Maria McKavanagh is chief operating officer at Green Running, the maker of Verv, a connected home device that monitors energy usage, with the goal of giving households more control over energy bills and helping them to save money.
In this interview with Internet of Business for International Women’s Day 2017 (#IWD2017), she talks about how she got started on her career in technology, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry and what might be done to address the sector’s gender imbalance.
Q: Maria, can you start off by telling us a little about your current work on IoT?
A: I joined the Green Running team in January this year as chief operating officer. Green Running has developed a new way to monitor energy usage in homes with a mission to give more control of energy bills to the end-user and help save them money. But it’s not a smart meter. The product, Verv, uses patented algorithms to identify electronic devices turned on in the home and tells the user exactly how much money the device is costing them to use in real-time.
From a toaster to a tumble dryer, Verv measures the cost of running each appliance and makes recommendations on how switching to eco appliances or changing their usage behaviors could save them money. Verv can tell the user whether their appliances are starting to deteriorate or are faulty and need servicing or replacing. It can also act as a safety device by alerting users if they have left an appliance such as an iron or hair straighteners turned on, or if someone is active in their home when they are away.
Q: What drew you to a career in technology in the first place?
A: From a very young age, I loved taking things apart, learning how they worked and putting them back together again. When I started school, my favorite subjects were mathematics and physics, particularly because they were so logical and I could always see whether I was right or wrong. My brother, who is now a chief technology officer, gave me a book called Java in 24 Hours when I was 12. This was my first taste of computer programming and I loved it. I also had very supportive parents and older siblings who made me believe I could do anything I put my mind to – I didn’t realize until I was in my teens that certain careers were more heavily dominated by certain genders.
Read more: #IWD2017: Women of the IoT
Q: Have you found the gender imbalance in tech roles to be a challenge, an advantage – or a bit of both?
A: I believe that in the UK we could dramatically accelerate innovation, discovery and company performance if we had more balanced representation of different genders, and more diversity in general across all industries. From speaking to leaders in other tech companies, lateral thinking and self-awareness are two characteristics that are lacking in their cohort of employees. Lateral thinking is extremely important to come up with innovative solutions to problems and self-awareness is required to correct and learn from mistakes and therefore develop more quickly. Both these characteristics are much more prevalent in women than men, so if you have a gender-balanced workforce, the skill set will be much better-rounded and the company will be more successful.
Q: What, in your opinion, might governments, educators and companies be doing to address the technology industry’s gender imbalance?
There are a huge number of people doing fantastic work to increase the representation of women in the technology industry. The government have put lots of funding into STEM and schools are doing a fantastic job at encouraging females to pursue careers in technology through bringing in speakers from industry to provide positive role models.
Some of my heroes are Debbie Sterling, inventor of GoldieBlox – a toy to truly disrupt the “pink aisle”; Professor Danielle George MBE, who was the sixth woman to present the Royal Institute Christmas lectures in 189 years (and also taught me circuit theory!); and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. These women, along with many others, make people like me realize what’s possible. They inspire me to keep marching forward and to bring others along with me.
Where I believe we are struggling is with unconscious bias. It influences every interaction we have with other human beings where we will make quick judgements without even realizing based on our background and previous experiences. We also tend to feel more positively towards people who mirror ourselves so in the male-dominated tech industry, managers are subconsciously favoring people who are like them. The government/educators and companies must provide bias training if we are to attract and retain women in the tech industry. They must also focus on accountability and results.
Q: Would you recommend a career in technology to other women? What would you tell them about the rewards of working in the field of IoT?
A: Without a shadow of a doubt. I have been studying, researching and working in technology for almost 10 years and I genuinely feel like I have changed the world for the better in my own little way. Taking Verv as an example, if we had our product in every home, we could reduce the UK’s energy consumption by 20 percent, which is just amazing – and that’s before we even start thinking about empowering consumers to make smarter energy choices, to understand whether solar panel installation would be an economic choice for them, the list goes on. The most rewarding thing about working in IoT for me, particularly in London, is the people I meet. It is quite a small world and networking with others in this space has resulted in some of the most fascinating, idea-generating conversations.