Suzie Miller is a Solutions Architect for Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Chair of the company’s People With Disabilities employee affinity group in the UK.
People With Disabilities supports Amazon employees with disabilities, allies and carers – by raising awareness, supporting career development, participating in community outreach and improving accessibility both for Amazonians and their customers.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role
In my day-to-day role, I’m a Solutions Architect for Amazon Web Services (AWS) – a varied role that involves helping companies with their web service journey and cloud adoption. We help companies to design the right web architecture for their business, so they can focus on building incredible products.
I am also proud to be Chair of People With Disabilities (PWD) for Amazon in the UK, an employee-run affinity group that is focused on helping both employees and customers with awareness, accessibility and career aspirations.
Did you ever plan out your career in advance?
I’ll confess: the first time I used the internet was at a university open day in London, when I used AltaVista to search for Eddie Izzard! I could pretend that the heavens shone a light down in that moment to show a bright future ahead of me – but that isn’t completely true.
Due to a mix of different health problems, I couldn’t always study properly and that meant I failed my maths A Level and parts of my degree. I wanted to do Robotics at university, but I ended up studying Software Engineering because I had enjoyed programming in my GCSE and A Levels.
The dotcom bubble then conspired to burst just as I graduated, which made it much harder to find entry-level jobs, but I managed to get a job running Windows desktop support. At the time, I was hopeful that the tech industry would recover – and so it did!
So there was no planning, but a lot of determination and opportunism. Living with disabilities, I had to jump from contract to contract looking for flexibility that would accommodate my mobility and health. Throughout that early period of my career, I didn’t feel confident enough to request flexibility and I was living with conditions that weren’t even diagnosed, so it was near-impossible to justify a request for extra support.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
All things considered, it’s been a pretty bumpy journey. A mix of different health problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, meant I couldn’t study or attend lectures. This meant I graduated after the rest of my year – but I got there in the end.
There have also been problems with some managers in previous companies I worked at relating to inclusion: not only with my chronic fatigue and autism, among other things, but also as a member of the LGBT+ community.
I am also very conscious of the fact I may not be able to work in the future. I have a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) which impacts my joints and causes a lot of pain, dislocations and other symptoms, which can make working difficult in lots of ways.
At AWS specifically, I have found my feet thanks to the ‘Day 1’ culture, and the way anyone can submit a narrative to drive changes within the company. I’ve also found so many people dedicated to driving accessibility and inclusive design who have taught me so much, but that has also made me more confident that my peculiar strengths would be appreciated. That’s why I felt comfortable enough to self-declare to HR and my manager, and it led me to establish AmazonPWD in the UK in order to help others.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
A few years back, when struggling physically with 80-hour working weeks mostly from home in a previous company, I worked with a brilliant coach who helped me to take a step back. With her support, I realised that I wasn’t struggling with the nature of the work, rather it was the culture and industry that wasn’t working for me. We put together a plan to stop doing roles with on-call and out-of-hours demands, which set me on a path to be a Solutions Architect working across a range of different industries.
Although I have never worked with a mentor formally, I had some brilliant managers who took the time to understand my peculiarities and who recognised my strengths – even when I was struggling to see my own strengths!
Outside of work, I volunteer as an Independent Visitor through a government programme that matches adult volunteers with young people in care. As volunteers, we’re there to build long-term friendships and we’re truly ‘independent’, operating outside of the care system and giving that young person much-needed continuity.
When it comes to diversity, what do you want to see happen within the next five years to move things forward?
It’s now well-established that diversity is not only important for companies, it’s also good for their bottom line because diversity of thought drives innovation and creativity.
Personally I would highlight the importance of ‘inclusion’ as a concept. When businesses invest significantly to recruit a technical specialist, it’s illogical to manage that talent as it if it were a resource on a spreadsheet without a unique personality and a unique set of needs. Giving people space to be themselves will always maximise their talent. ‘Inclusion’ means more than meeting diversity targets – it’s about getting the most out of your talent. And it doesn’t just apply to disabled people, women or members of LGBT+ and BAME communities, in fact it’s vital for those groups that we avoid accusations of ‘special treatment’ by working towards inclusion for all.
In reality, everybody will need support in their life: either through a disability or long-term sickness, or by acting as a parent or carer, or by going through a bereavement or divorce. You never know what’s around the corner, so having a safety net at work is vital.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Unfortunately, many NDAs over the years mean I can’t be too specific! But I will say that through various projects I have saved millions of pounds of wasted expenditure and helped to stop major outages that my colleagues had not spotted.
Living with dyslexia and autism, I often see things that other people miss, or I think of solutions that are a bit unconventional. It’s been a pleasure to apply that unconventional thinking within my profession.
I have also been privileged to work with some amazing people who have supported Amazon’s PWD group, which has led to so many great opportunities that we’re now putting into action.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I’m super excited to see how Amazon Web Services grows through the exciting and creative way that customers put our ‘building blocks’ into action.
In general, I’m excited to see how the tech industry builds on the huge developments of the last 20 years – particularly through the focus on collaborative working practices, which can only be a good thing for the industry.
I also want to be a disability advocate, both within Amazon and for our customers, by championing the importance of inclusive design and accessibility. And I want to go beyond accessibility of products and services to make working practices fully inclusive and considerate of disabled users.
What are the biggest challenges within improving disability rights at work and how can we tackle them?
According to Scope, 19 per cent of working-age adults are disabled and over 3.4 million disabled people are in employment. So if organisations are not creating an inclusive and accessible workplace, they are missing out on unique expertise and diverse perspectives that will enable them to better serve the millions of disabled customers out there.
Accessibility is not just about access ramps and dropped kerbs, it’s about aspiring to design products and processes in the most inclusive way possible.
Organisations also need easy and transparent mechanisms to request special accommodations and support, including flexi-time, desk adjustments and extra software. These need to be streamlined and available from the first point of contact.
Although as a society we’re making great strides forward, I also know that those living with disabilities do not always feel comfortable declaring their conditions – in fact they may not even be diagnosed, or they may not consider themselves disabled. The fear of unconscious bias and stigma is very real, so clearly signposting support in areas like mental health is vital.
Where can organisations find further support in this area?
Charities such as Scope or Mind’s ‘Time to Change’ programme can be invaluable in supporting disabled colleagues while raising awareness and providing recommendations. The government’s Access to Work scheme is also a good port of call and helps businesses to cover the costs around accommodations.
Across a large organisation, taking part in national events such as Worlds Aids Day on the December 1st or the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3rd can be really beneficial. I also love PurpleSpace and their #PurpleLightUp campaign.
Exposing senior leadership and junior colleagues to conversations around the challenges faced by disabled people is another great way to reduce discrimination and unconscious bias.
Anyone can become disabled at any time, so businesses shouldn’t risk losing valued members of staff because of perceived negative stereotypes or a lack of inclusivity frameworks. This kind of support is not only the right thing to do, it also boosts productivity and spreads a positive message to the next generation of professionals that being in the minority should not put a limit on your career aspirations.