Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day to celebrate inspirational women in technology. Part of the day’s aim is to encourage people to blog about the women who have inspired them. This is my contribution.
It’s actually a story in two parts. As a child, growing up learning to program on my ZX Spectrum, I used to watch Tomorrow’s World religiously on the BBC. Tomorrow’s World found the perfect balance between inspirational and practical technology, and was a must-watch for any kid growing up dreaming of a career in tech. A big part of its success came from its inspirational presenters – none more so than Maggie Philbin.
As a TV presenter, Maggie always managed to communicate her genuine interest in the technology around her, and showed a constant desire to communicate how incredible technology can be. She had that rare skill of making the complex appear both magical and understandable.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I found myself talking at a publishing conference in London. Maggie was chairing the event, and did a great job of keeping the audience engaged, asking difficult questions on their behalf.
During the lunch break, I plucked up the courage to speak to Maggie, and showed her an early build of the Lovelace & Babbage history of computing app we built for Ada Lovelace Day. She was interested and curious, and while playing with the app, she mentioned an event she was organising a few months later. That event was TeenTech Hull, and before I knew it, I’d agreed to come along to the event, and run an app design workshop for 300 kids. (I soon came to realise that one of Maggie’s many skills is persuading people to get involved in fun and challenging projects.)
I’d not heard of TeenTech before, but on arriving in Hull, it soon became clear that it was a pretty amazing event. 300 teenagers spend a day out of the classroom, trying out toboggan simulators, welding with chocolate, developing ideas for apps, and generally having first-hand exposure to technology that they simply wouldn’t get to experience otherwise. Crucially, they also get to meet a whole bunch of engineers, scientists and technologists, and see first hand what a career in tech actually means.
At the start of the event, all of the kids were asked to draw a scientist. To a girl and boy they drew a white-coated boffin with crazy hair holding a test-tube. Worryingly, in Hull, only 12 out of 300 of them drew a woman.
Throughout the day, this stereotype was challenged time and time again by Maggie and the TeenTech team – from photos of inspirational men and women dotted around every room, to the tech challenges they solved and the people from industry they met throughout the day.
By the end of the day, their views of scientists and engineers had been transformed. This is in huge part thanks to Maggie, who fronted the event with the same calm brilliance that first inspired this young technologist two decades ago. TeenTech’s kids have never seen an episode of Tomorrow’s World, but by the end of the day, they were inspired by technology in the same way I was when growing up.
For kindling the imaginations of children – boys and girls alike; and for making everyone she meets feel as though technology is within their grasp; I’d like to raise a toast to Maggie Philbin – and her brilliant colleagues at TeenTech – this Ada Lovelace Day.