UK’s Top 35 Most Influential Women in Tech 2017
Sheree Atcheson

Sri lankan born Professional Changing the game for women in IT

A ‘change maker’, ‘industry leader’ and one of the ‘most influential women in IT’ are just some of the words used to describe Sheree Atcheson, 26, who is a Technical Business Consultant at Deloitte UK. A Computer Science alumna from Queen’s University Belfast, Sheree is also credited with founding the ‘Women Who Code’ organisation in Belfast and as their UK Expansion Director has established branches in London, Edinburgh and Bristol. Her credentials have enabled her to address several global forums such as the World Economic Forum and One Young World. Adopted by a Belfast couple when she was an infant, Sheree returned to Sri Lanka to spend her honeymoon and felt a real connection to the country. This sparked a hunt for her birth mother and recently Sheree and her husband returned to Sri Lanka to be reunited with her birth mother Dingiri Amma and the rest of her extended family. Buoyed by this, Sheree has also launched the ‘I Am Lanka’ organization which aims to highlight other Sri Lankans who are role models and can be an inspiration to others. A former part time model, Sheree is also on a mission to get more women involved in the IT industry and is seen as a flag bearer working tirelessly to eradicate gender bias within the industry. Driven by her determination to succeed, Sheree is using her position in the IT industry to inspire others and set the benchmark for others to follow suit.

What made you embark on a journey into the digital industry?

I have always been interested in computing. My cousin was a leading software engineer for NYSE and this always intrigued me. I had always wanted to create programs, as opposed to using them and this shaped the A Levels I chose, alongside the degree I decided to study at university.

How easy was it to get into employment after graduating?

Relatively easy. I did a placement with a local software company and they extended my contract and offered me a software engineering role when I graduated the next year. My placement not only involved working on various projects as a software engineer, but also beginning to look at outreach work. This solidified why I wanted to continue my career in this industry and continue my then role as a software engineer.

There are a lot of tech jobs across NI/UK and we are very lucky for it to be an emerging tech hot spot, which is bringing a host of investment from large (and smaller) tech companies. This has a great side effect of our graduates now having a wealth of opportunities in the tech industry available to them.

Where are you working currently?

I currently work at Deloitte UK as a Technical Business Consultant. At Women Who Code I am the UK Expansion Director and the Founder of I Am Lanka.

What kinds of projects have you been working on?

The work I love is public sector focused. I love working on things that change every day people’s lives in one way or another. I have worked on a lot of high profile public sector projects in my career, which have impacted thousands of people. My work now is focused around helping a client determine what they want their online digital solution to look like, and then determine the best way to do that in a way that the client will have an ease of use.

You are known as the woman who brought the Women Who Code movement to the UK. How did that come about?

Women Who Code is the world’s largest nonprofit dedicated to supporting the success of women in technology. Our organization works to highlight the accomplishments of the incredible female engineers that are already changing the world, while empowering this and the next generation of women leaders.
I brought it to Belfast, originally because there was nothing like this in Belfast for all women in tech, regardless of their company,financial situation or social standing. I wanted to create a space for women to come together and nurture their digital confidence and better their technical skill set. I then branched to London, Bristol and Edinburgh, where we have a total of around 7000 members.

How were you viewed after you started the first UK Women who Code event?

As a change maker. WWCode revolutionized the women in tech space in Belfast, and created an environment for more women in tech groups to pop up. As a fresh graduate, I made the decision to take it upon myself to invoke a change in that area, and thankfully it worked. It did mean that a level of responsibility was then on me to continue that work and continue forcing change across the UK. However, I am more than happy with that and it is why I have pushed my work with WWCode so hard – in order to create a better space for women in tech, because that is my responsibility now.

In a nutshell why is coding important?

Coding is becoming a tool with every industry – technology will always be intertwined now with medicine, veterinary medicine, teaching, law – you name it. We need to ensure our next generation has the appropriate skill set to deal with this and grow within the industry. Coding is a direct link to technology and developing the solutions that the world will need today and tomorrow.

Why do you think it is vital for women to join the IT industry?

Women have the same thing to offer as anyone else – a unique insight and viewpoint. Women in the tech industry are no different from men in the tech industry, and it’s about time everyone realised that. You cannot have a flourishing tech industry without including 50% of the population. As Marian Wright-Edelman has said, “You cannot be what you cannot see”. We need to have role models for people to understand that they can accomplish whatever they want because someone else similar to them has. If you see someone, who has the same accent, from a similar background, has accomplished something that you want to, it becomes all the more relatable and achievable. You can do it, because we have done it.

Since meeting your Sri Lankan birth mother recently in Sri Lanka you have started a new ‘I am Lanka project’ . What is that about?

The I Am Lanka organisation (www.iamlanka.orgwww.twitter.com/iAmLankaOrg) exists in order to shine a light on the global/local change makers in Sri Lanka.  I have had countless messages from men and women telling me I am inspiring them and empowering them because I am Sri Lankan. I had one Mayor ask me if he could share my story with school children, which sparked me wanting to try to impact Sri Lanka in the manner I’ve impacted the UK. My story is not the only one that should be shared and told –there are countless Sri Lankan role models and I am here to get their stories out there. In order to ensure all of the stories are shared, not just mine, but all of the global and local change makers, I Am Lanka was created. We are here to highlight Sri Lanka’s local and global role models working to empower and inspire our people. Be what you can see - because you are us and we are Lanka.

Tell us about your participation at The World Economic Forum

I spoke at WEF about cities as hubs of innovation. The session was moderated by Jamil Anderlini from The Financial Times with additional panelists - Fahd Rasheed, Emaar, The Economic City, Christian Ulbrich, JLL. WEF is one of (if not the) biggest conferences in the globe focusing on business and economics. To represent Belfast and speak at this at 26 years of age was absolutely amazing and again, one of my career highlights. It solidified the reputation I have here in the UK, but not only that, it has given me additional confidence in knowing that what I say matters – I am important and my influence is something that can greatly effect change.

Who are your role models in the IT industry?

There are a lot of people who I think are doing great things, but my role model has been (and will continue to be) my A Level Computing teacher, Mr. Owen Gribben. My teacher had an amazing passion for the computing industry, and it’s very clear he loved what he was doing. His enthusiasm was certainly infectious and this greatly attributed to the career I now have. We need more people like Mr. Gribben in the industry.

What are your long term career plans?

Outreach is my passion. I love doing work in the non profit space and I would love to make that my “day job”. I am passionate when I talk about my work and I know I am able to make people care about the issues I am talking about so I would love to utilize that skill set more in my day to day life.

What words of inspiration can you impart to those considering a career in the IT industry?

Never let anyone tell you that you are not important or that you are lesser. You are a person, with defining thoughts. That in itself makes you an asset to your profession. We cannot progress with any industry if we do not listen to all of the population – you are important.

What are some of the awards you have won in the UK IT industry?

Belfast Business Top 50 award, Shortlisted for Young Businesswoman of the year at Women In Business awards, Top 35th most influential women in tech across the UK, Computer Weekly.

What does it feel like to be included in the Most Influential Women in UK IT by the highly regarded Computer Weekly?

Pretty amazing. I am only 26 and have only been in the industry really since 2013. I am very proud of all the things I’ve accomplished with WWCode and to get this listing just reaffirmed that I have made a difference, that people are listening to me and that my work is important across the UK. I have been listed amongst some of my heroes, such as Anne Marie (the CEO of Stemettes, who I’ve worked with regularly) and to be considered as the same calibre9 as them is a fantastic achievement.

What motivates you to do what you do?

A responsibility to make the industry that little bit better than the one I joined 5 years ago. I recently attended One Young World in Bogota, which was amazing and a huge honour to attend. This works to bring together the young global change makers, inspire them and hope that they then go and create or change things for better. After attending this, I wanted to do something more (I know I do a lot already with WWCode) but there is a responsibility on those who have a reputation in this industry and it made me appreciate that to a greater level and gave me a new passion to work that little bit harder with WWCode and now I Am Lanka.