Cogent Conversations: Episode 5
Ally Watson from Code Like a Girl
Episode 5: Code Like a Girl
The purpose of Code Like a Girl is as inspiring as it is clear: Liberating the talents of women and girls. Right now their primary way of doing this is through liberating the technical talents of women and girls through coding camps, internships and events.
We thoroughly agree that this work is important, and some of the many reasons we admire this organisation. They do simply amazing work demonstrating the importance of diversity in product development, and in creating spaces where girls with a love of tech can feel they belong.
We spoke with Ally Watson, one of the co-founders of Code Like a Girl, about how she accidentally fell into tech, the numerous experiences she had in being the only female developer in organisations she worked for, and her decision to do something about it.
To keep up to date with what is happening with Cogent, including when new episodes of this podcast are released, you can subscribe to our blog at cogent.co/blog. Or follow us on Twitter: @cogent_co or Instagram: @cogent_co.
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Meet the host: Adam Murray
Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture (but just quietly, the thing he loves most is coaching his son’s team of aspiring under-10 footballers).
Full Episode Transcript
Adam Murray: This is the Cogent Conversations podcast made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive. Helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer, so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at cogent.co.
Ally Watson: And that secure community or support network or sisterhood or whatever you want to call it is… we need to be there for not just the kids but the women in the industry, the women going into the industry, so that’s the part we’re trying to play in all this is; to be that community that they really desperately need.
Adam Murray: Hello, it’s Adam Murray here, and welcome to this episode of Cogent Conversations. In this episode, we are talking with Code Like a Girl. I had the honour of sitting next to Ally Watson on a stage a few years ago, where her passion for girls everywhere to have the opportunity to learn how to code shone through. Today, Code Like a Girl is thriving, helping correct the gender imbalance in tech with initiatives that have both short-term and long-term impacts. Ally is the co-founder and CEO of Code Like a Girl, and it was great to hear her story and vision. Let’s get into it.
We’re chatting, Ally, to start out the new year in your new office as well. Lots of new things.
Ally Watson: Yes, very new. There’s some wires coming out the walls.
Adam Murray: Yeah. I was in the lobby, and I did kind of put my finger right through the lift button. It was dark, and it sort of still looked like a button, but then I went right through it. I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m going to get electrocuted right here.
Ally Watson: Also, the lifts are making this strange sound where… you know when some noise needs its batteries replaced and it kind of does that weird noise… It’s been doing that a lot. It’s risky business, working in the new office, but it’s nice to be here and nice to have a space.
And it’s nice actually to be with other people. So we’re working with a company called Mantle Group, and it’s funny going from a co-working space where it’s all small businesses, all total hustlers, like no time in the day to do anything, to then coming into a company again where people have that head space, have dedicated roles, have that… I’m listening to all the conversations, and it’s just taking me back to being an employee again. But it’s nice. It’s nice being in that company culture again.
Adam Murray: Is it? Yeah, compared to say that bustle and busyness of a start-up group?
Ally Watson: Yeah, totally. It’s good.
Adam Murray: What do you like about it?
Ally Watson: Feels familiar. It feels like that familiar way of office banter and watching all the different groups go out for lunch or all the internal attendees that they organise, so already there’s been a meet-up on Tuesday where all the developers hung out and had lunch, and watched and talked and stuff. And it’s, you miss those office activities. And we were invited to lunch on Wednesday. So, it’s nice that you can take advantage of that, you’ve not actually got your own big team, but you can now be integrated into somebody else’s big team, in some sense. Only the good parts. Yeah, that’s been fun.
Adam Murray: I’m interested to hear, because you were at One Roof before this, which is a female-founder oriented co-working space? Is that the correct way to describe it?
Ally Watson: Yes, that’s a really good way to describe it.
Adam Murray: I’m sure that came with its own benefits as well being in that…
Ally Watson: Oh, we got so many. It’s definitely an adjustment, and I think, obviously we had to be diplomatic and not say one is better than the other. But One Roof was quite sensational. They support that they offer, like they’re entrepreneurs. They do open office hours, they have investors who come in, and you can spend a lunch with them. They do meditation on Tuesdays. They were doing yoga for a while. They do wine dines on Fridays. And there’s just a really good atmosphere there. It’s the first space that I’ve looked at and like, oh, I would definitely have that in my kitchen and my living room.
And Sheree is wonderful. Sheree heads up One Roof, and she’s just such a dedicated person, to bringing more women into that space. She lives and breathes it. Almost every night I would be leaving the office, and she’s going to some event, hosting some event on top of her day job. She is just… I look behind and I’m like, wow, she’s really dedicated to what she believes in, and her mission. So it was hard to leave One Roof to move on to another space, but I think there was lots of reasons for it. One is that my advisor, he’s the CEO of Mantle Group, so being close to him and having that closer mentorship relationship, I think is going to help me in my own entrepreneurial journey. And it’s diversity, as well, isn’t it? Trying something different.
Adam Murray: Correct, yeah. Usually great diversity in a co-working space as well. But then to, I guess, enhance the diversity. You’re not going to lose those relationships that you’ve formed there. And now you can come into a new space and see what emerges out of this space, as well.
Ally Watson: And I’ve already been back this week. I said to the girls, I was like, maybe I’ll delay changing my mailing address, so that I can come back every week to get my mail and chinwag with them all.
