Debbie Forster: Helping to solve the problem of diversity and inclusion in Tech

Women Special

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TTC

Debbie Forster comes from an education and tech background. As she progressed in her career from teacher through to headteacher then working with government and industry to shape tech education policy, she gained extensive experience leading programs that were based on the skill development of young people -especially girls. She joined and became Co CEO of Apps for Good, a charity which focused on equipping youth with the resources to develop technical and entrepreneurial skills. For this distinctive work, Debbie was awarded an MBE in January 2017 for “Services to Digital Technology and Tech Development”, the year after Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) named her Woman of the Year for 2016. She has also been named on every Computer Weekly’s list of “25 Most Influential Women in UK IT” since 2013 and most recently Computer Weekly also named her in its 50 Most Influential People in UK IT; their “definitive list of the real movers and shakers in UK IT – the CIOs, industry executives, public servants, and business leaders driving the creation of a high-tech economy”.

Undoubtedly, Debbie had already enjoyed a successful career when she was approached by Sinead Bunting, co-founder of Tech Talent Charter (TTC) the UK, Sinead Debbie, and others were determined to make changes in the ‘Women and Diversity In Tech’ space – being sick of attending seemingly endless roundtable events to ‘discuss the lack of diversity in tech, particularly women’ to no real effect. “Why are there no women in tech?” asks Debbie. “We were worried at how often companies were re-inventing the wheel (and often repeating mistakes). We were determined to focus on practical action, to promote collaboration and sharing of best practice and to gather data, because what’s measured gets done.”

We are about bringing together industries and organizations to drive greater inclusion and diversity in technology roles. We focus on practical action and collaboration to move the dial on inclusion and diversity.

The London-based TTC was kicked off and taken national, becoming a CIC (Community Interest Company) in 2017. TTC is essentially a movement of organizations from every sector who need great tech talent. “We are about bringing together industries and organizations to drive greater inclusion and diversity in technology roles. We focus on practical action and collaboration to move the dial on inclusion and diversity. We connect the dots, rather than re-invent the wheel,” shares Debbie Forster, co-founder, and CEO of TTC. TTC membership comes free and signatories are only required to commit to internal action, and to share best practice and internal data. They collect and map best practices as an “Open Playbook” and with the data shared by their members, they create the annual and benchmarking tools for the constituents. It is fair to say that when it comes to inclusion and diversity, TTC is neither the carrot nor the stick—they are the toolkit. 

In March 2017 TTC was supported in the government’s policy paper on the UK Digital Strategy and had 17 companies on board. Now 2 ½ years later the company has grown to almost 400 companies and are attracting more companies each week. “There is a huge appetite across the sector to get this right and to make UK tech both inclusive and diverse. There is still so much to be done, but I really think all the pieces of the puzzle are there, we just need to bring them together,” says Debbie. 

Debbie Forster, Co-founder & CEO, TTC

Although she was winning awards and the TTC was going from strength to strength, Debbie grappled with imposter syndrome. Like many women in similar positions, she experienced self-doubt.  She says she never felt undermined or openly challenged by others around her, but she often faced questions like – “Are you sure you want to…”, “Won’t it be very hard/risky to…” or worse—“You know what you should do instead?” The questions may have been well-meaning, but fed easily into her imposter syndrome.  She knows she is not alone in this. In the course of her work, she has realized that many women face the same challenge and realizing this helped her tackle it head-on. It was a break-through. She shares, “to overcome it, I had to first silence the imposter syndrome, sometimes I would check in with people I trusted and valued. Then most importantly, I just had to give myself permission to “fail” or get it wrong. Like so many women, I’d been raised to want to be perfect (whatever that means) and to avoid failure at all costs. Once I can let go of that fear, I can jump. And over time, I’ve come to love that; I’m happiest doing something that faintly terrifies me!”

Debbie followed that with the following example: “Several times now, I’ve reached a high point in a career or organization and then stepped out into a new sector/field/organization. Each time I have a few people who think I’m crazy to leave behind something that is “working”, to try something risky and new. Most recently this was stepping back from leading a successful charity to start portfolio work. Initially, it was terrifying—would I be broke and have no work in sight?! But 3 years in, I’m busy, challenged and loving it.”

Being in start-ups, Debbie has learned that you’ve always got to balance the helicopter-view with dealing with what is on the ground. She notes, “Building in regular, ruthless review and reflection points is crucial and also surrounding yourself with both visionaries and cynics for balance.” According to her, leadership teaches us ‘failure is a waypoint’ and is inevitable if we are breaking new ground. She adds, “Our success comes from how we learn and pivot and change when we “fail”.

Debbie believes successful leaders are those who are people-centered. Therefore when it comes to bringing people into her organization whether partners or employees, she is all about supporting and bringing different people together to generate creative thinking and build a culture that feels safe to put questions and think differently. She asserts, “It’s easy to just let people become driven by the tyranny of the inbox or the to-do list. Rather, I value challenge, energy, and push-back, but in a spirit of ‘give and take’, of dialogue.”

Outside work Debbie loves theatre and wine and loves to travel, read and walk in the Buckinghamshire countryside. As a personal goal, Debbie Forster strives for a better balance in life, both as a person and as a leader. She exclaims, “On the one hand I love living in an information age, but I need to be disciplined, to turn the devices off, to not just consume but also to process and reflect.” Honestly, it’s a bit of advice that everyone in this age should take seriously.

She is currently reading the book ‘Invisible women’ by Caroline Criado-Pérez that reflects on the issues that she is fighting against. She says, “I think the challenge [for next generation]will be to push for real inclusion for all, to move things from the zero-sum game (i.e. man vs woman) and to ensure what is achieved isn’t just for young white middle-class women. Aspiring women can do this by keeping the conversations going, by working to take everyone with them. We need to move the discussion from a focus on diversity to focus on genuine inclusion. We need to take everyone with us on this or there will always be one step forward and two back.” 

For the women who are striving to be leaders, she only has one lesson: “Don’t listen to your inner critic, take the risks, don’t fear failure or wait until you don’t feel scared. Do it while you feel scared—be brave, not fearless. And every time you move forward, turn back and bring another woman along with you. Be an ally and supporter and breathe!”  cheers Debbie. “You’re doing just fine.”

As for Debbie, “I hope my greatest accomplishment hasn’t happened yet; half the fun of life and work is knowing I’m not done yet.”

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