Series Four, Episode One: Increasing female representation in tech and entrepreneurship

Posted on January 30, 2019

Amali de Alwis, CEO of Code First: Girls, discusses providing free coding courses to support new waves of female tech talent, the need for greater diversity in tech, retaining a diverse workforce, newly emerging roles and specialisms, bringing together different generations of talent, work life balance, and creating the leaders of the future.

Amali de Alwis

Amali de Alwis is CEO of Code First: Girls, a multi-award winning social enterprise that works with women, men, and companies to increase the number of women in tech. Outside of the day job, Amali is a Board member at Ada National College for Digital Skills, a London Tech week Ambassador, and founding member at the Tech Talent Charter. She was named as “The Most influential woman in UK IT” by Computer Weekly and was recently awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list 2019 for Services to diversity and Training in the Tech Industry.

You can follow Amali on Twitter @amali_d.

Series Four, Episode One Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about inclusion
and diversity in financial services.

On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus, and offer lots of ideas to help drive change. Today, I’m joined by Amali de Alwis, CEO of Code First: Girls. Code First: Girls is a social enterprise that aims to increase the number of women in tech and entrepreneurship. Over the past four years, they’ve provided more than £4 million worth of free tech education, making it the UK’s largest provider of free in-person coding courses for women. In 2018, Amali was named Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Woman in UK IT, a rise from the previous year’s
position at number eight.

She’s winner of the WISE Impact Award, the Women in IT eSkill’s Initiative of the Year and London Tech Week Change Maker, and if that’s not enough, Amali was recently appointed board member of ADA National College for Digital Skills and is a founding member of Tech Talent Charter and a Commonwealth First mentor. Amali, welcome to the show.

Amali: Thank you very much, Julia. Lovely to be here.

Julia: Congratulations on your amazing list of achievements, It’s incredible. 2018 Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Woman in UK IT is quite an achievement. Just tell us a bit about your career journey. What brought you to this position today?

Amali: It’s been a pretty varied journey. I originally studied manufacturing engineering, decided in the middle of that, that I didn’t want to be an engineer. So, decided to go off and have a radical change in career. Went and did a degree in shoe design, realised fairly soon that I’d really done the same degree twice, because whether you make shoes or aeroplane propellers, it’s the same process that you go through. Realised after working in footwear industry for a year, doing my grad programme, that actually what I was interested in was thinking about the strategy behind products. Why is it that we create certain things? What’s the market like? How do you create better products and services?

I moved to a company called TNS, doing brand marketing research. I was a quant researcher, first in their consumer goods division, working on all the really ‘sexy’ accounts like pet food and shower gel. But actually really interesting accounts to cut your teeth on, because we’re talking about multi-million pound accounts, where a small percentage point can swing a market. Moved internally there into their financial professional services team. Really interesting time, because mobile was just picking up, so got to do some really exciting projects around anything from NFC payment apps, looking at multi-channel comms strategies for digital, or how do we do RFID tagging for products going through financial services. And then, off the back of that  joined PWC. First into their research team, then into their Thought Leadership Team. Spent a year on secondment at the World Economic Forum. Living in Switzerland, eating cheese and chocolate, and then came back.

Julia: And changing the world!

Amali: And changing world. Yes. With cheese and chocolate, the most important part. I guess, came back and was thinking about, what next? Then, when the opportunity to run Code First: Girls came up, I think it was too good to be missed, really. I’d been advising companies for about a decade on how to improve their businesses and finally the opportunity to get my hands dirty, actually grow a business and do so in an industry which I was really passionate about. That was a really exciting challenge to take on.

Julia: Amazing. So, you’re four years into it now?

Amali: Yes.

Julia: Tell us a bit about the impact that it’s had.

Amali: We’ve been so excited with what we’ve managed to do, and I think the thing which really excites me is not just the direct impact. Over the last four years, as you mentioned, we’ve delivered about £4 million worth of free coding education. We run courses all across the UK and Ireland from Dublin, Belfast, Aberdeen, Southampton, Bristol, Bath, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, we’re all over. This semester, we had 85 locations, so that was 35 locations a year ago and we’ve pretty much tripled that moving on.

Julia: So September to December 2018 timescale?

