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Women in Tech: A Global Problem with Ally Watson of Code Like a Girl

“I was honestly sick of women volunteering their time for this problem. It’s not their problem. It’s the world’s problem. It’s everybody’s problem.” – Ally Watson, CEO & Founder of Code Like a Girl

In this episode

The technology we build today determines the world we live in tomorrow. But if that world is being built under the leadership of only a small portion of our community, what kind of world will we have?

Code Like a Girl is a social enterprise providing girls and women with the confidence, tools, knowledge and support to enter, and flourish, in the world of coding. Code Like a Girl empowers and enables women and girls to be equal creators in building the future. It’s not enough to have more women using tech – we need more women building tech.

Join Vicki Saunders as she uncovers how Ally Watson founded Code Like a Girl and also sheds light on:

  • The global problem of how there are few women on tech teams or working with computer science.
  • How to solve real problems in our society through computer science.
  • The process of creating meaningful change by meeting individuals and changing their lives.
  • Why the general spotlight of women in tech should also focus on women building tech and coding tech.

We invite you to become a SheEO Venture or join us as an Activator at SheEO.World.

Take action & engage with Code Like a Girl.

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Ally Watson 0:00
I really wanted to have an innovation model that would allow teachers to get paid, women to get paid. Like the time that we put, the energy, that the skills that are brought to this organization. I was honestly sick. Honestly. Sick of women volunteering their time for this problem. It’s not their problem. It’s the world’s problem. It’s everybody’s problem.

Vicki Saunders 0:18
Welcome to SheEO.world, a podcast about redesigning the world. I’m your host, Vicki Saunders. In each episode, you’ll hear from SheEO Venture founders—women who are working on the World’s To-Do List. These innovative business leaders are solving some of the major challenges of our time. Please sit back and be prepared to be inspired.

Good morning, Ally. How are you?

Ally Watson 0:43
Good morning. I’m doing really well. Thanks, Vicki. How are you?

Vicki Saunders 0:46
So good. It’s great to have you here today. Tell us about your Venture and how you got started.

Ally Watson 0:52
Yeah, sure. So my Venture is an education organization called Code Like a Girl. I’m currently the CEO and I founded Code Like a Girl, I think, five years ago. But previous to that, I was actually a software engineer, for eight years. I studied computer science at university. It’s strange looking back on all those years. Computer science wasn’t my plan A, actually, previous that I had dreams of going to art school, but was rejected from art school—from every art school in the country, to be honest. And so computer science was my plan B. I remember the application and getting into university all happened really last minute, because it was too late in the year to apply through the usual process. And so it was all very rushed. And I didn’t even have time to think about it very much. And suddenly I was in a computer science class. I looked around and there was hardly any women in the class. There was 10 of out of a class of 100. The learning curve was really steep for me, because I had no previous knowledge of computers or programming, hadn’t studied at school. So I was a complete fish out of water and thatl earning experience, I was really shell-shocked at the difference between someone coming at this from myself and my background, I grew up in a house full of women. So technology wasn’t something that was you know, front and center. I didn’t have any uncles or, my dad was a lawyer. So there was nothing about this world that I knew very well. And looking around the class, there was men who had been coding from like, ages eight and upwards. I began to think, you know, imposter syndrome was very, very strong, at those years of my life. I began to think that you know, men were just naturally better at computing. Men were just naturally better at technology. And this was my thinking, and it was poison. It was poison to my confidence. It was poison to my learning journey. And then I realized, like, That’s not true, actually. We had been playing with toys, mechanical sets, Lego, they had consoles named after them like the Gameboy. And I realized, like my childhood of Barbies, and the Spice Girls, had not set me up the same way. Like this was a conditioning thing. This realization, this epiphany, was a game changer for me, because then I realized, no, I can learn these skills, I can build these skills. And that’s exactly what happened. And I learned that my different background, my arts and my crafts background, my interests in design, these all became my strengths. And so I suddenly had a bit more of a broader knowledge base of coding and software engineering, I wanted to bring all that to the field. So that was my learning journey. And then when I worked in the industry, these numbers didn’t change. I was always the only woman on the tech team. And 2015, I moved countries to Australia. So I’m from Scotland originally, you know, moving companies moving countries, nothing was different. I was still the only girl. And so this is a global problem that not many women were moving into computer science. And I was a lucky one because I accidentally got there. But I really fell in love with the craft of coding. I actually ended up working at creative agencies for those eight years, and working hand in hand with designers and UX experienced designers. And even though I wasn’t the artist in the group, I still love being part of that collaborative process to create something beautiful and create something for people that they would enjoy using. And so my love for the career stayed strong throughout my career. But the isolation really got to me. Moving to a new country, having no family, no friends, leaving all your networks. Now, I built friends over the years from university to the jobs I’d been in. So it was so terrifying to be a woman again, not knowing anyone, turning up to take events, turning up to meetups. And people, you know, you felt like this pink elephant in the room like people would look at you and wonder if you’re in the right spot or ask, you know, is your boyfriend here or, it felt really uncomfortable. And I thought I’ve got four years experience and a computer science degree and I’m intimidated. What about new women coming to this field wanting to come to a tech conference to see what it’s like. Wanting to come to a meet up and see what it’s like. How intimidating must this expeience be for them? I decided five years ago to start my own technology for women. And I said to my boss at the time, who was also a woman, I said, you know, Cath, I really want to bring women together, I want to find female friendship and my key here, and I’m tired of working with boys all day, I need to find women. And she was like, yeah, you can use the studio. So we had like a meeting room with 10, it was like 10 people it could hold, I was gonna get like a couple of bottles away and invite women around to talk about products and programming languages. And I put it on meetup.com, and within two weeks, we had over 100 RSVPs. I nearly died, I was like, oh my goodness how, where have all these women been all my life?

