We met for a coffee after work downtown near King and Spadina.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in Brampton. My first job was at McDonald’s. I started as a crewmember, and became a manager when I was 16. From that point on, I worked a ton – about 30 hours a week, every week. I loved it. I put half of every paycheque I received into a separate bank account to help me pay for university. I graduated in 2009 from the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in London [Ontario].
I spent my last semester of university on exchange in Hong Kong. I liked it so much that I decided to stay longer. I moved to the mainland and lived there for ten months. A lot of my time in China was spent learning how to code.
The first site I made while I was in China was called FitInTO.ca, a blog about fitness in Toronto. I had been a fitness instructor and personal trainer as a student, so I thought I’d do that again when I came back to Canada until I figured out what I really wanted to do. It never occurred to me to pay someone to build a site for me, I just thought, “All right, let’s start Googling!” I used a WordPress theme and hacked it to pieces, learning everything about domains, hosting, installing Wordpress – all the stuff that now I take for granted. When you know something well it’s easy to forget what it was like to just get by.
As it turned out, I ended up in a corporate marketing role. So I put up my site for “sale.” I say “sale” in quotes because I wasn’t going to be able to sell it for much, but I actually had a pretty big community with lots of comments and views.
How much did you offer it for?
Not a lot. It was more that I didn’t want my work to disappear.
Two people offered to buy it. That was another thing I had to learn – how do you transfer ownership? It’s another crazy thing to go through, and I didn’t know anyone I could ask for help. Now, there are so many people I can ask. But it reminds me of how tough it is when you don’t have someone in your life to help you, which is one of the reasons I find Ladies Learning Code so cool.
Did you find coding alone to be daunting?
If you’re not in the technology world, if you don’t know any developers or designers, access is really tough. Where would you go to get help? Let’s say you don’t know anything about meetup groups. Forums can only help you so much. That’s what I love most about Ladies Learning Code, it’s in-person two-way communication with no time lapse.
So what happened next, after you sold your fitness site and came back from China?
I spent a year in a corporate marketing role, then spent about five months at a startup [Pinpoint Social]. Ladies Learning Code began around the same time that I joined Pinpoint Social. The buzz started in June 2011 and we had our first workshop in August. By the time we had run two workshops, I had a gut feeling that this could be something big if I could put in the time that it needed.
I spent the rest of last year as a full-time volunteer for Ladies Learning Code, trying to figure out how to make it into something. It is still not a full-time job – it probably never will be. Ladies Learning Code is a non-profit and a labour of love. That’s one of the reasons we decided to start HackerYou which is a way for us to use what we’ve learned through Ladies Learning Code to offer something innovative to the Toronto community, and hopefully still make a living and pay our rent.
I also work part-time for Mozilla. I connected with Mark Surman in October last year. He said, “We see what you’re doing for women in Toronto, do you think you could do the same thing for kids?”
Do you participate in the Ladies Learning Code workshops?
As a learner? I usually don’t. Mostly because running the events and making sure everything goes smoothly takes time.
The whole reason I started Ladies Learning Code was so that I could learn how to code, but that has been taken off track in a big way. [Although, Heather did code her own site, recently.] I usually can’t participate in the workshops I so badly wanted to exist when I started [Ladies Learning Code], but I’m learning so many other things I wasn’t expecting. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and it’s giving me the chance to be an entrepreneur and practice turning a vision into reality.
If you could put your technical knowledge on a number scale, where were you before Ladies Learning Code and where are you now?
I should mention I do a lot of teaching for Girls Learning Code. All of the March break camp content was my own and I did all the delivery.
But, I would say when I started learning I was at a 1. I've moved up to probably a 5 in front-end, and back-end I'm probably up to a 2. In my entrepreneur skills, I was at a zero before. I still have a long way to go but I think I'm a better entrepreneur than a front-end coder. Maybe a 7.
That's very respectable, and probably very humble as well. What would you say has been your training for your entrepreneurial skills?
I do have a background in business but never realized how much I would have to learn on my own in order to make all the different things that I'm doing now work properly. It's been an incredible learning curve. I'm so lucky that I have Mel, Breanna and Laura on my team because the four of us together are a really, really good team. As a result of working together at Ladies Learning Code we decided to become partners again in HackerYou.
How is it working with a group of women?
Women's groups have always been a big part of my life. I was a Girl Guide forever; I was even a Brownie leader for a year in University. And then I was in a sorority at Western, and I credit my time in my sorority as one of the things that helped develop my skills as an entrepreneur. It’s like running a small business. We had to think about how we’d recruit the next group of Thetas, how we would manage our budget for the year.
