to!

I look forward to undergraduates having greater data awareness, as a result of the steps our university is taking, so they are more equipped for the future. We are increasingly reliant on data.


Do you have a fun fact about yourself and a hero/heroine you’d like to share?

Fun fact? I worked for a while at the European Space Agency on an early GPS system – we had no idea back then that GPS would change lives through phone-based navigation systems.

Hero? JK Rowling is a hero – not just for catching everyone’s imagination, but also for her philanthropy, including funding research into MS.

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Interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

I hope that data science will enjoy an immensely better gender balance than other STEM areas – so it has a bright future for women

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