Women Transforming Tech
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon. Future proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.
Toby Mildon: Hello, there. Thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I’m really excited to be joined by Anna Brailsford, who is the Chief Executive of Code First Girls. Anna, welcome to the show. It’s lovely to have you.
Anna Brailsford: Thank you for having me, Toby.
Toby Mildon: So Anna, can you just let us know a bit about your career background and what really led you to creating Code First Girls?
Anna Brailsford: So when I was growing up, I didn’t really wanna be in tech. In fact, I’m not sure I really thought about it much outside of computer games, which I actually was really, really interested in, that makes me sound like a real tomboy, but I had an older brother and anything he was interested in, I tended to become interested in. And yeah, I remember the first computers. I had a Commodore 64, which was, I think it was paper boy. And then after Commodore 64, I had an Amiga, which back then was groundbreaking in terms of a computer. My parents always bought this, incidentally, for my brother, and then I ended up using it. And then I ended up, I think… The last one I had was something like a Sega Mega Drive. So I always actually really liked computers, and I always like games, but I never necessarily perceived myself in tech. I don’t think I really understood what it meant. And I have to say, that’s something that’s quite common, if you listen to a lot of stories from women that ended up in technology. I think, as a child, they didn’t necessarily understand what it was. And I think what that demonstrates really is a need to inspire girls and young people around what technology means and how important it is for our future.
Anna Brailsford: Because it’s all around us. We can’t avoid it now. It is the way of the future. And I have a 10-year-old niece, and I put myself back in her shoes when I was 10, and she’s learning to code at school. It’s, I think, very, very different now to how it used to be. But certainly, I didn’t perceive myself in tech. I think I wanted to be a fighter pilot. [laughter] Too much Top Gun. And yet, I ended up in my family’s business, actually, which was… My mum was the CEO, so I had a very strong business background, and that’s where I learned to cut my teeth in business and also learned from strong female role models. Again, had… I wouldn’t say had nothing to do with tech, it was a kind of ed tech business, so a lot of it was around education. So education runs in my family. And I used to do that when I used to come home from university. In my summers, I used to basically help out with my mum’s business. And then when I joined the real world and finished university… And by the way, I didn’t study STEM subject. I didn’t study a tacky subject. I didn’t study computer science. I completely artsy, I studied literature and history, also loved politics, but not the traditional background that you would place within tech.
Anna Brailsford: And I ended up joining educational consultancies and ed tech companies, and it was through that, but by the age, I think I was 26, I was head-hunted for a role at Lynda.com to be one of their directors. And that went on to be the first ed tech unicorn in the entire world in terms of its valuation. So we were valued at 1.5 billion, got bought by LinkedIn. I went over to LinkedIn, and then I’ve had various place since then, and it’s brought me to Code First Girls. I suppose what I’m saying that very long explanation is that, I never intended to end up in tech, but there’s many, many roots in, and I ended up in tech through educational technologies. And yeah, I do not have a coding background, but there is still room, I think, and it’s very important to highlight, “It’s not just about coding, it’s not just about those technical skills, but it’s also about creating future female leaders in the technology space as well.”
Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. And like you say, there’s so many roots into technology and so many roles as well, ’cause before I set up my own diversity and inclusion consultancy, I worked in technology, but I was never a techy, far from it. I couldn’t string a bit of code together to save my life, so I was a project manager and worked in and user experience in design, and it takes a whole team effort to create a piece of tech.
Anna Brailsford: I was included on this list recently, there’s a lot of lists around women in technology. I don’t know how they put these lists together. I actually really don’t know. It’s a bit of a mystery to me, but I was included on this list recently for top 30 product managers, female product managers in Europe. I sort of looked at that and I was like, “Do I really deserve that place on that list?” What is product? I don’t sit there and code product. I have created products in the past, I’ve created different apps, and of course, I’ve created a lot of the products at Code First Girls, but I was sort of sitting there thinking, “A product manager should be, in my opinion, someone that’s creating the next fantastic bit of consumer software or the next greatest platform.” I honestly looked at that list and go, “Do I actually deserve that position on that list?” And then I thought, “Well, maybe they’re trying to widen the horizons a little bit about around what, for example, product management means within the technology scene. And it cannot mean more than simply coding or UX.” Can it mean something more than that? Can it mean potentially building a business model around the product that actually enables other people in the technology?
Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. Anna, what is Code First Girls, and how have you grown since it was first established?
Anna Brailsford: So Code First Girls is one of the largest communities of female coders and technologists in the UK. We recently hit a milestone of teaching 20,000 women how to code. Just to put that into perspective for you, that is at the moment three times the level of the entire UK education system combined, in terms of the number of women that we’re actually training. But there’s many different women in our community. They’re not just looking to become coders. A lot of women in our community are looking at wider technology roles and inspiration as well that might not involve code, but in essence, what we’re trying to do is to give women the skills and also the inspiration and the confidence, because that’s really, really important in this space, when there’s hardly any female role models. We’re trying to give them that inspiration, confidence and skill to basically join the industry. So we’ve mapped out what is required and what skills are required and how we get women into jobs, and then we partner with organizations to actually get these women into roles. We have a line of sight of where the roles are available. There are hardly any women in these spaces, particularly around software and data science, and then we work with those companies to basically invest in the women’s education, so that we can start churning very, very difficult roles for the future.
Toby Mildon: I mean, it is a challenging sector, ’cause this is how I started out in diversity and inclusion. I was working as a project manager in the BBC’s Technology department, and I was working with our chief operating officer, and he was concerned, with the rest of the leadership team, that within technology we had a significant gender imbalance. So I think back then it was like 14% of the technology department was made up of women, and the rest of the BBC was about 50/50 male/female, so the department was really behind compared to the other parts of the broadcaster. So I worked with the team to create our gender balance action plan, and that’s how I started out working in this field. But from the work that you do, why are we seeing this gender balance problem within the science and technology and engineering sectors?
Anna Brailsford: I think there’s several threads to this answer. I could probably talk all day about it, but predominantly, what we see is few women studying computer science. So around about 19% of computer science students are women, and then we see the figure in organizations is around about 17% of women occupying technology roles. So we’re seeing structural alarming statistical evidence coming through from the higher education system, and then I don’t think it’s any surprise that we then start seeing that in organizations.
Anna Brailsford: I also think that we have somewhat of an issue in this country, with saying we think once you start on a certain path that’s kind of it for you. It’s almost like you have to start taking certain subjects from a certain point in life, otherwise career’s a bother to you, and I think that’s a bit of a dangerous attitude, because the whole premise of Code First Girls, we’re based on 50 university campuses in the UK, and about 40 centers outside of universities, and we actively either supplement education at university, or we open the doors to women regardless of their degree disciplines, or regardless of their educational backgrounds. So what that means, for example, is say you’ve got a Humanities student, they can learn how to code and they can become a coder and go into technology. They don’t have to do a computer science degree. So I think this sense of barrier, we create these barriers along the way for women to actually move in, and we have to show them that there’s other ways, and that just because you’ve gone down one path, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not capable of moving into technology. We just have to enable that.
Toby Mildon: That’s something I can really relate to actually, ’cause my friend I went to university with, we both studied marketing together, up until now she’s spent all of her career working in marketing, and in the last couple of months she’s been to a kind of a coding bootcamp, and now she’s switched careers. She’s now working as a technologist within a workplace automation AI software company. So yeah, she’s done the career switch. I think it’s true, yeah, we have this idea that when we leave university we’re on some sort of fixed career path after that, but it’s… We can take all sorts of twists and turns.
Anna Brailsford: I think that this career switcher element is really, really important. So particularly with COVID-19, what we’re seeing is huge numbers of women that have been displaced by this crisis, and this sense of being able to career switch and providing them with the bootcamps, with… We call it “Nanodegree.” So we provide them with the education that we know they require in order to become a software engineer, or a data scientist, and all for free. We do it all for free, incidentally. I mean, providing that for, for example, women who have been displaced, whose industry might have been completely ruined by what’s happening at the moment, is actually… This is less of a kind of a personal journey, and it’s becoming more of a economic imperative, I think, for this country to get back on its feet.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, definitely. I love it. I love it. And so what are some of the most important skills that you think people need to get into the tech industry? So perhaps it is somebody who’s just left university that’s thinking of their first work or maybe is somebody who is looking to do a career change whether that just because they fancy a change or perhaps it’s because they have been displaced because of the pandemic lately but, what are those skills?