Let's talk a little bit about the ‘women in tech’ issue. Who do you consider a woman in tech? What does a woman in tech do?
I wouldn't go around calling myself a ‘woman in tech,’ I guess because I don't want to offend the people who have a narrower definition of the term. Some say you're a woman in tech if you're in a core tech role, if you're writing code as your job. A lot of those women are mentors and volunteers for Ladies Learning Code. We do need them to call themselves women in tech and stand up as role models, and I’m glad so many of them are willing to do that.
What I hope is that over time, over the next few years, those of us not in core tech roles become less reluctant to call ourselves women in tech, people – like myself – who are not writing code every single day as my job, but who still have an important role in the technology industry. When it comes to tech, I'm definitely pushing the limit and moving things forward as an integral part of what I do.
I hope that my own reluctance to call myself a woman in tech goes away because we need more examples in general. We need 9-year-olds to see that there are a lot of different ways to have a career in technology.
What percentage of your instructors are women versus men?
We aim for 50/50 both in terms of the lead instructors and the mentors (who are like assistant instructors). We made that specific decision, because what we're looking for in the real world is not for women to be 100% of the tech industry, we just want balance. Having that reflected in our own learning environment is really important.
Have you ever talked to younger kids, to find out why there might be fewer women entering technology fields?
We've had such amazing insight into this through running Girls Learning Code. The thing that scares me the most is that 9-year-old girls (the girls who come to our camp are 9-13) already know that the tech industry is dominated by men. A lot of them comment that they like that Girls Learning Code is girls-only because it gives them a chance to explore without feeling like they're doing something nerdy or weird.
I think when puberty happens there starts to be a little bit of interesting friction between boys and girls. I remember suddenly feeling pressured to act dumb in math class. It takes a strong person to stand up to that pressure and say ‘No, forget it, I'm going to keep doing my thing.’ I think the same thing maybe happens with boys as well, in courses like English or art.
So what are your ideas to fix it?
Girls Learning Code is a really big part of our plan; the camps and workshops are so cool. It's all about creativity and making your ideas come to life. We try to come up with themes that resonate with youth, and in particular girls. We did a game design camp in August. The campers developed video games in teams. The most fascinating thing to me was that there was nothing about the games that suggested they were made by girls. There wasn’t a lot of pink, there were no unicorns or fairy dust. One of my favourite games was about a piece of bacon who had to avoid falling into a frying pan. It had little legs that were animated. Genius.
The girls think I look like Taylor Swift so that does me a lot of favors at camp ‘cause I’m like “Yeah! Keep studying Math!”
We also now have an 1100 square foot workshop space at the Centre for Social Innovation at Bloor and Bathurst. It has a 50-person classroom and a mini-maker space with a 3D printer, arduinos, and other hardware components. We hope the space will provide women and girls a place where they can learn about and gain some confidence with these new tools. Then, as their projects outgrow our space, we hope they’ll go off and join some of the other awesome maker spaces in the city making those groups more diverse.
Update: Heather and team are exploring the idea of a child-friendly co-working space with support from the Centre for Social Innovation. They are planning to host a community brainstorming session on January 15th to see if people are interested in the idea. They also held their first Girls Learning Code sleepover with ten girls and hope to host more in the future.
What is your interest in youth? Or is it something coincidental because Mozilla asked you to do this?
Girls Learning Code is definitely a Ladies Learning Code initiative. We want to make a tangible difference in the number of women that are in tech roles, and in order to do that we need to reach them when they’re younger, before they’ve made decisions about their futures, before they start their careers and even before they’ve entered high school, where the courses they take determine their options in university.
We’ll be following the girls who’ve come out to our workshops and Girls Learning Code. Maybe we’ll see a greater percentage of them than a control group going into STEM or STEM-related fields. It’s going to be very interesting to take a look at the numbers and the feedback. At some point, maybe we’ll be able to secure a few dollars for a formal study in order to dive in and ask, “What kind of impact is this making?” That would be really cool.
Can you tell us about one of your success stories?
There are a lot of success stories where people come to a workshop and then go on to launch a website because they learned how to do it at Ladies Learning Code. Emma Jenkin has made really awesome progress since her first Ladies Learning Code workshop.
I recently heard about one of our regulars at Girls Learning Code – she had to write a book report for school and instead of creating a Word document, she built a website and sent her teacher the link. Isn’t that the coolest ever?
