Coding is one of the most important and in-demand skills to have and there is a significant talent drought to meet the demand in the industry.
Women account for less than one fifth of the IT workforce in Australia. Culture, stereotypes and unconscious bias all play a role in this shortage of women in the industry. Code Like a Girl wants to help more women and girls feel inspired to get into coding and be more involved in the creation and development of tech, because they know groups with greater diversity solve complex problems better and faster.
Tell us a bit about Code Like a Girl. How did it start and what do you do?
Code Like a Girl’s mission is to inspire girls to pursue careers in coding. Tech is the next frontier of job and wealth creation and it’s our mission to ensure every girl in Australia has the opportunity to build the skills to participate if she desires.
We’re also committed to closing the gap of financial and social disadvantage by providing our events for free and workshops very low cost to ensure cost is not a barrier for girls wanting to learn tech skills.
Code Like a Girl was the brainchild of developer Ally Watson, who experienced, firsthand, the isolation of being the only woman in a development team. In Code Like a Girl, Ally wanted to create a space where women working in such roles could come together to grow, support and encourage each other.
What were you doing before you went into business for yourself?
Vanessa had spent around 6 years working in HR roles across a variety of industries, and Ally spent around 7 years working as a .NET Developer for creative agencies in Scotland and in Melbourne.
We’re both still active in our respective areas, Ally frequently takes on development projects, and Vanessa is actively involved in HR as a Committee Member of the Australian HR Institute Diversity Network.
What made you want to start your own business?
Ally: At the very beginning we referred to Code Like a Girl as a passion-project, or an initiative. We’d been pumping so much of our time and energy for over a year before we made the transition from ‘project’ to an established and registered ‘business’. We knew that in order to create the change we wanted to see we had to go big or go home.
Vanessa: We’re both pretty aligned with our goals and how we’d like to balance our lives. We both enjoy the freedom having your own business brings - you can choose what you want to work on, how you want to work on it, what values are important, and where and when you choose to work.
How did you come up with the name?
Vanessa + Ally: There was a campaign in the States which played on the idea of doing something like a girl - throwing like a girl, running like a girl. It was deeply powerful and provoked viewers to pause and question when and why we became complacent in allowing the idea of doing something “like a girl” to be an insult and used to denigrate and humiliate girls from a young age. By using the name Code Like a Girl we gave much-needed strength to women that yes you might be a coder, and you might be a minority, but who you are and what you do is not lesser than because of your gender.
Describe the staff/ownership structure of Code Like a Girl?
Vanessa and Ally are the co-founders of Code Like a Girl. We’re supported by a wonderful group of volunteers that hold a diverse spread of skills and experience that are the driving force of the work we do.
Did you require investment to start your business? Where did that come from?
Vanessa + Ally: Code Like a Girl is a social enterprise model so we don’t have investors. We run our events for free and our workshops very low cost, and as such we have a number of corporate partners who provide financial support for us to provide accessible opportunities for Australian girls to learn about coding.
What kind of advice did you get before you started and from who?
Ally: I received a great framework from Erica Bagshaw to use when networking or pitching to partners: Why this? Why me? Why you? Why now? - it turns awkward networking situations into meaningful conversations that result in a true exchange of value for both parties.
What’s the single best piece advice you got?
Vanessa: Outsource. Outsource as much as you can so you have time for important things in life.
What’s the one bit of advice you would give yourself if you were starting again?
Vanessa: It’s easy to say now, but to worry less. Particularly right at the beginning, there are so many unknowns. Our journey is far from done but things are working out pretty well for us, and so I’d tell myself to worry less and things are going to work out fine.
Ally: I wish I’d figured it out sooner. “Manage your energy, not your time”. 7 years working in agency-land really conditioned me to squeeze out as much work and productivity into every hour of my working day. However the difference between now and then? I was able to go home, switch off and recharge. When it’s your own business that’s just not possible (not always) so leave some energy for later, it’s likely you’ll need it.
At Mamamia we have an expression “flearning” - failing and learning. What have been your biggest flearnings since you have started Code Like a Girl?
Vanessa + Ally: We’re lucky not to have experienced significant failures so far in our business, however, one thing we did learn early on is to establish clear expectations and boundaries with people you work with from day one so everyone is on the same page and there is no misalignment of expectations.
What is the smartest thing you’ve done since starting your business?
Vanessa: When starting the business I found I had increasingly less time for friends, downtime for myself, and so I made decisions not based on what was best for me but what was most convenient. So I started to outsource jobs to have more time and make healthier choices - I use a meal service YouFoodz so I have a healthy meal available and I’m not tempted to grab the nearest piece of junk food and I have a cleaner at our house once a fortnight.
Ally: Following a friend’s recommendation I let a little bit of Scott Pape into my life and read his book, The Barefoot Investor. I followed word by word his framework and advice (I even bought the pillow!). I felt that this book really mended my gloomy relationship with money. It set me up with security and structure leaving me to feel confident about taking the plunge into full-time employment as a founder. You can’t escape the risks of your startup failing, pay cuts or empty bank balances but this book really helps you prepare for those rainy rainy days.
Are there any pieces of technology or software, apps or systems that have made it easier to do what you do?
