40 under 40: Get to know Sheree Atcheson

Companies can’t expect to get the best talent if they don’t openly empower their staff and allow them to investigate the things that make them passionate, whilst also doing the client work.

Deloitte understands this. The reason why I came here was, not only is this one of the biggest companies in the world, it’s somewhere that openly supports not just women but all different minorities to do the things they want to do.

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I have been involved with Women Who Code since I was 22. At that time, five years ago, they had a great base in San Francisco and around 5,000 members globally. Today they are the biggest non-profit in their field and have 137,000 members. I brought Women Who Code to Belfast and also launched new hubs in Bristol and London, so that today there are 8,000 UK members.

Wherever I work needs to embrace the fact that they have hired a change-maker. I have been able to work with Deloitte to give me the time to take on speaking engagements all around the world.

Earlier this year I spoke and hosted a panel in Cannes at MIPIM, the world’s largest property conference about the innovation happening in Belfast. I just spoke at Women Who Code Connect in San Francisco about the changing the face of tech. I’m speaking in Dublin at Inspire Fest, one of Europe’s largest science and technology events. And right after that I am off to Webitfest in Bulgaria, Europe’s largest policy conference, where I’m addressing diversity and inclusion. In July, I’m speaking in Hong Kong at the Leaders to Leaders conference, then it’s on to Bucharest for the IAA Global Conference, ‘Creativity 4 Better’ and Amsterdam for the STEMM Equality Congress. 

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It’s a packed calendar and I need to work somewhere that understands that I don’t take speaking engagements unless they have value Deloitte, Women Who Code and myself. I view each conference as a Venn diagram that needs to benefit everybody. These are not commitments I take on for fun and I know that making client revenue for the business is the main reason why I am hired by Deloitte.

The thing I need is time. It’s not every company that would give you five days out of the office to take on speaking engagements but Deloitte sees the bigger picture of the massive social return on its investment. I am privileged to have senior members all the way up to executive level talking saying my name in meetings, being an ally and pushing me forward for things. That support is a huge weight off my shoulders as senior allies (both Male and female) are so important in ensuring the next generation of change makers can achieve its full potential. 

Because I travel a lot to speak, I do most of my consultancy work from Belfast. Deloitte have been able to work with me on that too, so I can deal with any issues I have at home and in my personal life whilst being able to travel when I need to for conferences.

In my field I am quite unusual in having a background as a software engineer. Coding isn ’t completely relevant to my role now, but the fact that I have a technical mindset and can understand code is a huge selling point that can really benefit some of the clients I work with.

When I was growing up in Northern Ireland with a brother and no sisters I was always gaming with my brother and his friends. I was a big fan of games like Spyro (the Dragon) and Earthworm Jim. Then one of my cousins became a senior engineer for the New York Stock Exchange here in Belfast and taught me what it meant to actually create through technology.

I decided to study computing and my teacher was phenomenal. From there I studied computer science at Queen’s University, Belfast, wanting to be a software engineer and to create things. Only around ten per cent of the students were female.

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Post-graduation I worked for a few years as a software engineer and I loved it. But I noticed that I was most excited whenever I was in front of clients, helping them with their technical requirements. I realised I am good at talking to people who are not technical about technical things without making them feel out of their depth.

I transitioned into Technical Business Consultancy here at Deloitte, helping clients figure out what they want from their software, and turning that into an IT strategy. It’s a role where I have the creativity that I always sought but in a way that best suits me.

Global giants like Deloitte are partnering with organisations like Women Who Code and seeing the benefits of diversity. There’s a huge business benefit and people need to understand that, if you invest in diversity and inclusion, your workforce is only going to get better

I have always said that this will never change overnight. It’s a generational thing and whilst there are so many people now putting in all this great effort I think we will see a big change in the next generation or the generation after that because of this fantastic ground work. I like to think that we have built the foundation of the house now and are starting to build up the walls; next time it will be putting on the roof and the windows, and then the house will be decorated.

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Today’s children can come to coding through Minecraft, or learning initiatives like CoderDojos. Campaigns like Let Toys be Toys are helping remove the view that girls like pink and dolls and boys should like blue and Lego. As someone of Sri Lankan origin who grew up in a very white community, I know that it’s important for people to see that they are represented. Women in tech are not an anomaly anymore and people of colour in tech should not be either.

Technology is completely fluid and the industry needs to embrace that.

There’s no future in the view that people need to be put in a box. Transitioning in the way I have from engineer to consultant is not easy but it’s about fully understanding what you are good at.

I was able to move into my role at Deloitte and have been able to really grow here. Who knows everything in their twenties? I’m only 27 now and I sure as hell don’t know everything but I am entirely open about that and I’m willing to learn.