Debbie Forster is a recognised figure in the areas of diversity, tech, innovation and education, first as the UK CEO of Apps for Good and now as CEO for the Tech Talent Charter, an industry collective which aims to deliver greater gender diversity in the UK tech workforce.
Signatories of the charter make several pledges in relation to their approach to recruitment and retention. Debbie was awarded an MBE in January 2017 for “Services to Digital Technology and Tech Development” and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) named her Woman of the Year for 2016, describing her as “an exceptional and inspirational woman… an extraordinary role model.” She has also been named on Computer Weekly’s list of “25 Most Inspirational Women in UK IT” in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I am originally from the US, but have lived in the UK since 1989 and have dual nationality—the UK is definitely home for me. Like many women, I “fell into tech”, but quite gradually; it had happened before I realised it. I began as an English teacher of all things, but in the 90’s if you used a computer in schools, you rapidly became an “expert” and I found myself involved more and more in technology. I was not a “natural “ techie; I didn’t love the tech per se, but I loved what it could do, the creativity it unlocked.
When I was a headteacher, I was one of the first to adopt a scheme called Computer Club for Girls. As a result of this, I was becoming more and more involved in working with business people and government around tech in education. I eventually left the school and worked for 2 years as Head of Education for e-skills UK (now Tech Partnership). While working there, I came across the founder of Apps for Good, fell in love with the idea and joined just as we began reaching out to schools. I became the Co CEO there and we grew from 40 students in 2 centres to reaching over 75,000 young people in 5 years, 50% of whom were girls.
Then last year I decided it was time to start a new chapter. I left Apps for Good as CEO (though I’m still on the Advisory Group) and soon became CEO of the Tech Talent Charter (TTC). The TTC is a not-for-profit organisation which brings together companies from across industry to move the dial on diversity in tech.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Good heavens no, not in any long-term way. At the start of my career, I just took whatever seemed the next step whenever the opportunity arose, working my way up the ladder. Then after being a head for 6 years (and therefore at the top of that ladder), I realised I didn’t want to just keep doing that role again and again.
To some people, my choices were crazy—leaving a set career path and a steady job made no sense. But I loved learning new skills, connecting with industry and policy makers. Then after 2 years I left that to join a start-up charity, some thought I was mad. But the great thing with age is learning what makes you tick, what makes sense to you. Each jump was scary but I loved it. I know now that at 3 years, I get an “itch” in a job, and if there isn’t a significant new challenge, by 5 years, it becomes a rash! I like doing things I am passionate about, taking on new challenges and I’m happiest in “start-up mode”, taking a great idea or concept and just making it work. So now that is how I “plan” my career—I understand what I need, what I’m best at and try to never be afraid to take that chance or make that leap when opportunities present themselves.
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
Absolutely, every step of the way! And like many women, I suffer dreadfully from imposter syndrome. But now I recognise that I actually thrive when facing a challenge and am at my best when I am a wee bit terrified! And one of my mantras is, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and always have 2 back up plans.”
On a typical workday, how does you start your day and how does it end?
My day generally starts early but slowly, and with lots of caffeine—I am a night person trapped in a morning person’s world! I usually get up, put the kettle on for a ridiculously large cup of tea and hit my emails. Then by the time my other half is up about a half hour later, I’m ready for some civilised conversation and then off for meetings or on my laptop to tackle the day’s work.
It typically ends with a long hot bath and if I’m being virtuous (and decadent) reading before bed. Though I have to admit I am terrible at going through my inbox before I turn the light off. It’s an awful habit and I’m trying (with mixed success) to break myself of it this year.
How would you encourage more women and girls into a career in STEM?
At the moment, that is actually part of my job! The reason I’m at the Tech Talent Charter is that it is such a huge problem now that no one person, company or initiative can solve it in isolation, it is going to take joined-up work. There is some great work out there at all parts of the broken pipeline, from inspiring young girls in school, to changing how we recruit, to offering more re-training routes, etc. But to date, they’ve not been joined up and there has been too much overlap and replication. Our mantra is that we are determined not to re-invent the wheel but to connect the dots. And we are making progress–more companies are joining every day, more initiatives working and collaborating with us (including We are the City). There is a huge amount to do, but I genuinely believe together we can make a difference in the UK
Why is it important for companies to join the Tech Talent Charter?
Because no one company can solve this themselves and even if you come up with a great strategy, it is like buying a great new fishing rod but still fishing in the same leaky barrel as everyone else. The TTC members are committed to sharing ideas, trying new things and working together. And we have the full range of companies, not just tech but broadcasting, transport, food and leisure, not for profits; we have start-ups, SMEs and big multinationals. So it is the place to be if you want to learn, collaborate and share, not just with your type of company but across sectors and sizes.
It is also a great way to show publicly that your company is committed to doing things differently, to take action rather than just talking about it.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever had a mentor or do you mentor anyone?
Mentoring is fantastic, I’ve had great mentors and mentees. For women in particular, having someone to share and learn from, to offer perspective, encouragement and challenge is invaluable. And I love mentoring, because you always up learning more about yourself as well as others.
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
Greater flexible working for all, not just women, for it to be the norm. I think flexible working is a great way to have not just a more diverse workforce but a healthier, more rounded one. I think this is equally important for men, because while it is often seen as a weakness for women, it can be seen as career suicide for men in some companies. In my experience, I’ve got so much more from my teams when we’ve offered flexi working. It isn’t easy, but it can be transformational.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Tough question! I should probably say my MBE, but it isn’t. On one level it would probably be my fearless 20 year old daughter, but I can’t really take credit for that. I’d like to say my greatest achievement hasn’t happened yet. There is much I am proud of, but I’m far from finished!
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
Getting TTC really growing and sustainable and showing genuine impact. There is so much to do, but I’m seeing more and more amazing people and companies getting involved so I am incredibly optimistic about it. I want to be able to look back on this in 2 years and really be able to see and to say this year was the year we genuinely started moving the dial on diversity in tech.
Oh, and work-life balance. I’m utterly rubbish at that. But this year, I really want to make a breakthrough on this.