Anna Brailsford: So increasingly we’re seeing two skills emerging that are becoming very, very important as a baseline to the majority of jobs that we’re seeing and the majority of jobs that are open particularly with larger organizations, I think it’s slightly different when you look at smaller organizations, so with larger organizations what we’re noticing is Python and SQL, so Python typically for software engineering and SQL if you wanna go into data, but in all honesty if you want to be proficient in tech so on 90 degrees covered both areas in quite a level of detail, what we find with… If you’re joining a smaller company it tends to be the more full-stack or maybe front-end work which is maybe slightly different in terms of its approach. So particularly with the larger enterprises I definitely think that Python and SQL are emerging as our two most in-demand skills at the moment that anybody at university should check out or leaving university or anybody that’s been affected by this crisis, is Python and SQL you should be checking out.
Toby Mildon: Cool, and there are there some softer skills, so what I was thinking of is… So when I was working at the BC we were looking at how we can recruit a wider pool of people coming into technology and that the hiring manager was thinking of hard skills, like how good is somebody at Java for example but when we picked them we realized that actually we wanted to recruit people who were able to learn really quickly because technology develops at such a fast pace and also people move between products as well, so we need people to be agile and nimble and actually we started testing for those kind of softer things. So somebody’s ability to pick up a new piece of technology really quickly and hit the ground running but are there any other skills like that that you think are particularly important?
Anna Brailsford: I think you’ve picked up on something that we see time and time again with our clients, is what they’re really after is a mindset as opposed to obviously a technical baseline is important; however, with what Code First Girls is trying to do with their 12-week Nanodegree program for example, they’re trying to teach the most in-demand basics and skills you can then use to learn different languages. If you compare that to a Computer Science degree which is three years along with a lot of theory for example, many people could argue that what we’re actually trying to train is people’s almost like ability to think more quickly and to adapt to different situations because, you’re right, it changes at the speed of light, so therefore what we’re trying to create here is a mindset and an approach… And they’re never gonna stop learning. If you go into tech and if you do become a software developer or data scientist you never stop learning, it’s a continuous process of iteration. So I think that’s super important but also more and more ability to communicate, ability to work in a team, it may sound really, really basic but you could be the best developer in the world but if you can’t communicate, and if you can’t work in a team, you’re not gonna go down very well. [chuckle]
Anna Brailsford: So what we’re noticing with the kind of the rise, the meteoric rise of the technical skills is, that unless we meet that in equal measure with communication skills and building women’s confidence, it’s not as successful when we bring those skills together it’s far more successful in terms of their career outlook.
Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And what’s in store for Code First Girls in the future ’cause so far you’ve been hugely successful, just by the numbers you’ve trained a huge number of people and making a big impact, but where is the organization going?
Anna Brailsford: So we had during COVID, we saw an 800% increase in demand for what we do for women which is just unprecedented, so we have waiting lists of women at the moment that want to be trained. So even meeting that demand, we are trying to give away as much high quality education provision as we can, but we’re trying to match that as well with the amount of job opportunities and placement opportunities that we can offer, we don’t wanna just simply train women, we want to then give them the next tangible step into again, this is what you can do now to start increasing your economic opportunities. So we are attempting to double our existing community in a single year. And from our maths given the amount of demand, we think we can do that especially with 100% virtual training provision that we now have. So we’re set to be hopefully 40,000 by the end of 2021, [chuckle] we don’t like doing things by heart, and increasingly our internal KPIS are about the extent to which we can get women into work. And we can get women into those very, very direct career paths, and that is a lot about our industry partners as well, to the extent to which our industry partners wanna make it happen. And really what we’re saying is, education and industry moving closer and closer together through an organization like Code First Girls.
Toby Mildon: Brilliant. So this of course is the Inclusive Growth Show, and I’m interested in hearing what you think inclusive growth means, particularly from your perspective, in terms of developing that technology skill set and the partners that you work with and the impact that you’re making on industry.
