Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE FREng FRS is a Professor of Computer Science and Executive Director of the Web Science Institute, University of Southampton
“The web and the internet have changed the world and it is very exciting to be involved in their technical development.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
At heart, I’m a software engineer. My current research is about studying the web as a socio-technical system to explore its impact on society and the impact we have on its development. However, I am also involved with the design and development of software systems – mostly web-based services these days – and I concern myself with the future of the web and the internet, and topical issues such as internet governance, cyber security, privacy and trust.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I studied mathematics at university in the 1970s and was lecturing in mathematics in the 1980s when the first personal computers came out. I became fascinated by how these new interactive machines could be used in education, particularly with the integration of text, graphics, video and audio through the use of hypermedia links. I went back to the University Southampton as a lecturer in computer science and by the late 1980s my team was building a hypermedia system called Microcosm. We subsequently moved into the development of web-based systems. The web and the internet have changed the world and it is very exciting to be involved in their technical development.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
As an engineer you can change the world. Anything cutting edge or innovative involves engineers at one point or another. Engineers build things that make peoples' lives better. I also enjoy working in a team, and teamwork is the heart and soul of engineering.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
My early work building the Microcosm hypermedia system, which was very much ahead of its time in terms of a system that supported the creation of links using semantic relationships. More recently my involvement in the development of web science as a new research and education discipline is something I’m very proud of. It is a truly international, interdisciplinary endeavour and very exciting to be part of.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
It’s going to take a long, long time to achieve gender parity at the rate we are going so it seems to me that we have to do something radically different to really make an impact. On the other hand, with all the talk about how AI and robots are going to replace many traditional employment roles, perhaps more women will naturally be attracted to engineering since engineering skills are still going to be in high demand while other occupations may be disappearing.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
I was turned down for my first job (teaching maths to engineers at higher education level) because I was a woman. I was told this after the interview. I was 24 at the time and had just got my PhD. It could have turned me off a career in engineering forever but luckily I had an interview for a similar job the following week and got it! These days we have a much more level playing field in such respects, but it’s still a man’s world in so many other respects. Now the problem is encouraging girls to study engineering in the first place.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
As I said above, you can change the world as an engineer and really make a difference to people’s lives. It’s such an exciting world to be part of. On a pragmatic level, we have a huge skills gap in engineering – particularly in my field of computer science – that is only going to get bigger. The job prospects are stunning, the salaries are great and it’s an unbelievably rewarding career choice. Go for it!