Can coding clubs diversify the tech sector?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

After Mona Azami came to the UK from Iran in 2010, she spent five years without the right to work, then a further three struggling to find a job. “I was a graphic designer before, but I found it very hard in the UK,” she says. “I didn’t know British culture or British brands, and my English wasn’t so good.”

Initially she pursued low-skilled roles, but then a conversation with a friend alerted her to Code Your Future, a free coding school for refugees. “I went online and applied that evening,” she says. Today, she is working as a website designer for Dixons Carphone.

Code Your Future is one of a new batch of free or low-cost coding clubs around the world outside of traditional education establishments, with the aim of equipping excluded communities with tech skills. The long-term goal is not just to provide employment opportunities, but to diversify the notoriously white and male-dominated tech industry.

The organisation was founded in London and initially ran coding courses for refugees, although it now caters to anyone from a disadvantaged background. It has also just launched its programme in Italy. Azami says that, as well as teaching her to code, the course gave her CV and interview advice.

One of the biggest organisations of this kind is Code Club International, which supports more than 13,000 free coding clubs for nine- to 13-year-olds worldwide, including ones in Syria, Bangladesh, Kenya and Ukraine. “We want to put a code club in every community in the world, and teach children not just to be consumers of technology but creators too,” says Maria Quevedo, managing director at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which runs the project.

Volunteers have access to a full range of projects and courses for free, and don’t need to know how to code themselves in order to teach. Quevedo says one of the organisation’s target areas has been women, and they achieved 40% female attendance worldwide through having “gender-neutral projects” and a focus on creativity.

However, some believe that education can only go so far in fixing the industry’s diversity issue. One of the biggest barriers to gender equality in the industry is the lack of retention of women, suggesting that big structural changes are also required. “Education is just a tiny sliver of the problems we have,” says Anisah Osman Britton, founder of 23 Code Street, which provides coding courses for women in the UK and India. “We need to change the entire industry culture.”

Cost can also be a prohibitive factor in some cases. 23 Code Street provides prayer and mother’s rooms, and has around 25% Muslim women students, but Osman Britton says the £1,500 the company charges for the course may be too much for some. “We have some sponsored places and we also have a payment plan option in place. This is the best solution we’ve come up with so far,” she says.

Others in the industry would like to see more engagement from the government on the issue. “There is a real skills gap in tech and lots of people are recruited from outside the UK,” says Code Your Future co-founder Kash Karimi. “Yet, the government’s strategy, if you go to any job centre, seems to be to direct people to low-skill jobs.”


‘Tech careers give you so much flexibility’: a day in the life of a tech director

Working in tech gives you the chance to work from wherever you are, says Expedia’s senior director of tech, Nasreen Abdul Jaleel

I’ve always loved physics and mathematics – I grew up watching a lot of science documentaries and found them fascinating, and my family were very supportive of my interests. I studied computer science at university, which was where I learnt how to code. I like the speed with which you can achieve something, and I find it creative in the same way I find science creative – it uses what we know about the laws of the world to solve problems. Computers are critical for solving the problems currently facing our world.

My working day starts at 9.30am after I drop my son off at daycare. I oversee two parts of the Expedia platform – one is related to our data analytics, which receives 1.8m messages a minute. The other is to do with delivering fast visual experiences to our customers. For this, we are currently building a platform that will allow customers to go through the Expedia shopping experience in a uniform way, whatever they are buying and whatever device they’re using. There are people working on it all across the globe, from Australia to Seattle. The total number goes into the hundreds, but everyone works in small teams. Many use the “Spotify squad” model of working, which is all about having clear objectives and allowing people to independently solve problems.

We use Slack to communicate, which lets us work effectively across different time zones. You can have a long conversation on there going on for days, and it’s actually richer than talking face-to-face because you can dive in to comments that otherwise might get skipped over.

Right now, I’m overseeing 10 people in San Francisco, Seattle, London and India, who are ensuring the components for check-in and check-out dates work in all languages and date systems. Some work from offices and some from home. Tech careers give you so much flexibility – I once had a developer on my team who lived in a trailer and was travelling around the US. We wouldn’t ever know exactly where he was, but it didn’t matter. These are truly amazing jobs from a quality-of- life perspective.

Every day we all post what we’re doing today, what we’re going to do tomorrow, and any blockers. This helps us stay connected, and is also very flexible. When a team accomplishes something, they record a mini video so everyone knows what’s happened and can have a global celebration. I oversee small teams of developers, ensuring what they’re doing has a roadmap and that their priorities are in line with the business’s priorities.

We make sure we work normal days, so I’ll finish around six and always take a lunch break. There’s no one clocking me in or out as long as I deliver, and I can work from home whenever I need to. That environment of trust also creates a greater sense of accountability.

My career has taken me around the world. I relocated from Seattle to London, and I recently opened an office for Expedia in Jordan with a 50:50 gender split team. Expedia employees also get the opportunity to volunteer overseas, and we get great deals from the site. The company is focused on achieving equal gender balance, which is something I see as part of my life’s work – I’ve left jobs before because they weren’t interested in this problem.

I see it increases the creativity because there are more voices. People also feel more relaxed and are able to speak more freely about their lives, such as revealing they have caring responsibilities at home.

Source: The Guardian