Finding Needles in Haystacks: Cat Wildman

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
March 31, 2022
min read

This is the first interview in a new series from Applied where we chat with people with unconventional paths into tech and the startup world.

We recently sat down with Cat Wildman, the Co-Founder and CPO of GEC — The Global Equality Collective to chat a bit about hiring, DEI, what makes a good product, and her hopes for the future of D&I in Tech.

What’s your job title and what do you do on a normal day?

I’m Cat Wildman. I’m co-founder of the global equality collective, which is a collective of over 350 subject matter experts in various areas of diversity, equality, and inclusion, and a tool to help organizations and schools to find and close their D&I gaps.

On on a normal day, I mean, what is a normal day or a day in the life of a founder? I’d say, it’s meeting new people, a lot of networking, pitching my business to potential customers, onboarding new businesses. In amongst that mix there’s also lots of research and writing, creating content for our library, all sorts of stuff!

So a varied mix! When I looked at your profile before it said you were in portfolio management, product management, and a director. How did you get specifically into tech or maybe a better question, when you started GEC, how did you know you wanted it to be a product (rather than say a consultancy or service)?

I did science throughout my education and went straight from science into technology. I started off working on projects and portfolios in all areas of tech. With the advent of the smartphone, digital products became a thing and a whole new career path opened up before me.

I immediately loved ‘Product’ as a career. I was already working in digital at the Telegraph and we evolved ‘Project’ into ‘Product’. In the UK, I feel that we essentially learned from how the US were doing this, so we all got trained in ‘Product’ and we reorganised the whole department to working agile over waterfall, changing mindsets from being “requirements gathering and a big bang release after 6 months” to stakeholders being involved the whole way through and inputting into shaping the product etc.

I loved this transformation so much that I went around doing that for a few companies and ‘productising’ portfolios. So, that’s a long way of saying that it wasn’t that I made a leap into technology, because I had already been creating digital products for years by the time the idea for the Global Equality Collective arrived in my head.

For me, It was more that I made the leap from tech into D&I. From just being ‘a woman in tech’ to actually starting to fight for the pipeline and fight to open the door, and keep the door open for more people like me — and people with less privilege — and using my position and tech experience to try and make that happen at scale.

Cool. Very cool. So what was your first job in tech? Do I remember correctly that you studied neuroscience?

I studied physiological and biomedical sciences at uni, which obviously has nothing to do with running projects! But it’s the same sort of mindset I find.

The experimental side of things — ‘the scientists’ mindset’ is a very transferable skill; you do your research, you find a gap, you find a problem to solve — or something that you’re intrigued by or curious about — and then you do the experiments, and write the research and figure out whether your experiments did the thing you hoped it would do to solve the problem, and that’s what technology is. And that’s what digital products are.

It’s basically the same thing but instead of using chemicals and bits of plants and animals it’s using code and machines — or at least that’s the way I approach it!

What was the first job that you had in that area?

I’d moved to London because I heard the streets were paved with gold and that was where I was going to find a job. So I applied to be a project coordinator at the Telegraph newspaper because my parents read the Telegraph and my mum had found an advert in the back. She had actually cut the advert out with a pair of scissors and sent it to me in an envelope in the post — and that’s how long ago it was!

So, I applied, and got the job, and it was perfectly suited to me because it was exactly the same sort of thing I’d been doing in my degree. I stressed so much about the interview; all I was thinking was ‘please don’t ask me anything about computers’.

I was so worried because I wouldn’t have known the answer. But a great thing happened; somehow the interviewer realised that the way I thought — and the way that I was comfortable operating — meant that I would be perfect for the job — all because someone recognised that I had the brain to be able to do that job. This is why I think Applied is so great.

I’m assuming you’ve applied for jobs since then, how have you seen the hiring process change? Sorry that’s a pretty big question!

It’s just radically different.

When you see old school practices happen these days, you raise your eyebrows. You’re like, ‘oh my gosh, that’s not great’. So back then, in that interview I just mentioned, I met one person and obviously with all the work that I’ve been doing in the past three to five years I’ve recognised it’s such a huge risk factor for bias, to have just one person in charge of making decisions.

