Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sarah McVittie – one for Ada Lovelace Day

For those of you who don’t know, Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.

Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. Something I’m quite vocal about as some of you may have noticed already. Ada Lovelace Day is about changing that invisibility and getting bloggers to tell the world about these unsung heroines of tech.

Recent research by psychologist Penelope Lockwood discovered that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones. So this initiative is one chance to do something about that and highlight new role models and make sure that whenever the question “Who are the leading women in tech?” is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues.

So with a bevy of lovely ladies to choose from, it was very hard for me to decide, but decide I must. So today I’m choosing Sarah McVittie who co-founded Texperts.

She’s not your typical lady in tech, if there is such a thing. She’s not a developer. She doesn’t talk geek speak. And if she’s into gadgets in a big way, I’ve never noticed it during all the times I’ve spent with her. What she is though is down to earth, passionate, driven with an aim to help real people find the answer to stuff. She’s the founder of Texperts, the dead easy service whereby you can text any question you like to 66000 and get an answer back for a pound from the Texperts engine which is a genius mix of automated answers (built on several years worth and many 100s of 1000s of questions and a system that learns) and real live human beings. The human element being critical to the success of the service. If the answer isn’t to your satisfaction, you’re not charged. Simple as that.

Admittedly, in this tech world of the new new thing, SMS isn’t seen as the sexiest technology in the world to work with and is often dismissed now as the poor relation in this new world order of the mobile internet. And even in 2003 it wasn’t the sexiest technology in the world. But good golly Miss Molly, the algorithms and thinking behind this service are sexy. SMS it may be but don’t be fooled by its simplicity and think it can’t be any good and that it must be ‘a bit last year’. It certainly ain’t ‘a bit last year’ and is very much ‘so right now’. SMS is still very much live and kicking and the Texperts team are making customers happy and making money at it too. Yes, making money. A real live revenue stream not dependent on mobile advertising. How’s that for a turn up for the mobile industry books?!

Now the Texperts service is growing up having been bought by the folks behind the mighty 118118 and with that comes the recent US launch. Exciting times indeed for Sarah and her loyal team of texperts.

As for Sarah herself, she’s an entrepreneur with a vision and tenacity. A generalist who can also specialise when she needs to. Without a technical background, she’s built a technology business focussed on customer need. She has bags of energy, and I *mean* bags of it. She’s generous of spirit and kind of nature. A pleasure to hang out with. Always lots of fun and bursting with ideas and great anecdotes about the kinds of questions they get asked. She’s been through good times and bad times and has held on and kept the faith and it has paid off. And she’s still young enough to enjoy all the success that has and will come her way.

I’ve known her since the very early days of Texperts when it was born as 82Ask and I’ve been a fan since day one of both her and the service. Sarah is an inspiration to all of us, men and women alike and is a great role model for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit. Sarah shows us that you don’t need to know C++ or the square root of the semantic web divided by a Java platform to build and run a technology business. What you do need is a good idea and to get the right people and resources around you to deliver that idea. Oh, and a good dollop of strength of character.

Well done Sarah. A most welcome addition to Ada Lovelace Day.