A Female CTO Shares Her Thorny Journey In the Male-Dominated Tech Industry
Colette Wyatt is a Chief Technology Officer at Evolve, an award-winning UK-based software house with an R&D Centre in Ukraine. She's also a Co-Founder and COO of e-bate, a revolutionary platform for rebates management, which attracted £950,000 last year from Mercia Asset Management, the MEIF Proof of Concept & Early Stage Fund, and part of the Midlands Engine Investment Fund.
As a female tech leader and a commercial strategist, Colette helps ensure the successful delivery of bespoke solutions to Evolve multinational clients.
Besides, Colette is my boss. I first heard tidbits of her exciting journey throughout the male-dominant tech world at our corporate dinner when she came to visit her clients' teams in our Kyiv-based R&D Centre – a quarterly tradition she never skips. Since then, I've kept having flashbacks of her telling us how she landed her first job in tech and became a head of the engineering department without a university degree just a few months later. Or how she realised she had a different type of thinking which helped her stay on par with male colleagues with an academic background. Back then, one thought was running around in my head: through the thorns to the stars. Nothing could describe her exciting yet challenging journey any better.
I've been craving to interview Colette in a more in-depth way since then. Finally, despite several failed attempts due to her extremely busy calendar, she surrendered and let me interview her.
Colette's story is an excellent example of how important it is to have other people believe in us and support us from early childhood. It also shows how being a lifelong learner and a hard worker can pay off well in the form of an excellent track record, respect and overall industry recognition as a female thought leader.
Here we go...
Colette, how did you get to the world of tech and eventually become a tech leader?
It's fair to say I got into tech by accident. I was working in the hospitality industry where I had reached the highest level within my hotel chain. One day, I was talking to a client who wanted to train their customers on telecommunication systems and was looking for someone with good people skills to help him. As I had those skills, he offered me a job and I decided to give it a try.
So I joined his business back in 1987. Six months later, I was running their engineering department. I guess I found my calling by going to a telecommunications business.
I always had an inquisitive mind and, as a kid, I just loved taking things apart. I've always felt if something is not working then the way to figure out how to fix it is to take it apart and put it back together again. My inquisitive mind eventually brought me from the engineering department into sales where I had to work directly with customers designing and installing their voice and data networks. I did that for eight years working in the same company until I realised I had to change something as I couldn't learn anything new anymore and I love being a life-long learner.
Eventually, I was offered the opportunity to become a consultant, so I set up my very first business in 1997. I did that for three years and then, by chance, I met somebody who had a telecommunications company in my local area Milton Keynes. He realised that I had extensive knowledge of the telecommunications industry, knew how the system worked and understood all the terminology. He didn't mind hiring a female employee with the required experience and expertise, so he asked me to be his sales director.
I joined his business and helped grow its turnover from less than £1 million to over £10 million within two years. As I built a solid reputation within the industry, I started selling carrier-grade systems that were built to enable new operators to get established in the UK and globally.
I was then headhunted by a company who acquired our American competitor. While having the best reputation in the industry, I didn't have a degree. As I didn't have any academic background, I didn't match the profile of the type of people they were looking to hire, but they hired me anyway and gave me the position just because of my track record in the local tech community.
Two years later, I decided again it was time to do my own thing.
And what was it?
My brother and I established two companies – a voice-over company and a satellite company – and we started providing voice-over and satellite services into Africa and the Middle East predominantly.
My most significant achievement at that time was getting three out of four voice-over IP licenses in Nigeria for my client. We went out and bid; we had to come up with our design of how we were going to build a network within Nigeria to service the market. It was a very tough competition as we were competing with large American companies. But we did it!
I was running my own business for five years. As a young mother having to take care of my just-born daughter, I realised I wasn't getting the benefit of being my own boss. I was then offered a position as a sales director for Europe, Middle East and Africa from one of the largest voice-over IP equipment manufacturers in the UK. I accepted it and was building their business for a few years until the company got acquired and I got a good redundancy package.
After that, I landed a job at a London-based telecom startup where I was the first tech team member. I helped establish their business by building a new hosted PBX solution for them and a mobile voice-over IP application which was one of the first mobile VoIP applications built back in 2006. We launched the product, and we actually achieved very good traction over two years. I guess we gained too much traction and had to shut the business down because Vodafone would threaten to take away their mobile license.
Looks like an exciting journey!
Having worked in telecommunications for over 25 years, I had worked across everything from fixed-line communications to VoIP to mobile to satellite to radio to microwave. All of a sudden, I got an offer to help establish a connected health platform for a huge medical technology company called Alere.
That was a very, very interesting position to be in. I was their VP of R&D for connected health. It was a three-billion dollar turnover business, and actually, I was the only VP R&D not to have a university degree. So I suffered greatly from imposter syndrome while I was there. I said to myself "I can't sit at the table with all these very intelligent and smart people." But then I realised I was as good as them, I just had a different type of intelligence.
"I had the so-called "street-wise intelligence", meaning I understood the commercial factors of product development, as well as technology, user experience and user expectations. As such, I brought to the table skills those men with PhDs didn't have themselves. And it was a win-win situation for all!"
And it was an entire turning point for me: I finally felt like I was clever and I didn't have to have a degree to succeed. It was both rewarding and enlightening for me. But more than that – I was passionate about the mission of the project – to change the aging population’s life.
So I put together an £800 million commercial plan for the business that was actually ratified by McKinsey. Still, the investors wanted to break it up and sell the assets to different parties. Unfortunately, they closed down the connected health division. The Founder left as he had a different vision for platform development. Sadly, after a lot of work having been done and having got very close to the platform launch in the UK, we had to stop.
And how did you end up in bespoke software development business?