Very cool. Do you think that Women in Technology type groups – like ours, like yours – are important to the industry? Do you think they’ll be around forever?
I only realized that Women in Tech groups are a little bit controversial when Ladies Learning Code first started. All I saw was that this could be positive. I had no idea that people see groups like ours as polarizing, that creating a separate group for a specific group actually has a negative impact.
I see groups like Ladies Learning Code and similar groups as incubators, whether it’s for coding skills, or a women in finance group, or any area where women are underrepresented. These types of groups give women the skills and confidence that they need to then reintegrate with the rest of the industry.
Will we be around forever? No. I think once the industry is more equal, we’ll stop having the need for groups like Ladies Learning Code. And you never know, in the future there may have to be a Men Learning Code if we go too far the other way and need to fix it again. It’s not just about women. There are a lot of different groups that need to be incubated and I’m supportive of all that.
Have you had any mentors that stand out?
Tonya Surman is the founder of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), and I emailed her for the first time in 2010 when I was living in China and I was like, ‘I want to work for you.’ It was sort of intense, but she replied and she was so lovely. And it’s really funny now that we work so closely with CSI and it’s a wonderful partner of ours. She’s really been more of a role model than a mentor.
I do have some wonderful mentors helping me with Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou who are willing to let me talk their ear off and find out their thoughts on where we should go next. One of my favourites is April Dunford, who you should definitely interview. She is an amazing marketer, a really savvy business person and she’s just such a fabulous woman. She and I have met up a few times in the past couple of months and every time I leave one of those conversations I have so much hope and excitement for the future.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve done so far as a founder? And what’s the easiest?
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is to step up and be a leader. When I started Ladies Learning Code my vision was for it to be a casual community group. When 19 people signed up for the brainstorming session, I knew I had something. And then when 85 people signed up for it, I had to close registrations because it wouldn’t be intimate enough.
I realized it would never reach its full potential unless I stepped up and brought together the right people to make that happen. Unfortunately, 20-person teams are unmanageable. And it was really tough for me to say, “Thanks for helping out over the past month, but for this to move forward, we have to go in a different direction.” Now our team is much smaller.
Another hard thing is expansion into new cities [Ladies Learning Code now has chapters in Vancouver and Ottawa]. I’m a bit of a control freak, especially over the brand, and I like the events to be a certain way – where they are welcoming, collaborative, and fun. That’s one of the reasons Ladies Learning Code has worked, because of that culture. Luckily we're working with wonderful chapter leaders in Vancouver and Ottawa who totally get our vision.
I’ve never worked harder in my life; it’s just work and sleep. It’s hard to believe that these two organizations (Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou), could be this much work, but I don’t mind – I’m having so much fun. I’m so grateful that the Toronto tech community keeps supporting us. That keeps me humble. I recognize that it could all go away tomorrow.
What is success to you?
Success to me is two things – I’m driven by a desire to be a role model to women and girls. I did “StrengthsFinder 2.0” and my top strength was “Includer”. I don’t like seeing a group of people excluded from anything. Because I’m a woman, I’m especially sensitive to women’s issues. If I’m doing something to move the needle when it comes to empowering an underrepresented group, I feel like that’s success.
The second thing, in the short-term, is having a cool life where I feel excited every day about my mission. The fact that people actually like HackerYou is so exciting to me. With Ladies Learning Code, it’s already a success; now we’re pushing forward and managing risks, creating a space and expanding to new cities.
What is it that you love about technology?
I love technology the way all consumers love it. It makes our lives easier, it is easy to connect to people, it helps you find things faster. I love creating with technology. I love building websites because it lets me have a voice. It’s really empowering, being able to have control over my ideas and putting them out in the world.
Imagine the world without the Internet. What would your life look like?
I think I’d be using the same skills – community building, bringing new ideas into reality. I think I’d have a different skill-building club. Something like a woodworking club or a knitting club. Something an Internet-less society would need more of.
In our last interview Ariel Garten asked the question “What question about 'women in technology' do you find really annoying?”
I actually don't mind any of the questions people ask me about anything related to women in tech. I think it's great that people are curious, and I'm happy to share what I've learned with anyone. One question I get a lot is, "So, do you know how to code?" I don't mind that question either, because it actually motivates me to keep upgrading my skills so that one day I can offer an unqualified, "Yes."
Without knowing who they are, please pose a question for our next interviewee.
What are you doing to change the world?
Be sure to check back next time (or subscribe below) for Ayla Newhouse's answer to this question.