And so that was how it all began. But over the years meeting those women, the energy we brought, and you must know all about this, with SheEO, but it’s so contagious. It’s like something just lit up inside me when we started these meetups. And I wanted to do more. And I wanted to do something of impact. And so I decided two years into running it as a volunteer organization running it as these casual meetups, that I was going to flip the switch and really start making an impact. So we sort of moved over to education. We started actually contacting parents and doing workshops with kids, and then that evolved to coin counts with kids. And then, you know, fast forward to today. And that’s what we are. We’re an education startup. And we’ve been teaching thousands of girls year on year since those early days through school coding camps, we’ve been working with the industry and doing an internship program. So we placed 52 women into software engineer roles. And even to this day, or pre-COVID, we were doing events still to really bring those women together. But yeah, it’s certainly a challenging and different year for sure for us. So we’re a very different Code Like a Girl now.

Vicki Saunders 6:52
Amazing. Yeah. So I studied computer science too.

Ally Watson 6:54
Oh my God!

Vicki Saunders 6:55
Totally. I have a such vibe of like, only women in the lab at 1130 at night dealing with like, no. Yeah, so I gotcha.

Ally Watson 7:03
It’s intense, isn’t it? I used to go in with my—because I’m very feminine. And I’m so unapologetically feminine, I love it. And so I used to go in with my Elle magazine, to the computer lab with a coffee in the other hand, and I’d get scoffed at. But I think the thing is, you just got to, you know, there’s no point in trying to fit in with the mold, you know, you’re going to be your own identity, and yeah.

Vicki Saunders 7:26
There’s such a bias in the way you’re supposed to be, like I just everything about computer science right now. And I feel like I don’t know about you. But I remember being asked way back, how do you get more girls involved in technology? Like 25 years ago, by the way, we’ve been asking the same question for like 30 years, and nothing’s changed, it’s still the same. I always felt like we taught it backwards. Because it’s like, you have to learn all this language. And then you get to use it to do something, you have to learn all this jargon first. Whereas if you go, you know, what’s the relationship? What do you want to do with this technology? And then you work from the relationship, instead of like, the mechanism of it, feel so different. Like, what might you use tech for? And you get all excited about social issues and things that you want to change in the world?

Ally Watson 7:53
When you make problem solving the center of it, it doesn’t—

Vicki Saunders 8:11
Just flip it up. Totally. Yeah. Because tech for tech sake is, who cares? Really?

Ally Watson 8:16
Exactly. It’s just a tool, like, yeah, I completely agree. And actually, there’s a lot of evidence, I think it was one of the universities in Australia, New South Wales, they changed their curriculums and change their enrollment for computer science so that you couldn’t actually take computer science on its own anymore. And it’s actually, you had to take it as a double with some other subject. Because exactly for that same reason, ultimately, it’s not really how well you are as a software engineer, it’s how well you can solve a problem. And the problems are your problems and our world, with people, with society.

