Web Standards Group - WSG

Home - WSG interviews

Ten questions for Sarah Blow

21-March-07

Sarah Blow

Sarah Blow is a software engineer and .Net developer. She has been working in the industry since 2004 and has a passion for technology and innovation. Sarah founded London Girl Geek Dinners in 2005 and the events have been growing ever since. Sarah has also spoken at Mobile Mondays on Mobile Web 2.0 and at the community events such as developer, developer, developer day over on the Microsoft Campus in Reading UK.

[1] Russ: First of all, what exactly does a mobile and wireless software engineer do?

Sarah: Mobile and Wireless software engineer... Well let me see... Officially I am a PC Applications Software Engineer during the day. That means writing applications for the Windows OS as my day job which also allows me to write for the Windows CE platform using C# and .net. Outside of the day I toy with applications on mobile phones and PDA style devices. These applications may hook into the wifi stack or the gprs stack on the devices to send data. I think a better way of putting a description of me these days would be a technology enthusiast.

[2] Russ: Your Next Gen Developer blog focuses heavily on the mobile web. What excites you most about this topic?

My next gen developer blog used to focus solely on mobility, it was once called Sarah Blow's .Net Mobile Blog as that was my primary focus. Over time I have been working outside of this domain in areas such as SQL Server and general .Net code as such I have extended the scope and have changed the name as a result. To date I've not started putting anything new on that blog site that is more general but the plan is to extend the site to be a little more generic. The site is growing as my knowledge base grows. At the moment I spend more time writing for girlygeekdom.blogspot.com which is more focused on females in technology and I am considering sharing my knowledge on Innovation, Ideas Generation and Starting a Business. (at this point it is just an idea and if I can find the time to do it then I will do my best to get it started.

[3] Russ: Let's talk Web 2.0 and mobile web. Where are we headed. What exciting things can we expect to see in the mobile space?

Sarah: Good question... (If only I had a crystal ball...) This would just be a guess but based on industry trends at the moment I would anticipate more mobile websites becoming accessible on standard devices to the ordinary person, more on device applications, more data transfer and the mobile infrastructure companies to be worried. Why? Because Wi-Fi is becoming more prevalent in mobile devices as a result of people wanting to transfer larger amounts of data faster. Also the growth of open and Wi-Fi networking through businesses and alliances such as FON as well as governments investing in MAN's. I am hoping that we will see mobile devices becoming a primary communications device and not just a voice communications device. The blackberry and many Windows Mobile devices in part does this at present but I can see people playing games like World of Warcraft on their mobiles. I think the mobile games market has huge potential as does location aware or contextual information. I can see devices having GPS in them as standard so that companies can provide this sort of information.

I was chatting with a few people at lunchtime today and one of the things that came about is the fact that devices will probably completely converge into a single device as standard such as music, video, radio, internet, e-mail, calls, texts etc. But after that someone suggested that they may then diverge into 2 devices, one that does everything other than mobile that connects to the mobile and the other that is just a mobile and does just calls. I thought that was an interesting concept and thought that it would be good to share this vision with people. I have no idea whether it will happen. Who knows....

[4] Russ: You are responsible for London Geek Girl Dinners. What motivated you to start this organisation?

Sarah: London Girl Geek Dinners is my baby. (metaphorically of course!) It started back in July/ August 2005 shortly after Robert Scoble did a Geek Dinner at the Texas Embassy in London, with the help of Hugh MacLeod. I attended that event and was one of about 10 - 12 females in the room. If you then excluded marketing and press people I was about one of 5 technology focused females in the room and was assumed by many to be a marketing person and was treated as such. It wasn't the first occasion that this had occurred but it got me annoyed enough to think about what the reasons for people not going to such events were and also why people had the perception that I must be marketing. I sat on the train on the way back from the event with a friend of mine, Dave Oliver, and we discussed the issues and realized that there were a series of things that were barriers. Firstly the huge gender mismatch, 135 men : 12 women at the Scoble event wasn't just a one off... this happened everywhere at most technical events. So the first thing to do would be to make those females feel comfortable in the environment by equalizing the mismatch so that they didn't feel outnumbered. The next thing to do was to figure out what sort of environment would be right... we thought pubs and bars in the city, and after work so they could have fun, talk to each other, educate each other and share knowledge in an informal environment.

I put up a blog post to see if anyone would be interested in such an event to see if the need for it was there. People responded, peoples other halves responded, friends of people responded and then someone asked when was the event happening. This kick-started the whole thing and I got in touch with Hugh MacLeod who organized the event for Robert and asked him how he arranged their event and followed their tried and tested footprint. We modified it a bit with one rule, if you are male and wish to attend then you must be invited by a female attending the event, only one male per female attendee. The rule was simple enough for people to understand and efficient enough that there would never be a male domination on the gender. I knew this one rule would put some people off but I didn't want to exclude the men, as they have valuable lessons to learn from the experience, as it reverses the standard gender bias and makes them realize some of the more emotional aspects of being a minority.

As the events have got larger we have struggled to keep with the sit down dinner thing as it's a logistical nightmare in terms of finances and in terms of finding venues. We started off with about 35 people and have now got between 80 and 150 people who attend the events. It's great but makes for somewhat of a challenge to manage expectations. Fortunately for me I like challenges. When things grew we found sponsors, cut the sit down meal and made it more of a finger food and buy your own at the bar type thing. The sponsors covered the cost of the finger food, wine and soft drinks. This meant that we could have the venues for free and people got at least some refreshment for free. With the sponsors have come high caliber speakers and very interesting audiences.

