Dr Rebecca Parsons, CTO at Thoughtworks, joined the London and Manchester-based software design and IT consultancy in 1999. Since then, Thoughtworks has grown its workforce from a hundred to 2,500 people across 15 countries and 29 cities. All of its growth, excluding its buyout of Servidium in 2001, has been completely organic.
Why did you decide to leave your role as professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida to pursue a career in application development?
I prefer the challenge of dealing with potentially inconvenient constraints. The academic environment involves finding proof and specific kinds of results, which often mean you have to simplify the problem. In the real world, you're not just looking for the optimum solution or the provably best solution, you're looking for something that works. So you're more likely to go with a realistic algorithm that works most of the time than working to solve a problem completely, so that it works in all possible incidences.
All of Thoughtwork's growth has been completely organic, with the exception of acquiring Servidium in 2001. Is there any particular reason?
When you try to take an already established culture and merge it with a very strong internal culture like the one we have at Thoughtworks, it's very difficult to blend the cultures. It's one thing to hire and teach a senior person how things work here. In a merger and acquisition, it's more difficult to assimilate the people into the culture without making it more forceful. However, we do try to hire people outside because in part we think there are external perspectives that are valuable.
To what extent do you think there are more women working in IT now compared to when you first started working in the industry?
I've seen both an increase and a decrease in women in IT. At university, I remember one class with 52 students, four of which were women, and that was about average at that time. In some places since that time, we got up to perhaps 25% or even a third around the mid 90s and it has since dropped back down.
Why do you think it's fallen again and what effects will it have on the industry as a whole?
Part of it is the startup mentality. If you look at the percentage of women who are leading the startups, particularly in the internet boom, it is quite small. It has started to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes of what it means to be a computer professional, for example an anti-social man with poor hygiene habits, living in his mother's basement, surviving on pizza and coke cola and playing war games till 4am. There are people like that in our business, but I think there is also a cultural shift moving out to the internet service as commerce and social media. There's a phrase you hear a lot in the US, 'Brogrammer', this macho programming culture and women don't necessarily fit well into that culture.
What has to be done?
One of the most important things is for high profile men who are seen as technically credible and influential in the community to start speaking out against some of the more egregious behaviours. It's one thing for me to be up there on a stage basically being an existent proof that women can make it in this industry and it's another when high profile figures, the Martin Fowlers, of the world, get up there and say, "it isn't acceptable that women are marginalised." There's only so much that women and other ended minorities can do. It's always more impactful when the people who are respected in the power structure say that this is no longer acceptable.
What do you think about women pursuing a career in IT despite the challenge of having a family? Could Tech companies do more to facilitate them?
It depends on what part of the industry you're in. Clearly a company like Thoughtworks, where you're doing more travel, it's more difficult when you have a family. However, if you look at product companies or organisations with internal IT departments, there's less need for travel.
What else could Tech companies do to facilitate women ?
There are many discussions around job sharing. In some ways, a technologist should be better suited to thinking of technology solutions to the problem of effectively supporting remote working of that nature, which makes a flexible schedule easier to accommodate. An important aspect of this though is to make sure these flexible policies are not just there for women, so they're not seen as some sort of holding pin for people who don't have the same ambitions as other people. In many companies that have adopted flexible work policies, it's seen as a career limiting move to take advantage of some of these benefits.
Where is ThoughtWorks heading? Any new apps or software in the pipeline or expansion plan?
We just opened our second office in South America. Quito, Equador, is our newest office. We're looking at focusing a bit more in the retail industry in the UK and EU more generally. We're also trying to do much more in the delivery of electronics health systems in the development world. We recently worked with partners in health to open up a teaching hospital in Haiti and so we're trying to increase the impact we could have on health outcomes for people in the emerging economies.
You're relatively a smaller company provider in the industry. How do you find competing with the larger companies in India?
There are unit costs and final delivery costs. We think that because of the way we approach our hiring as well as the way we approach training our people and how we go about delivering projects that we can compete on overall value even if our hourly cost is different. We used to say we're big enough to matter but small enough to care. We've got a global footprint that matches very nicely with our larger international clients.