And thinking about when I was recruited, they would’ve looked me up online, they knew my name. I think that I did get recruited because they (recruiters) saw themselves in me. I was recruited by a white woman who was one of the only ones in tech and she recruited a white woman. We looked fairly similar as well. I mean, there was definite bias at play for absolute sure.

But now it’s panels and all the different levels and roles of people who are going to work with you doing the interviewing.

So thankfully, for the last jobs I applied for and got, I was interviewed by the people who would be reporting into me, by my peers, my superiors… and anyone else who wanted to join the interview process was allowed to come in and listen or ask questions.

Then there was a strict scoring matrix for the questions, we weren’t having chats about ‘did it take you long time to get here?’, or ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ That sort of thing, because although it seems polite and fine, those sorts of questions open all sorts of doors for bias to just walk right in. So yeah, I’ve definitely seen hiring change — and thank goodness!

Yeah, that’s good! How often do you think about those sorts of biases in your own work? How much of your DEI work gets built into your own?

Oh, my goodness. It’s entirely built into our own processes.

My co-founder and I vibed immediately — the fact that we thought the same about the problem that we were both looking to solve (there was clearly ‘like me’ bias at play there). But before we did anything else in terms of what we were going to do together business-wise, we wrote our values.

We sat down and we wrote our values to make sure that there was a values match with everything that we did from there on in. And then everything that we did after that passed through those values as a filter — which is great.

Today, everything we do as the Global Equality Collective, boiling it right down, is actually to fight against bias. Everything that we do to help people progress through organizations, to help them feel included and belong, to help break stereotypes, fighting bias is the red thread throughout our whole company and everything we do.

I think the biggest change for me is that personally, I am now always aware of bias. I’m never not thinking about it. I’ve gradually developed a bias alarm that starts going off in my head, as well as a privilege alarm. So I’m always conscious of privilege, always conscious of bias. And all the imbalance we are trying to level out all comes back to bias and privilege.

So I have a few more questions on tech and recruitment. When you think of recruitment in general, what are five words that come to mind?

  • anxiety
  • overwhelm
  • inadequacy
  • white man, 20-something in a suit
  • opportunity

That’s a great question. Immediately I felt it rather than thought it. I felt anxious. I felt like I was back as a graduate, trying to think about what job I was going to get. Anxious, anxiety overwhelm. Inadequacy…I’m not painting my impressions of recruitment in a very good light am I?

But it’s what the word ‘recruitment’ immediately conjured up for me. And then another thing is, ‘recruiters’ come to mind and my neural pathway is clearly still programmed to bring up the young, white guy, 20 something in a suit, trying to get you a job. Those neural pathways are hard to break, even though I’ve met hundreds of recruiters who are totally different to that.

Nice. I loved hearing them! Everyone’s going to have such a different experience and association with that word which is why we really wanted to ask people about it. So now, when you think about tech, what are five words that come to mind?

  • challenge
  • opportunity
  • future
  • competition
  • boring

I see opportunities everywhere. You could probably say ‘packet of crisps’ and I’d say ‘opportunity’. ‘future’. tech is very exciting. It’s a great place to work, but there’s also negative connotations with tech. When people say tech, even though I have always worked in it and love it, and I would hate to work in any other field. I still think of it as, like, a bit boring because when I go to tech events, sometimes they can be a bit boring. I think the way tech is PR’d sometimes feels really dull and uninspiring. Completely the opposite to what it’s like to work in it.

So a big difference between the two, but a small overlap. You said you think of challenges, opportunity, and competition when you think of tech. What would you define as good tech? Cause when you’re thinking about good tech, competition, challenges and opportunity definitely come to my mind.

Good tech for me solves customer problems. And solves them in a really simple way. Good tech feels like a breath of fresh air. And actually when you’re using good tech, it’s hard to notice it — because it just happens. It’s like walking through an empty room.

The empty room you just walked through and thought nothing of, might have been a complete mess before, and walking through it might have been really hard; you would have had to climb over things and it might have been dark and you couldn’t see…Good tech is like walking through an empty room in that, your path is clear and you don’t even notice it.

And that’s the thing, because when you have bad tech, you notice it and you think ‘this user experience is horrible’. [Bad tech] makes me want to destroy my phone.

