Education and confidence: An interview with Role Model of the Year finalist Alexandra Coulson, Disguise

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Education and confidence: An interview with Role Model of the Year finalist Alexandra Coulson, Disguise

Education and confidence: An interview with Role Model of the Year finalist Alexandra Coulson, Disguise

"Lack of confidence, plus the misconception that to work for a tech company you have to be able to be extremely technical, hinders the number of women in the tech industry."

Too often, people think you have to be extremely technical to work in the IT industry. They obsess about STEM subjects and engineering degrees, rather than soft skills and real-world experience. For many women, the assumption that you must know your REST from your GraphQL puts them off of working in tech.

It doesn't have to be this way. At the Women in Tech Excellence Awards, we make a point of celebrating the achievements of both technical and non-technical people in the industry: sales, finance, marketing and others.

Alexandra Coulson is head of global marketing at Disguise, and a finalist for Role Model of the Year. We talked to her about her own experiences, her recommendations for women looking to enter the industry, and the Awards:

Alexandra Coulson

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

The best thing about Computing's Women in Tech Excellence campaign is that it celebrates women and highlights our stories - which can be an incredibly powerful tool for other women looking to get into the technology industry, or simply looking for tips to advance their tech career.

According to a recent survey, only 19 per cent of tech leadership roles are filled by women. Despite an improvement in attitudes towards the issue, there is still a problem and women are still missing out. Campaigns like this are important to keep the conversation going and for inspiring and supporting more women in the industry. 

It's an absolute honour to be a finalist for Role Model of the Year amongst so many inspiring women who are driving impact and change for other women in the tech world.

How did you get into the IT industry?

I've always been passionate about how marketing and technology influence consumers in their buyer decision making. I worked hard to secure work experience placements at a young age in different types of organisations, including the tech industry. I knew then that marketing was where I wanted to build my career and I went on to study it, which led me to secure my first full-time marketing role at CEB  -where I learnt early on the importance of a strong partnership between marketing and sales. Following Gartner's acquisition of CEB, I took this moment to speak up for additional projects and stretch opportunities to expand my experience further.

My role at CEB and Gartner was mainly in corporate tech, which was extremely rewarding, but after six years I was seeking a fast-paced scale-up working in innovative tech solutions, where there was room for me to make a positive impact and drive their marketing strategy forward.

In order to make the jump to my current role as head of global marketing for Disguise, I nurtured and proactively gained experience in the areas I was weakest so that I could be successful in my new role and successfully lead my team forwards.

Although I have and will always be a marketer by nature, I love working in technology as it sits at the heart of everything we do in both our personal and work lives. It never stops evolving and I find it fascinating how technology is designed to improve our lives. 

Why do you think the IT Industry is mainly male, especially in technical roles and senior positions?

I think there are two main reasons for this. The first is in education. According to the recent UCAS data provided by HESA, only 35 per cent of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women. This is not because women do not have the aptitude for these subjects, rather it is that interest in these subjects may not be as encouraged in women in the same ways as it is for men.

Education is not the only reason: my higher educational background is not based on STEM subjects, yet I work in technology, and so do many others who do not come from a STEM background.

Confidence also plays a role. Women tend not to apply for a role unless they feel 100 per cent qualified. This lack of confidence, plus the misconception that to work for a tech company you have to be able to be extremely technical, hinders the number of women in the tech industry. It's a shame when there are some fantastic opportunities out there within the industry that sit across all business functions, not just the IT department.

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

The biggest lesson I have learnt is to embrace fearlessness and practice it at every opportunity. Your career is ultimately your responsibility and realistically you'll have to combine hard work with taking on opportunities or new experiences. This can sometimes come with risk or uncertainty, but I'm a big believer that things happen for a reason: maybe one job or project falls through, but this is likely because something bigger and better that you can't see yet is on the horizon.

Take chances, and don't be afraid. Everyone, including senior leaders, are still learning, no one has all the answers and you'll learn the fastest by chasing these opportunities. Coupled with that, don't be afraid to fail, you will often find your biggest lessons come from your failures.

For example, for me moving from a large stable corporate organisation within a large team of marketers could have completely been the wrong move, but I mapped out what experiences I was after, including my non-negotiables, and prioritised these to determine the risk and I decided it was worth the leap. I look back at that decision and I'm so pleased I made that move, and I'm so grateful for being where I am today.  

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

My three pieces of advice are:

  1. Practice fearlessness. Don't wait to be asked for a seat at the table: take it and own it, backed by your own knowledge and experience.
  2. Always seek mentors. Speaking to other leaders about overcoming challenges in your role will help guide you and reassure you that everyone is learning and that no one has all the answers.  
  3. Always be open to learn and seek out (constructive) feedback. Always being open to learning and actively seeking feedback will help propel you forward in your career, it often highlights things that we don't see ourselves. It's also equally important we're active in giving feedback too. I encourage you to review any feedback you receive dispassionately, see what you can learn from it, go and learn those things, and then move onwards and upwards.

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