Amali: Literally in the last year we’ve grown threefold, and part of that’s a part of our 2020 campaign. That amounts to about six and a half thousand young women taught to code for free so far. This year, we hope to actually go through that 10,000 mark, which is really exciting for us. And I think the bit which brings it home was, for example, I was looking at Twitter recently and I saw a tweet from a young woman who had joined one of our courses at Twitter. Twitter very kindly hosts our courses.  She was being taught by another young woman, who we had also taught on a previous call. And she had been taught by another young woman, who had previously done our course and was now working at Twitter.

We had three generations of Code First: Girls alumni and the Code First: Girls alumni-grandmother. Which was really exciting. Thinking about those six and a half thousand women who we’ve taught so far, the impact that they have then had on other young women, that just blows me away.

Julia: When you think about the organisations, you mentioned Twitter, for example, with whom you work, you’ve got members and also strategic partners as well. We spend a lot of time with corporates talking about why diversity and inclusion matters and why, women in tech matter. Is there a disconnect or how do you overcome the potential disconnect? Because this is a great thing to do and I think everybody would agree it’s a wonderful thing to do. But how do you actually get them signed up? Is that around alignment of objectives? Is that around them just ticking a diversity box? How do you tackle that?

Amali: I’m pretty pragmatic about why people come to us. And it was interesting, I remember talking to someone a while ago who was saying, “Actually, Amali, some of the companies you work with aren’t very good at this.” And my response to him was, “That’s why we work with them,” because when we’re talking about trying to get more women into tech, it’s not just about supporting the women, it’s about supporting the companies as well. When it comes to that dialogue that we have those companies, it’s lovely when people just give me money and I could go to these companies and just say, “You know what, it’s a good thing. We’re a good cause, give us some cash.” There are lots of really good causes.

The way that we are able to have, hopefully, a more compelling discussion with these companies, is when we go to them and say, “Actually, more than just being a good cause, we can help you change your business. And by the way, on top of that, as an extra brownie point, you also help us to do a good thing”.

The way that we structure Code First: Girls, is very much as a commercial enterprise. We generate revenues, we sell services and then we operate it as a not-for-profit plugging all of those revenues back in to running the free coding courses. But that doesn’t mean that we do anything less, as far as the services we offer. They are still commercially relevant services, whether that’s coding courses, whether that’s training programmes, whether that’s recruitment and training combined, but we support those companies in a way that they could go to any other vendor and get something. We have to really think about, how do we offer something which is a point of commercial difference to those organisations and actually help them with their business as well.

Julia: When they talk about changing their businesses, where do they normally start? Is it culture, is it having a specific initiative? Shine some light on that.

Amali: It really depends on the company I would say, when we think about how we create our proposition, it generally buckets into either training services. This can be running coding courses for your staff. The last two weeks we’ve been at two big financial institutions running coding courses for their staff across levels. We also do work around recruitment. And it’s an interesting one, because it’s not direct headhunting, it’s community based, longitudinal recruitment.

We try and help those companies form better relationships with our community, so that our community get to know them. In some cases we do, more direct programmes. For example, we’re running a great programme with BT at the moment. It’s a four-month intensive bootcamp that we’re running for them. Not only are we doing the teaching, we’ve created over 600 hours worth of learnings over those four months, but we’re also doing the recruitment for the programme as well. That allows us to, basically, take the community that we built with our free coding courses, and offer them great opportunities, whilst also helping BT to basically recruit these people. What BT have said in that instance is, if we have 30 successful graduates, which is the number of people we have, they will offer 30 guaranteed jobs. So this is almost our way to say, “We’re not only helping these women, we’re also helping BT with a challenge that they have, which is, how do we recruit diverse tech talent?”

Training programmes, recruitment in that sort of longitudinal sense. And then the last part, which is really around workshop and advisory. We do run tech talent workshops with companies around the recruitment and retention parts of their processes. Helping them to understand, what are the different things that you can be doing at those various key stages to actually improve the way that you are appealing and supporting people from diverse backgrounds? And in those instances, it is diverse backgrounds generally rather than just women. Because we have a lot of common principles, actually, which work across both.

Julia: How do they also commit internal resources, because I can imagine the potential for up-scaling their existing internal teams would be very strong as well? And this question about retention over time, do they apportion a team to work with you so they are also nurturing and coaching and retaining, and/or do you go in and help improve their internal talent as well? And I’m not talking specifically to BT, I’m talking about organisations as a whole.

Amali: Both of those, actually. In some instances, it is about us training their staff. So, both as part of our 2020 campaign, we have a part of that offer, which is around training the staff of our partners, the junior women in their companies to actually get tech skills. Part of it is involving them.

