Breath of Fresh Air: Diversity Heroes – Toni Collis

As a community, we embrace our diversity; diversity makes us better, stronger. We cannot do enough to applaud all of our heroes in their diversity.  They are people who are ACM members, volunteers or experts in their field.  Starting from June 2020, we have been reaching out to a number of heroes about their tech career journey, about their perspective on intersectionality and reflect on initiatives for equality.

This month’s guest is Dr Toni Collis,  the CEO of Collis-Holmes Innovations, a Strategic Innovation Leader, Trainer, Consultant and Leadership Coach for women in tech. Toni’s career has focused on facilitating the use of technology, with a particular emphasis on parallel computing and supercomputers, for the advancement of research and innovation in both academia and industry. Early on in her career, Toni realised that knowledge was not the only barrier to the uptake of parallel computing in research, but that culture limited the participation of women and minorities. As Founder of Women in High-Performance Computing (WHPC), Toni developed and led innovations aiming to diversify the HPC workforce, providing HPC tutorials for women academics and students around the world, training and consultancy on building inclusive workforces, and research into how to improve the representation of women. In early 2019, Toni focused on her passion for broadening diversity & inclusion in the technology industry and now offers Strategy, Coaching, Training and Consultancy for Women Leaders and their allies, with a personal goal of assisting 2000 women into leadership in tech in the next 5 years. Toni is also the host of the Leading Women in Tech Podcast which discusses all things women, tech leadership and the glass ceiling every week.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What was your inspiration, the driving force that led you to study and work in computing?

I started out my career as a physicist. During my PhD, I made extensive use of High-Performance Computing and realised that I had a talent for writing software. It came so easily and naturally to me. What really made me realise that I was meant to work more with computers than just with the results that computer simulations produced, was the brain-ache (otherwise known as a challenge 😉 ) that I got when I was trying to design parallel software. Holding the concepts of parallel execution in my head was a different level of challenge than I experienced in my physics research. And quite simply, it lit me up. I also realised that this skill, coupled with the ability to understand the scientific challenge – what the parallel software was trying to do – was a skill in its own right. So after my PhD, I actively sought a role that could give me that – building a bridge between the scientists who could most benefit from software that scaled onto supercomputers and the computer scientists with supercomputing expertise that can give them the computing power that they needed.

What has been your career highlight? What are you most proud of?

There are two things! I can never provide just one 😉 The first is Co-Founding Women in High-Performance Computing (WHPC) which I then ran until earlier this year. This was an initiative desperately needed in the Supercomputing/High-Performance Computing arena as there were no organisations dedicated to improving equity, diversity and inclusion in this specialism. During my time running WHPC we moved from a small group of women meeting up at a conference, to a membership of over 1000 across 65+ countries, and members including not just women, but other under-represented groups, and our allies. This, in particular, is something I’m very proud of – we created an organisation that spoke about the need for more women, and worked to include everyone in that conversation while providing women, and other under-represented groups with a safe space. Since I first started talking about WHPC in late 2013, inclusion as a power for positive change, improved scientific discovery and better outcomes, has become a topic of discussion in every major conference and organisation across the Supercomputing space.

The other achievement is something it took me a long time to ‘own’, in that I felt it was all just down to luck: 7 years into my career I got a position as a C-level executive. This is something that, for the longest time, I thought wasn’t possible without a ‘traditional’ C-Suite career, including an MBA, and a Computer Science degree. I’m not sure what I thought was ‘traditional’ – but it certainly wasn’t me! This is something I now love to share because I want all women to know that this is 100% possible for them – as is any other dream they have (C-level executive isn’t everyone’s dream job!). Despite what we might think there is no ‘right way’ to do any of these things. What we need to do is forge our own paths and be excited about every step along the way.

What challenges have you faced? Were you able to overcome them? How?

There has sadly been a truckload of unconscious bias along the way. For the first few years in my career, I didn’t see this at all. I thought unconscious bias was something that other women were experiencing, and that I just had other issues. But the more I mentored other women and called them out on accepting toxic behaviour and just letting go of lots of decisions being made against them as ‘just bad luck’, the more I realised that this was me too. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to think ‘this isn’t bias’, especially when you know the people around you mean well. But one day I realised that there was just a whole lot of bias. The day I realised I had my own unconscious bias against women in tech was a real eye-opener. I definitely NEVER intended to be biased. After all, I’d set up an organisation to actively improve the opportunities of women in HPC. That was when the penny dropped and I realised that unconscious bias was almost certainly holding me back too: if I was a white man, I probably wouldn’t have had to work as hard to get to where I am.