Adam Murray: I want to take you back. I know a little bit of your back story, but maybe just start there. But the question I have for you is about, what was it like for you, when you discovered this thing called tech, or code, or how women describe it, and you loved it? What was the range of emotions that you experienced at that time?
Ally Watson: When I first discovered tech, it was quite embarrassingly when I started my degree in computer science, which sounds really strange. Why would you start a degree over something you’ve not really had a lot of exposure with? But it was desperate times.
Adam Murray: Was it?
Ally Watson: Yeah. I had got the best grades in my whole entire family, the best grades in my family history. So, everyone was really excited about me going to the best university to do medicine or whatever. But I wanted to go to art school and so I would spend lunch times putting an art portfolio together; applied after high school; got rejected at every art school in the country and then was absolutely heartbroken. But then, I didn’t give up there, tried again. And so that second year that I was out of high school, trying to get into art school, feeling again like that was definitely one of those moments where I just didn’t know what to do with myself anymore. And all my friends had already been accepted into university. My family were stressing, just being like, you’re wasting your grades. What is happening? You got to do something, Ally. You can’t just be a bum, like a waste of potential there.
I felt a little bit of that social pressure, to try and do something academic. So it was too late in the year to apply for anything I wanted to apply for, and actually, what was left was left-over courses. There was computer science/software engineering, which was a joint course. And I knew that I had really excelled in maths, and I’m one of those people that likes what I’m good at, right? So, even though I did like maths, I know it was because I was good at it. And so, I liked graphic communication and I liked information systems, which was a lot around database management. So there were some elements where I was like, okay, I’m not going into this completely blind, but I’ve never programmed. The only program I had exposure to, at that stage, was jazzing up my MySpace page, adding marquee text and different colours.
My first exposure, properly, to tech, was a computer science degree. And that was, at first, quite horrible because I was the dumbest person in the class for sure. Everybody there was quite prepared for the course – already had been programming, or understood about binary and hardware. I think it became very clear at that stage in my life, how different my upbringing had been to a lot of the other people in my class. And I did realise, that was strongly to do with my gender, and that I grew up in a house full of women, that my dad was a lawyer; I didn’t have any technology family members or friends.
It was quite easy for someone to grow up, just never really been having built my own computer before this. In contrast, my partner is also a software engineer, but he’s been doing this since he was aged 10 and upward sort of thing. He and his brothers would take joy in building their own computers. And I’m almost jealous. I was jealous that that wasn’t a culture that was really popular between girls. I’m really jealous that his upbringing really encouraged him to go into those fields. And so, for him, when he did his computer science degree, he was super prepared. He was getting straight As to start with, whereas I had to climb from the bottom upwards. But once I got to a stage where I was able to create things that were just as good as other people in the class, again, going back to why I enjoy what I’m good at, that’s when I started to really enjoy it.
When we started doing interactive systems, which is a class and a degree, where it’s all about how users can interact with systems; human/computer interaction was another one of my favourite subjects because it was so much more than just okay, build this network, or Buffer NZ. It was just like, this has context because it’s about how humans look at technology, how they use it, how they consume it, how you make it, make ease of use better for them. So I love that aspect of it, of that human element. And how we… When to use a drop-down rather than a text field, and why these things are important. And how to design a good UI, and it was at that point that I realised like, yeah, I definitely have a passion for this, and I have a place, which I think is really important to feel. Sometimes when you’re an outsider, which is definitely what I felt, I just felt crap at everything and you just feel like, why am I here? What can I offer this degree, or why should I even continue studying this degree?
But when I realised that I was really strong, and I could use that art and design background and those passions, to create beautiful UIs that people enjoyed working with. And yeah, maybe my code wasn’t the most complex, maybe I chose the easier algorithm than the more difficult one. But was that really the point? Like, is that really the point in technology? Do we always have to use the more complex and flashy type of coding, when a simple solution will do and can be more effective?
It was at that point that I started to really, really enjoy the course, and other people started to invite me on their projects. Because it was like, “Ally’s good at UI, got to get some of this good UI.” That was my discovery of tech and finally feeling a wee bit like, I had a place, which I think was really important to me that I did do. Part of the whole. And then, I think that was the moment, and I realised I really want to pursue this. I was really excited about joining the industry, but my first job was a bit boring. I ended up working at a software house and it was all like… and it was lovely people, so I feel really bad for saying this if they ever hear this. It was 10-year-old legacy Windows application stuff.
I’m pretty sure it was Windows forums and they’d put me on bugs that were three years old. The graduate, straight out of university, they put me on bug-fixing for three-year-old bugs, which I think was kind of… what do you call that when someone’s just new to something and they have to…? Rites of passage. I think that was their rites of passage, so I was on that for three months. Then I started doing more UI stuff, but it just wasn’t floating my boat. I realised like I think it’s good to experience these kind of things and try things to discover what you like and what you don’t like, and what your strengths, or what your weaknesses are.
At that point, it got me really confident about my back-end technical skills. It was a really good place for that, because it had text-driven development, and this is 2010. It was quite good, and I know that text-driven development is now quite a hot thing. And it’s the right way to do things mostly nowadays. So it was good to get that exposure and build up that confidence with my technical skills. But then I think in the back end, and I was like, I got to be more passionate about the work, because the work that I don’t really feel anything for.
