Sheree Atcheson: Empowering the next generation of women in IT

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There’s a lot going on in the world of Sheree Atcheson right now. Although she calls Belfast home, Sri Lanka is the land of her birth. As an adult she’s been in the island while on honeymoon she shared, recalling a “general feeling of ‘This is where I am from, and I am proud’” during her stay here. At the end of her trip this June, she felt more than just proud of her Sri Lankan heritage, she wanted to find her birth mother.

Sheree Atcheson is in the spotlight (Image credits: Sheree Atcheson)
Sheree Atcheson is in the spotlight (Image credits: Sheree Atcheson)

Her journey to the past is well documented and as she plans to make a return trip, we wanted to get to know her better. Graduating with a degree in Computer Science from Queen’s University, Belfast. After entering the IT industry, Sheree has been involved in some high-profile projects in the public sector.

Some of these projects reportedly include improvements to the UK’s online voter registration systems. In effect, within a year of graduating, Sheree’s work had already benefitted voters across the UK.

Currently employed by Deloitte, “My day job allows me to better 1000s of everyday people’s lives, and I’m very excited by that” she shares. Crafting sound systems with the potential to bring about positive changes is only one side of Sheree’s interest in the subject.

The weavers of this intricate digital tapestry she feels, are equally important in inflicting social change. Fueled by the goal of making coding a more inclusive profession, at 22, she founded the UK’s first wing of Women Who Code in Belfast. This is the journey of Sheree Atcheson.

How it all started: Girls and their Toys

For many after-school hours a controller was often found in Sheree’s clasp. Counting herself lucky for it, “my brother and I have always had the latest gaming consoles” she recalls. Each virtual level she cleared left unique bi-product, exceeding the usual sense of accomplishment gamers are familiar with.

As a young child, Sheree was always intrigued by her cousin who was a leading software engineer. Her fascination with the world of computing, supplemented by many enjoyable hours with the likes of Spyro the dragon and his virtual quests. This soon sprouted her interest to “create the programs I was using on our computer.”

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Sheree’s fascination with computers was supplemented with Sypro’s adventures (Image credits: jdgamingblog)

Yet, her first choice of occupation however had little to do with anything binary. Sheree’s love for animals and her penchant for remedying a situation meant initially, she “wanted to be a vet.” The idea “was quickly nipped in the bud” as she admits, “I’m not so good with injured or sick animals.” Resorting to care for just generally healthy pets, she also finds time for the occasional game of Minecraft with her husband, Sean. “We both love it, and I have great adoration for Minecraft” given its potency in educating kids about coding.

While gaming was her early interface to the tech world, it took a supportive teacher in secondary school to spot and encourage Sheree’s genuine interest in computers. “From there, I decided to study computer science,” she shares. But Sheree found more than career direction in secondary school.

Describing herself as quiet and “relatively shy” it wasn’t until she turned “16 or 17,” when “I came out of my shell and made friends.” Foretelling her devotion to building a robust tech community, by the end of her time in university she had taken-on the role of a demonstrator.

“It was enjoyable, albeit demanding” to coach first-years but her determination “to create a more interesting tech industry” left her feeling excited to meet and strengthen others with the same goal.

Girls to Women

Old habits are tough to shed and high-profile projects were not sufficient to keep Sheree content for long. Noticing the sparse number of females in the tech industry, and even lesser dotting the industry’s leadership landscape happened early in her career.  Aged 22, she decided that something must be done and that she was going to do it.

The problem she identified was twofold- a lack of women in the tech industry and a lack of recognition for those who did rise up the ranks. There were some women across the pond celebrated for their achievements like Cheryl Sandberg of Facebook according to Sheree. However, local women in the UK didn’t get to see the faces behind significant contributions made at home.

This was damaging not only to the somewhat invisible women presently in the tech industry, but also to potential coders of the future. As child-rights activist “Marian Wright-Eldeman has said, “You cannot be what you cannot see.”” It became imperative for Sheree to find a way to highlight women in the industry as well as encourage them to progress in their careers.

