Bringing our ‘whole selves to work’

Last year we spoke to Richard Morely, an MSc Computer Science student who took part in Birkbeck Future’s Ability Programme, a scheme that helps students and alumni with a disability, neurodiverse or long-term health condition connect with a disability-confident employer. Richard undertook a placement at, the insurance company, Azur where he was tasked with improving the company’s interface.

Richard Morley, a Birkbeck student who took part in the Ability Programme

Richard Morely

Richard Morley, an MSc Computer Science student with a hearing disability, applied to the Ability Programme and was given a place at digital insurance company Azur. Richard had been in contact with Birkbeck Futures before joining the scheme and applied to take part in the programme because he had been out of the job market for a while and doubted his ability after a few unsuccessful interviews. He wanted the opportunity to improve his existing skill-set and boost his wavering confidence in the job market.

At Azur, Richard was given the role of Software Development Intern and tasked with improving the interface of the company’s application called Magic. This entailed improving the colour scheme using the brand guidelines and working on developing animated features for the app. In a previous company, Richard had felt very pressured which he did not find conducive to progression. The positive atmosphere at Azur, by contrast, allowed him to develop his skills and confidence. He developed a good relationship with his team and said that: “I found the work challenging because I was doing things that I hadn’t done in previous positions, such as programming and creating animation on the app.”

One of Richard’s biggest challenges at Azur was delivering a presentation about his project. He noted that in previous roles, “I never did presentations. Even if I was given the opportunity, I would be reluctant to do it.” But after receiving support from a colleague in the preparation and delivery, he found it contributed to improved confidence around his skill-set and employability prospects.

Reflecting on the importance of the work placements for people with disabilities, Richard said: “It’s good because lots of employers think that people with disabilities might not be able to get things done because they have certain problems that get in the way of work.” Being given placements such as these “demonstrates that people with disabilities are hardworking and for me personally, that I can adapt to any situation despite my hearing disability.”

Richard’s placement culminated in a job offer which he will take up after he graduates. “It made me feel like there are more opportunities out there for me. It’s created more connections and made me feel more confident in my abilities. I have a bright future ahead of me.”

Many of the employers that took part said that the scheme was important in opening their eyes to the way they could attract and accommodate employees with disabilities or neurodiverse conditions, and encourage an open dialogue about the individual needs of the employees. Tom Armitage, Head of Talent and Performance at the Telegraph commented; “we were able to craft work experience placements that were really meaningful” and said that it challenged his team’s way of thinking.

It is the experience of Richard and students like him that show why schemes like the Ability Programme are necessary to break down stigmas attached to people with disabilities and in turn allow people to bring their “whole selves to work.”

Further Information

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, College . Tags: , , , , , ,

A short history of Computer Science at Birkbeck

The story of the contribution of one department to the life of the College, the development of computing technology and to the computer industry.

The first official reference to computing at Birkbeck can be found in the 1947-8 College Annual Report, which says: “An ambitious scheme is in progress for the construction of an Electronic Computer, which will serve the needs of crystallographic research at 21-22 Torrington Square; it will also provide a means of relieving many other fields of research in Chemistry and Physics of the almost crushing weight of arithmetic work, which they involve.”

The origins of these computing efforts at Birkbeck are inextricably linked with the names of J D Bernal, the great crystallographer, and his new assistant, Andrew Booth. Returning to Birkbeck at the end of the Second World War, Bernal started building a new research group to study crystallography. He appointed four assistants, one of whom was Booth, who was to lead on mathematical methods. Booth began by building his first electromechanical calculator, the Automatic Relay Calculator (ARC).

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

A highlight of Booth’s early career at Birkbeck was an extended visit to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was accompanied by Kathleen Britten, who would soon become his wife. The trip allowed the pair to work with John Von Neumann, one of the most influential early computer pioneers, and convinced them that the ARC should be redesigned in accordance with what is now commonly known as a “von Neumann” architecture. Together, Andrew and Kathleen wrote a widely-circulated paper entitled “General Considerations in the Design of an All-purpose Electronic Digital Computer” which examined the options then available for building each component. The construction of their first electronic computer, called SEC (Simple Electronic Computer), was completed around 1950. Andrew wrote up the project in his MSc dissertation, which appears to make him the first computing graduate at Birkbeck and hence the Department’s earliest alumnus.

