Women Transforming Tech

Anna Brailsford is the Chief Executive of Code First Girls. The organisation runs courses which are open to women and non-binary people of any age group. Women learn to code through social media and live instruction. Within an hour to 90 minutes, participants learn about a new language, pick up a skill and code something completely new. From there participants decide whether to go to the next stage and do a certification. For certain age groups, certifications are completely free. For other age groups, they are at a subsidised rate. 

To begin our conversation I asked Anna to tell us a bit about her career background and what led to her creating Code First Girls?

‘When I was growing up, I didn’t want to be in tech. I’m not sure I thought about it much outside of computer games, which I 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.

I remember the first computers. I had a Commodore 64, then I had an Amiga, which back then was groundbreaking in terms of a computer. My parents bought this, incidentally, for my brother, and then I ended up using it. The last one I had was something like a Sega Mega Drive. I always liked computers, and I always liked games, but I never necessarily perceived myself in tech. I don’t think I understood what it meant. That’s quite common if you listen to a lot of stories from women that ended up in technology. That demonstrates a need to inspire girls and young people around what technology means and how important it is for our future.

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 very different now to how it used to be. Certainly, I didn’t perceive myself in tech. I wanted to be a fighter pilot! Too much Top Gun.

I ended up in my family’s business. My mum was the CEO, so I had a very strong business background. That’s where I learned to cut my teeth in business and also learned from strong female role models. It was an ed-tech business, so a lot of it was around education. I used to do that when I came home from university in summer.

I didn’t study a STEM subject. I was artsy, so I studied literature and history. Not the traditional background that you would place within tech.

I ended up joining educational consultancies and ed-tech companies. When 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. We were valued at 1.5 billion and got bought by LinkedIn. I went over to LinkedIn, and then via various places since then brought me to Code First Girls. I never intended to end up in tech, but there are many routes in. Mine was through educational technologies. I do not have a coding background, but there is still room for me. It’s very important to highlight that it’s not only about coding. It’s not just about those technical skills. It’s about creating future female leaders in the technology space as well.

There are a lot of lists around women in technology, but I was included on this list recently for top 30 female product managers in Europe.  I don’t know how they put these lists together. It’s a bit of a mystery to me, but I looked at that and thought, “Do I 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.”

Then I thought, “Well, maybe they’re trying to widen the horizons a little bit 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?’

Anna is so right about the different routes into technology and the variety of roles as well. Before I set up my 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. I was a project manager and worked on user experience in design. It takes a whole team effort to create a piece of tech.

The Code First Girls Community

I asked Anna what Code First Girls does, and how it’s grown since it was first established?

‘Code First Girls is one of the largest communities of female coders and technologists in the UK. We’re based on 50 university campuses in the UK, and about 40 centres outside of universities. We recently hit a milestone of teaching 20,000 women how to code. To put that into perspective, at the moment that’s three times the level of the entire UK education system combined, in terms of the number of women that we’re training.

There are many different women in our community. They’re not all looking to become coders. A lot of women in our community are looking at wider technology roles. What we’re trying to do is to give women the skills and also the inspiration and the confidence to join the industry, because that’s vital in this space, with hardly any female role models.

We’ve mapped out what skills are required and how we get women into jobs. We partner with organisations to 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, so we work with those companies to invest in women’s education so that we can start churning very, very difficult roles for the future.’
I agree with Anna that it is a challenging sector. I started out in diversity and inclusion as a project manager in the BBC’s Technology department. I was working with the chief operating officer, and he was concerned, along with the rest of the leadership team, that within technology we had a significant gender imbalance. Back then 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 behind compared to the other parts of the broadcaster.  I worked with the team to create our gender balance action plan, and that’s how I started out working in this field. Given that, I asked Anna in her field of work, why does she think we still see this gender balance problem within the science and technology and engineering sectors?

‘There are several threads to this answer. I could probably talk all day about it, but predominantly, what we see is few women studying computer science. About 19% of computer science students are women, and in organisations, it’s about 17% of women occupying technology roles. The structural statistical evidence coming through from the higher education system is alarming.

The Talent Pipeline

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 like you have to start taking certain subjects from a certain point in life. I think that’s a bit of a dangerous attitude. The whole premise of Code First Girls is that we actively supplement education at university, or we open the doors to women regardless of their degree disciplines and educational backgrounds. 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. The system we have creates these barriers along the way for women. We have to show them that there are other ways. Because you’ve gone down one path, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not capable of moving into technology. We enable that.’

I can relate to that. A friend I studied marketing with at university has spent all her career working in marketing. In the last couple of months, she’s been to a coding boot camp and now she’s switched careers. She’s working as a technologist within a workplace automation AI software company. So she’s done that career switch.

Anna said, ‘This career switcher element is important. Particularly with COVID-19, what we’re seeing is huge numbers of women that have been displaced by this crisis. We help by enabling women to career switch and provide them with the boot camps we call “Nanodegree”. So we give them that education we know they need to become a software engineer or a data scientist. We do it all for free.