When it comes to our community courses, which is I guess what we do with our money, we run these free coding courses for young women across the UK, all of the instructors on those courses are volunteers. We have somewhere in the region of 400 to 500 developers across the UK, roughly half male, female, who very kindly give their time. And in many instances, it’s individuals from the companies who host some of those courses, who join us. And that’s a really fantastic way, not only for them to make use of their staff in a way that their staff feel very passionately about, that they want to give back and they want to get involved and they get a huge amount from that process. But also it enables the women who joined for those courses, to actually get to know more about the company. If you’re going to, let’s say, our course, which is run by Bank of America, rather than Bank of America turning round and going, “We’re awesome, just come work for us,” it’s actually, “Oh, you know what, this is Sophie. She works at Bank of America. She’s working within their data sciences team. She does some really interesting stuff,” and that’s what changes whether or not you would consider those types of careers. Can you bring a bit of humanity to some of these companies where, for someone who’s switching industries, you might not actually have that understanding of, what is it like to really work in those organisations.

Julia: You mentioned there a data scientist, are you seeing some pockets of new jobs and new roles. I hear a lot of people talk about hosting panels about AI and technology almost weekly at the moment, which is wonderful, because I’m hearing people talk about new jobs that didn’t exist, data sciences is one and cyber, naturally, is another, but also around algorithmic engineers. Are you seeing new roles and new specialisms emerge?

Amali: I think AI and machine learning is probably one of the hottest areas. And for a lot of companies, there’s obviously a difference between artificial intelligence, which is I guess, self deciding and conscious and that side of things, versus, what we are often talking about, which is clever algorithms which help us to do stuff and self learn within a set context. The other area, absolutely.

I think data analytics is still key. I think, for a lot of companies, there’s a challenge there, because you see the appeal, you see what is the world of possibility. Actually trying to do that in a practical sense, and I say this as an ex-quant researcher, pulling together all of those different data sources, doing so in a way that’s sensitive to GDPR, being able to actually then make strategic decisions off the back of that, that’s a big ask.

I think it’s not only the challenge of, how do we get data specialists, but how do we make non-data specialists data savvy as well? Because, if you’re getting someone who’s, let’s say, setting wider strategies, it might be that they don’t know all of the intricacies of data analytics, but they need to understand how to define that data, how to get the best out of that, and then how to make use of that to set corporate strategies, for example.

Julia: One of the things I hear corporates talk about all the time is that, whilst there’s a very clear appreciation of the need for the business and the technology teams to work very closely together, that quite often the technology teams don’t necessarily have that bigger-picture appreciation of the commercial objectives and the commercial challenges. I wonder whether you play a role in the middle, in terms of the skills development, working with what corporates need and then helping girls go into coding and developing those skills, but being the blend in the middle. Is that a statement too far?

Amali: We definitely do see ourselves as an intermediary, so our job is, effectively, to help those women who join us find jobs and support the companies to help hire them, get them people and up-skill their staff. I would say that, when it comes to acting as an intermediary between the engineering side versus the business side, we don’t play a direct part in it. However, there is an impact of having people who are coming from non-engineering backgrounds, who join engineering teams and up-skill into engineering functions and vice versa.

People who are coming from engineering or technologist backgrounds and then going into business roles. So, that’s something which definitely is impacted by having greater diversity, because you’re often getting people who are switching careers, bringing a lot of expertise from whatever they were doing before and helping to bring a broader picture to maybe sometimes teams where you’ve got people who have come down just one particular route, and helping them to see what those larger impacts might be.

Julia: And that’s what true diversity is. When you have different skills and life experiences in your career journey all the way. One of things I picture when you’re on your coding courses, is just this amazing energy of youthful, bright-eyed young sponges of girls coming through the door desperate to learn. And working with organisations who are desperate to teach and all the central intention of driving change. Do all those girls look alike, do they tend to come from the same pockets, the same types of schools and institutions? Where are you seeing the gaps?

Amali: I’m really proud to say that we actually have a lot of diversity amongst the women who we bring in. We do host probably about 60% of our courses at university locations. That’s partially a little bit of our legacy, how we started as an organisation. It’s also a really great way just to tap into women who are at a stage where they’re thinking about their careers. About 40% of our courses are run at corporate locations. For those courses, and for all of our courses, we have no prerequisites around education. We do not require people to have gone to university or have done any particular studies. We don’t ask them to have any computer science background. We just look for people who want to build things.

