Women in Digital: Helen Mott

Helen Mott, head of digital government at Netcompany, talks career challenges and lessons, her work at the Ministry of Justice and why the public sector should look to other countries for inspiration.

Posted 14 August 2023 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

Yes and no. I loved learning, but generally found the social and sports side harder work. I remember at age 10 persuading my teachers to let me do extra Maths and Latin instead of cross country running (still seems a good deal to me now!) At secondary school, I found my tribe of inspiring and fiercely independent women who are still my support network to this day.

What qualifications do you have?

I went to the University of Bristol to study Mathematics and Spanish and was really proud to earn a first-class Masters. As part of my degree, I was lucky enough to study in Madrid for a year. Settling into the Madrileño life, I helped some of the university’s Maths professors by reviewing the English in their research papers.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

I’ve really enjoyed my career so far. I’m a self-diagnosed government nerd and find the ways things work (and don’t work) in government fascinating. I saw the Digital team at the Ministry of Justice grow from a small group of 30 people to a team of 500 digital specialists who deliver services that make a real difference to people’s lives at a time when they most need it. However, a few years in and I could see the cracks emerging. We all know the public sector can be cumbersome at times. It felt like we had the skills we needed to make a difference, but the environment and organisational incentives meant we just weren’t making progress at the rate I knew was possible (and needed!)

This was when I decided to make the switch to Netcompany. They do lots of work in the public sector, so this position still felt like what I wanted to do. The main difference is that things happen so much faster. We can build talented teams without government red tape and evolve professional and interdisciplinary practice quickly. Most importantly, we acknowledge that delivering at pace requires proactively managing risk and making decisions (not shying away from them).

What specific challenges do you see women facing in the industry?

People tend to get ‘gender’ tangled up in assumptions and stereotypes and assume a woman’s personality won’t quite ‘fit’ into a leadership role. It’s awful because women get associated with being meek or too passive, and so get overlooked or don’t get encouraged to pursue leadership roles.

I think we need a strong mindset shift, away from thinking leaders need to be always authoritative and goal-oriented and recognise that success comes from a balance of attitudes and leadership styles. This is where the value of a diverse leadership team comes in. For example, building psychological safety and intrinsic motivation within and across teams as well as pushing for goals. Something Netcompany balances well: creating space for people to lead in their own way, whilst maintaining a culture based on trust and entrepreneurship.

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

Way back in my early career, in the first digital agency I worked for, I was constantly in awe of the knowledge the directors had. I was convinced I could never compete. I spent hours every day with the designers and developers watching how they approached their work and asking questions. One day, in a client meeting, one of the directors confidently said something about the technology I knew was wrong. It suddenly dawned on me that they didn’t actually know everything – no-one could. With curiosity and focus I had learned a huge amount and could be just as capable of the same level of expertise as the rest of the room.

Making a difference has to start with internal ambition. It’s immensely hard to keep focused on your goals and what you’re trying to deliver. It sounds cheesy but honestly just stick to your guns: stick to what you know, stick to what you’re passionate about and just follow with that. It really can’t take you too far wrong.

If you had to pick one mentor that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

Not a mentor per se, but my management team at the Ministry of Justice had a huge influence on me. We were a very close team with strong trust in each other and in the group dynamic. Each of them in turn led their own teams with trust and care. From that, I learned I could be brave and vulnerable. This was so important in guiding the teams through the very hard months of Covid lockdowns to deliver some amazing things. For example, we led the rolling out of video visits to 100+ prisons so prisoners could still speak to their children and loved ones.

From where do you draw inspiration?

I am utterly driven by wanting to see change for the UK. I see progress made by other countries, particularly in the public sector, and I want us to drop some of our exceptionalism, look sideways, and see that we can learn from other countries. For example, the Norwegian prison system’s ‘normality’ model dramatically lowers reoffending rates; Warsaw’s use of IoT devices and sensors to help visually impaired people navigate the city; Denmark’s digital ID that connects up services and data for a seamless citizen experience, and dramatically better data for policymaking and evaluation. Technology is a big part of enabling these transformations, but the real inspiration is in the impact on people’s lives.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

Hands down biggest challenge was becoming a mother. Losing my identity as an independent and capable leader, being at the mercy of the whims of a tiny mewling baby and having absolutely no idea what I was doing! Eventually, I built some confidence, got a bit of objectivity and perspective (as much as is possible as a parent!) and a bit more sleep. But ultimately, for me, going back to work was the thing that brought back my balance. Knowing I could be both the business leader and a mother, and that the two weren’t mutually exclusive.

What qualities do you feel make a good leader?

I would say having that balance of clear direction and drive along with empathy and trust: being able to be clear about your goals whilst empowering your teams to not only deliver on them, but also be part of evolving them.

Gender balance can be a good proxy measure of this, although we should be careful to not view it entirely as a men vs women thing, it’s about having a diverse leadership portfolio. Sadly, men hugely outnumber women in the leadership category so a balance of genders would be a good step forward for progress.

From a work viewpoint, what has the last 12 months been like?

I moved into the head of digital government position at Netcompany which was great because it feels so aligned with my passions.

I feel like with all the new technology that’s coming out it’s all about the mindset and adoption now. We are continuing to see acceleration in digitisation and public service transformation, where tech is the key enabler behind it. I’m glad I have a seat at this table and am looking forward to seeing the progress unfold, knowing I had a part to play.

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

I think a big challenge we are facing is adoption. Working with staff and end users to get them to use new technology is always the most complex bit of transformation. Technology like AI will certainly change the way we code and deliver, but on its own it won’t change the human behaviours of the users of those services. You still need to invest in the usability of these technologies as well as the culture change and implementation piece. I guess that weaves into the human vs tech element, with all the transformation that’s happening we can’t forget that nothing changes without people changing.

What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?

This sort of change and progress must start at the root of the issue. Education. I think women aren’t encouraged to look to this sector for their careers. Historically it’s been seen as a ‘man’s industry’ which is utterly ridiculous. This is everyone’s industry, technology is for everyone. I want to see education really pushing to develop skills in coding, engineering, and maths for women.

You can’t drive change and develop products for everyone that were only made by a limited group of people (i.e. all one gender, one race, one sexuality, from similar backgrounds). It’s by bringing diverse points of view that we will see change for the better. And this is even more important when delivering public services. I’ve always said it’s critical that teams are representative of the public they serve.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

Oh god, I’m not too sure what I’d say to this one. It feels like when you sit down at school and the teacher asks you to say one interesting ‘thing’ to introduce yourself. I spent all my childhood thinking there was nothing interesting about my life, and only quite late on did I realise that your mother whipping out a pendulum to check what was wrong with you when you were ill wasn’t entirely normal!