Dr Elaheh HomayounVala is a lecturer in computer science at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her passion for tech began in high school, when she would travel by bus to one of the first computing companies in the city to study IT. Having spent much of her career defying expectations, her advice to young women now – including her own daughter – is to see computer science as a flexible career path you can create for yourself.
I wanted a career that would allow me the flexibility to be a wife and a mother and computer science offered that flexibility.
Dr HomayounVala has had a ground-breaking career in more ways than one. Not only was her school one of the first in her native Iran to offer computing lessons, but she went on to be one of the first women in the country to graduate with a Master’s in Philosophy of Science. However, speaking about her career trajectory so far she reflects that the tech sector hasn’t always been as adaptable and open-minded as it is now.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been finding the right career path for me. When I was at school most of our teachers advised us to study medicine or electrical engineering but I knew that I wanted a future career that would allow me the flexibility to be a wife and a mother as well and computing offered that flexibility. While I enjoyed my undergraduate degree in computer science, I had other interests I wanted to explore – like psychology and the humanities – which was why I chose philosophy of science as my master’s subject. It was a really new programme and I was one of only two women in a class of 10 students.
“When I moved to London with my husband, I undertook my PhD at King’s College London and moved back towards computer science, but I was finding it difficult to marry my two interests – computing with humanities. Employers found my CV confusing because I had these dual areas of expertise. Eventually I was lucky enough to work for a research institute where the head of the institute had the same interests as me and supported me to bring them together.”
We’re showing our students that just because you’re interested in more than one field of study, you don’t need to choose between them.
Dr HomayounVala combined her tech skills with her interests in people and psychology to begin researching user modelling and personalisation – looking at how people interact with computers and how technology can be adapted to suit both individuals and groups.
“I like the unpredictability of humans as users of computers and I am very interested in how we can personalise technology to suit such diverse users. It was a relatively new field when I began so I’m proud that I recognised early on that this was going to be an increasingly popular area – 15 years on many big companies are really investing in personalisation.”
Being a pioneer herself, Dr HomayounVala is a firm believer that as a computer scientist you shouldn’t have to slot into a rigid system but should have the chance to use your computing skills in any area that interests you.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about computer science is that it is only suitable for people who love maths and are very techy and therefore that it can’t have anything to do with fields like art or psychology. That is completely untrue. Areas like human computer interaction rely on a multidisciplinary team, with computer scientists working alongside graphic designers and psychologists.
“One of the best things about the computing department at Goldsmiths is that people working here come from all kinds of different backgrounds. We have students who are interested in management and entrepreneurship or artificial intelligence and medicine and they combine those passions with technical skills. What we’re showing our students is that just because you’re interested in more than one field of study, you don’t need to choose between them. You can use computing skills to support you in any area you care about.”
We add our own perspectives – as women, sisters, mothers, wives – and that’s not to say we have a better perspective, but we all benefit from considering lots of different views.
As technology increasingly intersects with every element of our lives, Dr HomayounVala believes it is becoming even more important to redress the balance between men and women in the tech sector.
“Technology is changing the world we live in and more than that, it is changing the world our children will live in. We need both men and women to help shape that world. We add our own perspectives – as sisters, mothers, wives. That’s not to say we have a better perspective, but we all benefit from considering lots of different views, particularly regarding ethical issues surrounding areas of computing like artificial intelligence, which will have such a big impact on future generations.”
As her own daughter prepares to start her undergraduate degree in computer science at King’s College London, where she herself began her PhD 18 years ago, Dr HomayounVala has some pertinent advice for young women everywhere who are wondering if tech is for them.
“Start by thinking about yourself. Know what your interests are and what you enjoy doing. Have a look at the range of jobs available now but also at where future trends are likely to go – you will enter the job market in a few years’ time and computing is always changing so can you imagine yourself working in any of these future trends? But most importantly, remember it’s okay not to be sure. You can start your journey and adapt it along the way. The flexibility offered in computer science will allow you to make your own unique career path.”
Find out more about the range of different specialisms on offer with a BSc in Computer Science.