Vanessa + Ally: Until recently we both juggled having a full time job and working on Code Like a Girl - utilising technology to make things easier and faster was a no-brainer.
We use Slack for team comms, AppSumo to grab low-cost software, and Zendesk to manage shared inboxes. Zapier integrates different software we use, Typeform gives our surveys personality and HubSpot manages all of our contacts.
What do you do when you’re feeling like you’re in a hole emotionally (or financially)? How do you handle those ‘deep-trough-of-pain’ startup moments?
Vanessa + Ally: Taking time out is so important - closing your laptop, snoozing notifications on our apps and getting into nature (particularly as we enjoy warmer weather) is always nice. We both feel very lucky to grow a company as best friends - it means when one of you is feeling flat and needs time to recharge, the other one is there to keep everything moving while you take time out.
How many hours a day do you work on your business? Has this changed? How do you manage your time?
Vanessa + Ally: This can change a lot but for us, there’s no such thing as a typical week. We try as much as possible to always “have a weekend” but it’s not always practical with events in the evening or workshops at the weekend, and having a primarily volunteer workforce means regular business hours don’t exist.
What are your non-negotiables?
Vanessa: My Sunday nights are pretty sacred to me. It’s when I plan the week ahead and get myself organised. When I miss this time I feel pretty chaotic going into the week.
Ally: Every morning my partner and I have a sit-down breakfast together. On warm sunny days, I open up our balcony doors and drag the table and chairs outside. As a born and bred Melbournian the novelty of sunny warm mornings has worn off on him but he indulges my enthusiasm for soaking up that sweet vitamin D that my Scottish skin has been deprived of all my life! Those mornings are precious.
What's the biggest misconception you had about starting your business - how is it different to what you'd imagined?
Vanessa: I didn’t realise how much I would care about the business. Having worked for other people, I thought starting a business would be just that - a business. But it is so much more. It’s become my life and blood and I wasn’t expecting to have such an emotional connection to the work we do and the wonderful people I’ve met who have chosen to support us and work with us. I think I’m ruined for life, I’ll never be able to just work in a “job” again!
Ally: I naively thought when people told me starting your own business was hard work they meant physically, it was hard work, keeping your energy levels up or putting in long hours. Despite my poor gym attendance, I really had no problem with the physical endurance of it all, but mentally? That was another story. It feels like a constant emotional rollercoaster. The highest of highs and sometimes the lowest of lows. It’s your baby, as Vanessa mentioned, the emotional connection you grow to your business can become so strong that it’s hard to separate yourself from it.
Tell us about your proudest moment?
Vanessa + Ally: We had a young girl attending a junior workshop and afterwards said to her Mum “I didn’t know there were other girls like me”. Providing a place where girls interested in technology have a sense of belonging and form relationships with other girls with the same interests means everything to us and stories like this certainly encourage us to power on when our energy and motivation drops.
What does your personal life look like? Who are the important people in your life and work?
Vanessa: Ally and I were friends before starting Code Like a Girl so she’s definitely one. Ally went on holidays for six weeks and I felt lost without her! I’m lucky to have a wonderfully supportive husband and a network of friends who are funny and intelligent and wonderful to spend time with.
Ally: Having moved from Scotland only four years ago I spend a lot of early mornings and nights on skype filling in my family and friends with the happenings of Melbourne. It’s tough at times living so far away from them, you feel like you’re in another universe with it being an 11 hour time difference and opposite season from the UK.
I’m very fortunate to have met some incredible friends here in Melbourne including, my now business partner, Vanessa. The friendships I’ve grown here became a big factor in me choosing to call Australia my permanent home.
My partner Matt’s works in technology too, so when we’re not working we both try very hard to switch off, keeping each other in check when we’ve clocked too many hours in front of the screen.
How much sleep do you get every night?
Vanessa: I feel quite lucky, I get at least 6-7 hours sleep a night. I’m always awake early, but it’s always a challenge to get myself to bed early.
Ally: Sleep is so important so I make sure I get at least 8 hours every night.
What can you recommend to women who might want to get their own hustle going?
Vanessa: Build up a support network. A colleague once said to me you can have everything, just not all at once. So as your focus becomes your side-hustle you take your eye off other important areas of your life - building up a support network to keep things running when you can’t, is critical.
Ally: Advice that really stuck out for me was from the founder of VMware, Diane Greene at a conference I heard her speak at. She advised entrepreneurs to keep in mind where they want to go and why and to be tenacious about getting there. By sharing a compelling vision she reassured us that you will recruit great people. I completely agree.
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Do you have a mentor? Who do you go to for help and advice now?
Vanessa + Ally: We’re fortunate to have a wonderful advisory board who provides us with excellent help and advice. Cameron Lynch, Shirley Abbatovi, Gabriela Aguiard, Kath Blackham, and Andrew Ritchie.
We also have wonderful supporters, the ladies at BenchPR are our go-to for PR related advice and help, and Melissa at MH Legal Advisors for all things legal.
Since we’re in the #LadyStartUp spirit, which Lady Startups do you recommend? Who should we be looking out for?
Vanessa + Ally: There are so many wonderful Australian organisations with women founders such as Neighbourlytics, Mimictec, Girl Geek Academy, BronTech, Pixc, Canva, One Roof and Envato, to name just a few.