The types of questions that we ask on recruitment are, “Tell us about what excites you about technology. What are the companies who inspire you,” or, “What would you build if you had these types of skills?” We have had people who are currently doing PhDs in astrophysics, learning alongside people who have been processes refugees, and they learned together and they learn shoulder to shoulder. I’m really proud to say, when we go to our courses, it actually, if you can find any pictures from some of the programmes that we’re running at the moment, just so many incredible women from lots of different backgrounds. They all teach each other, I think the important thing is around helping those young women, regardless of their background. If they’re keen, if they’re wanting to learn, we’re here to support them. And that’s really the key lesson for us.

Julia: People think a lot about lifelong teaching, in the context of many conversations we’ve had on the podcast. We talk a lot about reverse mentoring within organisations. And that there is an increasing void between people of a certain age in their career journey. I’m thinking 50-plus and their relationship with technology versus young, bright things who come charging through your doors. Do you bring lifelong learning skills or programmes into the mix of what you offer? Has anything surprised you in bringing different generational mixes together?

Amali: We absolutely do work with older women as well, when it comes to our community free courses. We focus those on the younger women because they are the ones who, I guess, less likely to have levels of disposable income, but we run what we call our “professionals courses,” which are far more established women who been working for a few more years. We’ve had doctors, lawyers, handbag designers, marketing associates, people from lots of different backgrounds. I think the difference between those and our community course students, is probably that in the case of the professionals, more of them are not wanting to become software engineers and not necessarily change their careers, but they’re doing these courses around coding to augment their careers.

We have people who are senior managers or, in some cases, senior partners in professional services firms. These might be people who are setting strategies or hiring suppliers, tech suppliers, working with technical colleagues. And, for all of those individuals and like many of us who didn’t necessarily have tech as part of our education process, they’ve reached a point where they’re realising that, this is just business for everyone these days. And unless you feel comfortable with that, it’s very difficult to then take on those types of leadership roles and be setting sort of strategies or managing people who are from software backgrounds without feeling a little bit more comfortable with the language and what exactly you’re asking for.

Julia: I think that’s a beautiful moment to take a pause there and invite Robert and Cynthia to supplement the conversation with their new research.

Robert: In 2017, employment related search engine indeed conducted a study to establish whether a career in tech is just for millennials. Well over a third of survey respondents said the average age of their employees was between 31 to 35. Millennials, yes, but at the older end of that demographic.

Cynthia: By contrast, 27% of respondents said that the average age of employees at their company was 36 to 40 years old, making them members of the younger end of generation X. The remaining 26% were the over 40s, generation X, and baby boomers.

Robert: According to a Tech Republic article about older workers in tech, job seekers aged 40 to 64 are most likely to look for roles that require more years of experience or managerial responsibility. While those aged 21 to 39 are more likely to seek roles requiring experience with specific programme languages, tools, or libraries.

Cynthia: The top jobs that workers aged over 40 are likely to show interest in, are Vice President of Information Technology, Director of Information Technology, and Chief Engineer.

Robert: Just 8.5% of senior leaders in technology are from a minority background, according to the 2018 report from agency inclusive boards.

Cynthia: The socioeconomic background of the tech sector is also very different from the wider UK society. More than 33% of board members and 31% of senior executives attended private schools, compared to just 8% of the UK as a whole.

Julia: Thank you Cynthia and Robert, and to all our listeners, you will find the research on the website divercitypodcast.com. That’s where you’ll find all our episodes and you can sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Please do follow us on Twitter @divercitypod and DiverCity Podcast is available on BrightTALK, Spotify, iTunes, and all good podcast channels. And, of course, we’d love a rating. It all helps to promote the show.

Amali, you must have the busiest day. I mean, I’m a female founder and CEO and I know what my day looks like, but you mentioned that you do all your events across the country as well. What motivates you and how do you look after your energy levels as you’re out building this amazing business?

Amali: I think anyone who runs a small company or is a founder, you realise that life is just a black hole of work. I think for me, whilst it does sometimes feel like I always seem to spend the whole day writing emails, which start with, “My sincere apologies for the horribly late response,” that is part of it. There’s always more work to do than you have hours to do it. I would say that, like everyone else,

I have productive days and nonproductive days. To a certain extent, I don’t feel bad about the nonproductive ones, because there are times when, especially any small company you’re going through growth spurts, you push. And you push and you push and you push harder than you think is humanly possible. For the times that you aren’t having to push, actually I quite enjoy being lazy. I’ll sit at home, read books, go to a museum or watch TV or whatever else I choose to do.

