In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, Privitar is shining the spotlight on some of our amazing women PriviStars. This month, we are featuring interviews with team members from across the company, demonstrating the talent, passion, and commitment they bring to their day jobs at Privitar and advancing women in the broader technology landscape. Read on to learn more about Suzanne Weller, Privitar’s Head of Research.

Describe your role at Privitar 

I lead the Privitar Labs Research team. Our role is to discover unmet privacy needs from our customers, then research, prototype and evaluate the success of advanced privacy enhancing technologies in solving these use cases. We work with our academic advisors to understand emerging techniques and develop our own novel solutions.

How did you get started in the data industry?

I got enthusiastic about software engineering and research while studying for a PhD in Nanoscale Physics. I developed algorithms to detect and measure particles in electron microscope images, allowing me to extract statistical insights into how the shape and size of the particles affect their chemical properties as catalysts.

I was inspired and fascinated that I could program a computer to perform this complex task and knew I wanted to work on more problems like this as I started my career. I spent as much time as I could learning programming languages and building applications to gain experience as I began my job search. My first job in tech was at a small, innovative startup developing machine learning algorithms for personalised marketing – something really novel at the time. This role opened my eyes to the potential for data to help businesses and organisations, but also to the importance of protecting our privacy as individuals and customers.

What is the most exciting part of your role at Privitar?

The absolutely best thing about my job is working together with a generous, enthusiastic, creative and talented team to solve difficult technical problems. It’s exciting when we bring different knowledge and build on each other’s ideas to create something better.

I love to be working on an issue that I believe is so important, and that the field of privacy and building software to help organisations manage it is such a diverse area requiring multidisciplinary solutions. There are many exciting challenges in my day to day role which keep it fresh and interesting: listening to customers describe privacy problems they are looking to solve to enable new uses of data; coding up prototypes and evaluating different techniques; presenting and communicating results; collaborating with academic partners to understand emerging techniques and trends; managing my team and the projects we are working on.

What inspires you most about working in data privacy?

Insights from data can have huge benefits for our lives: understanding treatments and outcomes in healthcare research, providing effective education and training, policy decisions in tackling a pandemic, enabling businesses to develop products and services to support or entertain us – these are just a few.

The data collected from each of us is essential in decision-making and innovation. Yet when we risk losing control of how our data is used, we become reluctant to share it – we see how inappropriate use and sharing of data can lead to discrimination and manipulation.

I’m excited to be working on solutions to help organisations use our data effectively, while at the same time respecting and protecting our sensitive information. I’m particularly inspired by the technical side and how privacy enhancing technologies can be used to responsibly open up new possibilities for data analytics and sharing of data insights. It’s an interesting and rapidly developing field with plenty of new challenges and different approaches to discover.

What challenges sit on the path to becoming a female data leader?

The tech industry holds fantastic opportunities for women leaders to drive the creation of technical solutions which make a difference in the world. Women can bring a rounded mixture of technical, creative and leadership skills and achieve senior roles. We can take on specialised leadership in technical research, engineering, design, product management and people management.

There are no huge barriers, but one challenge is that given fewer women in the industry in general, and also at a senior level, it can be harder to find female role models or mentors. Nevertheless, people in the industry tend to be open-minded and diverse in their backgrounds and thinking. I have been privileged to work with many inspiring colleagues, both women and men, who have supported my career development.

What can the tech industry do to increase inclusion and diversity?

The best, most inclusive teams I have worked with are made up of talented members and a great team culture where everyone feels comfortable with bringing their ideas or asking questions of each other. People in this environment are open with knowledge, learn from each other and support mistakes. Developing this culture requires a careful, inclusive hiring process as well as continuous acknowledgement and guardianship of this behaviour from all members of the team.

What’s the biggest change that needs to happen in order to encourage more women to pursue technical careers?

Unlike when I was at school, my children have lessons in engineering and coding from the very first years. I think this helps them understand how science and maths can be used to solve interesting problems that are important to them, so they never think of it as abstract, boring or pointless.

Technology and data have crucial roles to play in solving some of the big problems facing the world today such as poverty, climate change, connectedness and privacy. Teaching young people about the application of STEM subjects to real-world problems will help to enthuse a more diverse range of people to enter into technical careers.

Before embarking on my career in tech, I never really considered or understood the extent to which teamwork is important in developing technical solutions. I imagined it more as a competitive, lone-genius environment. Groups of people coming together with different knowledge, experience and skills bring diverse perspectives to a problem and lead to amazing solutions. Providing young people with more practical experience of working together on difficult technical problems could attract them to the fun of teamwork in the tech industry and give a taster of the different aspects of developing technology that might appeal to them.