Interview: Ally & Vanessa, founders of Code Like a Girl

The Melbourne-based duo that aim to inspire more girls to be involved in the creation and development of technology.

If you’re a part of the tech community in Australia, you’ve probably read about them in the newspaper, heard them speak about coding on the radio, or seen their face pass you by on the artwork of a tram.

Ally Watson and Vanessa Doake – and their initiative Code Like a Girl – has come a long way from the small meetups that started two years ago. Today, the organisation have an online community of over 10,000 followers but most importantly, they host coding workshops and tech events that encourage women and girls to come together, share their knowledge and network.

We asked them why this is so important to them, and what it’s like to run a business with your best friend.

Image: Vanessa Doake (left) and Ally Watson (right), founders of Code Like a Girl.

What is Code Like a Girl?

Vanessa: Code Like a Girl is an organisation dedicated to providing girls with the tools, knowledge and support to enter and flourish in the world of coding. We do this primarily through our tech focused events which we hold in Sydney and Melbourne (and soon, Adelaide). Our workshops are for girls in grades 1-12, as well as adults who have an interest in coding. Most recently we launched a new service, ‘Working Space’, which connects our community to jobs with employers that are committed to equality in their workplace.

Why is this so important to you? Do you have personal experience from it?

Ally: There are many layers of ‘why’ for me, it can be difficult to succinctly choose one that adequately represents how important and personal this organisation is to me. I’ve experienced first hand how isolating and trying it can be to be a minority in a profession that can sometimes stretch you to your limits. Without conjuring up the stereotypical Scottish reference of William Wallace shouting freedom – I grew up in a very working class area of Scotland, and educating myself with technology skills gave me both financial freedom and opportunities I never thought I’d ever be afforded. I want to pass that on to the next generation of girls and create access to a world of opportunity for them in the future of work.

‘I grew up in a very working class area of Scotland, and educating myself with technology skills gave me both financial freedom and opportunities I never thought I’d ever be afforded’

How can we make a change as individuals?

V: As parents, we need to be mindful of communicating gender-based stereotypes, even in the subtlest ways.

As a woman working in technology you could get involved in the many initiatives like Code Like a Girl that exist to make a positive difference in encouraging women who are already in, or looking to join, the tech community.

As an employee, start conversations with your peer group and in your organization. Encourage genuine diversity and inclusion efforts that seek to ensure both men and women have the same access to rewards, resources and opportunities.

Encourage genuine diversity at your office. (Photo)

How did Code Like a Girl start?

A: As a coder, I know how important it is to keep up-to-date with the latest technologies, be inspired by others in the tech space and have a network of people for advice. The best place to do this is at tech meetups and Melbourne has lots of these, for just about any technology!

The thing is, just like the industry, there are often not many women in these meetups. Being a newbie can be daunting for anyone but for women in particular, the challenge is greater.

When I moved to Melbourne three years ago I was faced with this all over again. I didn’t know anyone and found myself bailing on tech-meetups because I was worried I’d be the only the girl in the room and social anxiety got the better of me. It occurred to me that I probably wasn’t the only girl who felt this way, so I created my own meetup: Code Like a Girl.

We’ve went from strength to strength, introducing workshops, launching chapters in other states, starting a job advertisement platform and building an online community of over 10,000 followers. I never had any idea we’d turn what started as a passion project into the social enterprise it is today.

What’s it like running a business with your best friend?

A: There are pros and cons of working with your bestie. