Tag Archives: diversity

Benefits of a steep learning curve by a UCISA bursary winner

Sara Henderson
Graduate Intern (Student Champion)
Student Systems Project (Corporate Information and Computer Services)
University of Sheffield



Sara Henderson was funded to attend this event as a 2017 UCISA bursary winner

Being awarded a UCSA bursary to attend the UCISA Support Services Group (SSG) 2017 conference was a highlight of my working year. Although SSG was not my initial choice, I felt privileged to be accommodated by the scheme nonetheless. Below is an account of how my attendance has positively shaped my professional development, institution and how this interacts with the wider HE IT sector.

For context, I am no longer working at Student Lifecycle Project at the University of Sheffield (formerly Student Systems Project), but the experience of UCISA-SSG has still had a lasting effect on my experience of the sector, as I will detail in the following paragraphs.

Professional development

Many aspects of the conference were a steep learning curve. Although I had attended conferences before, these were alongside my peers as an undergraduate, whereas UCISA-SSG17 allowed me to network with established and influential people in the sector. In some ways this was challenging – introducing myself and my involvement in the Project made me feel slightly vulnerable, but everyone I spoke to was interested and encouraging in equal measure.

Most notably, I was asked to speak on the Panel session – the headline event of the conference. Members of the panel were James Smith, Director of IT Services, Birkbeck, University of London; Adam Kearns, Students’ Union Postgraduate Office, University of Bath; Sebastian Barnes, IT Support Specialist, Leeds Beckett University, and myself. Although I was taken aback by the offer, I’m glad it was given relatively last minute, as it didn’t leave much time for the nerves to kick in. I had given presentations and spoken on a panel and in front of moderately-sized groups of people before, but never on this scale. I was accompanied by confident and competent speakers who luckily had most of the spotlight, and despite the topic areas being somewhat unfamiliar I was still able to draw on my experience as a student and university staff member. I was extremely proud of myself for accepting such a daunting but exciting opportunity, and grateful to UCISA for the experience.

Institutional benefit

Unfortunately, I was unable to present my experience of UCISA to student representatives at the University of Sheffield as I had hoped to, because the recruitment of said students was delayed for the duration of my contract on the Project. The time-scales and priorities of such a major business change project are extremely variable, so this is to be somewhat expected. However, I did share my experience with colleagues, conversationally rather than formally, and believe my attendance at the conference had a genuine impact on Student Lifecycle Project.

Firstly, I’m reminded of the ‘Adding Value with Values’ talk given by Alistair Reid-Pearson, IT Manager at the University of Huddersfield. I was heavily involved in the communication and marketing of the Project to stakeholders, and contributed to the development of our ‘Vision’, including our core values and principles. We acknowledged the importance of gaining buy-in from our team by inviting everyone to participate in the process of developing this piece.

Secondly, the electric discussion by Paul Boag, ‎User Experience Strategic Designer, Boagworks about User Experience How to start a user experience revolution’ carried through all the work I’ve done since hearing it. Being heavily involved in the prospective student enquiry management element of the project, I helped design enquiry categories in the new system, and formulate FAQs for student support and guidance. From content to layout, I began every consideration from the user’s perspective, as championed by Paul.

Lastly, Francesca Spencer’sTechnophobe Testing – an experience of providing a service to those who fear, dislike or avoid technology’ put accessibility at the forefront of my mind when supporting the development of software and services. I made it my priority to advocate for the needs of all staff and students, be it ‘technophobes’, disabled or differently-abled people, by urging their inclusion in the room.

Wider sector

It was a pleasure to contribute my dissemination to UCISA’s website (Part 1: Fresh meat and learning about user involvement and Part 2: Not in the IT crowd (and that can be a good thing) ), and I hope this was well-received. I connected on LinkedIn with some of the people I met at the conference, which has since provided plenty of reading material and food for thought, and allows me to learn from the hard-work and perseverance of others in the sector.

Interested in applying for a UCISA bursary? Then visit UCISA Bursary Scheme 2018.

Part 2: Not in the IT crowd (and that can be a good thing)



Sara Henderson
Graduate Intern (Student Champion),
Student Systems Project (Corporate Information and Computer Services)
University of Sheffield

UCISA SSG17: Reflections from a bursary scheme winner

Sara Henderson was funded to attend this event as a 2017 UCISA bursary winner

This is the moment of truth.  I take to the stage to speak on my first ever conference panel session, an extremely popular fixture at UCISA-SSG .  As I meet my fellow panellists, I’m half-waiting for someone to yell “INTRUDER” and haul me off the stage, but before I know it my name flashes up on the screen and all eyes are on us.

The questions roll in, some wackier than others, and I do my best to answer them honestly, but with many falling outside of my remit, I find it difficult to feel completely at ease.  I’m in the strange position of being a recent student and new staff member, meaning I have a slightly diluted experience of both roles.

Nevertheless, the panel really coloured my reflections of the conference and beyond.  It also tied together some themes which came out of the week – that people come before technology, services need to be user-focused and the tech industry ought to be a collaborative space.

To borrow Francesca Spencer’s poignant acronym DISC (Dave, Ian, Steve and Chris), alluding to the lack of diversity in IT (which she affectionately Room 101-ed), it was difficult not to contemplate this reality as the only woman panel member at a conference of mostly men.  This is not to bash the conference or its attendees, but simply to acknowledge that we have a lot of work to do.

So if you’re yet to be a believer in the power of diversifying IT, let’s call this my manifesto.

  1. It’s good for business

Beyond a moral impetus, crudely speaking, a diverse team is a more effective one.  Looking at the demography of the industry, we are only making use of a limited cross-section of society within our teams, leading to a major skill-shortage despite growing demand.  So – diversify, or get left behind.

  1. Challenge is good

A homogenous group is less likely to be critical of each other because of their shared experiences. Imagine asking two identical job candidates to critique each other – it would be a bit like playing spot the difference.  But by broadening your team’s demography, you embed the opportunity for challenge in its make-up.  The right kind of challenge drives success.

  1. Stop! in the name of users

Perhaps you’re with me so far, and you’re wondering “what does this have to do with me and my team’s work”?  But there is another, more nuanced point to be made for the case of diversity within IT, regarding the diversity of users’ experiences with technology.  Asking an IT expert about an IT question is going to get you a professional answer.  But asking a “layman” might get you a more interesting one. Take the example of me sitting onstage at the panel session and feeling like an imposter – maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to have someone there who was agnostic to the cause.

  1. Students know what they want (and they’re not afraid to say it)

 That the panel got such a positive and enthusiastic reception is just a reminder of how keen university staff are to hear the “student voice”.  So if you’re aching to hear how to provide the best support services to students – just ask them!  You can only ‘put yourself in their shoes’ so many times before you hit a dead end, and it’s dangerous to make assumptions.  As Kerry Pinny so passionately expressed, there is no such thing as a digital native: being a millennial doesn’t mean you come out of the womb holding an iPhone, and students have a diverse range of experiences to offer you.  So maybe I wasn’t the best user for that panel, or maybe there isn’t such a thing.

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(Presentations and video catalogue are available on the conference website)

(Further information on Sheffield’s Graduate internship scheme, can be found at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/hr/recruitment/graduateinternship)

Interested in applying for a UCISA bursary? Then visit UCISA Bursary Scheme 2018.