The couple’s best-known machine, APEC (All-Purpose Electronic Computer), was designed in 1949. In 1951, BTM used its hardware circuits as the basis of the design of their HEC1 computer, which evolved directly by the end of the 1950s into the bestselling British computer, with a total of nearly 100 machines installed.

Even in the days of cumbersome early machines, Andrew wrote about making computers available as widely as possible, securing a grant for a programme ofresearch on “desk calculating machines” as early as 1949. A copy of his reportevaluates the technical options for putting computers on, if not the desktop, at least the laboratory bench.

From the start, Kathleen was closely involved in the building and testing of the computers that Andrew designed. Getting these early machines to work involved a

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

combination of testing the electronics and then checking that the programmes executed correctly. In 1953, they co-authored their best-known book, Automatic Digital Calculators, which ran to three editions. As part of her software development work, Kathleen developed a very early assembly language for their computers and in 1958 she published a book on software entitled Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator.

The first of its kind

In 1957, a Governors’ Resolution stated that Birkbeck’s Computer Laboratory was to be constituted as a separate Department under the headship of Dr Andrew Booth. As far as can be made out, the Department of Numerical Automation was the first department established to teach computing in a UK university; elsewhere the courses were still taught in Computer Laboratories.

Andrew and Kathleen Booth stayed in the Department until the summer of 1962, when they moved to Canada. Andrew continued his career in computing initially at the University of Saskatchewan and subsequently as President of Lakehead University, Ontario.

Over subsequent years, the Department crossed many milestones: adopting the name Department of Computer Science in 1963; awarding MScs to 29 students in 1968; and appointing a chair in 1970. The College Calendar for 1970-71 is the first to acknowledge “Computer Staff” as a distinct group, comprising two programmers, two operators and four computer assistants who prepared paper tape and punched cards. At this time, the College’s IT support staff reported to the Head of the Computer Science Department. This arrangement continued for many years until a separate College Computer Service was created.

At the turn of the century, Birkbeck gave its highest accolade, a College Fellowship, to two members of its community who had made distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing. Firstly, in 2002, to Dame Stephanie Shirley, who created a major UK software house, whose workforce for many years was composed principally of women working from home and who has subsequently done much to promote the responsible application of IT and other charitable activities. Secondly, in 2003, it awarded a College Fellowship to Andrew Booth in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

Left to right: Dame Stephanie Shirley and Dame Judith Mayhew

Dame Stephanie Shirley (left), on the occasion of her installation as a College Fellow in 2002 with Dame Judith Mayhew, Chairman of Governors.

The Department today

The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems’ research activities have continued to expand over the past twenty years, into advanced logics, computer vision, ontologies, personalisation, web technologies, and ubiquitous computing, with the appointment of several new members of academic staff.

In 2004, the Department set up the London Knowledge Lab in collaboration with the neighbouring Institute of Education. The Birkbeck Knowledge Lab established in 2016 extends this legacy, drawing on multi and interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies to investigate how digital technologies and digital information are transforming our learning, working and cultural lives.

The Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics was founded in 2016 to develop

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

interdisciplinary research in data analytics and data science between computer scientists at the Department and members of Birkbeck’s other departments, across the sciences, social sciences, economics, law and humanities.

The Department celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017, and the legacy of Andrew and Kathleen Booth continues to inspire generations of computer scientists. Each year, distinguished scholars and practitioners of computer science are invited to the College to deliver the Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture, which commemorates their pioneering work.