Vicki Saunders 8:49
That’s brilliant. Where are they doing that? Where you have to double up?

Ally Watson 8:52
I think it’s either you NSW, or UTS, I can’t remember. It’s one of the universities in Sydney.

Vicki Saunders 8:58
Sounds wonderful.

Ally Watson 8:57
But they’ve seen an increase in their enrollments from women, because of that shift, because of that change. And there’s another framework in America called the braid system, and they’d, similarly, with the actual curriculums and exercises and activities that they do within their curriculums, they do make it real life contexts, real life problems. And they’ve seen a massive spike in the engagement of women because of that, because of that shift. And it’s so fascinating.

Vicki Saunders 8:59
Like, such a no brainer.

Ally Watson 9:01
Yeah, I completely agree.

Vicki Saunders 9:04
Tell me, what is your favorite part of what you’re doing?

Ally Watson 9:31
I feel like this year we, because of COVID, we’ve just been problem solving for the business. And so haven’t had a lot of engagement with our community, which has felt really strange for me, because usually I’d jump in and I’ll go and visit a code camp and I’ll see the kids and I would just have that feeling of like, you’re actually making change. And this is why I’m doing what I’m doing. Because I again, like I loved my career. And so to shift from software engineer to run this business, I always wanted to make sure that I was just adding value to this problem and not just another person trying to solve it. And so, this week, we met 26 of our students who’ve just joined our pilot for our online courses. Hearing their stories about how they go to where they are today. So joining an online coding course like Code Like a Girl, hearing the problems that they all want to solve as individuals, we’ve got librarians, we’ve got registered nurses that are annoyed and frustrated with the systems they have to use, or not being able to help their staff debug or, or help them with technical issues. We’ve got people who are just out of the events industry who are jobless at the moment and just tired of living paycheck to paycheck and wants something sustainable for their lives, they want financial freedom, hearing these stories and knowing that not every woman is going to need to Code Like a Girl. Not every woman is going to feel uncomfortable in that environment of a male dominated environment. But knowing that we can be there for the women that do is like my why. It’s the reason why I just, you know, my heart beats for this organization. That’s the reason why I get up every day to like, all coding to get the learning platform, but it is. And it’s just that individual connection, that meaningful change that is in that individual’s life. It’s not for me about big, big numbers, like I know this is going to be a very, very difficult challenge to make the change that I’d love to see, which is closing the gender gap and making it a balanced workforce of gender. But that’s a big, big, big thing. And for me, it’s really about the individuals and meeting those individuals and hearing the stories and changing their lives in some way, shape, or form is what I get up for.

Vicki Saunders 11:30
And so tell us about your model, how is your model different than some other coding camps? Or like what’s your approach?

