We had a brew with Val Bounds at Uniform’s offices in Liverpool, to find out how she ended up heading up digital at one of the UK’s leading innovation agencies and her views on work life, being a parent and gender stereotypes…
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up in digital / tech?
While studying I got involved in the university newspaper as their Music editor, mostly as a good excuse to hang around with bands! I spent probably more time than I should have in the ‘computer lab’ (yes that was a thing!) as I’d discovered online chat, and the NME website had a brilliant chat room. It was a great way to waste time which should have been spent writing my dissertation. There was a lot of the same people on there everyday including people already working in digital, and they made it sound like a pretty compelling career choice; imagine being paid to be online all day…
Back then the internet was still very much in its infancy but I discovered that City University in London had just launched a digital version of their Journalism MA, a combination of traditional journalism with digital development, human computer interaction, design and project management; basically the skills you might need for a career in digital. That sounded ideal to me, so I went for it. About halfway through my course Google launched. The stark design of the home page at that time (which actually had quite a lot on it compared to now) was really edgy. The design of it, the ‘UX’, was what caught everyone’s attention – though we were worried their algorithm wouldn’t be that good at pulling up results!
After qualifying I went to work first as an online copywriter and then went to a smaller agency in new business / project management. There weren’t so many clearly defined job roles in digital back then, which actually meant I got a good grounding in lots of areas. We worked on sites with Pete Townsend from the Who, the first Red Dwarf website and loads of start-ups, including the first iteration of ASOS. These guys who worked in props for TV came in with an idea to create a commerce site where people could buy a table or a lamp they had seen on Eastenders etc – and they wanted to call it ‘As Seen On Screen’ – did you know that’s what ASOS stood for?
Our biggest task at that time was convincing people they actually needed a website; some of them didn’t think this internet thing would fly! And some were pretty nervous about having to deal with digital marketing. Most of the sites were brochure style sites then, e-commerce was fairly new. It was before the dot-com bubble burst, and everyone had a great idea for a website to make their millions! I would get 3 or 4 speculative proposals each week, often weirdly with very similar ideas, and all wanting equity in return for us to build a site for them because their business was going to be ‘massive’. Very few came to fruition, though I wish I’d had some equity in ASOS now!
I was particularly interested in user experience (UX) which was a ‘new’ discipline that had evolved from ‘human computer interaction’ (HCI). I won and led a team on site for a big project in Leeds and after that project I wanted to get into UX, and was lucky enough to get a job at Ogilvy as a UX designer. I worked on client accounts including MSN, Ford, P&G, AMEX and Nestle; collaborating with the Ogilvy teams in New York and Asia which was brilliant experience. If you’re keen for a career in the industry getting some time in a global networked agency as well as smaller agencies is really valuable, the big global companies give you a whole different approach and scale.
I then wanted to move back to the North West, so I did (despite people down south saying that there were no jobs up here) and I got a job at Code while it was still fairly small.
What is it about UX that appealed to you so much?
It’s the whole premise of making things easier to understand and use. Life is often, unnecessarily, over complicated and I am a massive advocate of cutting through it all. I like digital design that’s simple, honest and intuitive.
Have you worked anywhere outside of agencies?
Yes, I worked for Bank of America for about 4 years, initially in a digital marketing role for their Business and Non-UK based products. That meant spending a fair amount of time in Dublin and Madrid, which was great. It was a very focussed, intense role and seeing things from the other side was very valuable. I then became the UX lead for EMEA with a fairly large UK team, and a dotted reporting line into the US where Bank Of America had a big, established UX team including a state of the art UX lab in San Francisco.
How do you balance being a parent with heading up a digital team?
After I had my oldest son I decided to set up my own consultancy working with clients and agencies which gave me a lot of flexibility, but I started working very soon after the birth (possibly too soon) because I was worried about keeping up to speed. That transition after maternity leave can be a difficult one in our industry because the world of digital moves on so quickly. But actually your kids can help you as they are early adopters of most tech and you can learn a lot from them!
I have two children now, and a good balance. I joined Uniform because it is such a supportive place to work. There is great consideration for people’s lives outside of work with very progressive policies on things like flexible and remote working, and leave.
For me it’s about trust; my team are going to do what’s needed, when it’s needed, because they are good at what they do and they won’t let each other down.
