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In Interview | 

We sat down with Kath O'Brien to discuss her experiences in telecoms and her thoughts on Women in 5G!

Please tell me a little bit about who you are, your background &  how you ended up working in Telecoms? 

 

I’m currently Senior Manager for Mobile Communications and Strategic Partner Integration Products at BT. What does that even mean? More about that a bit later, I’ll start with a bit of background.

I pretty much flunked my A Levels in 1993, had my daughter at 23 in 1999, and ended up drifting through a number of jobs I hated through most of my 20’s. In 2001, I started working at Freeserve as a Team Administrator. Freeserve had only been established in 1998 and provided internet connectivity; I started as employee one hundred and something. I applied because I needed a job but, to my surprise, I absolutely loved it. And it really sparked a passion in new Technology that I never knew I had. I didn’t know it then but, looking back, getting that job was a pivotal moment in my life and career. As the company grew so did opportunities and so did my interest in new tech. By 2006 I was a PA to the MD of Product and Marketing. They were small steps by some people’s standards, but I was super proud, and it suited my life as a single mum.

By 2006 Freeserve had merged with Mobile Operator Orange and the product world expanded out from Broadband into Mobile. The MD of Product and Marketing started to give me some mini project work on some low-key products which I did well at and when a Product Manager role came up in the team, he actively encourage me to apply. So, in 2008 I started my life as a Product Manager for Broadband. I was excited and terrified in equal measure. Could I really do this?

 

The answer was yes, I really could. I soon moved into the mobile space in 2010 as Senior Product Manager. Since then I’ve launched a number of really high-profile products in the mobile space and work with some of the biggest companies in the world, like Apple, Google and Amazon.

What is your current role and what are the key things you are focused on? 

 

In 2019 I moved into my current role within IT transformation to programme manage IT's skills transformation, sourcing strategy and the evolution of our operating model and organisation design.  I love the strategic focus of the role, and the opportunity to bring outside thinking into BT – seeing how other companies are adapting to the accelerating pace of technology change and working with teams right across Technology to set ourselves up for success now and in the future.  My programme recently completed the roll out of a best-in-class technology learning platform across 2000+ people in IT.  We’re now building plans to use the platform as a vehicle to meet strategic upskilling targets across our technical population.

 

I’m now Senior Manager for Mobile Communications and Strategic Partner Integration Products, and responsible for all mobile voice and messaging products; Thing like Wi-Fi Calling and RCS which will also need to extend to 5G and where there are special partner integrations required my team works with those partners to enable them on the EE Network. For example, Cellular connected Apple Watch or extending mobile calls to Alexa devices among a few.

 

If you could give advice to your younger self at the start of your career, what would that be? 

I was a teenager in the late 80’s and early 90’s and whilst things were changing, it was still a male dominated world and sexism was still very real. I have some very shuddery memories of being “patted” on the bottom in one of my first office jobs and being asked to “be a love” and make the tea. I often wish I could send my 45-year-old self back to that time and let them know in no uncertain terms that was not acceptable.
 

What are the biggest blockers you feel that remain in the industry for Women and how do you think we can overcome them? 

 

Even my Dad’s words to me as a teenager stick with me and I don’t agree with them now, but his sentiment and heart were in the right place. And I do think it helped me not consider my gender as any kind of limitation in my life…. “It’s man’s world, you’re always going to have to work harder and be smarter to get the same results”

Most of the things I’ve delivered in the last ten years I’ve consistently been one of the only women on the technical side and whilst I don’t particularly feel that being a woman has hampered or challenged me (thanks Dad!) I know that perhaps traits that are more common in women have had me up at night and doubting myself and my decisions. It’s pretty broadly reported that women tend to underestimate their skills.

Self-doubt and “am I good enough” have always been my struggle, even when I’ve done amazing things, I find it incredibly hard to accept that I made it happen. Even when I get acknowledgment awards, I always think there must have been someone else more deserving. What I’m learning and would encourage everyone to do is to accept the praise for doing a good job. People don’t make it up! It’s simply not the same as when someone say’s “nice hair cut” and you’re wondering if you can detect a hint of sarcasm. People only ever say good job when they mean it! However hard, just try to believe it.

Of all the things that hamper women in Technology I genuinely believe the biggest one that makes a difference is us and our ability to believe in ourselves.  Technology needs women to add a different perspective, don’t be afraid to voice that perspective even if you’re the only woman in the room. In my experience this perspective is valued because it’s not something that a group of men may have thought of. But aside from being a women, all of your experiences in life mean you may have different thoughts and opinions… and its different thoughts and ideas that mean we innovate and technology grows.