Portrait: Helen Beal, Head of DevOps at Ranger4

Breaking the mold: ‘It’s not that you’re good — it’s that you’re female’

Gabriela Motroc
Hands of woman image via Shutterstock

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? In addition to the Women in Tech survey, we also launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Helen Beal, Head of DevOps at Ranger4 and JAX DevOps speaker.

Is tech a boys-only club? So it seems. But the light of smart and powerful women is finally shining bright. We root for excellence and justice and, above all, we want meritocracy to win. This is our way of giving women in tech a shout-out.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Women in Tech — The Survey

We would like to get to the bottom of why gender diversity remains a challenge for the tech scene. Therefore, we invite you all to fill out our diversity survey. Share your experiences with us!

Your input will help us identify the diversity-related issues that prevent us from achieving gender equality in technology workplaces.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce Helen Beal, Head of DevOps at Ranger4.

Helen Beal, Head of DevOps at Ranger4

Helen Beal has twenty years’ experience working in the technology industry with a focus on the Software Development Lifecycle for a wealth of cross-industry clients in the UK and abroad. Helen is passionate about DevOps and is the creator of the Ranger4 DevOps LiftOff Workshop and the Ranger4 DevOps Maturity Assessment – winner of the IBM Beacon Award 2015 for Outstanding DevOps Solution. She also started Ranger4’s #DevOpsFriday5 initiative and is on the Board of Regents at the DevOps Institute (Ranger4 are also a Registered Education Provider for the DOI’s DevOps training courses). Helen is also a novelist and ecologist. 

When she was seven years old, Helen’s father brought home a ZX81 — an early home computer from Sinclair. The ZX81 was a funny little thing, with these sort of flat keys, flush in the keyboard. It was much quieter though than what her dad brought home next, the Amstrad CPC464. This had a cassette drive integrated to the keyboard that you used to load games or save code — she can almost hear it screeching away now.

My favourite thing with that was to code ‘I am cool’ to scroll infinitely. It had proper, fat, clunky keys in bright primary colours. I used to have magazines of code that I could faithfully key in and ‘write’ my own games!

Helen’s career path

Fast forward a few years to me studying English Literature and Language at University and being frustrated that there were a bunch of modules I didn’t want to do and finding one called ‘English and Computing’ I fancied instead. It was 1992 and we learned about ‘hyperlinks’ and how to natural language parse texts to prove that Shakespeare didn’t write that thing, Bacon did! In order to supplement my income at University, I worked at weekends and during holidays. I did a lot of temping and ended up in a number of tech companies.

I also wrote a Microsoft Access based customer relationship management system for the cattery I worked at home a lot when I was there. I did loads of data entry one summer on 286s that couldn’t process as fast as our fingers could type. We were entering the sales figures for cans of paint sold by reps and magazines sold to service stations including BBC Gardener’s World and risqué adult titles like ‘Knave’ and ‘Jester’. Just after I graduated I took a two week temping assignment at a company called US Robotics, phoning people who had visited their stand at a conference and they liked me and I liked them so the plan was they would take me on permanently putting me on an 18 month cycle of six months in support, sales and marketing and then we’d decide what I liked best. Whilst they were off getting head count from the US I took another 2-week assignment covering for an administrator at Lotus, just after they had been acquired by IBM. I decided Lotus Notes (yeah, Marmite, right?) was WAY more interesting than rack-mounted modems and ended up there for a number of years.

Role models

I think I’ve already squarely blamed my father for introducing me to computers in the first place — I should have mentioned I have a brother who was a year above me in school so we shared a lot of interests and I’m certain computer time must have been a root cause of conflict although I think I can remember us playing together on it too! (Learning to share!)

I have a few role models but they are not really in the tech space — they are people like Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough. I guess they are people that broke models and also spread thinking. They are giants but if I could just creep quietly unto their shoulders and whisper about what we should do…

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”

I do remember the first person I asked for a job at IBM ultimately saying no. To be fair, I had only been there a couple of weeks and was a temp. The next time I tried, though, an amazing guy called Terry Burt had arrived and the brilliant female sales director, Shelagh Ashley, wholeheartedly supported his plan to upgrade me from administrator to account manager! Hooray!

