Chief Information Officer of the Year

Sarah Cunningham, Chief Information Officer at tech firm Arm, speaks to Workingmums.co.uk about her career after winning this year’s CIO/CTO of the Year award at the everywoman in Technology Awards.

 

Sarah Cunningham, Chief Information Officer at tech firm Arm and Site Head for their Cambridge campus. She is also a passionate and supportive mentor, empowering people to drive their ambition and a strong advocate of DE&I. She speaks to Workingmums.co.uk after winning this year’s everywoman in Technology Award for CIO/CTO of the Year.

Workingmums.co.uk: What first drew you to the tech sector?

Sarah Cunningham: The technology sector is an incredibly exciting space to work in. One of the things I love most about it is the difference you can tangibly see being made to the world around you and how quickly we adapt to it. For example, when I think about how I used to travel, with a wallet full of paper (tickets, money, directions, schedules, documents) I naturally compare it to how I travel now, with just a phone and a passport. The compute power and technical systems that have enabled this shift in our day-to-day experiences excites me. I see technology, I live it and I have a seat at the table where we influence the future of computing every day.

WMs: How have your own personal experiences, for instance, not taking the conventional path of going to university and being mum to an autistic child, influenced your approach to DEI?

SC: When I was young, my educational experience was challenging – I have dyslexia and I struggled to feel comfortable and empowered within the education system of the time. When I compare my own childhood experiences to those of my son’s, there has been a huge change in learning methods and information accessibility. There are still many areas that can be improved, but in general the provisions now far exceed what was available when I was at school.

Through my son’s learning experiences, I have seen first-hand how technology is improving the experience of young learners. Kids who have fabulous neurodiverse brains now have a multitude of technological tools that go a long way towards ensuring that their individual needs are supported.

From a tech perspective, even just the availability of applications like speech recognition software, dyslexic fonts, digital scanning pens and predictive text mean we are moving in the right direction. My first-hand experience means I have an invaluable insight into the challenges of neurodiversity, alongside being a working mum and a woman. I am continuously learning and actively take every opportunity I can to broaden my knowledge and experience so that I can best support the teams I work with. I actively drive DE&I initiatives at Arm and strongly believe that when you get involved in initiatives that really mean something to you, your passion can become an enabler that you use to power your work to improve inclusivity and equality.

WMs: How has your own dyslexia helped you as a leader?

SC: When I left school, I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do, and I had only a very minimal exposure to the tech world. It wasn’t until I got the opportunity to join a tech helpdesk for a financial trading company that I quickly found that I was good at visualising and understanding the integrated technical systems that support both businesses and people. I have always been a people person and have very high expectations for customer service. I quickly became invested in playing my part to support every customer’s experience with the tech systems they rely on.

WMs: What does your current role involve and what do you like best about it?

SC: As Chief Information Officer of Arm, I am accountable for all the enterprise and engineering technology used within Arm. The thing I love the most about it is the people, in my team and Arm-wide. The role is fast-paced and extremely rewarding, and we use amazing technology, much of it is built with Arm-based designs, but ultimately, it’s the people that give me the most energy.

WMs: How do you measure the impact of DEI work on the business?

SC: We have a mature way of looking at everyone’s contributions to DE&I across Arm and that is woven into both our employee survey and our regular 1-2-1 meeting cadence with our managers. Through our employee resource groups and employee communities, we see regular output into Arm that allows people to collaborate on initiatives they care about.

WMs: When did you first become a mentor and what have you learned from that?

SC: Formally and informally, I have been a mentor for many years. I have learned a lot for my own growth, particularly from people who have had different life experiences from me and that has helped me shape how I lead. In many cases, mentoring happens at a particular point in a career, often during a time when permission is sought for how someone can deal with a specific challenge, for example, returning after maternity leave and how that individual wants to balance their time and priorities. In that case, my role can be part of that “how do I approach this/ask for that” conversation. I find it extremely rewarding.

WMs: What DEI initiative are you most proud of and why?

SC: Last year in IT we did an organisation-wide survey about psychological safety. I really felt it was an area to build on, as we had brought many teams together under a new, single function and if we didn’t feel safe to bring our whole selves to that new environment, how could people do their best work and enjoy being part of the team? It was challenging and it can feel very personal, but the improvements were tangible.

The part of that process I am most proud of, is the growth of someone in my leadership team. She was so passionate about the survey that she really owned it and became an expert on psychological safety. She talked so articulately about it and emulated all the best practice behaviours. She was so wonderful, that she is now sought out across the company to talk about the topic and support other groups. Her passion and brilliance made me so proud.

WMs: How can tech help to embed DEI better?

SC: I feel that tech can truly level the playing field by connecting global workforces. More than ever before, you can build meaningful relationships with people virtually, as part of your very real, day to day life. Whether your children or your cats feature on a video call with your colleagues, people are in your home, and that connection can help us to learn about a world outside of the one we physically exist in each day.

Technology is also an amplifier. It allows us to be ourselves and we can use it to facilitate our connection with others, whether it’s by writing a blog to offer people a window into our life experiences or using voice notes to share interesting quotes from a book.

WMs: What does the everywoman award mean to you?

SC: I still get a little emotional when I think about it. It was so unexpected, and I was in such a wonderful group of finalists – everywoman is an outstanding platform. It means so much to me because it’s not really my award: It belongs to my family who support me to do what I do, the whole of the IT team and Arm as a whole. My achievements and the opportunities I have had are because of this group of wonderful people and a brilliant organisation, which enables people to do their best and participate in the things that matter to them.



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