Anna Brailsford: So I always compare this to… For example, when we’re working with organizations, they can have their diversity stats, right? Their diversity stats are one thing, but to what extent, for example, have women been involved in the… Or women been included in the actual creation and formulation, for example, of products? That will be for me two different angles that you have to look at. You might have great diversity stats, but to what extent are they actually influencing the products that people are consuming and your business model? Because for me, that’s when you get to the magic level, where there’s gonna be tangible difference and tangible impact, and you move from ticking boxes towards actually thinking about creating products and creating businesses that actually represent society, and that are building things for the future, instead of just talking about it, and instead of just talking about it on LinkedIn with big figures and things like that. It’s far more than that. It’s more about the implementation of it and the social impact of it.
Anna Brailsford: And we will see that, I strongly believe you will see it in the type of products that are being created. You’ll see it in the type of cultures that are created as a result in businesses, and hopefully we should see some fantastic innovations. I’ll give you an example of a group of women that went through one of our training programs, I think this was about six months ago now. At the end of the program all the women create products, or create innovations that might not exist in the current market. And the women created an algorithm to help predict breast cancer. Now, that’s a real example of inclusivity in action when it comes to product, and actually a product that will have a social impact on groups of people that are arguably marginalized.
Toby Mildon: Yeah.
Anna Brailsford: So when you start seeing things like that and you start seeing that those types of impacts, that’s when you know you’re starting to make a difference in terms of inclusivity in technology.
Toby Mildon: Definitely. I think one of my favorite films around diversity and inclusion is Gender Decoded. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. It is on YouTube. It’s brilliant. It’s kind of like a… Well, it’s a documentary that talks about how historically over time the tech industry has become a very male-dominated industry, but one of the stories I always remember was about how disproportionately women were injured by air bags when they were first created in the ’60s, and it was because it was created by an all-male engineering team, so it was developed with the male frame and body in mind, and how men sit in a car rather than how women sit in a car. So women were disproportionately injured by air bags, which is bizarre, because air bags are supposed to protect you. But it just goes to show how you have to be inclusive when you’re developing products.
Anna Brailsford: 100%. And I would say, the same argument goes for data as well. We’re seeing that more and more that all these algorithms that are being created and a lot of technology, it’s only as good as the data sets that sit behind it, and if those data sets aren’t inclusive, we’re effectively… You’re creating a little bit of a foregone conclusion. It’s less of an algorithm and more something you and I could probably predict and take a gamble on. So I agree that both with data and the creation of product, we’re creating… If we create very narrow data sets, in the same way if we have a very narrow group of people looking at a particular problem, you will create a product that can really only be used on a very narrow group of people, or will have very narrow conclusions.
Toby Mildon: Cool. Before you go Anna, if the person listening to our conversation today wants to learn more about Code First Girls and get involved in your community, how do they do that?
Anna Brailsford: So please visit our website, codefirstgirls.org.uk, also check us out on Twitter, LinkedIn, all the social channels. There are many layers of education that you can get involved in, regardless of your age. So for example, our massive online courses are open to women and non-binary people of any age group, and we basically help you to code through social media, through live instruction. So within an hour to 90 minutes you can learn about a new language and pick up a skill and code something completely new. From there you can then decide whether you want to go to the next stage and actually do a certification with us. Again, for certain age groups with our certifications they are completely subsidized, completely free. For other age groups they are typically at a subsidized rate, but you can basically work through the different layers of education, and ultimately, hopefully, build your career in software or data science.
Toby Mildon: Excellent. Yeah, sounds brilliant. It’s definitely worth checking out. I’m gonna go and have a look around myself, so thanks for that.
Anna Brailsford: Thanks Toby.
Toby Mildon: Anna, thank you for joining me on this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I’ve really enjoyed then talking with you today. And thank you for listening to my conversation with Anna today. Hopefully, if you found it interesting, and if you are interested in the work that Anna and her team does, then please do go over to the Code First Girls website. Until then, thank you ever so much for listening, and I’ll see you on the next episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, which will be coming up shortly.
Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website, at mildon.co.uk.
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