I don’t feel guilty about that time, because that’s my way to keep sane. I do think you can get into a mania around productivity, especially in a small company, and the associated guilt that you sometimes feel like you should be doing more. You sometimes forget how much you’ve actually done. It’s almost taking that time, sometimes, to just self reflect. Take a step back and go, “You know what, we’ve done a lot this year,” and almost to sometimes just put it down on paper. It’s usually for me, when we do our end-of-year impact report that I suddenly realise how much we’ve managed to do. Take breaks and take the occasional holiday when you can. Be kind to yourself around those times, when you’re just tired and you’re just wanting to have a bit of a lie-in or whatever that is and take things a little bit easier as well.

Julia: That’s a wonderful tone to set to everybody who comes through your courses as well, which is about protecting your sanity and your mental health, actually, in terms of how we go into modern ways of working, the future of work.

Amali: Absolutely. The reality is we forget that we live in a hugely overstimulated society. We are being bombarded by information and required to be responsive for much our entire waking day. So, it is about saying, “Look, there are times where yeah, you just need to get on with it and crack on with it and do all those things.” But actually, you need to remember that we’re not designed to do that. We’re not designed to be constantly on. So just to build that as a balance.

I do think that there’s something which, for a lot of our young women, particularly those who are switching industries, they set themselves some really high goals. They’re not sure about what they’re going into. They’re probably feeling a little bit vulnerable about, “Am I good enough for this?” Or, “Everyone else is going to know more than me.” They’re pushing quite hard to do that, which is fantastic. And that is what’s required. But you also need to remember to put things into perspective and just take those breaks and look after yourself, because it’s so easy to burn out, when you’re switching or running small businesses, which obviously, it doesn’t benefit you in the end.

Julia: I completely agree. It is interesting when we look ahead to think about how the world is changing. I note that we have more than one female CEO at the top of the technology businesses, of some of the biggest stock exchange groups in the world. I stop and think, that’s definite progress. Is it a bit of a tick box, I wonder? I’m interested in what you’re optimistic about as you look ahead into the remainder of this year, 2019 and then also out and beyond.

Amali: I think it’s wonderful that we’re seeing more women in those senior leadership roles. In a way, I’m not precious about the fact that a lot of these organisations start with a bit of a tick boxing exercise. These amazing women are there, they’re good at their jobs. If that company has been driven to do that because of some sort of pressure that they feel they ought to be, that’s a start. It’s got to start somewhere. I would say, for a lot of companies, fine to start there, don’t end there. Don’t just see it as only a tick box exercise. By all means, if that’s what you need to get yourself going, use that momentum.

The point around having these women in these roles, having more women, seeing those women in these roles, that’s when you start to see those roles and women being associated with those roles of being normal. And that’s really why for me, those types of senior women are really powerful motivators, because it just enables people to look up and go, “Okay, this is something I can associate with, a woman and the type of career a woman would have.”

Julia: Of course, they’re not just driven by just putting women on board. These are highly, as you say, accomplished women, who have to look after shareholder interests, investor interest and, of course, customer interests as well. As we think about the world of large PLCs and also into smaller enterprises as well, are you seeing more of your cohort of girls coming through just going, “Actually, I want to set up my own company, I want to be a CTO, I want to be CEO, ” do you get that wave of energy?

Amali: We do. And we have a number of Code First: Girls alumni who are founders of their own companies and anything from computer games companies through to strategic consultancies, through to fintech companies. Lots of really exciting things. I think the thing, which for me is lovely, is not only do they go and build these organisations, they then support others who also want to be working in those kinds of organisations or building those organisations or get advice from others who have gone along the same journey, who are part of that community. Really incredible women. That blows me away every day, when I hear about all the stories of what they get up to.

Julia: It has been the most wonderful conversation. I know, as I said, how busy you are and that you’ve taken time to spend with us. We are immensely grateful. Amali, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.

Amali: Thank you so much, Julia. Lovely to be here.

Kieron: This episode of the DiverCity Podcast was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. Thanks to Cynthia Akinsanya and Robert Pinto-Fernandes for their insights. You can find out more about the guests on this week’s show on our website, divercitypodcast.com. Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates.

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