Putting the ‘a’ in STEM: why the arts is vital for future sci-tech successBlathnaid O’Deaon February 15, 2022 at 07:00 Silicon RepublicSilicon Republic

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Most people would probably acknowledge that science and technology would not go very far without communication and creativity.

Indeed, some have gone so far as to add an extra letter into the STEM acronym, changing it from ‘Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics’ to ‘Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics’, or STEAM.

It could be argued that the ‘arts’, with its focus on diversity, inclusivity and emotional intelligence, is the fuel that powers the STEAM train.

Nicola Millard and Liana Tomescu are both at different stages of their careers in different countries and in different industries. However, the two women have their passion for technology and communication in common.

Tomescu and Millard both appeared at a virtual event run by Connecting Women in Technology (CWIT) as part of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition 2022.

Millard is a principal innovation partner with BT, while Tomescu works in cybersecurity for Microsoft. They joined a panel of other tech professionals to discuss the future of technology recently.

SiliconRepublic.com had a chat with both women, during which they discussed their thoughts on creating a diverse and inclusive tech ecosystem, as well as the importance of good communication in their own careers.

Tomescu might have only graduated in 2016, but that hasn’t stopped her from becoming involved in advocacy work alongside her day job in Microsoft Ireland’s cybersecurity team. She works with CWIT as its early careers pillar lead.

She joined the organisation initially as a volunteer before getting “really, really involved in it.” Then, she said to herself, “why don’t I lead?”

Her bosses at Microsoft were very supportive of her work with CWIT as the company was one of CWIT’s founders. It was established more than a decade ago.

It offers several different outreach programmes for encouraging young women and girls (and underrepresented people in general, Tomescu clarifies) into the STEM sector. Tomescu’s Tech Starter ‘pillar’ comes in at the third-level stage organising careers workshops, networking events, panel discussions and giving young people the opportunities to ask questions of women who are actually working in the STEM industry.

Her work is focused on inspiring the next generation of tech stars and giving them the chance to see women role models in action at events, both virtual and in-person around the country.

Tomescu says that it’s vital to show girls and women “what’s possible for them.” She says that she personally has also benefitted from seeing women represented in the STEM sector.

“It’s always easier to follow a path if you can see that others like you have already done it. There’s a lady that I work with, she’s in my broader team, and she is so inspirational. She’s the technology lead of our team, and she’s going after all the new stuff and she’s always on the ball with everything… it’s lovely to see, and it makes me feel that I can do that too. There’s nothing stopping me from also being like her and going down that path if I want to.”

Tomescu also runs a book club as part of her work with CWIT. It offers participants a chance to read and discuss books mostly with a “feminist focus” in an informal way. One of the most memorable sessions for Tomescu was when they read and discussed Caroline Criado Perez’s ‘Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.’

“I loved it so much,” she says, explaining that when she read the book initially it gave her the idea to start a book club. She plans to expand the book club to include podcasts and TV series. The events function as a sort of an informal “fireside chat.” She has plenty of other plans too, which she says she is in the process of putting in motion. She wants to run a careers-focused workshop introducing students to the basics of cybersecurity, something that is very close to her heart.

She has seen first-hand how interest in her career has grown in Ireland since the HSE cyberattacks. She started her current role in Microsoft a day after the HSE attack happened.

BT’s Nicola Millard is someone who knows more than most just how important communication is when it comes to introducing people to technology. The former futurologist at BT has been working with the company for since the early 1990s.

She started out in artificial intelligence when the company was “in the first flush” of AI at the time. Nowadays, she specialises in explaining new tech innovations to BT’s industry partners as a principal innovation partner.

It’s a challenging job that requires a lot hand-holding as business people overcome their anxieties about AI, machine learning and others to embrace them into the heart of their operations. Indeed, Millard describes her job as being kind of like “speed dating” for ideas.

Her sense of humour and skill at reducing intimidating tech terms down to easily understandable concepts really shines through as she talks over Zoom from her base in Ipswich in the UK.

She uses her background in psychology – she describes herself as being “half psychologist, half technologist” – to help her explain to people how they can make tech work for them, or not, as the case may be.

“I’ve always claimed that people are the most disruptive part of innovation, because there are some incredible technologies out there that unless they’re adopted, then they’re not really that useful. So most of my career has been really looking at why people adopt technologies,” she says.

Having done AI in university she was always interested in user adoption and human computer interaction. “I did my PhD on something called motivational user interfaces, which was an interesting collision of psychology and technology” she says, adding that her main questions with it were: “‘What motivates people? How do you get increased user adoption? How do you design technologies so that they’re easier to use?”

She likes to bring “a reality check to some of the hype” around technology, she says. One of her mottos is “Know thy user for they are not yourself.” It is, she says, a good guiding principal to have for technologists who might have a tendency to forget about the importance of communicating their “brilliant” ideas to their user base.

And, even if ideas fail at the test stage, failure can be lead to lessons being learned, Millard thinks. Like Tomescu, one lesson she would like to see STEM professionals take on board is diversity.

“I think we do definitely need a lot more gender diversity in tech, for a start, and not just gender diversity, everything, to be honest, because we know that more diverse teams tend to be a lot more innovative for a start.”

Another is storytelling and learning to hook people in with “human stories” rather than making them sit through tedious presentations full of graphs and statistics.

She explains that the business leaders she deals with can be interested in technology but also confused by it at the same time. “I think there’s a disconnect. Certainly, our research is showing that there is a disconnect between the excitement in the technology world with some of this tech and it’s not mirrored necessarily by excitement in the business world. So, a lot of the hyped technologies aren’t really hitting home with business leaders, because they don’t know what they could do for them.”

Millard’s job is all about explaining these tech tools in simple terms to businesspeople, telling them in plain English what impact they will have on their business operations, on their employees and on their future bottom lines.

“It’s really about trying to articulate a lot of these ideas in terms of stories, and if it’s appropriate, not always, but we try and bring some humour to it as well and have a bit of fun.”

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