Straight after that I was like, okay, I want to find a job somewhere creative, somewhere where there’s designers, somewhere where I can be across the whole product and have a say. Because I think what I hated most, is being that pigeon-holed person of, okay, this is now your part, do this button, make it work. And it’s like well, why are we making the button? Who’s asked about the button? Why does this button need to exist? Does it need to be a button? You know, I wanted to play a part in those conversations, so I wasn’t getting that from that first job.
My second job was the job of my dreams and it was working for this award-winning agency in Glasgow. And at that time, there was only about 10 of us. It was the three founders and a development team of four, and a few other people, designers. I loved working there. We were in this little town house. And I remember the developers were up the top, and I was one of them, and my desk was facing this wall, and then the two other developers behind me. It was this tiny, tiny, little room and it was just so low-budget type. I didn’t realise what it was, but it was a bit of a start-up at that point. But you don’t really… I don’t think we used that language back then.
There was such a small team of us and we did some amazing work. And again, it was just exactly what I wanted. From the minute you meet the client and you hear about their problem, or their solutions. Sometimes they do come to the table with a solution already. You get to be involved in that, and you get that context, and you get also a say in terms of what the solution might look like. Or some ideas that you can bring to the table. I was in my element, so I learned most of back-end web development at that job. I stayed there for about three and a half years.
And then I got to age 25, and I was like, I don’t know if I can do this for the rest of my life. This is great, but I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be here in 10 years’ time, just being a senior developer, or head of development. This isn’t enough for me so I had this itchy feet moment where I decided to move to Melbourne. And that takes me up to the present day, I guess.
Adam Murray: Great. Okay, we’ll pick that up…
Ally Watson: I’ll let you ask another question because I feel like I really went to town on that one.
Adam Murray: It’s good. Let’s pick up Melbourne in a second. I’ve got a couple of stories about what you talked about. But when you made the call about computer science, you were in Glasgow? Is that where you were?
Ally Watson: Yeah, Glasgow.
Adam Murray: What was the social reaction like, from family and friends and that kind of thing?
Ally Watson: That’s a really good question. They were so, like really shocked. I’d meet old high school friends on the street and they would ask me what I’m doing. How’s the art going? And I’m actually doing this thing, and it wasn’t half as cool. People would be like, “Okay, you do what?” So, I didn’t have a lot of people who… And I think a lot of software engineers feel the same pain. It’s like people don’t really know what we do, or even express desire to know what you do. As soon as you mention tech, some people, they just switch off.
Then there was the other side of it where I’d meet other software engineers or other developers, and they would almost be like, “You’re what? You’re a… Oh, wow, right!” And so there was always that, quite surprise. I’m not gonna lie, I like surprising people. I think there’s something really gratifying about breaking stereotypes and I always felt that I did that. Even when I was studying, I would take my Elle magazine into the computer lab and totally get ripped. The boys would glare at me and I’m like, you guys are probably bringing your other magazines, and I’m not going to say anything to you.
I think there’s something really important about not losing who you really are. Just because you do this as a career, doesn’t mean you have to look like everybody, or act like everybody. And I love it. I love showing people exactly who I am. I would come into computer science with my big yellow raincoat jacket and people would be like, “Are you supposed to be here?”
But never maliciously. I would say that the boys I studied with, even the girls, they, again, were quite different to me. It’s not just about… I do think I’m quite a feminine girl, even though I’m covered in tattoos, which maybe not is stereotypically feminine. But I do always have more girl pals, I do like a lot of stereotypical girl things. It’s how I’ve been conditioned and I’m proud of that, and I’ll never shy away from that, and I never have. I think there’s an importance to do that, and to be strong in that. Because it almost lets other people be who they need to be, and that inclusivity through action, I guess.
I’ve always felt like I’ve enjoyed those reactions when people are like, “You do what? Oh, wow!” And especially the back-end engineer, there’s not that many women in back-end engineering. So it’s like, when you tell people that you’re not a front-end developer, they’re like, “Oh, right.” And so, even more you get that surprise. But it’s a shame in a way, because I hope that one day, no one will be surprised. They’d be like, cool, that’s a cool job. Know what I mean?
Adam Murray: Yeah. Cool. All right, so you’ve made the call to come to Melbourne. What drew you to Melbourne?
Ally Watson: You always hear people recommending places to you. And two places that people always recommended to me were Berlin and Melbourne. They were like, you’re going to love them. They’re just really cool, great music scene, coffee scene, shops. Some of my favourite hobbies on a Saturday, would be walking down Byres Road in Glasgow, nipping into the little individual arts and crafts shops, wee indie shops run by small business owners.
I used to get the newsagent to order me in Frankie magazine, which is an Australian magazine. He’d only get five copies a month, and he would reserve one for me, and I loved reading Frankie before I even ever came to Australia. And I think I just loved hearing these stories of these people, starting these cute businesses from passions. And it’s not all not-for-profit stuff, it’s more arts and craftsy with Frankie. And I just had this little world in my head of what Melbourne would look like, previously. And I didn’t plan on moving here, so when I did come over, it was just that time in my life where I wanted to do something. I wasn’t a traveller. I’ve never been one of those sole travellers. I’ve always wanted to be but I don’t think I would enjoy it. I quite like company and comforts. I think I would probably freak out after a month of being on my own travelling.
