Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Maria McKavanagh is Chief Operating Officer of Verv where they have created a magic box that uses artificial intelligence to turn all your appliances into smart appliances. Verv is a London-based tech startup that received their seed funding from Ignite and have gone on to raise a further million pounds from other sources. Previously Maria was a Field Sales Engineer at National Instruments, where she provided technical and business consultancy to engineers and scientists on National Instruments' test, measurement and embedded technology. She was responsible for a multi-million pound sales territory across a wide range of industries from Aerospace and Defence to Consumer Electronics. She was an Associate Consultant at TMT consultancy, Analysys Mason where she advised clients across the ICT systems life-cycle, including a project with the European Railway Agency on the next generation of operational communications. Maria holds an MEng degree in Electronic Systems Engineering from The University of Manchester where she also worked as a Post-Graduate Researcher in RF and Wireless Sensor Networks. Most recently she was nominated for the Computer Weekly top 50 Most Influential Women in Tech.
What does your current job role in Verv entail? What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am the COO which means I am responsible for the operations of the business. This includes everything from pitching for investment to contributing to our future strategy and designing systems and processes for things like recruitment and employee development.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
I have had three different jobs since I finished my degree. In every role I had I always pushed for the next promotion and I need to feel like I am progressing quickly or I get bored. This means I am a nightmare to manage! Having studied Electronic Engineering the tech industry was the only place for me to go so I can’t really comment on whether it is harder or easier than other industries. I would say that the roles I have applied for have required technical ability but also communication and leadership skills – it can be difficult to put across both in a one hour interview.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
So I finished my Master’s degree in 2013. Previous to that I worked for one year as a researcher in RF and Wireless Sensor Networks. I joined Verv as COO in January 2017.
I wouldn’t say there have been any major obstacles. I wouldn’t change anything about the career choices I made as they ultimately led me to this point. I definitely had rejections along the way which were tough at the time but I learned something from each experience and ultimately it was the best thing for me.
The only thing that nearly got in the way of this role is that I almost didn’t apply because I felt I didn’t have all the experiences requested in the job description! After some stern words from my partner reminding me about everything I preach from Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” I went into the interview feeling confident that I was the right person for the job.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Career-wise one of my proudest achievements before working at Verv was winning the award for best new salesperson for the whole of EMEIA at my previous company’s global sales conference.
As Verv is a start-up the achievements of the team belong to all of us. Whether it is closing a funding round or passing the safety tests on our hardware everyone plays a part and we all celebrate together. Being selected to join the Google Campus Residency Programme and closing an angel investment round which brought some awesome industry experts on board were both big highlights this year.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in IoT / STEM?
Women are still underrepresented in the tech industry. We have made huge progress increasing the number of women studying STEM in schools and universities however we are still seeing high drop-out rates in STEM careers at management level and above for a variety of reasons. To me, highlighting the incredible women we have in the tech industry and publishing their stories is vital to improving this and normalising women in leadership at tech companies.
I believe a key challenge is the people running the majority of companies served their time when there were very few women in technology and when it was rarer for women to continue working after they had children. We all have some unconscious bias and we need to be aware of it and ensure we are training our employees in how to prevent it in our businesses.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the IoT industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I think we as humans will become more central to services. Just like taxis know where we are and come straight to us, our home appliances will report to us on what they are doing, automatically order things like dishwasher tablets when the dishwasher has been turned on a certain number of times and arrange for an engineer to come out and fix them before they break. Our insurance policies will be tailored to us personally as insurers will know how we are using our home appliances (much like the black boxes we have already seen in cars). We will have full transparency of our energy data, allowing us to make smarter decisions around the products we buy and understand the return on investment of solar panels, battery storage and more eco-friendly appliances. Verv is leading the way in this space and I’m so excited to be part of it.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in IoT and STEM?
Professor Danielle George MBE taught me Electronic Circuit Design in my first year of university. She then became my boss when I worked as a researcher and supervised my Master’s project. We remain friends and I am truly inspired by all that she has achieved from presenting the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures to her work on the Square Kilometer Array.
I’ll never forget watching Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk on “Why we have too few women leaders”. I was sick in bed and had been going through a TED talk marathon (I do this about every 6 months – normally when I should be doing something productive!). What she said really resonated with me and I was crying my eyes out! Her talking points in that presentation became mantras for me in my career and I am quite sure had I not watched it, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
Finally my mum! She worked in science (not sure of the details but it involved mice and rats in a hospital lab!) before she had children and became a stay at home mum. She’s the best engineer I know because I’ve never presented her with a problem that she couldn’t solve. I’ve even witnessed her saw off a portion of a door frame so she could move a piano from one room to another and she had it fixed and repainted before my dad got back. She’s also fixed extractor fans and washing machines over the years – no one knows how! I like to think that her attitude of working something out no matter how impossible it seems has rubbed off on me a bit.
LinkedIn: Maria McKavanagh
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.