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Christine Cawthorne: from Journalist to Director & Business Owner

Social media handle(s): Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram

A few words about me:

A photo of Christine Cawthorne smiling at the camera. She has shoulder length brown hair, green eyes and quite a big grin.

I’m from Leamington (yes! Leamington Spa), went to uni in Sheffield and now live in London. This means I’m a Midlander, a Northerner and a Southerner, which no one will be happy about.

I’ve never met a cat I didn’t like.

In my spare time I like to read books, talk about books and am always trying to write a book. As a kid I wrote my first story in the shed and it was called ‘Frog and Toad have a picnic’. Not much happens except for two amphibious friends having lunch and yet there are pages and pages devoted to descriptions of what they ate. I am still very food focused.

I run my own company Crocstar, it’s a content agency, which I set up 15 years ago. Before this I worked as an online journalist at the BBC and before that I was an intern at Yahoo.

Are there any professional experiences you've had that are quite unexpected compared to what you do nowadays?

I always wanted to be a journalist and was lucky enough to do that early on in my career. Although it turns out that lots of the skills you need as a journalist (empathy, curiosity, clear writing) are also ones that you need to work as a content designer. When I was at the BBC I would often get involved in other things – once I translated French for John Craven on Countryfile (I even got to sit in his seat).

When I was at uni I did lots of temping jobs. As well as the usual filing clerk, typing pool and shop assistant, I also worked for a summer as a referral secretary in a gender identity clinic and for another as a note taker in multidisciplinary meetings about pregnant women with substance abuse issues.

Is your background more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or non-STEM related?

Definitely not STEM - I studied journalism at university and languages at A level. I’m reasonably good at maths and science, but I always loved languages and knew I wanted to do something with that.

Where did your professional journey start?

My very first job after uni was as the student newspaper’s managing editor - making sure the stuff we published was not only legal, accurate and correctly spelled but interesting too. This set me up nicely for my first digital role, which was as an assistant homepage editor at Yahoo. It was a paid internship, which I think was quite unusual in 2004.

I learned so much about the possibilities of digital - even though at the time most people were still on a narrowband connection, only the early adopters had broadband. I learned things in that internship that I still use today, such as how to give clear instructions to users and the importance of accessibility.

It was also a place that had great culture. You could sit with anyone in the canteen at lunchtime, and were encouraged to talk to people you hadn’t met before. If you had an idea about how to do something, you could speak up, whether you were an intern or in upper management. There was little deference to hierarchy. It was very different when I went to the BBC - so I was glad I’d been at Yahoo first.

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

When I started at Yahoo I was choosing news stories for the homepage, which was very much an editorial role. As time went on I learned more technical stuff, things like looking at the stats, building (and coding) new pages, reporting and sometimes even fixing bugs.

I liked that you could see what people were doing online, in a way that you couldn’t with say, a newspaper or radio programme. You could see how long people stayed on the page, what they clicked, what ‘worked’ and what didn’t. It was a compelling mix of watching people do stuff while also helping me hone my writing skills. The more I looked, the better I got.

After Yahoo I worked at the BBC as an online journalist for a few years, which I loved. I set up Crocstar because I wanted to see what it was like working for myself and to experience working on different types of projects.

It was clear to me that this was an emerging field and things were changing all the time. I was interested in helping other people learn how to write well for the web, because then everyone would have an easier time finding and understanding stuff.

Have you experienced any 'career in tech' challenges / stereotypes?

Setting up my business at 25 was challenging as I didn’t know how to run a business… and then the financial crash happened not long after. I had no safety net and struggled for work. It was around this time that I started teaching, which I thought could be another revenue stream.

I approached my old uni and offered to run web journalism sessions so the students would be able to have a teacher with recent experience in the field. From the first minute I loved it. Talking to people, helping them learn stuff, learning stuff from them, it just felt like fun.

Working in content can be challenging. Everyone can write so there are always opinions on how to say things.

Content can also represent people’s knowledge and so by changing their words it can feel (to them) like you’re lessening their expertise.

Because words are easy to add and change they are often thought of as something that can be done at the end of the design process. It’s always much better to involve a writer at the start of a design process as they are masters of logic and information flow. It’s also pretty impossible to solve a design problem with words.

Lots of my training deals with how to tackle some of these issues and how to have productive conversations with people you’re working with.

Christine is giving a talk to a group of people. She's standing in front of a large screen, which has some text on it, and is holding a piece of paper over some of it. She's showing how difficult it is to read a word when you can only see the bottom half of the letters.

"The tech industry is all the better for having people in it that have different experiences and backgrounds and if you’re thinking of a career change then you’ll have loads of the skills needed already."

What you wish you knew before getting started in tech...

Knowing a bit of code has always been useful for me, both because it means I can be useful in a team and also be able to have conversations with designers and programmers. Maybe if I’d known this earlier I would have learned a bit more.

What has been your biggest 'wow!' moment related to working in tech so far?

I worked at Government Digital Service training people how to write for GOV.UK (I taught more than 2,500 people over an 18-month period). The ambition of the project and the energy we had for it was a once-in-a-career thing.

Having the opportunity to talk to so many people about user needs, clear language and structure is brilliant. And what I love about training is that people stay in touch and tell you about their successes at work, and how they've been able to put what they've learnt into practice.

What do you like / not like about working in tech?

I like that we can build, test and change things easily. This quick iteration allows us to learn and make things better in real time. It’s an industry that is made better by people collaborating, which I love.

I dislike that it can be isolating to work at home alone – certainly for me anyway. I much prefer to work with others in person. And working in content can be hard, which motivates me to keep training people and try to help make things better.

"Tech isn’t just programming code, it’s so much more."

What's been your favourite / most memorable / funniest 'career in tech' moment so far?

A few years ago I gave a talk at the SXSW conference on how writers and designers can work together, pairing up with a UX designer I’d met there the year before. We applied marriage guidance counselling techniques to teams, which had some pretty interesting results. I think this is an issue that’s probably grown since doing that talk in 2015.

And to wrap up, is there any advice you'd like to give to others interested in a career in tech?

The tech industry is all the better for having people in it that have different experiences and backgrounds and if you’re thinking of a career change then you’ll have loads of the skills needed already. Tech isn’t just programming code, it’s so much more.


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