I still needed a story. I still felt I didn’t have that story. I’ve just been growing up in a town called Airdrie, moved to Glasgow, went to uni, worked in Glasgow. That was my story, full stop. And if I have kids one day, I want to tell them what I’ve done with my life. I want to inspire them to step out of their comfort zone, or travel, or do what they want to do. Truly what they want to do, and not just follow that cookie-cutter life that a lot of us get trapped in. So, I needed my story and I was like, right, Melbourne’s on the list. Let’s go to Melbourne.
I got a working-holiday visa. I came over, and I was just planning to come over for the year. I got a camper van, travelled down the east coast. Jumped over to Adelaide, worked the Adelaide Fringe Festival there. For like a month, working at the box office. Which was a funny story, because going from working as a developer, shielded from clients and public-facing people, predominantly, to then going on the box office. And it just felt like, I don’t know, like I was being abused by the public. People were mean to me. After my first shift, I cried. Because, I was just not used to… people in retail and in these kinds of positions, they have to put up with so much mental abuse that customers give them.
I honestly forgot how hard it was, you know. Because you’re always a teenager when you have these kinds of jobs. Well, not everybody, but at least that would be my experience, being in retail when I was a teenager. But going back as an adult, I’m like, excuse me, sorry if you lost your tickets but…
So, that was interesting. And then came back to Melbourne and got a software engineer job here. And again, was kind of like, I’ll do this for a bit and then I’ll head back home and go back to Scotland. But then I just went from one year to two years. And then I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to go back. And it was just an organic, over time feeling. I think the only way I can describe it is, I’d taken this little plant from Scotland, and put it in Melbourne. And the longer I stayed here, the roots just started growing and invading. And the friends, and the people you meet and the companies you work for.
Everything just started to feel a bit more permanent. And I just got really close to people here and it was really hard to uproot again. And I felt I was very privileged because I had this opportunity, and not everybody has that opportunity. I know that it’s difficult to get a visa here and I was really lucky, because my computer science background made that a lot easier. And I watched friends who had done the same thing, came over from Scotland to Melbourne and couldn’t stay. And had to go back, or were deported. And it was like, here’s a gift that I’ve got, I should probably consider this seriously. And I did. I was like, wow, I could stay here and I could make it work.
And I’m the youngest of four daughters, as well. So it wasn’t too painful for my family. They were like, okay, we’ve still got three here. You go over and live there. So, they’ve adjusted, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy because I don’t have any family here, and it’s hard. And it’s hard at Christmas time and stuff, because you do miss them. And it’s hard because I’ve had a lot of success here but you can’t always tell them everything, because you sound like you’re bragging. So I haven’t been able to fully tell them, all what happens in my day-to-day and how the business is going. Because you’ve only got an hour every second week with them on Skype and you want to hear how they’re doing. So there’s this way of, I feel as if I live a double life. I’m here, living this life that they don’t get a huge exposure over.
So it can feel quite disconnecting in a sense. It’s challenging, it definitely is. As a business owner as well, it’s probably been the most challenging three years of my life. And not having that support network has been hard. Because what happens if the bank balance empties tomorrow? Whose couch can I sleep on? Can I go home to my mum? No, I can’t. So that was always… I think that always made it a wee bit tricky for me – challenging, for sure.
Adam Murray: One of the… Let’s talk a little bit about the origins of Code Like a Girl, as well. And I’m wondering, was there a moment where you just thought, I’ve got to do something about this?
Ally Watson: Yeah, there was definitely a moment, and it was roughly around, I think I was a year on, from living in Australia, and I had just moved to another new job. So, I stayed in one job for a year. And again, I was the only girl on the tech team in that company. And bless them, all such nice guys. I tried to bond so hard with them. They were like, “Hey, let’s come to volleyball, Ally. We do beach volleyball.” Adam, the beaches in Scotland, you don’t want to play volleyball on, okay. I’ve never been a sporty person, either. I’m a little bit clunky, not very well formed in terms of like athletic sports. But I thought, hey, I’ll bond with the guys. I’ll go to the beach. We’ll play volleyball. And within the first five minutes our dev lead, Sam, hit me straight square in the face, on the nose.
Adam Murray: Ah, no!
Ally Watson: I was just crying, because you know when you get hit in the nose and it’s really sore, and I was crying. And I was like, great, week two of the new dev team and we’ve made her cry on the volleyball beach. So anyways, I was working there for about a year, and then I moved over to another company. Just because I wasn’t used to it, it was quite a slow pace in that first company and I’m used to… I just love the stress of high busyness and lots of projects coming in.
I wanted a bit more of a challenge so I moved over to a company called Deepend, and again I was the only girl on the team. I was just really struggling, because I’d been in Australia for a year and I needed to have those friendship groups. I was trying really hard to meet new people here. And I think, as an adult making friends is quite difficult. How do you ask another person to go out for a coffee without it sounding a bit like… It’s easier now because I have a business. So, people think I want to go for coffee because it’s part of business. Whereas, when you do it, and you just want to reach out and become closer to someone, it’s borderline creepy if it’s not reciprocated.
