In Australia, women comprise less than 20% of the ICT workforce. Around the world, the statistics aren’t much better.
• Only 17% of ICT specialists are women.
• Only 34% of STEM graduates are women.
• Women in the ICT sector earn 19% less than men.
• 46% of women have reported that they have experienced discrimination in the European tech sector.
After starting her career as a software engineer, Ally Watson, founder and CEO of Code Like a Girl, is now on a mission to change the ICT workforce for the better.
Ally has received numerous accolades for her work with her business, including 2016 Women in Media award for Technology, 2016 and 2017 #TechDiversity awards, the Gold Disruptor Award at the 2016 Australian Computer Society awards and the 2018 AWS community Champion of the Year for Women in Digital.
We chatted with Ally to find out how she’s changing the tech game for women.
Why did you want to create Code Like a Girl?
I started code like a girl honesty for very selfish reasons. I moved to Australia from Scotland six years ago. I had worked previously as a software engineer in Scotland for about four years at that point and had worked with only one other female in those four years. When I moved to Australia, I was the first female hire in my first job and the only woman in my second job, so even changing countries and changing companies, the gender gap was still the same. The gender gap intake was just shocking. I think not having any friends and family in a new country, and the isolation of a situation where you’re not making a lot of female friendships at work and only making friends with your male colleagues who have a lot of different interests and hobbies really pushed me to start it. I wanted to meet other women who coded, I wanted to have female friendship within my industry and career.
So how did you start up the business?
What started as a very small gathering and very casual event escalated, and within two weeks of putting this small event online, I had a hundred RSVP’s from other women who just like me were seeking that female friendship within their careers. That’s how it all started.
Tell me about code like a girl now?
We’ve definitely evolved. The initial event made me realise that I wasn’t alone and that triggered something in me that got me very passionate about the cause. I started educating myself, started reading up about the gender gap intake, where it came from, how long it has been, how big it is. All these factors made me super passionate about trying to solve the problem, not just talking about it, not just meeting up with other women and being there to support one another, actually think “how can we use this group to actually be the solution.” So now we’ve moved from this networking company to what we are today, which is more of an education company. We realised there were lots of gaps in the education pipeline and a lot of reasons why women weren’t participating in tech education. Nowadays we describe ourselves as an education start-up, doing online courses within coding for both adults and kids.
How do you feel seeing more women move into tech?
They are the next generation of creators in this phase and their stories are so inspiring. In our current cohort we have people who are registered nurses, librarians and people who have a unique motivation to join this field. It’s really inspiring meeting all these women who are so unique. I can say hands down that Code Like a Girl isn’t for every woman. There’s a lot of women out there who are fine on their own, they don’t mind the dominance of male presence, but there are some women who find this a barrier, and to be able to be there for them makes it all worth it.
What inspired your love for tech?
I actually stumbled into technology. It wasn’t something that from a young age I had envisioned, and I wasn’t particularly inspired by anyone existing in the tech industry. It was actually a sort of sequence of unfortunate events. I’d always wanted to go to art school, and I couldn’t get into art school. I tried for two years. I consistently did photography, sculpture and lifestyle classes all to try and build up the skills necessary to move into art school and I got rejected from every art school in the country. So, I was really stuck and there was certain dates when you had to apply for things and once you miss those key dates you have to wait for the next year to apply for university, so it was too late by the time I got my second year rejection. I had this list of courses that had spots left and computer science and software engineering was on this list. I sat there thinking “do I spend another year trying to do something, or do I just take a chance and apply for something that I think I might be good at and just see how it goes?” I was really under-confident and had very low self-esteem at the time because of all the rejections so I just wanted to do something and make sure I wasn’t seen as a failure. So my reasoning for moving into computer science and technology wasn’t particularly inspiring, but once I was there, I really fell in love with it. I realised there was so much more to coding than just learning a language, learning the syntax. It was problem solving, and as someone who is naturally creative and interested in design and interested in people and how they would work with systems and problems and products, it blew my mind how perfect I was for this career that I’d never considered.
What barriers did you face in a male-dominated industry?
One big barrier was imposter syndrome. We live in a world that has very strong gender messaging. We always see a man with the computer or a man behind the desk of a programming role, so in our minds we never imagine ourselves in these roles. Someone also decided that it’s fact that men are better at objects and logic and women are all about relationships and creativity. Nothing about that is real and true but when you’re sitting in a classroom surrounded by men and being taught by a man you start to believe it because you can see the numbers and you can see there’s no one around you that looks like you. So imposter syndrome was a really, really big barrier for me.