Ally Watson 11:36
Yeah, so I think we always change our competitive landscape. As the business evolved, we, we no longer sort of put ourselves in this space. So there’s the girls in tech space, which there’s a lot of organizations like minded like Code Like a Girl, so girls in tech, women in tech. And I guess the difference for us is we’re very much focused on the software engineering problem. So we’re not just looking at women in tech as a whole, because that’s actually improving, which is wonderful. But we’re really laser focused on the software engineering and the programmers. It’s not just about women in tech. It’s about women building tech and coding tech, because that is the change that I think will make a difference in terms of getting more technical founders. There’s a lot of stats around that there’s more successful founders and CEOs from an engineering background, compared to an MBA background, which is interesting, and I think speaks volumes about the modern day business, that you’re the tech stack, and being able to confidently dream up solutions. You can’t dream up a solution unless you know what’s on your toolkit. I love this idea of Code Like a Girl being very much focused on that, let’s get a lot of technical women into the space. So I think that’s our biggest differentiator. In terms of our model, though. Again, we’re not a volunteer organization. And that was really important to me, because I was honestly sick, honestly, sick of women volunteering their time for this problem, it’s not their problem. It’s the world’s problem. It’s everybody’s problem. So I really wanted to have an innovation model that would allow teachers to get paid, women to get paid, like the time that we put, the energy, that the skills that are brought to this organization. So that means that from day one, we had to come up with finance models, we had to make sure that every service that we created, was able to sustain itself. And that’s probably been like, the hardest part of my job is like coming up with something that is equally impactful. That is worthy of someone paying for, whether it’s a corporate sponsor, or a parent for three days of childcare at Code Camp. That was always how we’ve approached this. Now, this year, because of COVID, it’s changed everything. Our services that we’ve built over three years has, we can’t even operate right now, you know, and so, we can’t have our in person coding camps. There’s no online alternative, because ultimately, parents don’t want their kids during their school holidays, on more screens, that’s a very, very strong message that they are sending. It’s hard enough at the moment for them to sit and watch the kid on a screen for so long with school. That was always difficult for us just to pivot for their camps. So what we’ve decided is change our complete target market for this year, focused on the fact that women have been hit hard with COVID in terms of unemployment, and looking at reskilling and upskilling them. So this year, the model is an online course. We offer it for a 10 week study. So it’s supplemented through, we’ve got resources on the ground that are available pretty much 24/7 slack channels. So tech support, coding support. And that’s all supported by our big volunteer network as well. So we do this and we built this beautiful platform and design a learning experience that we’ve always wanted ourselves so we’re a bit—a little bit selfish at Code Like a Girl, we put ourselves at the center and go, “What would we love to do as a coding course? How would we teach it?” And so that’s always what I’ve wanted to do from early on, knowing that I’ve been through the education system. I’ve had the academics career and like you say, I’ve had to learn the jargon side of it, and not really be able to enjoy the application of it the practical side of it, the problem solving. So even in lesson one of our web dev course, we have women deploying the websites, we have them live and often ready and turning into practice right away. We’ve spent six months working on these courses. And it’s just a joy to see these women get sucked in and get, like fly through their first leson. On day one, we had one person just like, complete the whole lesson that was supposed to take them, you know, a week.

Vicki Saunders 15:28
I love that. Nice.

Ally Watson 15:30
It’s been really good. I think now I’m really, really enjoying the business, which I didn’t think could happen, because I’ve always loved all of our services, I’ve loved carrying all the different themes through our camps, Like we come up with these different themes, Magic and Mischief, where we, we have them create homework excuse generators using code, or Music and Memory, we have them creating their own tunes with bananas and things. And we try and be so creative in the content with the kids because it’s just the best. Even with the adults, we try and be as creative as possible. So I’ve always loved the job. But, but now, it feels like I’m finally been able to use all the skills that I’ve built through my career of working in creative agencies, building products from start to finish. And we have our own product now. And it’s really exciting to be able to, it feels like a very different direction, but almost the same at the same time. It’s definitely a strange year. But I finally feel like I get to put my own skills to the business. And I, really directly, which is bringing me a lot of joy and accomplishment.

Vicki Saunders 16:30
That’s great. As we sort of close up here, it’s been fascinating to learn about how you’re approaching things. Do you have an ask for the community?

Ally Watson 16:37
We’re gonna have a massive promotional campaign, there’s going to be a lot of beautiful ads that we’re going to be putting out to promote our courses. So now that we’ve got the pilot underway, we’ll iron out all those bugs before we open the gates to the public. So my ask is that you could follow Code Like a Girl, if you could share those ads, they’ll be posted organically through our Facebook page or LinkedIn page or Instagram page. So there’s going to be lots of social media vehicles and get the word out there. These are part-time, 10 week courses, women can learn on their own time. It’s not at a set time. They’re not live classes. It’s pre recorded content. So it’ll really fit into working woman, a family woman, a woman who has other commitments who has a life, to learn to code on the side. So it’s a great opportunity.

Vicki Saunders 17:19
And globally. Of course, people can take it from anywhere.

Ally Watson 17:23
Globally. International-friendly. That’s exacly right.

Vicki Saunders 17:25
Okay, cool. Well, we’ll all be signing up for coding courses. I love it.

Ally Watson 17:28
Nice. Thanks so much, Vicki.

Vicki Saunders 17:30
Thank you so much, Ally. We’re really thrilled to be supporting you in this community.

Ally Watson 17:34
Oh, I couldn’t be thankful enough. This has been our lifeline this year. Truly.

Vicki Saunders 17:40
Thank you for listening to the SheEO.world podcast. If this conversation resonated with you, please share it with a friend and subscribe on your favorite podcast player. If you’d like more information about SheEO, please visit us at SheEO.world. That’s s-h-e-e-o dot world.

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