Women in technology: making an impact

In Britain's hi-tech industries, barely one in five workers is female. Genevieve Roberts meets the bright sparks from last week's BlackBerry Women & Technology Awards to hear how they make their presence felt

Wednesday 08 November 2006 01:00 GMT

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Mandy Chessell, 41, software engineer at IBM: Best Woman in the Corporate Sector

Every time you use a cash machine, you are probably using Mandy Chessell's technology. She helped to write the software known as CICS (Customer Information Control System), which enables the computer behind the ATM to talk to the one in your bank to make sure that when you withdraw money it is deducted from your account.

Her work now focuses on "usability", working out what people want to do, so that computer system designers work to these goals, rather than getting lost in the intricacies of their technology. "We try to create a mindset where the computer serves the user, rather than the other way round," she says. "Everyone has used really bad systems - and knows how frustrating it is to click down 27 menus to find the option you want, when it is something that you use every day."

After studying computing and informatics, Chessell joined IBM where she has worked for 19 years. "Computers have become more integrated and systems easier to use," she says. "When a bank employee used to have to log on to several systems to make a payment for a customer, it did not matter. Now, with internet banking, customers have to see all their account information on one screen so they can make the payment themselves."

Caramel Quin, 34, journalist: Best Media Technology, sponsored by The Independent

When Caramel Quin became a technology journalist 13 years ago, there were only two women writing about gadgets and gizmos. "We would get each other's phone calls as people got us confused: I was the brunette and she was the blonde. Now, it is no longer the preserve of geeks like me," she says.

Quin, who worked on computer magazines before turning freelance, now writes for national newspapers, including The Independent, and consumer magazines. A large part of her work is translating technical language - which she understands, having studied engineering - into plain English. "Ten years ago, nobody wanted to talk about TVs," she says. "Now they have become desirable enough to hang on walls. But people buying high-definition televisions do not necessarily realise that some screens, labelled 480p, are made up of 480 horizontal lines, and will be only half as clear as those with 1,080 horizontal lines."

The work she is most proud of has an environmental angle; for example, emphasising the importance of not leaving gadgets on standby, or championing companies such as Fujitsu Siemens that are removing polluting metals from its circuit boards.

She believes that, in the future, the popularity of gadgets can only be guaranteed with user-friendly design. "Gadgets are increasingly hi-tech, but they still need to be easy enough to use," she says.

Karen Petrie, 25, information manager at Oxford University: Most Promising Woman in Technology

It's no wonder there are so few women in technology, says Petrie. She is an expert in artificial intelligence, but at school was given little encouragement. "I was very good at science, and was advised to become a doctor," she says. "No one ever suggested computing." She recently visited Hamleys toy store, and noticed parents would take their boys to the gadgets, but the girls were led elsewhere. "From a young age, girls are simply not exposed to technology in the same way."

Petrie is now a specialist in constraint programming, which is used in scheduling. The computer is told how many trains are leaving the station and is given a set of rules, such as only one train can be on a platform at one time. It can then work through every combination of trains and platforms, and come up with the best timetable.

"These techniques are used for the timetabling of baseball matches in the US, but it should be used more broadly. But the techniques used for constraint programming need simplifying, so you don't need a PhD in pure maths to find the best solution to problems."

Petrie, who was a research fellow at the University of St Andrews, also wrote a program that solves Sudoku puzzles in the same way as humans - but does them instantaneously. "I'm taking a gap from research, and enjoying working with real people with real problems again."

Ann-Marie Slavin, 43, MD of Opt2Vote: Best Female Entrepreneur

Within 10 years, voting in General Elections will be possible via mobile phone, the internet and digital television. Slavin's firm, Opt2Vote, is modernising the polling system. "It's very exciting to see how technology will improve democracy," she says.

In the May 2003 local elections, Shrewsbury abandoned polling stations to trial Slavin's software. "People voted by internet, digital television or post; they had a fortnight to place their votes. Turnout was 54 per cent, rather than the traditional 34 per cent," she says. Once someone had voted, their name was registered, and votes were held on a secure server until polls closed, when they were counted electronically.

"We want to bring polling stations to the public, so in Shrewsbury we set up a polling station in the shopping centre and ballot papers were printed on demand. As there is a problem with low turnout among young people in elections, the same could be done in universities."

Opt2Vote also works on secure postal voting, and is about to launch anti-fraud software that scans each postal ballot for a signature and date of birth. Slavin, from Northern Ireland, started the company in 2002 when she saw an opportunity to modernise the election process; it now employs 30 people. She had studied computing and business at university and previously ran an IT consultancy.

"I am not apathetic about politics, but a number of times I have planned to vote but been away on business on polling day. I think we need a system that, if you live in Liverpool but happen to be passing through Heathrow on election day, allows you to cast your vote there in a secure environment."

Shirin Dehghan, 37: Best Woman in Technology Award 2006

Four years ago, Shirin Dehghan wrote to the chief executive of the mobile phone operator O2, offering to save him £200m. It's not the sort of letter that gets ignored in the business world. Especially when the plan was so beautifully simple: Dehghan had developed an algorithm that calculates where to position mobile phone antennae to get the best signal across the country.

Before Dehghan's system, this job was done manually, with engineers trying to predict where people would get a strong or weak signal. Her program is much more effective. "It goes through millions of combinations of where sites should be placed, whereas manually an engineer can only go through tens of combinations," she says. "The system enables phone companies to get the same coverage with 30 per cent fewer mobile phone base stations."

Not only did O2 adopt her system, but Vodafone, Nokia, Telefonica and Cingular are now clients, too. Each new base station costs between £50,000 and £100,000, so she has helped them save millions of pounds.

Born in Iran, Dehghan has lived in England for 24 years. She has a masters degree in electronics, and now lives in Newbury with her husband, eight-year-old daughter Roya and five-year-old son Arya.

Her goal is to create self-healing networks, the "holy grail of the mobile phone industry". At present, the failure of just one component can take a base station out of service. "We want to create an intelligent system so the network itself realises that the site has gone down, and other sites automatically cover the lost areas of signal until that site is repaired." She also wants to set up networks that can follow the flow of traffic. "If there is a huge traffic jam, everyone starts using their mobile phones and people become unable to make calls because the network is jammed. But if a mobile phone network follows the flow of traffic, the base stations could automatically reconfigure themselves to cover the areas where there is unexpected congestion."

She develops products with her husband. "I've always been his boss," she says. "But our skills are complementary, mine in radio technology and his in software technology, so we don't tread on each others toes - much."

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