[5] Russ: You recently held your tenth dinner - which is an amazing achievement. Do the dinners have a specific format?

Sarah: The dinners do have a fairly specific format, we meet at 7:30pm, everyone who has signed up to the event has a name badge so that people know each other's names, they mix, mingle and converse. There is wine and soft drinks on the side that people help themselves to. We have a speaker or 3 (or open mic...) and people listen to that, as that happens finger food is put out and consumed. It's nice and simple. Nothing complicated otherwise things just wouldn't work. We contact a speaker, find a suitable sponsor, arrange a date, book the space & food, inform people of the event and everyone just turns up... If we can't find a sponsor then when we inform people of the event they pay their way in directly to the venue for the food.

[6] Russ: Looking at photos from your events, it seem there are a fair number of males who come along to these events as well?

Sarah: There are a number of men who attend the events, they always come with an invite from a female that is attending. They seem to get as much out of the events as the women and at the same time they get used to having females in the industry around them, which many men don't get the exposure to. It's a great way for everyone to make contacts and learn.

[7] Russ: You are also interested in the broader area of women in technology. Why are there "there are too few women in technology" and how can this be addressed?

Sarah: Women in technology... are there too few women in the industry... well comparative to the numbers going through university on the courses no, but if you look further back at people choosing the courses at university then yes. I think that the technology industry is in an interesting time. The overall number of people doing computer science at university is declining as it's seen as a dull industry in general. (perception wise...) It is also seen as anti-social, inflexible (long hours) and only average pay. Then in addition it is generally male dominated as well, which creates an added level of complexity for females looking at the market as they consider the gender gap as being something that may cause issues such as sex discrimination. So all in all it's a spiral, the less females that enter the industry the less that want to enter it... the industry as a whole needs a face lift and for people to start looking after their tech staff. They need to make the industry accessible to keep people, make it a happy, friendly environment. Treat everyone as equal in terms of gender, be supportive of their staff, train them well, keep them interested.

At the same time companies need to give their technical staff time to talk to future generations about their work and how it is good, what makes it interesting and exciting. Why people enjoy it, what the challenges are, and so forth.

[8] Russ: Who are your inspirations in technology?

Sarah: The first time I looked at this question I read it about what are my inspirations in technology... and that would have been gadgets, little things that make a big difference.

In terms of who... if I had to choose someone in technology it would have to be Bill Gates. I know that sounds so very Microsoftie... but it's true. I've worked with Java (briefly) and C#. I touched upon C++ and Ansi C, as such I appreciate what Microsoft have done. I find Bill G inspiring as he was once a developer and wasn't heard by his management, left the company and started up Microsoft. He has a brilliant business mind and an eye for seeing the future of technology.

In terms of general role models I look up to Richard Branson for his entrepreneurship, innovative thinking and willingness to give things a try.

Female role models.... hmmmm.... off the top of my head I can't think of many but Kathy Sierra does spring to mind for her work in usability.

[9] Russ: We have spoken about all the technology aspects of what you do, what else do you do outside of the technology arena?

Sarah: Outside of the geek world... hmmm... all sorts, where to start? Well... I guess I should really start at the beginning on this one. Ever since I was tiny I LOVED swimming! It was my sport so to speak. I swam 5000 meters by the time I was 7 years old, and had done all of the distance badges. After that I took up badminton for a while and got to one county match, and hated it so gave that up. I did gymnastics for a while and then got into the school side of things. At school I still LOVED swimming. I hated cross country running, tennis and netball. They just weren't sports for me. I got the chance to play Lacrosse for a few years and really enjoyed that. Then at university I set up the UMIST swimming team, as they didn't have a team and they had the brand new commonwealth games pool. I found coaches, funding and people to swim. I loved doing that and it gave me the chance to pursue competitive swimming, which I wanted to do when I was younger but had to concentrate on my studies more then. I competed at the BUSA nationals, didn't do too badly at that, and ended up as the events and publicity officer at university and then eventually made it to Athletic Union president for a time. It was all fantastic experience. I loved every minute of it. So you see sport has played a huge role in my life. It's something I am passionate about and I love.

Eventually I had to give up the swimming at a competitive level due to catching pneumonia. That forced me to concentrate more on my masters degree course. I also got introduced to rock climbing which ended up being a new avenue of sport to follow and pretty much replaced the swimming, and I'm soon to learn kayaking as well.

Something I always wanted to learn was how to play the Saxophone and I am learning that at the moment too. It's proving a challenge trying to fit practice around work and everything else but I've not put a time limit on learning to play it, just that I can eventually play well!

I am also a bit of a petrol head of sorts... I like my fast cars and I do go-kart racing as often as I can manage with everything else. (it averages out around once a month or so)

[10] Russ: What's in the pipeline? When is the next Geek Girl Dinner?

I am currently looking into how to bring technology to the schools through synergies between London Girl Geek Dinners and Computer Club for girls. That's one thing in the pipeline. I am working with other people both within the UK and outside of the UK to bring Girl Geek Dinners to other parts of the country. Brighton hold events regularly, as do Nottingham. We are looking to find people to run a few in the north of the UK and also outside of the UK. I believe people are working on one in Italy, we have run the events in Barcelona before now and there has been talk about running events in New York and Silicon Valley. To date these haven't happened but I look forward to the day when they do take off all over the place!

Russ: Thank you for the interview!
Sarah: It was a pleasure; thanks so much.

Copyright © Web Standards Group 2012
thewebstandardsgroup@gmail.com