Women in Engineering: less talk, more action.

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

It’s no secret that there’s a serious lack of women in the tech industry, and we’re doing something about that with the Cogent Kids’ Campus series. Kids Campus is an immersive whole-day workshop to show girls in grades 5 and 6 what working in software teams is really like.

It’s no secret that this tech industry in which we spend our working lives at Cogent suffers from a lack of gender diversity. Specifically, they’re just aren’t many women in engineering. The reasons for this have been written about extensively so, instead of adding to the lists of all the ways we should improve this gender balance, in a very Cogent way, we just went and did it.

That’s why we started Cogent Kids’ Campus – an immersive whole-day workshop for girls in grades 5 and 6 – to show what working in software teams is really like.


What is Cogent Kids’ Campus?

Say, ‘Engineering’ to anyone and they’ll imagine industrialists making tunnels or building bridges. The label ‘Programmer’ evokes the nerdy, hoodie-wearing typist isolated in a dark garage hunched over a keyboard doing something sinister.

The hypothesis for Cogent Kids’ Campus was simple. We believe that by showing young, curious females what a day-in-the-life of a software engineer (and team) looks like, we’ll destroy some stereotypes, dispel damaging myths, and spark some early interest in pursuing an interest (and maybe even a career) in software engineering.

We’ve got a lot of very talented engineers at Cogent who are working on some wonderfully diverse and curly problems. They’re collaborating daily, using creativity and logic interchangeably, and making progress towards goals that impact the lives of people. This is the reality of software engineering that we want to show. And it’s easy, because we’re doing it everyday.


What happened on the day?

We knew it was important to be as immersive as possible, and this starts with the work environment. We hosted the kids at our offices to ensure they get the full multi-sensory experience of what it’s like work in software. We’re very lucky to have a beautiful, light-filled, plant-adorned space. The feedback from the kids was great. They got to see actual people doing actual work. They sat side-by-side with programmers who they were working directly with, and others who weren’t involved in the day but still working on their own projects. This is how it actually happens.

Software engineers rarely work alone, in fact, it’s a profession that relies on collaboration to make great work. Whether that means working with another engineer to solve a difficult problem, or with designers and product people to make sure what they’re building addresses a real human and/or business need, it’s important for the kids to understand the broader context of a career in engineering. They meet and greet others, and find out about how it all works together. It’s not about working in isolation anymore.

With a variety of different learning styles, a hands-on component was a must. Working in pairs, the children used Logo, a highly-visual yet simple programming language to build real stuff in response to a problem. Not only does this teach the practical skills of actual programming, but also collaborative problem solving and critical inquiry. They are encouraged to ask questions and seek solutions to problems, alone and together.

Once they built something they were happy with, the children ‘showcased’ their work to their fellow students. Software engineers are always required to communicate the intent of their work and demonstrate their progress so this was no different. In the small group of 12 children, they each took turns presenting their ideas and the lessons they learned from the hands-on component of the day.

By keeping it visual and formulating a problem that had to be solved with a consideration for design, the kids were instinctively analysing their solution with the end user, the human, in mind. Our engineers are constantly affecting the real, everyday lives of the people who are using the things we’re building so it was important to impress upon the kids that their effort has real-world impact.


We’ve validated it, now we can scale

This was our ‘MVP’ of Cogent Kids’ Campus. We validated a bunch of assumptions about the agenda and activities that were designed for the day. We failed in some areas and learned a lot in others which means future Campuses will only get better. The main thing is that we keep our goal in mind.

In the end, improving the gender balance in the tech industry will benefit every single human, whether you work in it or not. The more diversity we have, the greater the collaborative power of the teams in which we work. That can only mean more inclusive, well-considered and well-designed software.

We aren’t going to fix this problem overnight, but Cogent Kids’ Campus is a practical and immersive step in the right direction. We’re just a bit sick of talking about it, so we’re doing it instead.

For more information about the day or to register your students for one our Campus days, please download this brochure or contact us.

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