In 2018, Birkbeck became a founding member of the Institute of Coding, a national initiative established to address digital skill needs in industry sectors in key areas including data science, cyber security, artificial intelligence, and coding. Through our part time evening face-to-face model of delivery, Birkbeck is well placed to support those already in employment and has developed new full and part time programmes in Data Science to address the digital skills gap in this area. The Department has also established a relationship with industry through our partnership with the British Library and National Archives, where we jointly develop a PGCert in Computing for Cultural Heritage to help upskill their respective workforce and address the need for digital skills, such as programming, to manage the large volumes of digitised documents being made available for research and to the public as part of our digital economy.

The discipline of Computer Science is never dull. Rapidly evolving technology is always opening up new application areas, while new challenges from the real world drive technology developers to continually push the frontiers forward. We look forward to what the next 60 years will bring.

This article was adapted from the School of Computer Science and Information Systems: A Short History by Dr Roger Johnson, which was originally produced for the Department’s 50th birthday celebrations.

Department of Computer Science and Information Systems Timeline

1947      Andrew Booth and Kathleen Britten undertake a six-month US tour based at Princeton, where they work with early computer pioneer John Von Neumann.

Andrew Booth secures funding from the Rockerfeller Foundation for a computer to carry out natural language translation.

1948      Andrew Booth designs the Simple Electronic Computer.

1951      Andrew Booth is Birkbeck’s first computing graduate.

BTM’s HEC1, based on Andrew Booth’s Circuitry, is built.

1955       The Birkbeck Computer Laboratory gives a public demonstration of machine translation.

1957       The Department of Numerical Automation is officially established.

Andrew Booth is elected to serve on the first Council of the British Computer Society.

1958       Kathleen Booth’s book Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator is published.

1961       International Computers and Tabulators Ltd. provide the Department with an I.C.T. Type 1400 computer, worth just under a quarter of a million pounds.

1967       The Chair in Computer Science is established.

                George Loizou (now Emeritus Professor), joins the Department as a Lecturer.

1968       29 students are awarded MScs, seven with distinction.

1971       Betty Walters is appointed Department Secretary, where she will serve for over 36 years.

1973       The Department takes part in a College Open Day, offering specialist equipment demonstrations. The then Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher, is among the attendees.

1983       Dr Roger Johnson (now Fellow of the College) joins the Department.

1987       The Department plays a major role in organizing the Very Large Data Base Conference in Brighton, which will host 700 delegates from all over the world.

1992       Dr Roger Johnson serves as President of the British Computer Society.

2002       Dame Stephanie Shirley is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of her distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing.

2003       Andrew Booth is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

2004       The London Knowledge Lab is established in partnership with the Institute of Education.

2008       The first degree programmes are offered on Birkbeck’s Stratford campus.

2009       The School of Business, Economics and Informatics is established. The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems becomes one of four in the School.

2016       Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics is founded.

2017       The Department celebrates its 60th anniversary.

2018       Birkbeck is a founding member of the Institute of Coding.

2020       The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems offers twelve scholarships to the PG Cert Applied Data Science for black and female candidates in order to widen representation in computing.

Further Information

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , ,

“Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to help others.”

Marcel came to Birkbeck to follow his dream of becoming a web developer. Now teaching in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, he shares his passion for programming with the next generation of students.

Picture of Marcel

I’ve always wanted to work in IT. Back in the early 2000s, I was doing reprographics in a legal department, but knew I wanted to be more involved in computing. I was fascinated by computers and web design, so I began teaching myself at home. I started with Photoshop, then building websites and began to realise this was something I really wanted to do and could enjoy as a job. 

Getting a career in web development with no education and no experience was impossible, so I went along to a few university open days to explore my options. 

One Saturday, I went to Birkbeck and came across the Foundation Degree in Web DevelopmentI couldn’t afford to quit my day job and study full time, but Birkbeck allowed me to do both. 

Studying part-time and working full-time wasn’t easy and involved huge social sacrifices, but after a year and a half on the programme, I landed my first computing job as a Junior Developer for a digital healthcare agency. 

I also got to meet people in the classroom: Birkbeck has a very international community and it was amazing to learn alongside and collaborate with people from all over the world. 

