A young brunette woman smiling at the camera in front of a purple and white wall that says Expleo.
Rebecca Keenan, Expleo. Image: John Ohle Photo

‘We risk losing great scientific minds because of a lack of representation’

20 Sep 2021

Expleo’s global head of robotic process automation discusses the growing trends in AI and the importance of encouraging women in STEM.

Rebecca Keenan has had an impressive career already, having become the global head of robotics process automation with Expleo before the age of 30.

Having joined the company as a graduate in 2016, Keenan is now a senior leader responsible for designing and delivering AI and robotics solutions to enterprises across the world.

She spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about her career, diversity in STEM and the trends she’s most excited about in the AI and robotics sector.

‘I highly recommend getting a class of five-year-olds to design robots for you’

What sparked your interest in STEM?

From a young age, I remember being surrounded by technology and being interested in how it works, and more so what it did for people. I grew up with parents who really allowed and encouraged us as children to experiment with whatever our interests were.

My dad studied computer science and he talks of how the first time he saw a computer was when he got to Dublin City University! This is why we always had the most up-to-date tech in the house for us to avail of. Our first pet was in a computer game, but I think this had more to do with my parents’ aversion to getting us a living pet while we were young.

My interest continued through education, so when it came time to choose a college course, computer science and business made sense. I wanted to understand how to build technology while also having an appreciation of how it is applied to our lives.

With hindsight, I realise how lucky I was to grow up in this environment and know that STEM was an education and career path that I could take and succeed within.

What experience led you to your role as global head of robotics process automation?

My educational background is a joint degree in computer science and business. I quickly decided that development was not the path I wanted to take, so I joined the Expleo business analysis service. It was here that I learned about how processes can be optimised through technology to drive efficiencies across a business. I also was able to develop skills within project management.

From there, I moved into robotic process automation. At the time, Expleo did not have a process automation service, so we were very much building from the ground up. I had to take the business skills I had learned and begin building out a delivery methodology and a team that could deploy automation solutions.

There is sometimes a misconception about what type of roles are available when moving into a career within the tech sector. There are so many different talent sets that are required to deploy tech solutions at scale. Developers, testers, business analysts, change managers, project managers to name a few.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced throughout your career?

Possibly the biggest challenge came from our rate of growth. We grew our client base and team very quickly, and I had to make sure that we were delivering every time. We had teams in different regions with different skillsets and I had to ensure that everything was running smoothly and our consultants felt supported.

For many women progressing in typically male-dominated areas, it can be difficult mentally, no matter how accomplished or qualified you may be. You can sometimes feel there is a different kind of scrutiny on you and that can in turn make you feel defensive or even grind you down.

I think the best advice in these situations is to seek help – build a support network and find role models that can help you with personal challenges as much as professional. Knowing that you can accept help from others when you have problems will in turn make you a better leader.

I do my best to bring that empathy to my own management style and the extra-curricular activities I take on outside of my day job. I highly recommend getting a class of five-year-olds to design robots for you!

What trends within AI and robotics are you most excited about?

I’m particularly excited about the unification of human and digital teams, enabling teams to release their human potential. Figuring out how to harness both effectively is a big focus for businesses.

We are building solutions today where the end-to-end process is completed by humans and robots in tandem using the best elements of both. We have robots doing the copy and paste work while humans are interacting with our customers. The technology and the digital workforce is empowering people to become more efficient and freeing them up to think more creatively. As I said, the way technology interacts with and helps people was part of what got me interested in STEM. This is that dynamic in action.

Looking at a specific industry, I think we should all be excited about the use of AI and robotics in healthcare. Using automation to clear backlogs, aid with patient organisation and using AI in diagnosis is interesting and has a very visible benefit to our quality of life.

What more needs to be done for women in STEM, in your opinion?

I believe that representation and support from a young age are absolutely critical. The teenage years are where interest in STEM subjects start to become unbalanced between genders. There should be dedicated resources and support tailored specifically for girls to keep them interested in the area and reassure them that it’s not the case that ‘maths and science are for boys’.

At these ages, we risk losing some great scientific minds because of a lack of representation. We have to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes, explicitly or tacitly. Having role models who come from a diverse set of backgrounds benefits everyone. It encourages girls to continue an interest in STEM subjects and creates a more open and tolerant environment for all. Making it fun, engaging and running projects that incorporate STEM into young people’s current interests keep it relevant and exciting.

In the workplace, organisations need to attract, promote and retain female talent. In Expleo, we have a Women Returners Programme and an active Women in Tech group. I think that building a community is so powerful and gives a space for women and men to learn and grow. Common challenges can be discovered, discussed, analysed and changes implemented when these communities are supported by leadership.

Gender balance remains an issue in many workplaces and a community of people willing to challenge the norm can make changes at scale to foster a more inclusive environment.

Representation matters at all ages. We must be creating opportunities for women to take advantage of across education and the workplace.

What advice would you give to women who are considering a career in tech?

There are so many different types of roles that you can do within tech. Find what you are interested in, don’t be intimidated and go for it. Google has been my best friend over the years: do your research, find role models within the space and take advantage of the massive amounts of online upskilling, often free, that you can benefit from.

Don’t underestimate the power that comes from finding a community of people you can learn from and ask for advice. I find that people are often very willing to help, but you are the person who cares most about your career. Build good relationships and understand that it is your hard work that will make the difference. Lead with confidence and ambition and don’t let anyone suggest that these are anything but great traits.

Be open, embrace opportunities, work smart, be kind and have some fun along the way!

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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