Be human: An interview with Ordnance Survey's Jo Shannon

clock • 4 min read
Support your team to foster connections and success
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Support your team to foster connections and success

You don't have to have all the answers - just focus on being human and forging connections with your team, says the CIO of the Year finalist

Potential applicants to IT roles tend to get hung up on formal qualifications - especially women. But attitude and aptitude are just as if not more important, says Ordnance Survey's director of technology & design Jo Shannon.

She should know: despite lacking a degree, Shannon has been in the tech sector since she was 19 and is now on the shortlist for CIO of the Year, Woman of the Year and Role Model of the Year at next week's Women in Tech Excellence Awards.

Jo Shannon

Why do you support Computing's Women in Tech Excellence campaign?  

These awards are an excellent way to recognise the underrepresented: in this case, women in technology. The truth be told, there is still a long way to go in society, but wouldn't it be great to have more awards like this that celebrate diversity and all the different types of people who can thrive in the tech industry? I'm a big believer that companies should strive to have a working culture like that at Ordnance Survey, where difference is valued and celebrated, and everyone can participate through bringing new ways of thinking.  

How did you get into IT industry?

It was by accident. I joined a small software vendor on the outskirts of Cambridge at 19 years old and was fortunate that the company valued attitude and aptitude over formal qualifications. Despite having no degree, they gave me phenomenal opportunities to explore different roles in technology, which then turned into leadership roles where I was able to gain an understanding of how technology can be commercialised and the fundamentals for running a successful tech business. I was there for 14 years before joining OS as head of geospatial development. The role expanded to cover all facets of IT and engineering, from systems engineering to cyber security. Despite being four months pregnant and feeling slightly vulnerable at that specific time in my career, I was still promoted to director in June 2018. It just shows there are companies and individuals out there that are supportive of women in leadership roles and encourage long-term career progression.

What do you think is the main reason why the IT Industry is mainly male, especially in technical roles and senior positions?

There is a lot of subconscious bias and it's natural human behaviour to sometimes hire in one's own image.  As a woman, I know that we're also very bad at promoting ourselves and not always confident in putting ourselves forward for roles. Research shows that women look at a job description and focus on the skills we don't have, whereas men will look at the same role and be confident to apply even if they didn't have all the skills on paper.

I've always been managed by men who have championed women in the workplace, which I'm very grateful for - we therefore need more men (and women) to do the same. It's important that women support other women but we can all help each other grow, recognise talent and encourage each other to challenge ourselves.

What is the biggest lesson you have learnt in your career?

Take a chance and always put yourself forward. You may feel uncomfortable in the process, but don't let that hold you back. Be confident and challenge yourself by going outside your comfort zone.

The other thing I learnt is that for a career in technology, you don't have to have a degree. At OS, some of our best engineers and analysts have come through our training programme without any previous experience. Technology is an accessible career path that doesn't have as many barriers as other professions, and there are so many opportunities for women. All you need is a curious mind and a logical approach to problem solving.  

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to take on leadership roles?

First and foremost - just do it. Be bold, be brave and take the risk. Look for roles and opportunities that you can grow into, not that you will grow out of. Like I have at OS and through my career, find a manager/mentor that will champion and challenge you, whether they are male or female, and all the  support they can offer you throughout your career.

For those looking towards a leadership role, if there is anything the last 18 months has taught us, it's that it's so important to be human. As a leader you don't always need to be smartest person in the room and you certainly don't have to have all the answers. Be vulnerable and be human, because if you are, this will help build better connections with your team which will lead to better results. I think this is a strength that many women hold already, a superpower you could say.

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