One of the great things about the tech industry is that it has roles for everyone – from coders and engineers to artists and writers.
A shining example is Ellen O’Rourke, head of marketing at Falmouth-based facial recognition tech firm TouchByte. We talked to Ellen about how her journalism degree has allowed her to humanise and demystify a much-maligned technology.
We also discovered that she’s a digital entrepreneur in her own right, having launched a successful global magazine and online community at age 19 – all from here in Cornwall.
Ellen, tell us a bit about what TouchByte does.
TouchByte makes facial recognition technology, for things like gaining contactless access to buildings, or clocking in and out.
You read horror stories about facial recognition in the media, but actually it has a real place in society, especially with COVID. For example, this summer we won an InnovateUK grant to develop a prototype contactless entry system for the construction industry.
Everything on a construction site is manual and paper-based, which is high-risk. We’ve been working with a company called InnDex to enable contactless access to construction sites, using facial recognition instead of signing in using pencil and paper.
We had our first install in August and it’s been really successful so far.
What does your role there involve?
I’m head of marketing, which means I create materials like ebooks, blogs and web copy to explain what TouchByte does in a non-techy way. I bridge the gap between the techies who develop our products and the business people who use them. And it’s a big gap to bridge!
I started last summer as a copywriting intern, while finishing my journalism degree at Falmouth University, to get some real-world experience. But I fell in love with technology and with working with such a diverse and interesting bunch of people who have a genuine passion for the technology.
When I went back to do my final year, I made a pact with Jeremy [Sneller, TouchByte CEO] that if I got a First, I’d come and work for them again. And I did – I graduated this year with First Class honours. I called Jeremy on the day I got my results and I've been working with TouchByte ever since.
Congratulations! What do you enjoy most about the role?
It’s the opportunity to tell stories, to humanise the technology. At TouchByte I’m telling a story that’s evolving all the time.
"My job is an opportunity to tell stories, to humanise a technology that's been made to sound scary and intimidating. My role is to make it more approachable."
It's a story about a technology that has been misrepresented and demonised in the media, and made to sound scary and intimidating. My role is to make it more approachable, and to show that it can be ethical, safe, secure and frictionless.
How did you find getting to grips with the technology side of things?
I'm not a techy person, and I came into it with no prior knowledge. But I found that once you pick apart all the technical jargon, it’s basically an algorithm that looks at a bunch of numbers and says ‘this matches this’.
I have our developer Harrison to thank for that, because he spent hours explaining it to me in a human, non-techy way. But once you understand, it’s not the most complicated thing in the world.
Your degree is in journalism – were you originally planning to be a journalist?
I was, and it’s something I’d still like to do. I actually applied for the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme and got to the final stage, which I'm really proud of. But they decided to cut the programme this year because of COVID.
So instead, I applied to do an MSc in Entrepreneurship at Falmouth Launchpad, which I’m now doing while also working at TouchByte.
Will you use that knowledge to start your own business one day?
I actually do have my own business, which I started at 19. But I was fumbling around in the dark a bit as I didn’t know how to run it. This MSc is a chance to learn how to do it properly, and surround myself with a network of people that have a host of different skills.
Impressive stuff! Tell us a bit about your business.
It’s a magazine called Witches, for the modern witch. As part of my journalism degree we had to find a gap in the magazine market. Someone suggested doing something on tarot card reading, just as a joke. But I thought it actually wasn’t a bad idea. I did some research and found there was a gap in the market.
As part of the module you had to pitch your idea to a board of editors. When we got into the room, one of the editors said “I’d actually quite like to buy that idea”. And I thought “no, I'm going to do it myself. You watch me”.
So I launched my first company while still doing my degree, which was really challenging. But it's grown to be a global magazine with 20,000 Instagram followers and it’s shipped all over the place.
I love it, because it's a platform for people who aren't necessarily represented properly within the mainstream media. And it's a safe and welcoming space, and a proper community.
Witchcraft and technology seem very different. Do you see any parallels between them?
Yes, absolutely! I see potential for all sorts of apps, online communities, even gamification.
That's the beauty of having a niche brand that’s quite broad. The audience is very wide, and paganism and witchcraft are a growing thing online. You have hashtags like #witchesofinstagram that have millions and millions of posts.
Society now allows you to identify as whatever you want, and you can outwardly now be a witch without being threatened to be burned at the stake. So it's a really interesting space to be in.
Can creative-minded girls enjoy a fulfilling career in the tech industry?
Yes, 100%. There’s a notion that starts in secondary school that there are creative kids and there are science and IT kids. But creativity spans across all platforms. It doesn't matter if it's arts, if it's journalism, if it’s coding, if it's chemistry. You can be creative in any outlet.
"There’s a notion in school that there are creative kids and IT kids. But creativity spans all platforms. It doesn't matter if it's arts, journalism, coding, or chemistry. You can be creative in any outlet."
Technology can feel quite intimidating if you don’t quite understand its parameters. But once you break it down to a human level, it really isn't that difficult.
Is Cornwall a good place to find a career in the tech industry?
Growing up in the South West, I was always told that if I wanted a good job I had to go to London. But I’m a horse rider and I love the beach. I'm very much a country girl. Moving to London didn't sit well with me.
"Growing up in the South West, I was always told that if I wanted a good job I had to go to London. But I’m very much a country girl. Moving to London didn't sit well with me."
But I’ve found that there’s a hidden hub of networks and people in Cornwall who have started up tech companies here. So the jobs are here, you just have to look a bit harder.
TouchByte is a prime example. It's highly innovative, high-growth, high-revenue company that’s operating out of Falmouth. You get to work in an office with stunning views and you still get to innovate and drive change using technology.
Do you have any advice for girls who might consider a career in tech?
There's still a boys’ club mentality in some workplaces. TouchByte is wonderful because it isn't like that. But a lot of companies that I've worked with in passing are very male-dominated and male-orientated.
I’d say don’t let that put you off. If you're the first woman to work in a company, lead the way. Create a path for other people, because nothing's going to change if we don't make change.