For women who have been displaced, whose industry might have been completely ruined by what’s happening at the moment, this is not only a personal journey. It’s becoming an economic imperative for this country to get back on its feet.’
My next question for Anna was about the skills needed for women thinking about entering the sector. Whether that’s somebody who’s recently left university, that’s thinking of their first work or somebody who is looking to do a career change, what does she think are some of the most important skills that people need to get into the tech industry?

‘Increasingly we’re seeing two skills emerging that are becoming important as a baseline to the majority of jobs that we’re seeing, particularly with larger organisations. If you’re joining a smaller company it tends to be the more full-stack or maybe front-end work which is slightly different in terms of its approach. With the larger enterprises, I definitely think that Python for software engineering and SQL for data are emerging as our two most in-demand skills at the moment.’

When I worked at the BBC we looked at how to recruit a wider pool of people coming into technology. The hiring manager was thinking of hard skills. How good is somebody at Java for example? We realised that what was needed was to recruit people who were quick learners because technology develops at such a fast pace and we started testing somebody’s ability to pick up a new piece of technology fast and hit the ground running. I asked Anna if there were other skills, what we might call soft skills, that she thinks are particularly important? 
‘This is something that we see time and time again with our clients. What they’re after is a mindset, although a technical baseline is important. What Code First Girls is trying to do with their 12-week Nanodegree program, for example, is we’re trying to teach the most in-demand basics and skills that 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, many people could argue that what we’re trying to train is people’s ability to think more quickly and to adapt to different situations. Things do change at the speed of light, so therefore what we’re trying to create here is a mindset and an approach, one where we’re never going to 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 it’s also important to have the ability to communicate and work in a team. It might sound basic but even if you are the best developer in the world and you can’t communicate well or work in a team, you’re not going to go down very well.

We’re noticing with the meteoric rise of the demand for technical skills 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 women’s career outlook.

Future Trajectory

I asked Anna what’s in store for Code First Girls now. How does she see the organisation’s future direction of travel?

‘Since the pandemic, we’ve seen an 800% increase in demand for what we do which is unprecedented. We have waiting lists of women at the moment that want to be trained. We are trying to give away as much high-quality education provision as we can, but we’re trying to match that with as many job opportunities and placement opportunities that we can offer. We don’t want to only train women, we want to then give them the next tangible step.

We are attempting to double our existing community in a single year. Given the size of the demand, we think we can do that, especially with 100% virtual training provision that we now have. We’re set to be hopefully at 40,000 by the end of 2021. We don’t like doing things by half. Increasingly our internal KPIs are about the extent to which we can get women into work through those very direct career paths. That is a lot about the extent to which our industry partners want to make it happen. So it does depend on education and industry moving closer and closer together through an organisation like Code First Girls.’

As this is the Inclusive Growth Show, I’m always interested in hearing what my guests think inclusive growth means. I asked Anna what it means to her, particularly in terms of developing that technology skill set, the partnerships with Code First Girls industry stakeholders and the impact that the organisation is having.

‘I always compare this to when we’re working with organisations, they can have their diversity stats, but to what extent, for example, have women been involved in the creation and formulation of products? For me, that’s 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? For me, that’s when you get to the magic level, where there will be a tangible difference and impact. It’s then that you move from ticking boxes towards actually thinking about creating businesses and products that represent society and are building things for the future, instead of just talking about it on LinkedIn with big figures. It’s far more than that. It’s more about the implementation of it and the social impact of it.

I strongly believe you will see that change. It will be in the type of products that are being created. You’ll see it in the type of cultures that are created in businesses. We should see some fantastic innovations. I’ll give you an example of a group of women that went through one of our training programmes, I think this was about six months ago now. At the end of the programme, all the women create products or innovations that might not exist in the current market. The women created an algorithm to help predict breast cancer. That’s a real example of inclusivity in action when it comes to product, and it’s a product that will have a social impact on groups of people that are arguably marginalised.

When you start seeing things like that and the impact, that’s when you know you’re starting to make a difference in terms of inclusivity in technology.’

One of my favourite films around diversity and inclusion is Gender Decoded. It’s a documentary that talks about how historically the tech industry has become a very male-dominated industry.  One story that I remember from the film was about how disproportionately women were injured by airbags when they were first created in the 1960s because they were created by an all-male engineering team. Airbags were developed with the male frame and body in mind, how men sit in a car rather than how women sit in a car. So more women were injured by airbags, which is bizarre because airbags are supposed to protect you. But it goes to show how you have to be inclusive when you’re developing products. Anna agreed and said that the same argument goes for data as well.

‘We’re seeing more and more that all these algorithms created are only as good as the datasets that sit behind it. If those data sets aren’t inclusive, we’re creating a foregone conclusion. It’s less of an algorithm and more something you and I could probably predict and take a gamble on. Both with data and the creation of a product, if we rely on narrow datasets, 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 only be used on a very narrow group of people, or will have very narrow conclusions.’

To learn more about the work of Code First Girls visit their website or check out their Twitterand other social channels.

Women Transforming Tech - Mildon