Posted on November 04 2015
Debbie is someone who has been on our radar for many years now, not least because we went to the same school as her! Having been at one of the first schools to teach Computing (as it was called then) at GCSE, a love of tech has remained with Debbie to this day, and she is now Head of Digital at Global Brand Activation agency Geometry, London. In our interview, Debbie discusses some of her life story from the biases she experienced as a kid to the empowering female role models that help drive her success.
Newnham: What were you like growing up?
Ellison: I was really, really ambitious and driven as a child. I grew up on a council estate in Gospel Oak but went to primary school in Hampstead as it was near my mum’s work. Because of this, I was always around kids that came from extremely wealthy backgrounds and at such a young age, found it very hard dealing with the obvious (and very large) wealth gap between my friends and I. Some mums wouldn’t let my friends play over or even let me hang out with their kid. They would be quite honest that it was because of my background and where I lived.
When the 11+ exams came around, I pestered my mum to let me sit exams for private secondary schools, just as my friends were doing; believing that doing so would result in similar outcomes to them. I was ecstatic when I managed to secure a scholarship to the private secondary girls school, Queen’s College, London but was also fully aware that the even with the discount, the fees accounted for over 70% of my parents monthly income.
Both my parents aren’t native to the UK, my mum was a nurse and worked super hard, doing night shifts at the hospital for most days of the week and my father was an abstract artist with a studio in Hackney. I know they sacrificed their own personal ambitions for me and were brilliant role models. My mother is one of the most formidable women I know and to this day, and now with my own children, I’m still in awe at how she managed to work 12 hour night shifts, 6 nights a week, raise children and run a household in the day. I honestly don’t know when she slept. Growing up with all these elements at play continues to spur me to work hard and not take no as an answer.
Newnham: What led you to take a computing degree?
Ellison: I actually got hooked on Computing as a subject at Queen’s College. Queen's was the first to offer Computing as a subject at GCSE so there were only four places on the course. Our teacher, Mr Jim Hutchinson, was a part-time IT consultant and drove a snazzy BMW motorbike and I wanted to be just like him. He always looked like he was having the time of his life.
Applications for a place on the course to study the subject were oversubscribed so he had to interview the students who wanted a place ~ I remember the interview like it was yesterday. He asked me why I wanted a place and I simply answered, "Because I want to be just like you.” To this day, I’m not sure if that actually clinched the deal!
As part of my GCSE course, I remember I wrote an eLearning program that gamified matching pupil’s faces to their names – so the teachers could learn the names of everyone in the school. Whilst now it sounds quite simple, it was a pivotal point for me because I learned that coding could offer solutions to real-life problems.
Jim was such a brilliant teacher and it naturally followed that I would do Computing at A-Level too and again, the class consisted of the same four girls that took the subject at GCSE. By the time I got to university to study a Computing in Business degree, I realised that I had been very well educated at Queen’s and because it was a girls school, the gender issue that we’re seeing now in the industry just didn't impact me.
I already knew a lot of the modules I was to study in my first year and it was only then that I had truly appreciated, not only the quality of the teaching, but how lucky I was, especially as a female, to have been exposed to such a unique opportunity to study Computing so early on at Queen’s College.
I only remember seeing one other woman on the Computing in Business course I took however, I’d come from such an empowered background, both at home and at school, that until this interview, I hadn’t even considered the lack of female students on the course as being an issue.
Newnham: You have had a mixed career - working for tech companies as well as advertising/digital agencies, what do you see as the major differences/advantages of each and how has working in tech helped you working on tech projects in agency land?
Ellison: Starting out as a developer has positively impacted my career. I understand how we can push digital solutions to work harder, be more effective or how to help teams circumvent technical challenges that might crop up. But to be brilliant at delivering digital projects, you have to have an excellent understanding of project management too ~ so much can go wrong and money can be wasted when you don’t know what you’re doing so good digital people tend to be quite granular in their thinking.
Having a tech background means I always want to know how we’re going to make it happen before we sell in a new idea or project, and sometimes agency life isn’t like that. Sometimes creative teams come up with an idea and you’re told to just, “Make it happen” which is a challenge, but our awards come when creative and technology teams work together, superseding the old agency partnership of a creative and copywriter.
Perhaps it was the creative influence of my father, but I’ve always been interested in how digital platforms could look and behave beautifully and still be effective, even when it wasn’t in my job description. Early on in my career, I found myself moving towards a user/customer experience role in digital, designing and building user interfaces for online HR systems. One of the biggest misconceptions about digital is that it’s all about technology which I fear is turning a lot of young women off from pursuing a role in the industry. I believe it’s more about the creative application of that technology that really kickstarts the amazing digital solutions we’re all seeing today.
Newnham: There has been a recent vocal call for more senior women in creative industries (as there are in tech) - how do you think we can encourage and support more women at the top?
Ellison: In the last few years of my career I’ve noticed a significant increase in my peers PR’ing themselves and their roles within our industry. We all need to do more of this and inspire a new generation of young women into our business. Personally, I’d like to see more internships being made available to a much younger generation of women (16+) before the decision to not pursue a role in the industry is made. We also need to make a conscious effort to build our business networks both within our place of work, as well as outside, and leverage those networks to support growth in our own careers.
Newnham: We agree. Who / what inspires you?
Ellison: My 19 year-old daughter inspires me. She is more driven than both my mother and I combined and it is amazing to witness. She also inspires me because she has absolutely no interest in digital innovation or technology. Unlike me, she is very hard to impress; being part of a generation to not know what its like to live in a non-digital world. Her generation don’t see technology in the way my generation do – and it’s the pursuit of getting to the “wow” for these kids that inspires me every day.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice, if any, would you give a younger Debbie?
Ellison: My husband and I had our daughter when we were 19 and I was in my second year at university. I was studying, working and raising a child. I remember at the time I was surviving on about 3 hours sleep for weeks on end and eventually my body just shut down. I was bedridden for two weeks.
As women, we can often be our worst critics and so I would have advised myself, just as I do other women now, to give yourself a break – you can’t be everything to everyone all of the time. As soon as you acknowledge that, it can be very empowering.