Women in Digital: Sarah Peña

Sarah Peña, head of emerging technology & business improvement at Swindon Borough Council, shares how her childhood helped shaped her as a business leader, and how experience of care can create unique, resilient and open minded people.

Posted 4 September 2023 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

School for me wasn’t enjoyable. With the exception of a few trusted people I can count on one hand, I have never shared that I am care experienced until today. At the age of 50, I’m now ready. I lived in children’s homes in Oxford during the 70s and 80s, which at the time were large institutions, so this was particularly challenging. Most people with care experience are brought into care for their own safety and protection, often because of neglect, abuse or being orphaned. However, being in care carried with it stigma, false perceptions, discrimination, disruption, bullying and social isolation.

With that all said, I had a huge appetite and natural ability for learning. I loved to read and held curiosity in the complexity…and I embraced time, something I had in abundance. I developed keen observation skills, grew incredible resilience and became comfortable with uncertainty – all these things continue to provide huge value in my work and life today.

So whilst school wasn’t a joy, I found my happiness and learnt my strengths.

What qualifications do you have?

I consume information and am very fortunate my academic abilities were recognised. It presented me with unique opportunities and interestingly, I have a bit of an abundance of varied qualifications, though, people who know me well know I don’t like to focus attention on these.

Maybe my proudest ‘qualification’ is an air cadets award that hadn’t been presented to anyone for 25 years, I was about 12 and had spent days and days creating a detailed project on World War II dog-fighting techniques! 

I’m a firm believer that talent, with support, can create a path of success. Passion, dedication, mentorship, building experience and skills can hold more weight than a piece of paper saying that you studied theories about how things work.

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

Care experienced people are among some of the most motivated and talented; our background makes us unique, resilient and open minded. I have had, and continue to have, the most incredible career. Our chief digital officer, my manager, and our chief exec know I believe I have the best job in the world!

I’ve always focused on finding love in the work I do and thriving in work that’s challenging and interesting, I embrace uncertainty, that problem-driven space of grey and unknowns which is intrinsic in innovation.

My career has been underpinned by data and technology; it’s included working at Sophos, Dyson, in FinTech, Health & Leisure tech, Central Government and Local Government amongst a few other interesting places. I’ve been blessed to work for and with some of the most incredible, talented and smart people, across the world, and my appetite for the unknown has presented me an abundance of fascinating work. I am so thankful to each and every person who’s placed trust in me, championed me and given me so many incredible opportunities to succeed.

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

I have an incredible ecosystem of just brilliant and varied people around me. I’d always advise on building your ecosystem, surround yourself with the people you want to be like and admire as much as possible. Find a mentor, supporters and collaborators who will guide you to and be part of your success and know your values. Because when the things that you do match your values, life is usually good – you’re satisfied and content. When these don’t align with your personal values, that’s when things feel wrong and this can be a real source of unhappiness.

So, be curious, make bold decisions, take some risks, have determination and that all important self-awareness. Remember always, that whatever is happening today, your future is unwritten – you have the opportunity, each day, to reinvent it.

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

This is so difficult! I’ve honestly been so fortunate to have truly amazing people span my whole career – brilliant and inspirational role models who’ve provided so much of their time, experience, expertise and guidance, including my current line manager.

From where do you draw inspiration?

My inspiration is drawn from two things, nature and problems.

Nature feeds my soul, it brings tranquillity and fascination of focus in its beauty of the simplest but most complex forms that surrounds us.

And problems ignite my attention, they spark my imagination to a wealth of possibilities. I have a constantly growing collection of ideas that I need to find enough time to invest in!

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

I have always had incredible drive – when I’m working, I’m motivated, focused and get a tremendous amount done. My biggest challenge (and it continues!) is not forgetting the importance of balance. Having that is a key ingredient in achieving success, there’s something extraordinary when we step away from the busyness and that’s why nature, for me, is inspirational. When I immerse my mind away from work, I gain perspective to help make better decisions, a sense of calm, and the ability to see the big picture again. Many of us (I admit to being the worst at this part) forget to set aside time just for ourselves; finding balance is a persistent challenge I am constantly working on.

What qualities do you feel make a good leader?

There are lots of qualities that make a good leader, and I believe there are, and can be, varying leadership styles which are successful.

I like the definition of scaling genius where successful leaders are able to build not only innovative organisations, but networks and ecosystems that co-create across organisational boundaries. These people master three interconnected functions: architect, bridger, and catalyst.

Harvard Business has some excellent thoughts on this where they ask if the time has come to embrace a new kind of leader who is prepared to take on the promise of innovative problem-solving — who is willing and able to unleash the abundant talents and passions all around us and leverage them to create a better world.

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

It’s been a rollercoaster; I absolutely love my role at Swindon and in particular developing over the last four years, the Emerging Technologies function and team. But I did take a couple of months at the beginning of the year exploring something I believed would provide me the potential to deliver broader social impact. However, that didn’t work out…remember the significance of alignment to your personal values. There’s an important lesson here, we make decisions on what we know at a point in time, when information changes, you should be comfortable in changing your decisions. I now cheekily refer to it as my ‘holiday’. I’m very lucky to be back at Swindon, working with brilliant people, continuing with impactful work that’s really making a difference.

In terms of highs, in the last year it has to be my teams work on Machine Translation. It’s our first open-source solution that’s gone global and honestly, it’s heartening to see the power of social innovation.

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

Understanding our value alongside that of technology. Technology continues to be a powerfully disruptive force, but it’s also one that binds. We should not lose sight of our value and if we take time to think, can we begin to see an infinite number of possibilities where the ‘genius of both’ can shine?

For example, even if a machine could determine an appropriate medical treatment plan, we still want to work with a doctor who has been trained to talk us through the options, who listens to and understands our thoughts and feelings, who helps us choose the option that’s right for us — someone who understands that art in the science. However, those machines can be oh so helpful in diagnosis, identification of those highest at risk (not forgetting human assessment of that – biases can creep in), analysis of existing medicines who’s properties could be used for emergent diseases/viruses, VR for ‘practice’ surgery etc.

We should all have a vested interest in shaping advancing technologies for the greater good, implementing technology with a human touch where the cooperation between people and technology can result in amazing achievements – ensuring we understand and maximise the best value of each.

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

I won’t focus on STEM at school as there are many people placing significant effort in this.

I do believe we need to come together and do more to ensure access to technology and digital education; alongside this we can do much better at storytelling the vast range of career choices, highlighting how different transferable experiences and skills match well. It’s a career you can start into at any time, returners skills, for example, can be a fantastic match and we can collectively do more to reach this group.

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

I’ve smattered a few through this interview! 

But I’ll end on my slightly adventurous side – I’ve ridden an Arabian Stallion in the Sinai desert and more recently spent time in the Amazon Rainforest across Colombia, Peru and Brazil (there was also a rather nervy handful of days in El Salvador), now I just need to finish with Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela and French Guiana!