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Steph Troeth: From Music & Computer Science to Head of Research

Social media handle(s): LinkedIn

A few words about me:

Photo of Steph

Since building my first website back in 1995, I’ve worn many hats, including: a full-stack engineer, a UX/CX strategist, a co-founder/product lead for a startup in digital publishing, and a director of technology at a digital agency in Montréal. It’s quite scary to say this out loud, but having worked in tech for nearly twenty-five years, my long list of past clients includes the Financial Times, Google, MailChimp and more.

Design research has become one of my happy places. I'm currently the Head of Research at dxw, an employee-owned UK digital agency specialising in creating public services that improve lives. The way I see it: without research, our product visions and service strategies are merely guesswork.

When not bound to a digital device, I'm obsessed with growing an edible garden and have a tendency to cook enough to feed a continent at a time. I’m rarely found in the wild without a book, knitting needles and a skein of yarn. Quite randomly, I’m also a published science-fiction writer.

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

My first real paid gig began when I'd finished secondary school; I taught music to kids on weekends. I'd been a performing amateur musician throughout my childhood and my teens. While these early commitments were not always compensated in terms of pay, there's so much professionalism involved in performing music as part of an ensemble - these experiences taught me an immeasurable amount for how to conduct myself in later life. I often joke that my first real job was as a musician.

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

It has always been both, and almost simultaneously so. I’d learned at a young age that I needed to balance my love for the arts and the sciences because I would feel dissatisfied if one focus dominated the other in my life. And so, my academic background was almost equally in Music and Computer Science - which might seem strange, but there’s a lot of maths and physics in music, and a fair amount of creative problem solving in computer science. It does seem a little peculiar that my day job now involves neither!

Where did your professional journey start?

My tech career began through working odd jobs while at university: I had a role as part-time tech support across our central helpdesk and another department. Concurrently, I taught short courses on technology (think computer basics, Word, Excel and how to build websites through coding by hand) and was a demonstrator/tutor on a couple of programming languages for new students joining the degree program. Already then, I was designing technology training courses and teaching regularly.

My first full-time tech job came after that, fresh as a new recruit into a telecommunications company. Looking back now, it was wonderful luck to have begun working on the web when it was so new, and I got a chance to try my hand at just about anything.

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

I wandered into technology more by accident. As a young musician, I was programming sounds on electronic instruments, manipulating samples and writing music on computer software with undecipherable user interfaces. Might be why I ended up in user experience!

As a kid, I thought I was just playing around with tech (and I was!) but when I had to choose a career, I realised that perhaps I had an affinity for technology. It was quite a different path to get into computing compared to a few of my cohorts who spent their teens programming in BASIC on their Ataris, but I guess you could see the similarities there.

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

Plenty. When I was an engineer, I experienced everything from disbelief (“but you’re a girl!”), to scepticism about my capabilities (“how could you possibly have taken a computer apart and fix broken hardware?”), to clients questioning my ability to code. Unfortunately, these have tended to be male clients or consultants. That said, I’d rarely had any direct trouble with my colleagues.

Once, I was supposed to work on-site at a major client’s - we had a site to launch with a tight deadline. At the time, I led our small but highly impactful interaction design team. The security personnel almost didn’t let me in through the front door to the building because they found it hard to believe I was a visiting engineer. They only let me in when one of my male team members showed up.

Going into leadership, I've had to be more adaptable in my approach. Because I appear “young for my age” (and also, I skipped two years of school), people tend to talk down to me, underestimate my intellect, experience or capabilities. As a woman of colour, it's almost a reflex now: in every new situation, I constantly feel as if I have to work harder to prove myself.

"The field is always evolving, there's always going to be something that sparks your imagination and sets your passions alight."

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

It's less of a moment, more a collective ripple of realisation among designers from a certain era: when the discourse in 2018 strongly highlighted ethical issues built into AI and dark patterns in social media.

So much of the conversation in the early 2000s was about "engagement" and how we might get more people using the social platforms we were building. Because these conversations rarely involved a critical examination of business models that drove dark patterns at scale, many of us who have been in the industry for a long time had a moment of reckoning.

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

What I like: that technology is an enabler. It allows people from all over the world to connect, to collaborate, perhaps even build friendships in the process. That’s certainly true of my personal experience, where working in tech lent me the privilege of mobility - I was able to continue building on experience and expertise as I moved countries.

What I like less of is the contrary: the obsession that tech is always the solution to a problem. In many circumstances, what makes tech an enabler also amplifies existing social issues - problems that we need to solve first at a human or systemic level.

"... my advice is: try things! Create a personal framework that allows you to learn continuously, discover what you love in tech, and get good at it - but move on when it no longer works for you or when you’ve outgrown it."

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

I had to think hard about this, because there have been so many!

But there is a particular instance where my work in open standards somehow led me to a moment which was both actually extraordinary and mundane at the same time: the day before my partner and I got married, we sat at a table with Tim Berners-Lee for lunch.

It was just another day at the W3C office at MIT. I couldn’t tell you now what we ate, or what we talked about - possibly a lot of nerdery, given the people who were there. It was simply a pleasant, ordinary lunch.

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

Back in 2014, I was invited to present a keynote at Awwwards in Paris. I spoke on the theme of amateurism: “work and love, or love for work, or love about work”. In the throes of my research, I found a very good piece of advice from Cal Newport, who demystified all the bad counsel out there about “following your passion”. The research apparently shows that we are more likely to love what we do if we’re good at it - not the other way around.

Let me quote from a talk he gave: “My hypothesis is the model that works instead is: pick something interesting - if there are nine things that interesting to you, throw a dart - get good at something rare and valuable, while your friends are switching jobs nine times ’cos they don’t love it in the first week, take advantage of that to get better, to focus down, to do the satisfying work of craftsmanship, of building up an actual ability. And once you have it, that’s where you apply the courage at this point to use it as leverage to gain the traits that matter to you.”

So my advice is: try things! Create a personal framework that allows you to learn continuously, discover what you love in tech, and get good at it - but move on when it no longer works for you or when you’ve outgrown it. The field is always evolving, there's always going to be something that sparks your imagination and sets your passions alight.


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