How did you end up at Uniform in the Head of Digital role?
I was reticent to give up being my own boss but Uniform made it possible for me to do that by allowing me to retain flexibility in my work. I enjoyed coming into Uniform, working with the exceptionally talented people here, and the great client base. The board really want us to deliver work which cuts through, and they give us the freedom and resources to do that. I’ve been here around a year and I’ve loved being here from the first.
Leading the digital team was a compelling opportunity as there was so much I could shape in terms of putting processes in place, articulating a clear vision for digital and building the team.
This an exciting place to be, at the forefront of innovation. A lot of agencies say they innovate, but from my experience it’s rare to see it put into practice like it is here.
We have an in-house creative technology team who drive that thinking and share it across the agency. They are always seeking new ways to innovate, and work with the latest tech. Lately they’ve delivered some outstanding work across VR, IoT and AI, which has garnered a lot of press interest and great feedback.
What are the people in your team like?
Amazing to be honest, it’s a pleasure to come to work and spend time with them. They are all so committed and actively want to drive new ideas. Yet although they’re driven, there’s no big egos. We all gel really well together and support each other – and we love to generate ideas together. It’s the positive attitude which makes us all a good fit, there’s no negativity. If you give the team a problem to solve they’ll all immediately start to work out how to make it possible (which is Uniform’s ethos).
They’re also great fun to work with; and have a load of interests outside of work. We’ve got cyclists, triathletes, tennis players, musicians and DJs. I think it’s this passion for life which reflects through to their careers. An interesting thing about our team, being a digital team, is that the girls just about outnumber the men so we’re an anomaly versus the industry averages. I hope we can sustain that. We’re recruiting coders now, and I’d love to hear from any good developers regardless of gender!
If you had any advice for someone starting out or retraining, what would that be?
Don’t be scared to contact agencies, connect with them and reach out to your ideal employer. Write them a good letter, tell them why you want to work with them. The people who do that really stand out and I would never say no to a request for advice. Learn what you need to know and get involved. If you show enthusiasm and capability you can do anything.
What would you say to those who have children about getting into tech?
You can learn a lot about what we do from a laptop. It’s tough when you’ve got small kids, but our industry is actually largely set up to mean you can work at times to suit you. Start following publications, blogs, and learn what you can at home. Join local networks and get out there to meet people when you can.
Don’t be over-faced by the volume of information out there, focus on the area you’re interested in rather than trying to cover too many bases at once. Go for it!
Why do you think there aren’t more women in tech?
This is the big question isn’t it. There’s the whole question of gender stereotypes which weighs in, girls still being fed certain messages from birth. It’s hard to fathom that or counteract it; you’re fighting against so many innate societal forces; parenting, advertising, the media, etc. How do we get girls interested in technology and design? I know why I was interested, but I also know a lot of my female friends really weren’t. I think that I benefited from having an older brother who was into computers and science fiction, so I had access to all that. If kids aren’t exposed to tech and science through home or school how do you let them see the potential? The education system is underfunded and can’t keep up. My husband is a teacher who was formerly a coder himself, and he is frustrated by the lack of funding, facilities and training.
Initiatives like the Studio School and Liverpool Girl Geeks are brilliant, and more like that is needed. If you could take your programmes into schools it would help to make that cultural shift and evolve the education system. If the city region wants to progress this then the local authorities need to get behind initiatives like yours.
What’s it like being a senior women in tech working in a male dominated sector?
As with many women in all lines of work, I’ve certainly experienced sexism during the last twenty years of my career. It’s innate and in the past you just accepted it without really considering what it is. But I can’t say it’s ever got in the way of me progressing.
In the agency and digital start-up world you tend to find a lot of businesses are founded by men, and the managing teams are male dominated. Nothing exceptional there, but you would hope with it being a progressive sector, to see more women. Perhaps women are sometimes more prone to lack of self-belief and confidence which affects their ability to put themselves forward and own their ideas.
The people who get ahead in business tend to be ones who are better at self-promotion, but again that’s not universal. If you find a niche that works for you, and you have confidence in your own ability, then just go for it – and do it your own way. That applies to both women and men.
Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission to do what you want to, you might wait a very long time.
If you want to find out more about Uniform, visit them here.