Women Cracking The Code: Programming As A New Literacy


As computers become ever more ubiquitous in our everyday lives, the ability to bend technology in accordance to our needs will become increasingly valuable in the marketplace.

It’s a skill that, ironically enough, many are lacking but employers are desperately searching for.

“No matter what you want to do – whether you want to be a Marketing Manager, Publicist, Accountant or a small business owner – coding skills are going to come in handy.”
Heather Payne, Founder, Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou

Heather Payne is the founder of Ladies Learning Code, a Toronto-based not-for-profit startup that runs popular workshops for women (and men) who want to learn computer programming and other technical skills in a social and collaborative way.

In 2012, she founded HackerYou as a way to bring more intensive technology learning experiences to Toronto and beyond.

Recently she spent a year working on a project for the Mozilla Foundation: her job was to build a community of people and organizations in Toronto who care about raising youth as creators – not just consumers – of technology and the web.

I sat down with her to talk about coding, women in the technology industry and what it was like to start up her own venture.

Heather Payne
Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou founder Heather Payne

What’s your educational background?

Heather: I graduated with a business degree in 2009 from the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University. Before 2009, I don’t think I’d ever seen a line of code and if I had, I had no real understanding of what was going on there.

When did you learn how to code?

Heather: I studied in China for awhile and was in a fairly relaxed program, which gave me a lot of time to do things on my own, including learning to code. I wanted to have a website about myself by the time I got back to Toronto and thought that would be a good way to spend the extra time I had.

I didn’t know anyone who was a developer at that time. I didn’t even know that was a job really. I just thought, well, I’ll Google it. And that’s how I built my first website. Purely by using Google and researching best practices. I was hooked. That was 2009 and four years later, here we are.

What drew you to coding in the first place?

Heather: It can be very satisfying to change a few things in a text editor and see it change on the screen. The fact that it’s on the Internet, on the web…it’s very empowering to know that one little change I made could be seen by anyone in the world.

Why did you start Ladies Learning Code?

Heather: Ladies Learning Code started a couple years after that first experience I had building my website. From 2009 to mid-2011, I was learning on my own. At some point, I decided to learn Python but didn’t know where to get started.

“There’s a huge talent shortage and, in order to fill that gap, we need those who are interested to take a stab at it. If age, race or gender is holding back people, those barriers need to be broken down.”

In May 2011, I found myself in Los Angeles for a job and I came across a workshop led by women for women wanting to learn Python. It was $30, you would come for a day, and there were lots of people there to help you through a hands-on tutorial.

I thought, this is how I’m going to learn everything forever! This is such a fun and supportive environment. It was mostly, but not exclusively, women and it was perfect for beginners.

After that trip, I tweeted about how we should have a group for women in Toronto who wanted to learn how to code and it just took off from there. We needed a way to make this happen so we had a brainstorming session and about 80 people came out and from there, we went on to host our first workshop. It just happened so organically and grassroots.

Why women specifically?

Heather: It seemed like a very natural choice. It was inspired by PyLadies, the workshop I went to in L.A. It’s also because I’ve always been really interested in women’s issues and very involved in women’s organizations. I’ve always seen the value in bringing together like-minded women and having them support each other as they learn a new skill or go through some period of time in their lives together.

HackerYou is totally co-ed, but the thing that’s nice about it is that with its foundation in Ladies Learning Code, we always have at least a 50/50 male to female ratio.

We also run Girls Learning Code, which is specifically for girls between the ages of nine to 13. We run workshops for summer camp, winter breaks and March Break. The idea from very early on was that we also needed to do this for girls because that’s how you make a real impact on someone’s life.

Girls Learning Code: “Tech camps, workshops and events for girls who want to change the world”

I know that in 10 years, some of these girls are going to become amazing programmers and they are going to become core members of the industry. It’s great to think that maybe they can thank Girls Learning Code for that.

Have you personally encountered any barriers as a woman in the technology industry?

Heather: Personally, I’m not at the point where I’m pursuing a career in programming yet. I would call myself more of an entrepreneur than a coder, which is very different if you’re pursuing a career in technology—whether that’s in a technical or non-technical role.

The interesting thing about my role at Ladies Learning Code is that I get a chance to hear from a lot of women about the moment they opted out of a career in technology. The reason is almost always because these women didn’t feel welcome. It’s shocking and sad because it happens way more than we think and way more than is documented.

That’s something that we need to fix. But it’s not just a problem that there are more men than women in the tech industry, though that’s certainly a problem. It’s also a problem that there just aren’t enough people who know how to program. There’s a huge talent shortage and in order to fill that gap, we need those who are interested to take a stab at it. If age, race or gender is holding back people, those barriers need to be broken down.

What advice do you have for recent graduates or students who want to break into the tech scene?

Heather: One of the things that made my life better as a recent grad was graduating without debt. It was such a huge deal for me to make sure that I  graduated debt-free and actually had some cash in the bank when I graduated. I did this through scholarships, part-time jobs, summer jobs, things like that.

If you graduate without debt, the options that become available to you are much greater. You can take a lower-paying job that’ll get you to a better place in a few years, as opposed to doing something you hate and getting stuck there because you have bills to pay.

…and of course, learn to code! Ladies Learning Code has trained 3,000 people in the past year and why has this happened? Because it’s a trend and it’s not going away. No matter what you want to do – whether you want to be a Marketing Manager, Publicist, Accountant or a small business owner – coding skills are going to come in handy. They will make you more employable, more marketable, and a more interesting person for an employer to retain.

And so, whether you want to do this by learning on your own through tutorials, Ladies Learning Code, Hacker You, or other options…it’s such a worthwhile thing to do as a young person. If you invest the time now, it will pay off dividends later on.

Any words of wisdom for women specifically?

Heather: Be ambitious in your job. It doesn’t matter if you want to have a family one day, most women do. Continue pursuing your career goals with relentless determination.

Our twenties, for women especially, are really exciting and such an interesting time because it’s the only time in our lives where it’s all about you. Your life is about you. You have this amazing 10- to 15-year period where you get to be very selfish. Take full advantage of that.

Make sure you’re going to a lot of networking events and meeting a lot of interesting new people. Reach out to some older female mentors and talk to them about how they’ve carved out their interesting careers. Always be learning new skills.

Technology Week featuring student and entry level jobs from top employers like IBM and Reynolds & Reynolds

Photo credits: Jon Lim, Ladies Learning Code Facebook page and blog

About the author

Justine Abigail Yu is a communications professional by day and a freelance writer by night. Graduating from the University of Toronto specializing in Political Science and Sociology, her heart lies in the development sector where she has worked with organizations operating in North America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. You can easily lure her in with talk of international development, human rights, emerging technologies, travel, and yes, Mad Men. Or a slice of cheesecake. Read her blog here or follow her on Twitter @justineabigail.