Known for “getting stuff done”, this sums up Karen pretty succinctly. She’s a no fuss, pragmatic “do-er”; a quiet achiever and born problem solver. With a career that spans over 20 years in IT and software development, our Product Director is a bit of a trailblazer; pathing the way for women in positions of leadership in a historically male dominated industry . We couldn’t be more proud to have her at the helm of our Technology Division, leading us forward into a new era of cutting edge software developments that are set to change the face of the hotel industry. It’s no mean feat, but we think we’ve got just the woman to achieve it.
We took half an hour out of Karen’s day to have a coffee and chat about how she got to where she is today, and gain some insight into one of the most complex areas of our business here at Journey.
Q: What's your role at Journey?
I am the Product Director here at Journey, which means I head up the Technology Division. In my role I provide strategy and leadership for the development, sales and delivery of our products (RevSpa, OneJourney, Gifted and Hotel Lobby) and oversee the teams responsible for them.
I additionally find solutions to achieve a vision. When we are presented with a business or guest related challenge, I document the requirements and investigate options to provide a specification that aims to tackle the product or feature in the most efficient, cost effective and user friendly way.
This work dovetails with the technical architecture for how the code is constructed and built, so I work very closely with our Technical Director, Tim to deliver on the requirements.
Once, our development teams have completed the product or feature, I work with Lisa (Business Development) and Liz (Product Success) who deliver our solution to our clients.
Q: Let’s go back to the beginning, how did you get into the technology space?
Completely by accident really. After school I was supposed to go and study for a degree in music, but decided to take a year out first. I took on a role at Eagle Star, the insurance company in Cheltenham, basically doing photocopying and filing. I found that it didn’t take up much of my time and I got bored, so I spent lots of time messing around on the computer. I seemed to have a better aptitude for computers than anyone else in my department.
If someone in the business went to the IT department with an issue, the response quickly became “have you asked Karen?” I got involved solving support requests and progressed quickly. At the time the top performing team member was getting 30 support tickets completed a week and I was getting through 200. After that I got spotted and was headhunted by a consultancy in London. I never ended up doing that music degree, my career had been kickstarted in a totally different direction and that allowed me to learn and grow.
Q: What was the transition like from IT support to web development?
I was working as a contractor on major infrastructure projects for companies like Pinewood Studios and Allied Domecq, but one day the head of development explained that they were short staffed and needed help in the software development team. He gave me a half hour explanation on ‘How websites work”, an O’Reilly reference book, and that was it.
I was left to write all the validation for forms on a bespoke web application for a major bank. I just had to get on with it and find my way.
Q: What is it about the tech space that has captured your interest so much?
I’m intrinsically interested in how things work. I like to understand how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and technology provides the perfect environment in which to indulge that side of my brain. It’s also why I like old cars, because they are mechanical. I used to change the brake pads in my car! I like to know “why”. “Why” is a very important question to ask.
Q: So, unlike the creative process which is highly subjective, do you like that there is a definitive right and wrong?
The creative process is more similar to the technical process than you would think. Just because there is a definitive solution, it doesn’t mean it’s the right one. Something can functionally fit the bill, but if the user experience is rubbish it renders it redundant. There are many ways to reach the right solution and that is the skill - identifying the most appropriate outcome out of multiple possible routes available.
Q: Historically the technology industry attracts a lot of men. Have you noticed a change in the landscape in how women are contributing and operating in more senior positions?
There have always been women in tech roles but they tend to be in client facing or more creative roles - design, front-end development, support.
However, I would agree that women are seen less in roles such as back-end or database development. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of role models to identify with? As I said, I wanted to study music and fell into tech by accident and luckily discovered a world that appealed to my inquisitive mind perfectly. There are so many roles within technology that compliment such a diverse range of personalities and skill sets regardless of age or gender.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge and greatest highlight in your career to date?
I can think of one particular project that probably ticks both of those boxes, it was my biggest technical challenge and so overcoming it was one of my greatest achievements.
I was tasked with creating a digital calculator solution for a company manufacturing construction and drainage products. The purpose of it was to allow their clients to simply type some environmental data into a few fields and it would calculate the exact amount of supplies they required to perform a job.
I spent half a day with a senior structural engineer who gave me two pages of pure mathematical equations and a brochure. I had to go away and completely unpick it, learn it and understand it to a level where I could confidently brief the developers to perform the build. It was a project and subject matter entirely foreign to me, as is so frequently the case, but I work through it methodically until I come up with a solution.
That’s one thing I would always say to others wanting to learn in this industry. You have to sit and work it out. People often seek someone to tell them how to go about a task, but by reading, researching and persevering, you learn and develop the most.
Q: Anyone who knows you knows that hockey is a big part of your life. Can you tell us about that?
I started playing at 11 years old and played indoor and outdoor hockey up to National League level. I was left with a hockey shaped hole in my life when I decided to retire from playing, which I tried to fill with many other activities. I even tried competitive powerlifting and strong woman competitions, which saw me pull an eight ton Eddie Stobart truck in an all female team!
These were all fun things to tick off a list, but they didn’t give me the same sense of satisfaction. I started playing hockey again, but was frustrated by the umpiring at a lower level than I had been used to. I decided that I didn’t want to be known for being someone who was critical of umpires, so, I switched sides and have a go myself and give something back to the sport I loved so much.
Five years later, I now umpire at National League level for women’s and men’s teams and spend most weekends travelling around the country, dedicating my free time to the game.
Q: Does your umpiring influence or complement your work in any way or vice versa?
Absolutely. Umpiring at the top level of the domestic game can be very intense, not only on the pitch, but afterwards with coaches during debriefing. It requires the ability to make decisions in a split second, and have the confidence to present them so that players have confidence in you. In the same way that I am with my work, I struggle to see beyond my weaknesses sometimes, and self belief is an area that I’ve had to work very hard on. The research and reading I have done to help me as an umpire, also helps me as a leader, and dealing with situations of conflict.
A book called ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed talks about how anything can be learnt through ‘deliberate practice’. There is no such thing as intelligence or talent! Understanding that there are no barriers to what I can learn or achieve with skills or mindset help with continual improvement, something which is at the core of Agile development which our teams adopt here at Journey.
Syed’s other book ‘Black Box Thinking’ has helped me to better manage my failures on the hockey pitch, and introduce a different kind of culture within the Technology team. We take mistakes seriously, but tackle them honestly and head on with the attitude that it’s an opportunity to improve. This means that within umpiring, or situations at work, problems are tackled quickly and in a positive way. The Growth Mindset is at the heart of our work culture, and when I umpire.
Q: Obviously we are a company of keen travellers here at Journey, what destinations are on your bucket list?
I walked up Kilimanjaro in 2001, but only saw the mountain region. I’d love to go back and explore Tanzania with my 13 year old son and take him on safari. We also have a skiing trip to Canada planned and I personally want to visit Costa Rica. You can see a theme emerging here, we are a family of adventure seekers that’s for sure!