You have to really consciously try and be aware of good tech, ‘wow, this process is slick’ or ‘Oh! and it knew what I wanted!’ It’s that sort of thing. I just love that feeling when you get a little spark of joy and notice a great UX — as a product person I usually think ‘that is cool and secretly I’m a little jealous of the fact that you did that’. And then I think ‘how can I maybe take that and incorporate it into what I do?’

It’s the same with hiring and people. With a good product person or projects person, if they’re good you don’t really notice them because they just make everything happen but if they’re bad, you notice.

When was the last time you had that? It’s not quite a Eureka moment, but in your own product, when was the last time there was something that you did at GEC that made you feel like, ‘oh, yes, we totally nailed this’?

The ongoing challenge for me as a product developer is removing my own frames of reference when I’m trying to solve a problem. So when I try to solve a problem, I’ll immediately (and naturally) call to the front of my mind all the things I’ve seen that have solved that problem before.

So, right now I’m trying to create an insights layer on top of our data, which at a glance tells you the story of what’s going on with D&I at your organisation. It sounds like a really simple thing to do. It’s the most mind meltingly difficult thing because there’s so many different aspects that you’d need to bring to the front that you don’t want to obfuscate any data, you don’t want to minimise something that’s actually important…

But I had a little breakthrough the other day when I stopped thinking about similar products that had done a decent job before, like diagrams and things that D&I consultants produce. I started thinking about things like Spotify wrapped and Strava instead — just thinking completely outside of my frames of reference for ‘business insights’. Why don’t we celebrate things that are going really well?

Why don’t we just call out peaks in the data instead of trying to walk people through it from start to finish? Just let them look at the peaks in the data and focus on the gaps in a way that feels fun. Why can’t it remind people of something fun that they want to go and use.

I love Spotify wrapped! We’ve definitely talked about it in our own reporting and how people interact with the hiring data they see. It’s so shareable and in a weird way, helps you identify your year through such a unique lens, even though, of course it’s not unique ’cause millions of people use Spotify, but it’s still unique to you.

That’s it. Even though millions of people use the platform, people feel such a sense of ownership over their Wrapped, it tells a story for your life, doesn’t it? So my wrapped, eight years ago before I had 3 kids, would‘ve been totally different. It would’ve been filled with dubstep, cool music, BBC 6, new emerging artists. I was even working at timeout at one point when I was listening to all this all is cool stuff.

And now it’s the Encanto soundtrack. Ridiculous. My kids have totally taken over and I don’t have any time to discover anything new, but still it tells the story of my life, it’s great.

So true. Amazing. Okay. I have two last questions. Based off of what you just talked about, If GEC had to be a genre of music what would it be? What genre of music would it fit in?

Love that question! We would definitely be 80s, maybe some sort of 80s funk. I’d say something that you can rollerskate to with a neon headband. Me and my co-founder listen to a lot of 80s tunes and send 80s gifs to each other a lot. She’s a child of the 70s I’m a child of the 80s, so maybe like 1979 to 1982 type vibe.

Amazing. I love the idea of someone in a neon headband skating around as the mascot for GEC. Lastly, you work in the DEI space and as we think of this topic of finding needles in haystacks, or finding a product solution, or finding the right people to work on it, what hope do you have for the future of work in terms of DEI?

Yes, I’ve got two hopes. The first hope is that organisations start focusing on outcomes instead of how many hours people are spending on reaching those outcomes or where they are whilst they’re doing it. At the GEC we don’t care where our employees work, what time they work. We work on outcomes and if customers are happy, and things are going well, who cares if they do it from a beach in Barbados? I don’t care if it’s at three o’clock in the morning, if that’s when you want to work, great.

And the second hope is that people start taking a chance on people more. Because I think we are still relying too much on our frames of reference when we are bringing people into organisations — when we’re choosing who to work with.

Great things have happened to me when I’ve taken a chance on someone when I’ve been totally unsure, but there’s something about them that I thought ‘I think that you can do this’ and I wanna see you do it, and I want to be there when you do it.

Everyone I’ve taken a chance on even though it’s quite a leap into the unknown, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised. So I would say every single time you get the option to give someone the benefit of the doubt, choose that one, because you’re not only helping that person, you’re busting your own biases. Every single time you do that, You’re reprogramming your biases. You’ll see successful results from that kind of person and you’ll do it again and again.

Do you know someone who has had an unconventional path to where they are now? We’d love to chat with them — email Cam at