Meet Amanda Follit. Head of Digital Operations Services at Amaze, Head of Production at summer music festival, UK Tech-Fest, Director of an artist management company, STEM Ambassador, mum and a mentor for Liverpool Girl Geeks (in no particular order!)
Amanda also recently won the Digital Star award for Innovation at the FDM Everywoman awards, for creating a digital maturity scale to help transform her clients digital operations. Despite being named as the world’s leading expert in digital governance, she humbly told us she just ‘knows stuff and works it out.’ But don’t be fooled, this is a lady who kicks ass! We love her attitude and we think you will too…
Tell us a bit about your journey to date, how did you end up in digital?
At school I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I distinctly remember my maths and computing teacher saying; ‘Amanda Follit. I don’t know how you got a B in your maths. You didn’t deserve it. You’ll never do anything with maths or computers.’ I’d really struggled to get that grade because I don’t work very well in abstract. I’m a person who likes to take theory and apply it in a practical way, so I found it really hard to engage with the subject.
I ended up homeless in the early 90’s because I was living with my Grandparents and my relationship with them broke down. I couldn’t get to college and ended up living out of my car on the seafront, which had no fuel in it. It wasn’t like my life had ended though, it was more like I had freedom at last. I needed to see what was out there in the world, I wanted a ‘real’ life.
In the early 90’s I found my first job in Radio Rentals selling televisions. They employed me because I could program a video and knew how to use the equipment! I was good at communicating with people and I could sell. In the 90’s computers were really starting to take off, so we bought Olivetti computers to sell and rent out. I’d soon got myself a PC and Netscape Gold appeared which had a WYSIWYG editor for creating web pages. I taught myself HTML, along with using the internet (on dial up!)
My internet career started fully when I worked on a recommendations engine at Applied Psychology Research, as their Head of Quality Assurance. I then got offered an opportunity to work for a new start up – which was Money Supermarket in Chester. I helped shape the approach to what was then known as product aggregation, now known as comparison engines. The challenge they faced was how to gather information and get it to all the sites to show quotes to customers. I hired and managed the testing team and project managed the new initiative which became Home Insurance.
There were a lot of challenges and tons of learning in that project but it only took us 6 months to get to market. We grew from 40 people to 200 people rapidly as a result of developing the comparison engines. It set the standard for others in the industry to follow, such as Confused and much later on Compare the Market and Go Compare. I was proud to be a part of it.
Tell us about your current role at Amaze, it must be great to work in such a progressive agency?
Amaze got in touch with me around 10 years ago as they were looking for someone to head up their QA and support function and I had experience in both. It was a very different company back then. I joined in 2006 and shortly afterwards we went into administration, but we were bought very quickly and Natalie Gross (our current CEO) took the helm. She’s a visionary and the company is going from strength to strength. We have innovation at the heart of everything we do.
Amaze allows me to grow as a person and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things. It doesn’t try to limit you or contain you to your job description. Now I have team of approximately 40 people, I’ve even managed staff in Chicago and Brussels! Having that passion for computers at an early age really helped but sometimes it feels like getting here happened by accident because it wasn’t by design.
Did you ever think about what your teacher said to you again? Did it affect you later?
Considering that I can remember it still 25 years on, it obviously made an impact. But I’m the kind of person that if someone tells me I can’t do something, I’ll go out and find a way to do it!
I’m a problem solver. Having that kind of attitude changes things for the better.
I do suffer from something called ‘imposter syndrome.’ When I won the award earlier this year I hadn’t prepared for it at all because I never thought it would be me on that stage, even though people tell me I’m the expert. In my head, I just know stuff and work it out!
Do you think that today’s young people have more opportunities?
These days I think there are more opportunities for kids to develop tech skills, but young people still need support and mentors to help them.
What excites me most is Generation Z coming into the workplace now as they are completely disrupting it, they are digital natives. My son is one of them as he grew up with the internet. His generation live their lives online so they question everything! They see how we can be more efficient instantly and that’s really valuable.
Why is diversity in digital important and what are your experiences of working in diverse teams?
I believe that digital is all inclusive. No matter who you are or what you are challenged by, there is a digital job for you.
Having diverse digital teams ultimately creates a better solution and can change the world.
It was so exciting to see the Liverpool Girl Geeks Bootcamp girls go from ‘zero to hero’ in just 6 weeks. We have to inspire the next generation, particularly girls, as they tend to be an after-thought when it comes to STEM subjects. It’s hard for schools to fulfil this role as they don’t have lots of funding.
Last year at Amaze we were roughly 50/50. It’s more like 60% male and 40% female now, but actually our CEO is female, our board is 50/50 and our senior management team is predominantly female. We lack female representation in the tech roles but that is purely because they are not out there to apply for the roles at the moment.
Do you think there is a digital skills gap and is this linked to diversity?
Yes. One of the big issues facing the sector is the lack of diversity which is also part of closing the skills gap.
In my view the root cause of this is the paternal society we live in. We’ve been divided by gender since a young age. For instance at school in my era there was never the option to do woodwork, we had to do needlework and cooking. That’s changing now, but there’s still so much work to be done.
I’m working with a number of companies on that. I call getting everyone together to work to tackle an issue ‘digital community activism.’
Have you ever experienced challenges in work because you are a woman?
Personally I’ve found it really hard to understand the challenges that other women have faced because to my knowledge I’ve never had an obstacle placed in my way due to my gender.
Yet masculinity is even present in the language that we use and the psychology behind it. Feminism is just about breaking that paternal construct down so that women are empowered, given equal opportunities and are not seen as subservient. So I’d say I’m a feminist.
You have a senior role at Amaze, run a major UK festival, as running several projects on the side. How do you manage all this?
There’s a saying ‘If you love what you do, you will not work a day in your life.’ I feel like I’m achieving something in my work, so it’s not a chore to me. Anyone can do that, you just have to find something you believe in.
How do you approach inspiring and mentoring young people?
I went on a transformation course a few years ago which was life changing. It made me realise that you create your own happiness and the obstacles you perceive don’t exist – they are all in your mind. Everything is within your control.
Instead of being a victim and saying you can’t do something, change your view. Look at the potential obstacles and decide how to overcome them. Those are some of the principles I apply to mentoring to young people.
What’s next for the sector, how can the skills gap be plugged?
I predict that Digital apprenticeships are going to be the way that we get young people into the sector, it’s already happening. As quickly as you can teach the latest tech and techniques, it changes. So it’s difficult for education providers to keep up with this area. It’s valid to have a degree in certain areas, but apprenticeships will supplement this will real life learning.
I really applaud the work that Liverpool Girl Geeks is doing in this area to help raise awareness and redress the gener imbalance. I’ve loved mentoring the Bootcamp girls and will no doubt see some of them in business soon!
Leading ladies is written / edited by Jo Morfee, humble blogger and digital enthusiast @ LGG