Known in the industry for “getting stuff done”, Karen is 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 girl 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 oversee and provide strategy and leadership for the development, sales and delivery of all our products (RevSpa, OneJourney, Gifted and Hotel Lobby) and the teams responsible for them. In simple terms I problem solve. I will be faced with a business challenge and then it is my job to spec out the scope of the product that can be created to solve it in the most efficient, cost effective and user friendly way. I lean on my wonderful team, and Tim, our Technical Director, who will then physically architect the solution from a code and build perspective.
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 came 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 I was hungry to learn and grow.
Q: What was the transition like from IT support to web development?
I’d like to say it was a natural transition over time, but it wasn’t. Like with many things in my career, it was a “jump in at the deep end, head first” scenario!
I was working as a contractor on major infrastructure projects for companies like Pinewood Studios and Allied Domecq, but one day my manager explained that they were short staffed and needed help with website builds. He gave me a half hour explanation and a book called “Web Design in a Nutshell” and that was it. 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, because, “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 the user experience is rubbish, so it renders it redundant. There are many ways to reach the right solution and that is the skill - identifying the most satisfactory 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 a lot of women in Front End Development roles as that is a highly visual space and tends to attract more females than men. I would agree that women are a scarcity in Back End Development roles. All of the coding and technical aspects have traditionally been performed by men and I don’t know why. Perhaps these careers have not typically been promoted at school level, I know I didn’t realise they existed when I was getting my education. My only exposure to computers was to take my typing exams! 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 complement 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 of structural engineers. The purpose of it was so that their work force could simply type some data into a few fields and it would generate the exact amount of supplies they required to perform a job.
I spent half a day with a senior 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. I could have had a meltdown, but I thought, “There is no one else to do this, I have to master it” and I did. That’s one thing I would always say to others wanting to learn in this industry - there is no trick. You have to sit there and work it out, not for anyone else, but for yourself.
People are often seeking a quick fix or easy solution, but sometimes all you can do is read, research, learn and understand. That’s what I did, for the requirements of that job I learnt complex equations to get the task done.
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 soon moved up to club level. I always had an issue with the umpires though. I had a bug bear with the decisions they made and became known as “the eyes”, as I’d give them the evil eye if I disagreed with them! I played well into adulthood, up to four times a week, but ended up becoming frustrated with the game so gave it up. I was left with a hockey shaped hole in my life, which I tried to fill with many other activities. I even tried competitive powerlifting which saw me pull an eight ton Eddie Stobard truck in an all female team! These were all fun things to tick of a list, but they didn’t give me the same sense of satisfaction.
I started playing hockey again, but found my frustrations with the umpires were still there in full force. I decided that I didn’t want to be known for being someone who was critical of umpires, I wanted to be remembered as a great player. So, I switched sides. If I was going to be critical I should have a go myself and give something back to the sport I loved so much. As I don’t tend to do things by halves, I went from never having blown a whistle to being a regional umpire after five months.
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. The research and mindset work I have done to shape my role as an umpire have heavily influenced my leadership skills. I read a book called “Black Box Thinking” and the sentiment really resonated with me. You see, unlike my confidence in the work I do, I have always worried that I’m rubbish at umpiring. My lack of self belief was holding me back. When you umpire you have to make split decisions and your outward presentation of the decision you have made is really important, your poker face basically. If you look like you are doubting yourself you lose the trust of the people on the pitch and they get into your head to try and change your decisions.
I’m a very analytical person, I like to listen to people and draw conclusions after I’ve heard all the evidence. How can I take that personality and become somebody different to be an effective umpire?
“Black Box Thinking” taught me that a change of mindset can be learned like any other skill. With a huge concerted effort and a lot of patience, it can be mastered. So that is what I have done.
It also teaches about learning from failures. Rather than pulling yourself to pieces, it’s about what lessons you can take away from things that have not gone to plan. I instil this in my team daily. We do not operate in a blame culture, there is no finger pointing; we are all empowered to do the best work we can do. It means people are honest about their mistakes, which in turn allows them to learn and grow.
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!