I was really struggling to make friends, and I wanted to meet other girls, particularly. Because again, I have a lot of close girlfriends, but again, there’s no girls who do what I do. And I was like, maybe I can put together a bit of a night and we’ll have a glass of wine. Because I went to girly dinners, and I went to female founders meet-ups. And I really enjoyed them, but I wasn’t meeting any technical women. It was very broad. Like, hey, I work in UX or marketing, or I’m starting on business. And at that time, I wasn’t really interested in that. I just wanted to meet some other programmers and talk about what they were doing.
So I thought, right, I’m just going to sort out a little get-together. I’ll find some women, make friends with them, connect with them, and there was just nothing really in that space, focusing on technical women. So I was like, right, put it online and I had no idea that it would blow off. I thought maybe eight women would come. Like legit. I thought there’ll be eight girls, at least, in Melbourne who do programming. But instead, within two weeks RSVPs were through the roof. We got over a 100…
Adam Murray: Wow!
Ally Watson: I think we had about over 200 RSVPs in the end, with 100 people turning up on that first night. But it was funny, because Deepend, where I was working asked Kath, who is the MD there. I said, “Kath, can we use this studio?” And it’s like an office space of… well, the meeting room that I was planning on using is tiny. So I had to go to her, and I said, “This has kind of gotten out of control. I think I might not be able to host it at the studio. I think we’re going to have to go somewhere bigger.” That was vaguely how it started. That, and a few talks I did at school because my friend worked as a secondary school teacher, and he said that they were having a careers day. And he was like, you should come along.
So that coincided with the first event and I was like, well, maybe I can start doing this. Maybe this could be a thing, putting these events together, doing some school talks, getting myself out there to say to other girls, hey, you can be like me. You can go do this a career. So that’s the very, very humble beginnings, but if you told me then, what it would be today, I probably would have just been like, nah, not me. It’s not going to happen. There was just no way I would have connected the dots at that point. So it’s been a very organic journey to get to where we are today.
Adam Murray: Let’s perhaps fast forward a little bit then to what Code Like a Girl is today. I’m interested in a few things; maybe we can start on one of them. I’m interested in understanding, why is this important, for starters. What we’re missing out on, by not having a greater representation of women in tech. So let’s start there. Why is this important?
Ally Watson: There are so many reasons why this is important. For a start, we do have a skills shortage. So globally, we don’t have enough developers in the world. And women are an untapped resource. They’re sitting there and they’re not getting into technology because all the reasons that I’ve talked about from my own experience – culture, conditioning. Computer science is not an innate skill that you just wake up and you’re born with. It is definitely something that is taught. It’s definitely something that people with a growth mindset excel at. It’s definitely something that if you condition someone to be a tinkerer, to be curious about technology, to be familiar with technology and want to explore it, and its uses, that can all be taught. And I find that women, and the way that we raise women, that women are still being pushed into stereotypical toys, movies. Even kids watching movies. Even when I was growing up, there was very rarely women who I would aspire to be, in a STEM field. Anybody represented pop culturally in computer science was a total nerdy guy, you know. We’ve got such a bad image, honestly there’s such an image problem with the whole industry. And I know that’s definitely shifting. I’m seeing it. I’m seeing it on the TV. I’m seeing it on the movies. I’m seeing it in magazines. And everybody’s behind that agenda of changing the image of what a programmer looks like. But again, it’s still quite not there yet.
So, women are a massive untapped resource and if we could get more women to consider this, and to somehow naturally flow into that little trickle of people going into technology, that would be great. That could really help tackle some of the shortages that we have, so, that’s one reason.
The other reason why this is so important is because technology, currently and historically, has issues where it is leaving people out. I’ve mentioned this a million times, so I feel bad for saying it again, but it’s important. The Apple watch, this is really new tech, 2015. This is a watch that will track your sleep, your calories, your steps, you name it. And on their launch, they forgot to include a menstruation tracker. Now, as a woman, every day I feel different. Every day my hormones are all over the place, or there’ll be more of something or the other. And to this day, I still don’t have a piece of technology that can help me with that. That can tell me, by the way, this hormone’s a bit low. You should eat less, or you should drink less. Or maybe try doing this to help that.
Because currently, I don’t think there’s enough women building and creating these solutions. They may be on the tester team or they may be in the project management team, they may be somewhere. But I think it takes a level of knowledge about technology to be able to create and think of these amazing solutions to problems that exist. So it’s not just women, but I do think also, there’s probably a large part of society who are under-privileged, who are also not getting into this; seeing it as a very academic field, and so a large proportion of these workers, or these scientists, or these amazing people coming up with these amazing solutions, usually come from a university background.
We can make that assumption that a lot of people who are coming from a university background are privileged. So there’s probably a lot of problems out there that, if more people really cared about them… Because we’re all selfish at the end of the day. People think that I’m a godsend because I’m doing this thing for girls. But I’m coming at it from a selfish problem that I’ve experienced first-hand. I’ve lived through this. This is why I live and breathe it, because it’s something I’m very passionate about. But it affected me, it’s not that I’m trying to solve someone else’s problem. And I think we’re all like that. I think humans are very much like that. That’s very general and there are definitely exceptions to that rule. But I think if we could diversify the workforce with technology, to include people of all genders, of all backgrounds, that’s where real innovation will come, and that’s where real important problems will be solved.