The US-based global non-profit, Women Who Code (WWC) was equipped with the tools she needed. They offered technical support and expertise to supplement a software engineer’s skill set. They also offered recognition schemes for those excelling in their careers.

Sheree Atcheson was certain the women of Belfast were ready for this type of support. And so, in 2013 the UK saw its very first Women Who Code event. Within days of announcing the first event, registrations flooded-in, packing the venue.

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Image credits: Women Who Code

“I brought it to Belfast originally because there was nothing like this for all women in tech, regardless of their company, financial situation or social standing,” explained Sheree. Fusing Belfast and by extension, the UK to Women Who Code across 60 cities and 20 countries was a solo effort. It was only later whena strong foundation had been laid that Sheree handed things over to volunteers.

Meanwhile she shifted her focus on expanding the organization. Today she serves as WWC’s UK Expansion Director while employed at Deloitte, which she describes as being very supportive of the initiative. WWC UK is now a 6000-strong community we learn. It has chapters in London, Bristol and Edinburgh cropping-up alongside the inaugural Belfast branch.

Although she feels proud of her part in bringing WWC home, there is still work to be done. In her role as Expansion Director, Sheree Atcheson is charged with “ensuring our message is broadcast on a global level.” Making waves for equality in the tech sphere, the tides have brought Sheree a variety of audiences to soak-up her message.

Speaking at The World Economic Forum, Webit.Fest, TechUK, alone are important but not enough. To include “all those who identify as female, we need to not just be in all tech magazines,” but also extend to the mainstream ones she feels, having recently been featured on Marie Claire.

Why Do it?

Consciously working to inspire half the globe’s population is a big task but Sheree Atcheson is person that’s cheerfully up for the challenge. “Yes, there are times I have wanted to quit” she says, but “I never do. I don’t give-up because I care.” Her faith in code’s potential to improve a community contributes greatly to this drive.

Seeing beyond software, coders who aren’t representative of the community they serve work with a narrow peripheral. Even in the US where WWC was began, the National Centre for Women and Information technology records only 26 percent of professional computing jobs are held by women. The observer reports a similar number.

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Image credits: Sheree Atcherson

Women programmers are not a miraculous answer to all of the world’s problems we’re told. They only bring to the table what anyone else does- “a unique insight and viewpoint.” Promoting their participation is not to rivet back to when jobs were gendered and early programming was left to women. “It’s about time everyone realized” that women and men in the tech industry are on equal footing.

Sheree goes on to state, “You cannot have a flourishing tech industry without including 50% of the population.” Challenging the boys-club mentality monopolizing the tech industry hasn’t been easy. “Disruption will always have an element of friction, otherwise it is not disruption.”

Pushing forward

Her work so far has put both Sheree and WWC on the map back in the UK. Recognized as one of the top 50 business people in Belfast for 2017 and listed among the most influential women in tech across the UK in 2017 has presented her with a neat package. A package of both appreciation and public visibility. It’s some of this visibility that Sheree hopes to leave behind in Sri Lanka.

“It is a beautiful country and I’m very proud to represent it in whatever way I can” she feels, but more importantly she wants her story to speak for itself. During her tour this June, Sheree has had countless messages from men and women. These messages said that she inspired them because she was Sri Lankan.

Sheree Atcheson
Image credits: Sheree Atcheson

“I had one mayor ask me if he could share my story with school children,” she shares. The request ignited a need for her to impact the palm tree speckled paradise far away from Belfast. “My story is not the only one which should be shared and told- there are countless Sri Lankan role models and I am here to get their stories out there,” she says.

This is the founding premise of Sheree’s current project- I Am Sri Lanka. At present Sheree is in the process of setting-up this organization to showcase “local and global role models” to Sri Lankans. “We are here” she says, for the Sri Lankan people to know that “you can be what you see because you are us, and we are Lanka.”

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