Even coming from a non-stereotypical background, a lot of the boys in the class had been coding since they were young, you start to believe it’s natural and it’s some innate skill that they were born with. But when you look a bit further and you ask a few more questions, you realise that’s not the case. When I was playing with Barbie and listening to the Spice Girls, they were listening to their dad who was an engineer, or they were playing with Lego and mechanic sets. You realise this whole world of toys and marketing had been changing the story for even kids. For such a long period of time, these ads and marketing campaigns for technology were all about boys, so there’s no wonder that we started to believe that that was their natural positioning. When you look at history, women were the first programmers, but it happened at a time where women weren’t encouraged to be in the labour market, so they were cut out of the story. Today we are seeing the consequences of this gender imbalance. We’re seeing biases in machine learning, we’re seeing products that forget about women’s needs, forget about women’s wants and we have this world of tech being developed by a small and homogenous group of men. This is why diversity is so important in this industry and why it’s so important that we get more women with these skills to create a new future and create new products that have women at the centre.
Were there any other barriers?
The biggest barrier was the isolation. I remember feeling like the odd friend, the one that didn’t get asked to the pub or “if I took this woman out for coffee, would it be seen as a date”. That continuously followed me throughout my career. I was left out and it wasn’t ever malicious, but it was so isolating at times. That can put off a lot of people, so it is really important to find your own network and to find other women. I would say I’m quite feminine. I remembered being scoffed at for bringing in an Elle magazine, you know a latte in one hand and an Elle magazine in the other and that’s who I am, I’m unapologetically feminine and I don’t want to be put down for my gender and I don’t want people to think I’m lesser than because of it. I wanted to fit in as me, and I should be allowed to.
Do you come across any issues running the business?
You can’t just create a product with a big margin that’s scaled big because you’ve always got to keep in mind what you’re trying to achieve, meaningful impact and making sure that it’s affordable and accessible. The biggest challenge is coming up with services and products that not only have enough margins to cover your overheads, to cover the staff required to keep it sustainable and keep it breathing and alive. You also have to have another margin for being able to innovate, being able to grow to be able to invest in new services and new products so that has definitely felt like a big struggle.
I think we’re finally at that stage this year where we have nailed our product and we’re actually doing an MVP ghost launch at the moment so that’s been very exciting. We’ve built that up over time, so we’ve been completely bootstrapped and always a cash flow positive business, but we’ve never accepted capital. We were very lucky this year though as we got into a program, called SheEO which is a network of radically generous women who invest in ventures. That capital gave us a little bit of that margin that we needed to invest and to be able to invest in a saleable product, so it’s been an interesting year for us. I believe this is the start of a new journey in terms of where we go next. This has enabled us to create a product that has global potential reach, which again is just very exciting.
What are your current goals for the business or in general?
A lot of our services in the past were seasonally based, which meant our revenue was up and down based on school holidays. We used to do school holiday camps for girls and that accompanied with our other revenue stream (which was partnerships) was always really challenging because you couldn’t really see too far ahead. The partnerships were only yearly, school holidays were seasonal so if you had to look at our finance it was very up and down. What we’d really love is a steady line of revenue. So our goals at the moment are a 50% growth month-on-month just in terms of monthly revenue. We’d love to have a million dollars revenue turnover for this year. Those are our financial goals and in terms of impact, we’re looking to train 5,000 women year-on-year with coding skills, but at the moment because we’ve just launched, we’re aiming for 120 in the next 12 months. We also run an internship program. We’ve placed 52 women into paid software engineer roles. Due to COVID-19 that’s definitely dropped down the pack this year because everybody is on a hiring freeze, but we’re hoping to continue placing women into employment. That’s a big thing for us.
What motivates you?
I’m motivated by simple things that most people are. I’m motivated to have a job that I just love waking up to. We all work a four-day working week at code like a girl. I’m motivated to have a happy workplace so being able to be the CEO of a company and being able to set that culture has enabled that to happen. I’ve got a really loyal team that have been with me for many years, which is really nice and we’re growing. I think that’s really it for me. Coming to my job, having a meaningful work and being happy. To be able to do that in my working life and my profession is pretty much what motivates me.
How does it feel being a CEO in a male-dominated industry?
Some days it’s hard. As someone who used to be in a team environment and never being the manager, never being the face of a company and never having that liability, I sometimes miss those days where I could finish my job at half 5 and totally switch off. Being the CEO of a company there is a reality that there’s no hard stop, there’s no switching off. Businesses are pretty much 24/7 and you have to put in really, really strong boundaries to look after your mental health because at the end of the day there’s not going to be too many people giving you a promotion, giving you a bonus or a pat on the back because you’re at the top. And it’s real when they say it is lonely at the top. I think that being a woman and not being able to have a huge amount of female friendship within the CEO sphere, to be vulnerable, to seek help, to seek support, you can definitely feel that isolation sometimes but I think you build that culture within your own team and you can create your own solutions to that, and I have a very supportive team so that’s lovely.
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