Zoe Cunningham is Managing Director of Softwire.
Zoe has been at Softwire since 2000, in which time she has made it her mission to hold every role in the company – developer, project manager, consultant, sales, operations manager and now MD. Under Zoe’s leadership Softwire has placed in the top 25 of ‘The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For’ list consistently over the last seven years. Zoe is also a film and theatre actor and was the 2010 World Ladies Backgammon Champion. She has been named as one of the 100 most influential people in Tech City, selected by the BBC as the Brightest Woman in Britain and in 2013 she accompanied former Prime Minister, David Cameron, on his trade delegation to China.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I studied a mathematics degree and then joined my current company Softwire as a graduate coder. I was the 9th team member to join and first female employee. As we were a small business I took the opportunity to work in lots of different roles, culminating in joining the business development team in 2009. This was way out of my comfort zone and consequently ended up being the biggest learning experience of my career. In 2012 I was appointed as Managing Director, reporting to the founders, and now I have broad responsibility across the whole company, which I love.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I did! In 2007 I had an epiphany and started working much harder to achieve my career goals. A few years later I realised that I was becoming very successful and perhaps wasn’t setting large enough goals. I took a full Saturday morning to set myself a five year plan. I predicted what the company would look like in five years’ time and what roles would be needed and decided that I would want to be MD – we’d never had an MD prior to that!
Have you faced any particular challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
Once you get into management, it’s challenges all the way up! And they get harder as you go, since easier challenges are solved by the managers underneath you. My current challenge is learning how to enhance the sense of purpose in a company. There are lots of pieces written on this subject, but it is a complex area and actually (for me!) starts with a lot of self-discovery. What am I doing that enables or discourages this? How can I change my behaviour?
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
I would love to live in a world where everyone, including the women themselves, expects exactly the same drive and ability from both female and male employees.
How would you encourage more girls and young women into a career in STEM?
I think that the most effective solution that we have seen is role-modelling. If you can’t see someone who looks like you doing the job, then you don’t think it’s for you. There are two things that we can do here – make more noise about the fantastic women already working in STEM (in some cases for 40+ years!) and get more women directly into the workforce by retraining: we can’t change what women chose to study aged 13 but we can give them a new opportunity to learn the skills now.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I’m often approached to mentor people and I’ve been lucky to have the support of a large number of great mentors. My biggest learning around mentorship is that all of the drive and determination needs to come from the mentee. If you go to a mentor or coach expecting them to wave a magic wand and fix your life for you, it’s not going to happen. On the other hand I am mentoring a fantastic woman right now and although she tells me that she gets a lot from our chats, I can see clearly that it is her hard work that is driving her change and all I am doing is giving her the confidence to keep going.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Becoming Managing Director of Softwire was an incredible achievement for me. I forget this from time to time as I’ve got used to it, but it really changed my perspective on the world and my belief in what I can achieve.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
Four years ago I started pursuing a second career (outside of my technology job) in acting. Completely different! It’s an interesting comparison since in technology demand is high and employees are scarce, whereas in acting it is the opposite! Over four years I’ve been lucky to play the lead role in a couple of great short films and I just played the lead role in my first independent feature film. My medium-long term goal is to either have a great part in a good film, or a good part in a great film, where the success of the film needs to be both in artistic quality and distribution – I want my friends and family to see me on the big screen!