A couple of years later, I met Leanne Bonner-Cooke
, a Founder and Chairwoman of Evolve. We had met through a mutual connection: I was building a piece of software for a third-party Leanne was working with. As she needed someone to come and take over the delivery part of her consultancy business, she invited me to join Evolve and I agreed. So, I joined Evolve in 2015. Ever since, I've been running a technology division, providing both sales and tech solutions to other businesses.
We've built many fantastic things across many different sectors, from construction to pharmaceuticals. We've built bespoke employee wellbeing applications, property tech platforms, fintech solutions, etc. This job fits into many of my strengths.
"I like nothing better than somebody telling me there's a problem they need to have solved and me being able to solve it through technology."
Apart from that, I've always wondered why the client believes they have a problem, who they're trying to solve that problem for, and then coming up with outside-the-box solutions. I'm a strong believer that a good user experience helps achieve a business objective.
When you needed money for your fintech startup, how did you attract the funding?
It was tough at the beginning because when you google for "how to get an investment" you end up getting one thousand answers, which only increases your frustration.
"When you start the process of fundraising, it's like throwing mud on the wall and seeing where this mud would stick."
However, I think, some of the most important things are to be clear on what you're trying to achieve, know your market, know your opportunity, have a very solid vision around not just technology, but your customer, understand why you're doing it and whom you're doing it for, what problem you're trying to solve, how big the problem is.
As long as you have all of those answers and you have a good and reputable founding team and a solid business plan, you're not convincing anyone feverishly you're going to build the next Uber or something like this - you'll find the right investors for you. No doubt you will.
"It took us about 18 months to gain the investment, and it felt like a real struggle at times, as we didn't know the process and who were the right people to talk to. We had to cast quite a wide net, but once we got to the place where we knew what we were doing and trying to achieve – finding investors became a breeze."
It only took us around 6 months from talking to the first investors to closing a deal.
Also, it's important to talk to people who got an investment as opposed to those who're seeking it just like you.
Colette, as you've always worked in a male-dominant world, did men normally have your back or look down on you?
That's true that I've always worked with more men than women, and I can't say that men were unsupportive along the way, but for one reason only.
"I realised a long time ago that for me to be recognised by men, I had to be the best in what I do."
I was to be able to answer every question during a discussion, so the only way I could compete as a woman in a male-dominant tech world was actually to have all of the answers and to keep learning.
And how about your family, did they support you in your tech career?
Oh yes, they did, from early on. I come from North England which is pretty an old-fashioned area where people still believe that women should stay at home.
Maybe not quite as much now, but in our generation, it was the beliefs system I grew up with. And to be honest, I think my brother shared those beliefs too until one day we were on a call talking about telecommunications, and he realised that his silly little sister who didn't do well at school seem to actually know what she was speaking about. That's how our journey of working together had started. He had satellite and radio experience from the Navy, and I had telecommunications, network and commercial experiences, so we combined our strengths and complimented each other.
All in all, it's been an exciting professional journey with a lot of support from men, including my husband. He has been in the IT industry for 20-25 years as well. When we first met about ten years ago, I spoke about telecommunications for about two hours. I then told him there were two most important things in my life – my daughter and my work. So if he wanted to be part of my life, he would have to come third.
What personal values drive you forward?
My personal value is to treat people the way I want them to treat me. I firmly believe that we have something to give and if everybody just gave a little bit of themselves to somebody else every day, the whole world would be a better place. I believe in fairness and equality. I think everybody is capable of achieving anything in their life if they're willing to work hard.
I'm not particularly material, so my drive is fixing other people's problems through technology and making their life better.
And who's inspired you during your tech career? Do you have a role model to follow?
At a different time, I had different role models. The very first person to inspire me was the person in telecommunications who hired me and introduced to the world of tech. Back then, he didn't know me, but he just believed in me and saw what kind of a sponge I was and how fast I absorbed new knowledge. Although he was very supportive, he was a very hard person to work for, very very demanding. Yet, without having somebody like him at the very beginning, I wouldn't have the same level of drive to be better. So I think he played an important role in my life.
Before that, I did have one teacher at school who always saw something in me despite my lack of academia. She always made me feel I'd be able to achieve something if I work hard enough. There's nothing worse when you're young and troubled, and people around are telling you you'll be good for nothing.
Also, I've always admired people operating at the backstage of significant developments. Like Steve Wozniak and Jony Ives.
What important lesson(s) have you learned throughout your career?
There's a saying that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that order.
"So, the lesson I learned is to listen more and talk less."
What are your plans for the future?
My plan for the future is to keep building Evolve. Right now, we have a great management team, and the decision to expand our operations to Ukraine
was the right one as it's broadened our horizons in many ways in terms of what we can achieve as a collective. But also, there're a lot of skills and new knowledge that we've added to our business from expanding the team across two countries. Having a large portion of our Ukrainian software developers skilled in math and data science allows us to deal with more complex technology problems and more sophisticated customer needs. We're more than 70 people across all locations today, and we want to grow to 200 plus over twelve to eighteen months. So, yes, we have quite ambitious plans. In addition to that, I'm still looking forward to building tech solutions for the aged population; that's my real ambition and goal.
What's your best piece of advice for women willing to join the world of tech and innovation?
Believe in yourself, because if you don't, others won't either. Don't take NO for an answer. Don't say I can't do something, just push through it, because we can do anything.
I firmly believe that women have the right to sit at the table. We do see things and think differently, and that's one of our strengths. We just need to embrace it about ourselves and embrace our empathy. As the world is going to change a lot in the next five to ten years with AI, machine learning and other new tech popping up, it just needs a combination of great male and female minds to achieve the great results.
And what about you? Do you have a cool story to share with Hacker Noon readers? Get in touch and I'll be happy to interview you and give it a shoutout!
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