Abigail Sellen FREng is Deputy Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, and Honorary Professor at the University of Nottingham and University College London
“Together we get a chance not just to imagine future technologies, but to build them. ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
My job is about inventing the future of computer technology. My group does research into how people want to relate to digital technology, what they would find compelling, and how it might change their lives. So it is focused on the human perspective, but is about creating and engineering entirely new systems and devices which will impact the way we live.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I started by taking a degree in psychology but then got interested in mathematical models of human behaviour. This led to a degree in industrial engineering allowing me to apply these models to the design of complex systems such as nuclear power plants and airplane cockpits. I ended up in the field of Human-Computer Interaction after a summer internship at Apple, and have worked in industrial research labs ever since.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
I get to work with creative, sparky people; not just computer scientists and engineers, but social scientists and designers too. Together we get a chance not just to imagine future technologies, but to build them. That’s an amazing job to have.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I’m proud of some of the books and papers I’ve written, and the systems we have built over the years, but most of all I’m proud of the people I have helped to mentor through my career. Many have gone on to do great and impactful research.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
I think many women have great apprehension about working in a male-dominated field and all that that implies. I think if many women knew the reality—that there are many jobs where you can be collaborative, creative, and work in multi-disciplinary teams—they might re-consider engineering as a career. More internships and chances to experience what engineering is really like I think would help to turn things around.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
When I did my degree in engineering, only 7% of my class were women. At the time it made me feel very conspicuous. I see engineering now as merging with so many other disciplines that diversity in all senses of the word is becoming the norm. We still have a long way to go, but we have moved on in so many ways.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
If mainstream engineering doesn’t appeal to you, look at the many programmes opening up which combine engineering with science, design, social science, the arts, and humanities. It might turn out that your real forte is at the intersection somewhere.