So that’s my second reason, why I think it’s important. And it’s been historical with those solutions. Like the airbags in cars was the same thing, male-dominated teams of engineers, creating airbags and testing them on men. And then suddenly, when they’re in cars, they kill more women and children, but men are saved. And I think that was still a problem up until 2011. Now, we don’t learn, we’re not seeming to learn from this. And then with machine learning and AI, that’s the scary part. Because we’re using data sets based on internet and I think the internet is a very biased place. There’s an amazing project called the World White Web. Have you heard of it?
Adam Murray: No, I haven’t.
Ally Watson: World White Web. And it’s all about, if you Google the word, hand, all these white hands come up, like white people’s hands. The world is not white. So, if we’re using data sets from the internet, we need to make sure that those data sets aren’t biased. Because that bias will go into the machine learning, and not only do the same biases, as it amplifies the bias. So, there’s scary things that could happen if we don’t diversify the engineers, diversify the data sets, diversify the testing. I sigh in my stomach thinking about it.
Adam Murray: It did, yeah.
Ally Watson: And black women, that was one of the major ones with image recognition technology, where they tested it on several people. But when it came to darker skinned women, the success rate of the image recognition for these big tech companies, they were less than 50%. And so they’re boasting, oh, we’ve got image recognition technology of 95% success rate. But actually, when you look a bit deeper and you try someone who isn’t predominantly in their data sets, then you see it failing.
I think we’re at a really interesting time where we have to sort this issue out. We just really have to diversify the workforce and allow those solutions to cater for everybody. If that’s what we want as a society, which we definitely do.
Adam Murray: Yeah.
Ally Watson: So yeah, that’s why it’s important. And then the third one is, one of the things that I get a lot of reward from, is knowing that we’re there for these girls. Some of the girls who come to our coding camps, they’re in isolation at school. They might be the only girl who actually likes technology, and maybe her peers make her feel weird about that. Maybe even just being alone in that class, makes her feel odd about that. I think currently, what we’re seeing is, the women who do make it, are the women with real strong desire or stamina to keep going. Whereas, we’re losing some of the people that don’t have that. Which is a shame, because you’d think Silicon Valley’s got HR issues; school is a hard place for kids, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not fitting in.
So I think we’re losing a lot of girls to that same feeling, whereas when you come to our coding camp, they meet other girls like them. There was this one coding camp we did, and the little girls, we went round in a circle. And it was like, say something. Tell us about a little hobby that you like, and what’s your name and what age you are. We went through them and it was like, “I love Manga and I love this.” The second girl was like, “I love this, and I also love Manga.” And the third girl was like, “I love Manga too.” And then the fourth one was like, smiling ear to ear, and she was like, “I love Manga too!”
Again, it kind of goes back to how I felt at university. That sense of belonging in a career path and a place in your life. It’s so important to excel and to feel happy and to continue with something. And if you don’t have that, you’re going to drop out. You’re going to give up at the first hurdle. Whereas, you need that secure foundation. That is why what we do is so important, and that secure community, or support network, or sisterhood, or whatever you want to call it is. We need to be there, for not just the kids, but the women in the industry, the women going into the industry. And so that’s a part we’re trying to play in all this, is be that community that they really, desperately need.
Adam Murray: Yeah, awesome.
Ally Watson: Yes. I love it, I love what I do, but it’s quite stressful at times.
Adam Murray: Well, let’s talk a little bit about, I got one question before I talk about how you’re actually structuring the Code Like a Girl business, as well. But I’m interested in… I work at Cogent, and one of our values is diversity. And it’s probably the value that we find the hardest to make an immediate impact on, in particular. But that we see as, probably one of our most important aspirational values, as well. And it’s important to us now, but we know that we can do a lot better and have an impact. And we’re doing that in different ways, but I think that what we’ve come to realise is that, this is a long game. There’s some short-termish things that can be done, but it’s also about preparing the way so it’s better in 10 and 20 years’ time. Is that the way you see it too? Are you, sort of, tackling both the now and the later?
Ally Watson: Exactly. We’re the same. A lot of people come to Code Like a Girl, a lot of companies, and they want female engineers, right now, ready. And the truth is, there isn’t a huge pool that we’re picking from. And we have to look to the longer future. We have to look at the pipeline. So we do address the pipeline issue by the coding camps that we do. They target that very young age group of ages eight all the way to 15. We do a lot of school talks and that’s… probably a third of our business is really into that pipeline problem.
And then in terms of the now, we look at both the retention and, again, the pipeline. How can we serve the women currently in the industry to make sure they stay, because that’s also a big problem? I think there’s a US stat that says over 56% of women are leaving midway through their career, as opposed to men, which is 17%. And I think that has a lot to do with a lot of women leaving for parental purposes, having families, and not the appropriate return-to-work programs, not the appropriate support for them when they’ve left. Because technology moves so quick, so I can only imagine if you take a year out, how hard it would be to come back to a tech company and up-skill again, and is there support for that? Do you have to drop your wage? Do you have to change position? I mean, I can’t speak to all that, I don’t have enough… you know, where did you get that knowledge from?
That’s the part that I think is definitely something that companies are shifting. I think Amazon just launched last year, a big return-to-work program in Australia for their female… But I think it’s both, not just women but for any parent.
And then so retention, we try and be there for the women in the industry, but in terms of pipeline, there’s a lot of women who come to our events and they’re like, I’d love to change my career – what now? And so again, they organically… we bring them into our community. We see that we got all these newbies attending, which is a great compliment. Because accessibility is one of our values. It’s like, well, if we can provide a pathway and provide really clean access to something that maybe, they’ve not had a way in before. How intimidating is it to go to a dev meet-up, as a woman who doesn’t know anything about tech.
