#WomenInTech: Reinventing Tech Education with HackerYou’s Heather Payne
Our latest interview is with Heather Payne, CEO and Co-Founder of HackerYou. We sat down with her to discuss the importance of learning how to code, the ways in which traditional tech education is falling short, and how to create a supportive education network.
Menaka: You went to school for business, so how did you end up in the education space?
Heather: I graduated in 2009, which was a pretty tough time to start looking for a job. I knew that learning to code would help differentiate me. So I started using Google to find tutorials, and found that I really liked coding, more than I expected.
But sometimes you find a good tutorial and things go really well, and then sometimes you get stuck on something without anyone to ask for help.
That’s what spurred the idea of workshops for women who wanted to learn coding skills. The workshops were a way of supporting others who wanted to do the same thing I did, and I learned that having that kind of network around you makes for a really great educational experience.
Menaka: Did you find that there was already a network in Toronto wanting to support a coding workshop, or did you have to create that network?
Heather: It wasn’t a world I was in at the time. I wasn’t in the startup space at all; I wasn’t even in the tech world. But I had this idea about workshops for women who wanted to learn how to code, and so I tweeted about it, and somehow the idea just started gaining attention and momentum.
I think the timing was sort of lucky – I saw that this could exist and we were one of the first organizations in Canada to get there.
People started reaching out, wanting to help or teach or sponsor, so we just started pulling together a group of people from there. At first there wasn’t a network to help with it, but we started building one really quickly.
Menaka: One of the main focuses of your first coding workshop, Ladies Learning Code, was to address the gender gap in the developer world. Are things improving?
Heather: Progress has been made, because diversity has become a huge part of the conversation. Five years ago it wasn’t something people worried about – they wanted talent, and diversity was, if anything, an afterthought. That has changed, because now we know that diverse teams perform better.
I think we’re getting there, but big change requires a transformation in the education system. Normally you need to decide in high school that you want to study computer science in university and become a developer – but those decisions aren’t happening enough in high school, especially by girls.
In the meantime, organizations like HackerYou are helping to fill the gap. We create 100 developers every single year, and usually 60 or 70 of those are women – that’s more female developers than are annually created by most universities. But big change is going to require a more fundamental shift in the way that kids are educated in the first place.
Menaka: It can be difficult to find a job these days, especially for recent university grads. Is HackerYou’s bootcamp geared towards making people employable?
Heather: Definitely. As the economy has changed, companies have less money, and so they’re less willing to invest in their employees. Training budgets have shrunk, and now employers want someone to walk in with the skills for the job, ready to go.
We have all these smart people graduating from university, but they don’t quite have the demonstrable skills that employers want. That’s why there’s an opportunity for HackerYou to exist. We take those smart, motivated young people who want interesting, creative careers, where they can earn a living wage, and we give them that last piece. We provide that really marketable, in-demand skillset that employers are willing to pay market rate salaries for.
Menaka: Why is it important for people to learn how to develop and create things?
Heather: I think there are two main reasons. The first is that technology is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our lives. And the only way to make software for everyone is to ensure that the people making it are from diverse backgrounds.
The other reason why learning to code is important is because that’s where the jobs are. That’s where the most flexible, creative, well-paying, in-demand jobs are, and so if you’re not learning how to code, you’re going to be missing out on some really great opportunities.
This is particularly important for women, because if you’re trained in this kind of job, you can come back from five years of maternity leave and still have an in-demand skillset. These kinds of career options can help close the motherhood gap, and can also start addressing the wage gap. Giving people a very tangible, marketable skillset is one of the best ways for us to start doing that.