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CTO and Founder Heather Payne on autism, leadership, digital transformation

"I completely masked..."

“When I first entered the world of work, I completely masked. I pretended I wasn’t autistic. I even tried to look and sound like a man: I used to wear strouser suits and basically go all alpha male” recalls Heather Payne.

The experienced CTO and engineer has held IT leadership roles at  Avon (CTO), Thomas Cook Group (Group Head of IT) and more recently Sky, where she was director of digital technology at the broadcaster.

This year however, she made the leap to founder – setting up Toast91, which aims to make it “simple and easy to access support services for adults and children who are being emotionally, physically or sexually abused” – putting all her rich professional and personal experience into building up the online support platform.

Having experienced domestic abuse herself, Toast91 is more than a pet project for Payne – who also continues to do fractional CTO work for enterprise clients. “It’s about hope” she tells The Stack, “if you go to any charity website it is really dark right? You see images of a child cowering in a corner and its doom and gloom.

“But if you go to the Toast91 site our logo is bright orange; we have nice images.. Toast91 is about taking a dark subject, and making the people who come to it feel like there is hope. It’s not just about surviving abuse, but about thriving. A lot of people who go through trauma come out the other side, fighting and resilient.”

Enhanced problem-solving, with some spelling challenges...

For Payne, who has not let autism, ADHD and dyslexia stymie her career (these lend her “enhanced resilience and  problem solving capabilities, as well as spelling and grammar challenges!”) her 20 plus years in the corporate and environment as a CTO – and a single mother –  have been about resilience and authenticity.

Referring back to that “masking” (learned behaviours that suppress natural social or sensory differences), she adds: “Only when I got to leadership levels did I started realising how negative and unlike me, it was. I had a stage in my career where  I stopped all of it. I started wearing dresses and big clumpy boots and being myself.”

And ever since, she says she has been advocating for herself and for other neurodiverse workers in the technology world. Which has meant that as CEO, diversity of all kinds is crucial to her at Toast91.

See also: Pleo CTO and Monzo veteran Meri Williams on microservices, and masking

“The main problem with companies currently is that they are not set up diversely: I am trying to change that.

“I’m trying to set up a company that is very inclusive in terms of working practices, so people can have more flexibility; it is about the values that we are centred around, having total equity across the business.”

She admits that this process of ensuring that there are diverse voices on the table means that it may take longer to do things than they would have if they operated the company more traditionally.

But a compromise on inclusivity is one she is not willing to make.

Heather Payne on fractional CTO insights

Payne’s other role, as a fractional CTO, means that she has insight into how multiple companies work.

Fractional or contractual positions at the C-Suite level are becoming more common, Payne says, because even though companies are trying to cut back costs, they still need expertise when it comes to technology.

“The work that I'm doing at the moment splits into two main camps. One of them is helping businesses to ‘do transformation.’ So where they have somebody [on the digital leadership side] who's enrolled in the C-level, but they haven't done transformation, organisational design or project discovery or product development, so they just need the advice on how to actually do this thing… it's quite goal specific,” she explains.

“The other work is much more startup- and scale-up-centric. These are companies who are not sure how to engage a vendor or are not sure how to find or take a strategy forward, or who want to hire a CTO, but they do not have the technical skills. There's quite a lot setting up where they just don't have the expertise to get development in house and just need that extra bit of kind of strategy work to get to their next place…”

This work across companies means that Payne has unique insight into what works, and what doesn’t when it comes to digital transformation. For her, when framing a company’s readiness for a digital transformation, ‘capability’ is the starting point: “The first one is, is the IT team capable and ready of making a change?

Sometimes businesses are not clear what they are trying to deliver...

“Often they don't have the right organisational design, or the right processes, or the right processes in place. Equally, you can have the same barrier sitting on the business side. So actually the businesses are not clear on what it is they're trying to deliver or not clear on what that path is, to do whatever they need to do…”

Regular miscommunication on where responsibility sits for a transformation role – IT or line of business – is not uncommon, she adds. “In those cases I do what I would call translating between what a company wants to do and actually how that would work from an organisational perspective; both in terms of tech and non tech.”

A tech-first perspective means that Payne finds paradigm shifts exciting -- not intimidating and she is applying them to her own organisation, Toast91, which  is not set up as a charity but as a B-Corp.

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“You need money and to make money to do good in the world,” explains Payne. “If you look at the charity sector, most charities have terrible tech and they have terrible tech because they can't pay tech people the salaries that they need. So I've fundamentally set myself up differently, both in terms of the branding and the image, and the company setup. And actually, what I'm doing is taking funds from the CSR/ESG social good funds of corporates, and funnelling that into charities, so that we're not charity funding into the B Corp: we take money from where the money is, and put that where it isn't, and then create a kind of circular economy.”

“We can do a lot of good for the world and not be a charity and that's okay. And even just saying that, it's still a difficult statement. But we need to normalise that. We need to make money to do good and that is fine.”

Toast91 is looking for senior advisors for ethics/legal/safeguarding/charity/schools. Those interested in learning more about the pending B-Corp’s mission can sign up or reach Heather via LinkedIn or