You would just never see that. Whereas, we’ve got women who don’t know that much about tech, coming to our tech meet-ups and going, hey, I really was curious. What is this about? Who can you connect me with? How do I get into this? And so, we decided to start an internship program to address that exactly. We’ve placed, I think, 50 women so far in that internship program that we launched last year. And one of our goals this year is to place 10 a month, but we’ll see. Come back to me in a year’s time if I’ve actually achieved that. But that’s what we want to get up to. And that’s placing women who went and either self-taught themselves through some online learning, or who maybe did a boot camp, or a small piece of coding education. And placing them directly into the industry with industry partners, and to paid positions, to positions where they can up-skill on the job.
It’s been an amazing… That’s probably been one of the most rewarding initiatives that’s come out of Code Like a Girl, and one that we’re looking to scale pretty big. So that we can actually say, we’re directly putting more women into this workforce. There’s so many industry partners that are like, yes. Because I think there’s been a shift. There’s been a shift of the companies saying we have to do something about this. It’s not just all on the education system. You can’t expect universities to do all the changes, when we know how long it takes a university to make a change.
We can’t expect the schools to fix it. We all have to play our part, and I think companies, we’ve seen in Barter, Zendesk, they’re two off the top of my head, who have implemented their own internship programs, where they’re taking people. Oh yeah, and DevelopHer is another one. And it’s all these people that are like, right, we have skilled people. And they recognise that not everybody needs a computer science degree.
I think that’s almost like the lazy way of going, okay, yeah, you’re validated. You’ve got a computer science degree, but people are rolling up their sleeves and they like, let’s take a part in this. Let’s help this shortage that we have. And again, often selfish points of view, but it’s good because it’s going to help the Australian economy. So it’s really nice to see that there’s been that shift. The internship program’s probably… definitely directly benefited from that shift of thinking from the company side of things.
Adam Murray: Yeah, grand. So Code Like a Girl has two founders, two female founders.
Ally Watson: We do.
Adam Murray: I’m interested in how… the thought that you’re putting into how you create your own organisation. And I know you’ve mentioned to me briefly, about being fairly profitable. And I’m not sure if you started as a not-for-profit or not, but what thought and intention is going into how you create the organisation that is Code Like a Girl?
Ally Watson: Yeah. It’s been such a long journey. If I had to comment on all the pivotal moments, of where we’d change direction and made decisions. There’s so many, because it’s really hard, not coming from a business background, to then suddenly being like, okay, how do I register a business? How do I hire someone? Who do I need to hire? There was just so much education involved. And I have learned so much in the last three years. I do think there’s some nice transferable skillsets from engineer to business owner, and I think it’s a good starting point. But in terms of how we have come together, at the start, obviously it was completely community-run. Not a single part of it was profit. We weren’t a not-for-profit, we weren’t even an established business. So it was all about like hey, go to one company, ask for $500, use that $500, buy beer and food for the event. And that was kind of how things ran.
It was so grassroots. It was just spare time, weekends, do whatever. But when we wanted to do junior workshops and work with kids, we had to step things up because working with kids is quite a responsibility. You have to have child protection policies. You have to have Working with Children checks. You have to have documentation. You have to have staff. You have to pay your staff. Because we were running very predominantly volunteer. But the thing with that is, we’re not helping underprivileged people, we’re just helping Melbournians with families and kids. And it’s not charitable work, so it’s quite hard to get people to totally donate their time for free. At the very beginning, when we ramped up, that’s when we realised this model wasn’t going to work, this volunteer base.
We wanted to give everything for free, for nothing, and do nothing for ourselves. We realised that’s not scalable. So, when I started Code Like a Girl and when I got really, really passionate, when I started reading the evidence behind why we weren’t seeing more girls, I got insanely passionate about it, and I was like, this has to be big. If we do this, if I give up my engineer job to do this, I have to do it big. I can’t give up… And it’s not… This is going to sound really bad… I can’t give up my own dreams and aspirations and careers to then connect to this thing if it’s going to not show change. So, I made that promise to myself, to do that change over, to make that thing change.
At the start, I wasn’t sure whether to go not-for-profit or for-profit. All I did know was that I had this amazing network of not-for-profits, and social enterprises, and for-purpose for-profit companies, and all the advice, and got all their stories and how they started. And I was like, well, what I do know at this point is, you can’t go back from a not-for-profit to a for-profit. I was like, maybe I’ll just stay with for-profit until I figure this out. And then I spent more time with social enterprises and with start-ups. And I was like, oh, I love the start-up scene. I love how lean they work, how quickly they make decisions.
And so I think by that point I realised I wasn’t going to be a not-for-profit. For that pure reason of I am a founder with a strong vision and for a really long time I was driving that vision. And I felt that sense of, I need to make decisions quick, and I implement things really quickly, and we get things online, and we do things really quickly. We change and pivot. And the idea of the not-for-profit governance, was really off putting for me. It felt slow. It felt old. It felt outdated. And I thought, well, there’s so many companies out there who do it, who do for-profit, who do start-up. But for-purpose, I can be that. So, we decided that was going to be the model.
