Ally Watson: Code for Community

23 Aug 2017 |

Ally Watson is a developer, computer science graduate and co-founder of Melbourne’s Code Like a Girl. She appeared on the Entrepreneurial Insights Panel at the Mobile-ising Women in Business event in Melbourne on 29 August 2017. She talks with BBT about how she got into coding, and why it’s an essential skill – especially for women and girls.

Not the childhood dream

My path into coding was a little bit unusual. When I was in high school my interests were in art and design and I always aspired to go to art school and then maybe a career in fashion. When I left high school I spent a long time putting together a portfolio to apply to art school but I ended up getting rejected, which wasn’t the greatest feeling. I spent another year working on my portfolio; I picked up photography classes and sculpture classes, life drawing classes to try to build up a stronger portfolio, but I was unsuccessful again.

It was really tough at the time. I was this young girl who’d worked so hard building up her skills and on her portfolio and who couldn’t even imagines anything else. And there I was faced with this challenge, with the reality that this wasn’t going to work out and you have to think of something else.

By that point in the year when I got the second rejection I’d been out of school for a while and starting to forget the things I’d learned and I sort of desperately looked towards the courses that had spare spots left at the University of Glasgow. I saw software engineering on that list and I had a look at the overview of the course, and I thought, “You know what, I was good at maths at school and I quite enjoyed the class on information systems, so maybe I’ll just try it out and see how I go, and next year I can apply to something else if it doesn’t work out.”

In the minority

I applied and I had no idea what I was getting into. I walked into that computer science class and I hadn’t done any research, I had no idea there were so few women interested in that field. So I was one of maybe five girls in a class of 80. I spent probably the first six months of that degree in an uphill struggle, where everyone around me seemed to know the curriculum already, and know the answers to the questions and I had no knowledge of programming at that point, I was starting completely from scratch.

I remember I just constantly wanted to give up, I was thinking “I don’t fit in here, I’m not like everyone else, I’m not made for this,” but eventually I started a class called human-computer interaction. This in company with some other classes on information systems shed a light on how learning about this technology wasn’t just about the technology, it’s about humans and psychology and design and here was a world I knew and identified with. I was good with people, I was good at design and I finally found this niche where I could bring my strength and my passion for creativity and match it to technology. At that point I realised that yes, I was someone different in the class, but that difference was my strength.

That discovery changed everything for me. I stuck at it, I graduated, and I spent seven years working for creative agencies as a web developer and I loved working in that space. Being part of something bigger is really satisfying.

New country, new business

I came to Australia three and a half years ago. I came over thinking it might be a gap year, but now here I am a permanent resident with my own business.

When I moved to Melbourne, I left my network in Glasgow behind and I had to start over. It reminded me what it was like to be new in the tech field, and to be a new woman in the tech field. The technology industry moves so fast, you can read all day but you can’t possibly keep up without a strong network of peers. You need to go to events and hear about the latest products and platforms. You can’t possibly do it on your own.

So when I moved here I signed up to join communities and for events, but when I’d look at the guest list on the website it would just be all guys. And sometimes at the last minute I’d change my RSVP to ‘No’; I was working with guys all day and I didn’t want to spend my social life the same way. Being a minority is exhausting; you feel like you always have to prove yourself and sometimes it’s the only thing people want to talk about.

I think the best example or comparison is when I was vegan for a time. People would ask me all these questions about what it’s like to be vegan, and I didn’t want to talk about that – I just wanted to eat my lunch. Being a woman in the tech field can be the same. I just wanted to go to events and hear about the technology, I didn’t want to always have to talk about the fact that I’m a woman at these events.

I thought: why are there not more tech events for girls? So I made an event and I got over a hundred RSVPS within two weeks. It’s just grown from strength to strength. The community was there, it just needed something to draw them out and get them together.

Future code

There is currently a global shortage of coders. It’s forecast that by 2020 Australia alone is going to need 700,000 skilled workers in ITC to meet the demand. Technology has shifted every business model, it’s changed the way we live our lives.

The future of work can be quite scary because of automation; it’s said that 40% of jobs today will no longer exist in 10-15 years and many of those jobs are typists, bookkeepers, secretaries, routine jobs. Unfortunately, women don’t always have the same career opportunities as men, and traditionally they’ve used these entry level and routine jobs as a stepping stone into the labour market. Female dominated roles and industries are at the top of the chopping block, the jobs at risk of being automated, and very few women have the skills to step into the new jobs that will be created.

So technology will disrupt and remove jobs from our labour market but it will also enable and shape new jobs, but those new jobs will be very much around technology and coding skills. Women face 5 jobs lost to every 1 gained in the future and so we really need to get more women exposed to coding. Because I think it is an exposure problem. If more women and girls were exposed to coding at a young age they’d discover they enjoy it.

DIY skills

It’s a great skill for entrepreneurs to have. I don’t have to ask someone to build me a website; I don’t have to pay someone to build me an app, I can do it. Nowadays you can come up with an idea in your basement and the next thing you know you’re Facebook, or Google.

The people growing up today are inspired by these tech-preneurs. If they get the coding and technology skills they can bring their own ideas to life and they don’t need to have money behind them. They can do it by themselves.

Knowing how to code has given me an edge. When you’re pitching to investors and putting together proposals, they want to know there’s someone behind it who’s tech savvy, who knows how to build and scale the product.

Networks. Build networks. Join communities, go to events. You need like-minded friends. It helps connect you to people who have the answers to your questions, who can give you advice when you need it.

It’s easy to focus on the technology but you can’t lose sight of the importance of people. Find networks, find communities, and just listen and learn.

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