‘What it’s like to be a tech journalist’

Are you into technology? Do you love writing? We spoke to Holly Brockwell, editor of Gadgette, about what it’s like to be a tech journalist.

She reveals why she started a site that’s proudly and overtly for women, her day-to-day routine and the RuPaul-inspired life mantra she swears by.

Image credit: Holly Brockwell

Image credit: Holly Brockwell

1. Could you tell us about your career up until now?

Originally, I wanted to be a software engineer. I was going to study Computer Science at uni, but due to various nonsense rules at my school, I wasn’t able to take a science A-level and therefore couldn’t apply to the course I wanted. After much wrangling, I ended up studying English Language & Linguistic Science because I love language – and that led me to a writing career.

For the first seven years after uni, I was an advertising copywriter (yep, like in Mad Men), which meant writing the words and coming up with ideas for ad campaigns. I was the voice of brands including Apple, BlackBerry, O2, and even the Harry Potter videogames. I wrote the booklet that came with every iPhone 3G in the UK, and one of my proudest moments was sneaking in a Robot Wars reference (“3, 2, 1… Activate” in the sim card section).

I’ve always been very into tech, so when the opportunity came along to work part-time as Reviews Editor at female tech site ShinyShiny, I bit their hand off. Doing two 1000-word phone reviews a week (plus images, video and editing) felt like having two full-time jobs sometimes – I would often film review videos in my bedroom at 2am, having changed the time on the phone so it wasn’t obvious to viewers how late it was. But it was so worth it. I loved the job, and when Shiny offered me the job of Editor I moved cities and never looked back.

I probably should have been a journalist from the start, but I think working in advertising really helped me see where brands’ PR reps are coming from, and to understand the commercial side of writing.

2. What were your reasons behind starting Gadgette?

As someone rather uncharitably pointed out to me, I didn’t have to start Gadgette. I could have gone to work for one of the big tech sites rather than starting my own, and added one more woman to the pitiful tally of women in tech media. It’s true, I could have done that.

Instead, I decided to start a site that’s overtly and proudly for women, that actively welcomes female readers and provides female writers with jobs. A site where it’s OK to be a woman who likes tech and gadgets, who’s excited about the future, and wants to know about inspiring women doing great things in the world. Where you won’t be shot down for your opinion because you have a female name or username. And where you can read articles by women like you, that naturally consider the female perspective (“this smartwatch is going to look ridiculous on your wrist”) and champion the female-led start-ups changing the world.

We do also cover things that have no relation to women (I constantly get emails from PR people trying to shoehorn in a female angle – it’s fine to send us stuff that’s for everyone!) – after all, a lot of tech isn’t gendered and doesn’t need to be. But I think there’s plenty of room in the world for one female tech site in a world of men, and until we see true diversity in the mainstream tech press then we’ll keep doing what we’re doing. After all, if it wasn’t needed, no one would read us.

3. Talk us through your day…

I’m usually woken up by a strange and unfamiliar noise emanating from my bedside table, which turns out to be the alarm tone on whichever new phone I’m reviewing for work. I put the radio on to stop me going back to sleep, then read Twitter for a while to see what’s going on in the world and formulate some ideas for stories. I’ll check my calendar to see whether I need to dress like a proper person (for PR or investor meetings, or evening events) and to make sure I’m not late for a breakfast meeting.

Then I’ll walk to work. I recently moved down the road from the office so I can get in earlier and leave later, and it’s working out brilliantly. It’s five minutes away, so I can use all that commuting time for writing. Sadly, not long after I signed the flat contract we realised we had to move offices! Typical.

My working day involves commissioning and subediting freelancers’ articles, which often amaze me with their brilliance (there’s nothing like opening your inbox to find something incredible), reading and responding to billions of PR emails (yes I’d love to review that gadget, no I can’t right now because I’m only one woman), scheduling our social media updates, meeting PR people and brands, writing, taking pictures, making videos and editing, and working with my one full-time writer (Emma Boyle) who is quietly sitting at her desk writing unbelievably funny and brilliant games commentary. I’ve never got so lucky in my life as the day I hired her.