There has also been a lot of toxic behaviour at various points (from being always asked to take notes at the beginning of my career to not having any impact on decision making even if my feedback or opinions were sought). And a lot of it was left unchallenged. Early on in my career, I felt completely unable to challenge it. This was ‘normal’ – I just didn’t like it. One of the things I am passionate about now is helping women learn how to address toxic behaviour if they can, and also giving them the career positions where they have a responsibility to address toxic behaviour in their team, so that we can change things for good. Far too many of us just become inured to toxic attitudes – it is a survival mechanism. So that those who get to the senior positions no longer see it (and usually through no fault of their own). Quite simply, I’m on a mission to change that. I want more women and our allies in senior tech leadership roles, and I want every single one of us to work on addressing the toxic behaviour that is contributing to the high drop-out rates of women and other underrepresented communities in the tech and computing industries. But I know from personal experience this is far easier said-than-done (otherwise it would be fixed by now, as there are thousands of us out there who care passionately about this).

If you were to change something in the way we run tech communities and networks, what would you change?

I would love it if we all understood the role of communication more. I didn’t understand that communication was a subject that needs to be tackled in its own right until I realised my communication was the number one lever I had to bring about change. When I started working on communication, it wasn’t just my work in equity, diversity and inclusion that benefited, but my research, my team, my productivity, my stress… everything. Everything we do requires other people to be involved, even if we run our own business. And that requires communication. And yet we all are drowning in email, instant messages, an always-on culture, and at the same time feeling like we don’t know what is going on in our own organisation. Communication is seen as an add-on in so many organisations, and yet without it, there is no organisation.

Tech communities need to understand that communication isn’t just necessary but understand what it really means to get a message heard, acknowledged, processed and action taken. You don’t need 10 emails or 100 slack messages – you need the one single RIGHT communication mechanism. And it has to be tailored. One great message, in the right format for the target audience, can take more time to get right than writing 50 emails. But done well everyone benefits. When we do that, we can get on with the day job – the tech that we want to be working on – instead of wondering why we aren’t being taken seriously, getting noticed, or why our team isn’t doing what we think we’ve asked them to do 10 times already.

Can you comment on diversity or intersectionality issues that you have experienced, seen or been made aware of?

I have to admit I came late to understanding intersectionality issues. Other than being a woman – I’m about as privileged as it gets! It was only through my work in understanding the barriers that women faced – an issue I woke up to because I realised it was odd being the only woman in the room – I started talking to people about their issues, and realised, that quite simply, being white, with parents who had a college education, and growing up in a western country, I genuinely had a very easy path to being who I am. This also really brought home to me why we need to engage our white male allies – they care, but they don’t know what we are talking about unless we can have such a conversation with them, that they can empathise with. I understood because a lot of what was being said was what I experienced as a woman – just 10x worse, more extreme and more frequent. Then the remaining 10-30% that I didn’t have a frame of reference for I could at least understand more. I don’t think we should be scared of these conversations. In fact, I feel that those of us who have the ability and the emotional resilience to have these conversations can help those of us who don’t have the resilience, by holding such conversations with our allies.

Who is your Diversity/Equality Hero and why?

There are so many women. But someone who truly inspired me early on in my diversity work was Sue Black. Sue is the founder of #techmums, a charity that empowers mothers through online and offline classes covering technology basics. She started out as a stay-at-home mum who ended up in a refuge center, before embarking on post-16 education, while a single mum to three kids, at the age of 26, culminating in government advisor and a full-professor at Durham University (having previously been head of the department of information and software systems at the University of Westminster). She is an exceptional talent but is also passionate about helping those around her to thrive as well.

What would you recommend to young people thinking of a career in computing?

Early on in my life, I came across Gandhi’s quote ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’, and that is the mantra I still sit by every day. Technology and computing can provide that in such a unique way – our entire civilisation is now built on technology. But so much of it doesn’t serve more than a small proportion of the global population. If you believe the world should be a better place, be part of that change, in whatever form it takes. And never, ever be afraid to pivot – that is where the truly exciting and great ideas and the impact often come from.

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