Innovate, be flexible, and never say never...
An experimental mindset is just one of the benefits of the Imperial experience, as three alumni leading the charge in digital technology prove.
(Mathematics 1991) is CEO of NHS Digital and previously Chief Digital, Data and Technology Officer at the UK Home Office
Q: What did Imperial do for you?
I fell into working at Felix, the student newspaper, early on in my time at Imperial, and found that I loved writing as well as mathematics. We ran the whole production process, so it was great training. I also rowed and enjoyed the real sense of camaraderie being part of a team gave me.
Studying mathematics led me to apply a degree of rigour to my work that has never left me – along with an intolerance of slack thinking! In many ways I have never really left Imperial – from the start of my career I often returned to campus to run recruitment sessions, and still do so today.
Q: Why is your work important?
Imperial taught me to apply logic – today, I look to recruit people who have the ability to construct a set of hypotheses and then test them against the data. Technology is wonderful, but it can also be really complicated. The NHS has a totally unparalleled database; nowhere else in the world do healthcare professionals have access to the records of 70 million people over a 70-year time span. Hidden in that data lies the answer to many of today’s diseases and it is incumbent upon us to find them.
We are at a unique stage in the digitalisation of the NHS, as we create algorithms that, for the first time, make the treatment decisions explicit. Society has to become more comfortable with the way medical decisions will be reached in the future, and communicating that is vital to my job.
Q: What’s the secret to a career in technology?
When I talk to students today, what I impress upon them is that working in technology is intellectually challenging and highly creative. There is no monotony or repetition – and the financial rewards are high. But you must be able to think in a straight line, and Imperial showed me how to do that.
(Biology 1993, MSc Environmental Technology 1994) is a digital transformation consultant for startups and other companies
Q: Why did Imperial stand out?
The lecturers were truly inspirational and not afraid to talk about mistakes they have made – German professors are often treated like gods, they can do no wrong and students aren’t expected to build up a relationship with them. I was taught to keep asking questions until you get to the bottom of the issue, to learn to be open and see different perspectives.
Q: How did it set you up for a future career?
It’s my job to bridge the gap between the language scientific and engineering people use and the way marketing people talk – and it all started at Imperial. Reading Biology and Management allowed me to acquire two mindsets in one course. That option would not have been available back home in Germany, where you only ever study one subject.
Q: What does the technology market look like today?
I left Imperial just as digital was taking off, and the first startup I joined was too early for the German market – people didn’t get it. I joined BMW and the job was all about being ready for change and helping others to embrace it. We forget how far we have come in a short space of time. With digital applications today, we can analyse huge amounts of data. For marketing, that is both a dream and a curse. We are still teaching people that their data is an asset that both sides must protect.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Imperial taught me never to give up – now I have come full circle supporting a tech startup working on smart cities. My Dad used to joke that biologists make the best secretaries and, in the past, there was some truth in that – there weren’t many jobs unless you worked in a laboratory. I am delighted to have proved him wrong!
(MSc Management 2008) is currently Digital Marketing Manager for the publishers Condé Nast in New York City
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you learned at Imperial?
At a time when the digital world was still emerging, Imperial taught me not to jump at the first opportunity. I remember our group developed an Oyster-type product that we were very proud of. Our lecturer’s first question was how much it would cost to produce. There was an awkward silence – we didn’t know the answer. It is easy to get carried away with technological flights of fantasy without considering the impact on a company’s finance and strategy.
Q: How did your time here shape your career?
My first degree was in Electronic Engineering, where I worked on a 4D animation project. It made me realise I wanted to go into marketing, so I took my Master’s at Imperial to get a broader business sense. We worked on a lot of diverse group case studies and I left knowing I wanted to work in different industries, focusing on digital.
My first job after Imperial was in Barclaycard’s graduate scheme and it was great to be at the cutting edge of digital. Today at Condé Nast in the US, one of my tasks is to convince our readers to pay for quality online – paywalls provide a way of unlocking revenue. It was a very successful initiative for The New Yorker back in 2014 and I’ve been lucky enough to work on the WIRED launch this year. In previous companies, focus on content generation required senior buy-in and investment, but here high-quality content is bread and butter, with WIRED producing ten new articles a day online.
Q: And the future?
We have to measure performance and to do that we need people with analytical minds to work in marketing. Imperial gave me a different way of thinking that has stayed with me throughout my working career. We need more people, and especially women, with that kind of mindset.