Girls can be geeks - Jobs bulletin

By Candide McDonald | 30 July 2015

Ally Watson is a developer at Deepend. She knows that what girls can do and what stops them from doing it. So she launched an online network (plus events and meet-ups) called Code Like A Girl. This AdNews Jobs interview gets behind the girl who gets behind girl geeks.

AdNews: The only girl ‘geek’ most people know is Abby from NCIS. How and why did you get into developing? And why launch Code Like a Girl?

Ally Watson: There weren’t a lot of female role models in the industry when I was in high school. I was never exposed to the tech industry as a teenager and the thought of being a programmer never occurred to me until later after school. Getting into programming was all a happy accident:

I left high school with top grades but doing something 'academic' with them was only ever meant to be a back-up plan if I didn't get into Art School. My dreams of becoming the next Frida Kahlo never quite came true, so two years after high school I enrolled in Computer Science at the University of Glasgow. At this point my only exposure to programming was sprucing up my MySpace page. But I excelled in problem solving and was good at math. I quietly figured I had the fundamentals down. 

Still, I struggled with self-doubt and strong anxieties that I wasn't cut out for the world of code. With Art School rejection still stuck in the back of my mind, my self-esteem was at an all-time low. And here I was in class full of confident guys, the majority of whom had been programming since the age of 10. Being a minority affected my confidence and actions. It made the idea going to meet-ups intimidating. It was holding me back, so I decided to start a safe place where girls could make some coding sisters, go to other events together and support one another during their ups and downs.

ADN: How did the idea change as it was developed?

AW: At first, it was just me, my blog and a lot of grammatical errors. I then approached my director, Kath Blackham, managing director of Deepend, about an idea to host a meet-up group at the studio for female coders. Kath loved the idea and we spent an afternoon bouncing ideas off one another getting very excited and inspired by the outcomes.

She encouraged me to think big and aim high. I don't think I'd have got to where we are without her help, her vision and her leadership. The idea transformed from not only supporting girls currently in the industry but to reaching out to younger girls too.

ADN: Who did you call to work with you to develop Code Like a Girl?

AW: The great thing about working in creative agencies is that you build a group of friends with a multitude of super-talents whom you can bribe with coffee and beers. So far I've had such great support from them.

Code Like a Girl has always been a very collaborative project and I hope it will continue to grow in that same vein. Finding speakers for the launch event was quite challenging at first, but through friends, colleagues and companies like Off Screen Mag and Swinburne University, I met so many incredible ladies that we've filled not only the spaces for our first panel event but potentially our second!

ADN: Being a woman coder must have its funny moments?

I love smashing the stereotype so I usually get a good chuckle from people's responses. Nothing too hilarious comes to mind, it's usually a wide-eyed "Wow, really?" Then I expand "I'm a backend developer". That just blows their mind. We're a rare breed, so people are quick to assume I'm a designer or project manager.

I like to make sure that I never stop being the girl I was before I got into programming. I never want to dilute my femininity in order to be taken more seriously or fit in with the boys. Femininity should be celebrated. 

AW: Why and how you are working with school age kids?

Unconscious bias means that from a young age girls are not exposed to problem solving and electronic games in the way boys are. This has led to a huge imbalance in the number of boys compared to girls who pursue technology as a career path. It becomes a cyclical problem - more boys encouraged at younger ages leads to a male dominated industry making it even harder for women to break the cycle and enter the industry.

Coding is so important now that the US has mandated coding in schools and the UK made coding mandatory last year for kids over 5. Much of Europe has followed suit. Australia is being left behind. My hope for Code Like a Girl is to host 'code parties' aimed at younger girls so they too can learn how awesome code is. I want them to feel inspired by code, not intimidated.

ADN: What do you want to say to all girls out there trying to get ahead in any business? In coding?

AW: Never compare yourselves to others; it will only hold you back on your own journey. One of the most valuable words of advice are not my own but from talk given by Linda Liukas - she's a hero of mine - at Slush 2014: "All you have to worry about is step 1. Then take the next step and the next. If you worry about steps 5, 6, 7 in advance it's not gonna take you very far." I wasted so much time worrying about what everyone else knew when it came to coding, about why I couldn't do x, y and z. Focus on nailing a, b and c. The rest will follow.

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