The <go to> girl: an interview with Dr Sue Black

By Jim Mortleman
23 May 2012 View Comments
Dr Sue Black with Raspberry

Having spearheaded the successful campaign to save Bletchley Park, academic and social media whirlwind Dr Sue Black is now setting her sights on transforming the UK’s IT skills base with the < goto> Foundation

Further reading

When future historians write about women’s contributions to computing over the past 20 years, it would be remiss of them not to give Dr Sue Black a prominent mention.

Black studied computing in her 20s as a single mother, gained a PhD and entered the profession full-time as a lecturer at Southbank University in 1998. Today, she is a senior research associate at UCL, sits on the Foreign Secretary’s Advisory Group on Freedom of Expression, and helps organise events for Google. She has also won accolades for her successful campaign to save Bletchley Park, one of the birthplaces of modern computing. (Black is planning a book on computing pioneer and war hero Alan Turing, whose papers were secured for the nation by Bletchley Park last year – in no small measure due to her campaign.)

Now, Black hopes her latest venture, the < goto> Foundation (see below), will be a catalyst for nurturing the UK’s IT talent.

The 49-year-old says her ambition and confidence have blossomed since she got involved with social media in 2008. Social platforms have been a huge boon for women in technology all over the world, she says, allowing them to form mutual support networks. Before then, as she pursued her IT career throughout the 1990s, it was a very different story.

“I’d frequently attend conferences where there’d be maybe two women for every 98 men,” she says. “And if you want to do the best in your career and take full advantage of the opportunities, then you need to have role models – people you can look up to and talk to.”

In 2001, she set up the BCSWomen group to champion the role of women in IT and give female technologists in the UK a forum of their own. Today, that group has around 1,500 members.

But what is little known is that the formation of that group was indirectly responsible for the successful campaign to save Bletchley Park. It was during a visit to Bletchley Park in 2003 to chair a meeting of BCSWomen, that Black first discovered the full extent of the site’s historical importance, beyond the well-known facts.

“I knew about the codebreakers, but I’d always imagined it was 50 blokes sitting around smoking pipes and doing the Times crossword. When I learned there were over 10,000 people working at the site, including more than 5,000 women, I went away thinking that I had to do something to raise its profile. It was such an important part of our history.”

Following the visit, BCSWomen began a project called “The Women of Station X” to find the surviving veterans and capture their oral histories for the benefit of future generations. These were collated to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the BCS in 2007, but the project is still ongoing. Black says: “I’m acutely aware many of the veterans are passing away and we want to capture as many stories as possible before it’s too late. So we’re now planning to set up a webspace that will let anyone upload reminiscences and artefacts.”

On another visit to Bletchley in 2008, its then director Simon Greenish revealed the site was in severe financial difficulty and could be forced to close at any time. Black was outraged at the potential loss.

“The work done at Bletchley Park shortened the war by two years, at a time when 11 million people a year were dying. We owe the lives we live today to the people who worked there. So I knew I had to do something.

“At that time, I was head of Computer Science at the University of Westminster, so I emailed all the heads and professors of computing in the UK urging them to sign a petition that someone had set up on the Number 10 website. The response was huge, and that gave me the motivation and confidence to continue the campaign,” she says.

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