Once I’d completed my studies, I was headhunted by Sky TV to work on data visualisation dashboards. This made me a proper developer, working on really cool stuff around data visualisation, but I knew I also wanted to study more, so I returned to Birkbeck to study BSc Computing. 

In some ways, when I graduated, I’d achieved what I set out to do: I had the qualification and a proper job in digital, but it felt like something was missing. Birkbeck had been a part of my life for the last five years, so I felt strangely empty without it. 

I emailed one of my teachers and asked if there was anything I could do to help out – I would have gone back just to put paper in the printer! I saw Birkbeck as a hobby where I could also help future students in some way. Some people run or play chess – Birkbeck was my hobby. 

Instead of doing the admin though, I was offered a role as demonstrator. For the first term, I helped out in lectures, providing support with the hands-on activities. In the second term I started teaching. It had never been my intention to teach, but I found it so rewarding helping others to succeed. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you show someone how to do something and the next time you see them they say “Hey, look what I’ve done on my own.” 

I’ve changed jobs a few times since then and now work at Barclays as VP/Technology Lead, teaching at Birkbeck once a week as well. 

I know that everyone has different circumstances, but Birkbeck has shown me that if you’re willing to work hard, people will help you. Now, when my students say they can’t do it, I tell them “I know how you feel, I’ve been in your shoes, so don’t tell me you can’t do it, because everyone can.” 

Marcel currently teaches on the modules ‘Mobile Web Application Development’ and ‘Web Programming Using PHP’. 

Further Information: 

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

“By the time I finished university, I had four years’ worth of tech experience.”

BSc Computing student Trixi reflects on how combining work with part-time study at Birkbeck helped her get ahead in the tech industry.

Trixi, BSc Computing student

Why did you decide to study BSc Computing?  

I have always enjoyed problem-solving and I was curious about programming. When I asked my developer friends what their day-to-day involved, it sounded like something I wanted to try, even though I did not consider myself a computer nerd.

Why did you choose Birkbeck? 

I didn’t want to give up working full-time and Birkbeck had the option of doing evening studies. This alone really helped me make the decision, but I’d also heard good things about Birkbeck.

What aspects of the course have you most enjoyed?  

I enjoyed the learning, meeting people of similar ages and interests and the challenging assignments. I learnt that I am able to do things I thought I couldn’t possibly do before.

How has studying at Birkbeck impacted your future career plans?

I was really keen to get into the tech world as soon as it was feasible and for my studies and work to relate and feed into each other. The kind of assignments we were given helped me interview for jobs and I got my first tech job after one year of studying.

By the time I finished university, I had four years’ worth of tech experience. It helped me understand what part of technology I enjoyed the most and it feels like there will always be a job for me.

What advice would you give to a student thinking of applying for this course?  

Just apply. Start the process. If you have already considered the idea at least twice there is a likelihood that in 3-5 years you will be thinking the same. If you start now you will thank yourself later.

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Celebrating Women in STEM

Today Birkbeck celebrates the women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields as part of a campaign led by Media Planet, and supported by organisations such as the Institute of Engineering and Technology and The Women’s Network.

Across the STEM industries, women make up only 12.8% of the workforce in the UK, and encouraging more women into these fields is vital to address skills shortages in the UK economy, as well as to ensure there is a diversity of voices in the field.

As Alexandra Poulovassilis, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab puts it: “Since technology and science are shaping our societies at an ever increasing pace, it is important that the people who are making decisions on where to focus and how to prioritise innovation funding are representative of all our society globally.”

We spoke to women working in various STEM fields in Birkbeck about why they chose their careers, what excites them about their work and why it’s important for STEM disciplines to be diverse and representative.

Alexandra Poulouvassilis: Why is it important that STEM fields are diverse?

Jessica Swainston and Iroise Dumontheil: What excites you about working in STEM? 

Tingting Han: Why did you choose a career in Computer Science?

Share
. Read all 2 comments . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, Science . Tags: , , , , , , ,