It was going to be community embedded, purpose driven and fairly profitable. So we do work, like we do a lot of corporate work, and that’s how Code Like a Girl really sustains itself. We do partnerships. We do corporate workshops. And then on the side of that, we have this huge community, where we do really low-cost events, workshops, coding camps. Stuff that’s kind of open to the public. We take part in Melbourne Knowledge Week, and kind of festivals around the cities that we’re embedded in. And the only way that we can sustain that, is through this fairly profitable element, where we do corporate workshops. We work with Microsoft and Cotton On and big companies like that where we go in, and we teach staff how to code.
And they see it as some fun team-bonding experience, but for us it’s getting more people up to date with technology, confident with jargon, and being able to communicate with their developers. So there’s other benefits. So, that was the model we decided on, and so far, that’s going quite well for us.
We’ve been able to go from zero bank balance, zero networks to cashflow positive sustainable team. I think there’s 10 of us on the core team. I work full-time. My business partner works full-time. We’ve got one other full-time staff, and a few part-time. If we hadn’t chosen that model, I don’t think we would have been as successful. We try and keep that founder-led, ambitious hustle type attitude of let’s treat this as a start-up, scale it as a start-up. But ultimately, we’re so values – that is the foundation: values and purpose. And coming, always anchoring back to that mission of trying to reach as many girls and women as possible. Liberating those technical talents they have inside them. That is the anchor of Code Like a Girl. It’s like a for-profit, for-purpose company.
Adam Murray: Yeah, amazing.
Ally Watson: So, yeah, that’s us.
Adam Murray: I’ve got one last question for you, and it’s bringing it back to Melbourne, actually. And you probably got a unique perspective on this, having lived in other cities as well. Or city, I’m not sure, other cities, or at least one other city. But I’m interested in your reflection of, I suppose, the tech ecosystem in Melbourne. And what in that has supported something like Code Like a Girl emerging, as well. And how that might be a little different from other cities or places that you know about.
Ally Watson: I still, to this day, I tell people everywhere, if I hadn’t started Code Like a Girl in Melbourne, I don’t think it would be anything. I think it would be a drop in the ocean. It would just be a nothing. But, there’s something very fun about Melbourne, and the people here are the kind of people that line up at a restaurant lunch. They get involved, they get behind it. You launch something and your RSVPs go through the roof. I think there’s just something very community driven about the people here. They just get behind and support something.
In terms of the industry side of things, I’ve also felt that way. I’ve just not had any… And again, very privileged, I’ve not had any bad experiences. Any company who hears about Code Like a Girl, they want to support, whether it’s financially, whether it’s another means. Whether it’s their staff or telling their staff about it. Everybody cares very positively about changing the current landscape and current workforce of IT here. And I think, it’s never been a question. And the way that we interact with different companies, sometimes we have competitors as partners, and it’s not a problem.
We have this… we call it the community, and the community is Sally, aged 10, who comes to the coding camp. It’s the technical partner at PWC, who’s our partnership lead from there. And they’re all equal, everybody is equal in our community. We don’t treat them as sponsors. We try and bring them to connect with our community because ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do. Be that connector between industry and our community. To feed our community. This is getting really complicated. If everyone’s a community, how can you do that? No.
So, trying to give access to our girls, to these cool tech companies. A big part of my job is meeting with people like Cogent and Embattle and PWC and getting these people on board with our mission. And getting them to sign up and say, hey, you are now part of this team. You’re an extension, and these women can go and visit you, and get tours of your office. Or ask your recruitment team at one of our events about their career, or about their recruitment process, and so on.
We’ve almost tried to create this community through Code Like a Girl, and the partners that we have. But in terms of the ecosystem here, I always try and tell school kids about the Melbourne tech ecosystem. There’s so many success stories, even in Melbourne. I think Embattle was one of my, up there, companies. I love them, I talk about them to a lot of people because I’m like, how amazing have they done? That’s such a large marketplace of all these different things. And they started here, they’re Melbourne based.
There’s so many success stories, like an Australia company monitor. Last thing that we missed, these are real big, big, big dogs, and that’s something to be really proud of. I do think we always put US companies on a pedestal, and I think there’s just so much to be proud of here in Australia. Given the size, it’s not that big. Even though it’s big, Australia isn’t that big, you know. I used to always be proud of Scotland. I’m a representative from Scotland. Fox Star games, also from Scotland. But then you’re like, well, who else? Whereas, you’ve got this never-ending list of amazing companies here. So, yeah, I think that sums it up for me.
Adam Murray: Great. Thank you for taking the time to chat, and share so openly about the journey and what Code Like a Girl is up to. It’s awesome, important stuff that I’m sure is going to have a long-term legacy.
Ally Watson: Yeah, I really hope so. That’s the plan.
Adam Murray: Yeah. Thanks, Ally.
Ally Watson: Thanks, Adam.
Adam Murray: Cheers.
Thank you very much for listening. If you’re interested in keeping up to date with what Cogent is up to, including when new episodes of this podcast come out, you can do that by subscribing to our blog updates at cogent.co/blog. And of course, to help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne, you can help by rating and reviewing this podcast through your favourite podcast platform. Finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving or you know of another digital business that is thriving that you think we should hear about, the best way to do that is through emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Adam Murray and I do look forward to hearing about how your business is thriving.