Occasionally someone will arrive to take a gadget back (yep, we do have to return the review samples) or to deliver something exciting. The other day, a phone brand sent me a giant chocolate replica of my face, and we’re still eating it. That was a great day.

In the evening, I’ll be at a phone launch or an app party or something social – tonight I’m going to videogame karaoke. But me being me, I’ll be checking and responding to Gadgette tweets and comments the entire time. I love my job.

4. What are your experiences of being a woman in tech media?

Thanks for phrasing the question as “a woman in tech media” and not “a woman in tech”! There’s a big difference, and I’m constantly having to clarify that writing about tech isn’t the same as being one of the few women in a very male-dominated industry. That said, there aren’t enough women in tech media either.

Because I interact a lot with tech companies, I see the good and the bad side of how those companies view women. Incredibly, you do still see “booth babes” at tech tradeshows and you still hear sexist comments from male tech employees. But because sexism in tech is now a big issue, companies have wised up somewhat – you’re less likely to hear offensive comments in ads and press releases, and much more likely to hear them behind closed doors, where it’s much harder to prove. For instance, we recently heard an audio company CEO say that women don’t care about the sound quality of headphones nearly as much as how they look or whether they’ll mess up their hair – and our response was to run a satirical article showing how to wear your headphones while keeping your hairstyle intact.

Being a woman writing about tech can be hard on a personal level, too. There have been times when I couldn’t use my personal social media for 48 hours because some troll had set his followers on me, and I was being deluged by comments like “women know nothing about tech” and “women are biologically inferior to men.” Those, of course, are just the ones I can repeat. But I’ve never been one to let the sad plankton of the internet get me down.

5. After a busy day at Gadgette HQ, how do you chill out?

Anyone who knows me will tell you that chilling out isn’t something I do very much of! I’m usually the last out of the office and my calendar is pretty full. This week, for instance, I have work events both before and after work on several days, and when you combine that with a social life and trying to make the most of living in one of the best cities in the world, there’s not a whole lot of time left over. I end up spending quite a few weekends working, but then every so often I’ll burn out and need to take a whole weekend just to rest.

I often do that at my sister’s house in my hometown of Nottingham, where I can disconnect properly, see my family and enjoy my twin baby nieces. My sister (a teacher) is so far removed from the world of online media that she always brings me back down to earth – I’ll tell her something that annoyed me this week and she’ll go “that is absolutely ridiculous.” And she’s right.

6. What would you say to your 15 year old self?

It gets better.

7. Who inspires you?

Cindy Gallop. She’s an absolute powerhouse of a woman. She’s particularly inspiring to me because she started out in advertising, like I did – going on to found the US branch of a massive ad agency. Then she did my favourite TED Talk ever, a brilliantly filthy tirade about how hardcore porn distorts ideas of sex, and why it led her to found a more fair, more real porn site. Oh, and did I mention she lives in an all-black apartment that’s so cool, Notorious B.I.G. filmed a music video there? She’s my hero.

8. Have you got any advice for those who want to get involved in tech media?

Don’t wait for someone to give you the opportunity. Just do it anyway. Review your phone on YouTube. Write about apps on Medium. Use Twitter to make connections and build an audience. It doesn’t matter where your stuff is published if it’s good, and there are so many places you can put it now. Once you’ve built up a body of work, you can use it as collateral to get commissions at the big names and build your profile. Someone once told me that he liked my writing because “You actually have some voice in your work.” That meant the world to me. If all the other reviewers loved a gadget and you hated it, don’t be afraid to say what you think. You won’t be alone – and we desperately need more varied voices in tech journalism.

9. What’s your life mantra?

I’m a huge fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, so something I say to myself a lot is “don’t fuck it up.” I hear it in my head in Ru’s voice, and it always makes me laugh but also focus. It’s pretty much the best advice you can get. My other favourite RuPaulism is “If they’re not paying your bills, pay them no mind.” I always refer to that one when the trolls are on my case.

Check out gadgette.com, the smart woman’s guide to tech, style and life.

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