I was so chuffed. Just out of University and had landed a job at IBM. Considering I didn’t really know what to do with my English degree (didn’t want to be a journalist, just wanted to write novels) my plan to just keep temping and see what happened had panned out quite well!

A day in Helen Beal’s life

Right now I am a DevOpsologist at Ranger4. I made up my job title.

It’s more a descriptor of what I do: study DevOps all day, every day. I’m a part owner of the company and we’re pretty small so we all wear a lot of hats — most of my days are taken up with customer facing activity: delivering services such as consulting (assessments, coaching, value stream mapping, tools implementation) and training. I also speak at quite a lot of events and deliver webcasts and podcasts.

SEE ALSO: “DevOps is not just one person’s job” [Interview with Helen Beal]

I write blogs, help with marketing and I administrate some of our company systems such as Salesforce, our email and HubSpot. It’s pretty varied! I’m in London a lot but also have travelled to the US, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Ukraine in the last year or so. It’s rad.

When it comes to the Women in Tech discussion, Helen believes that…

When I started at IBM in 1995 I noticed there were a lot more men than women and I wasn’t that bothered, partly because I’ve always had a lot of male friends and think men are pretty cool in general but also because I thought it would change. It didn’t.

In fact, I think there are even fewer women around me now in my job than when I started out 20 years ago. There are a lot of groups and movements trying to change that — I guess it’s about perception and stereotyping and maybe people feeling unwelcome when they are in the minority. I don’t think anyone denies it would be a good thing to have more woman in STEM.

Do girls have it easier than boys?

When I was in sales when I was younger, some of my male teammates would say that the girls had it easier than the boys because most of our customers were male and therefore they were more likely to want to speak to us or see us. I’m still conflicted about how I feel about this assertion. Does it objectify us? What does it say about men’s opinion of each other?

It made me feel like I had to double up to be respected professionally as the implication was that they just wanted a bit of ‘totty’ around. It’s not so prevalent now since the anti-bribery laws have become more stringent but when customer entertainment was focussed on the golf course, sporting events or even strip clubs, it felt harder to ‘add value’. It’s a bit like sometimes now, people suggest that I am more likely to get a speaking slot at an event because I’m female and we’re a rare breed. This is hard too, but probably ultimately also a blessing; the implication is that ‘it’s not that you’re good — it’s that you’re female’.

The culture we live in drives some of the gender issues.

Again, it just makes me want to double down and be the very best speaker I can be and try and take the gender issue out of the picture. So I’m not really saying anything new; it’s harder to be here, and we have to work harder to stay (in the face of SOME men telling us it’s easier). I have to qualify all of that with that the vast majority of men I work with don’t make me feel like that at all.

However, I’ll also say that the culture we live in drives some of this. Recently it was ‘International Women’s Day’ and whilst I support the concept, part of me wants to ignore it and pretend everything is fine. But I saw one blog and the featured picture was a cocktail and it immediately launched into the difficulty of childcare, and, I admit, I am in the somewhat ‘luxurious’ position of being child free. But what man opens a blog post with a picture of a martini and a comment on babysitters? A vicious circle perhaps where we feed the stereotypes.

People talk about waves of feminism and I’ve certainly felt at times very uncomfortable self-identifying as a feminist and have preferred to use terms such as egalitarian. There are some brilliant women doing some great work there to continue to fight the fight for equality which is all feminism is asking for in my mind: I salute Catlin Moran for her brilliant book How to Be a Woman, the marvellous Emma Watson with her HeForShe campaign and my manfriend recently alerted me to a TED Talk by the incredibly funny Sandi Toksvig; my favourite bit is where she points out that women run seven of the top one hundred companies in the UK — and men called John run seventeen.

The tech industry is hugely rewarding, full of smart people, you have no excuse for ever being bored. Don’t let the lack of other females bother you. Just do your best work and trust the power of your brain.

Helen Beal will be delivering one talk at JAX DevOps which will focus on the contributing methodologies that converge and combine to drive DevOps evolution


Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc was editor of and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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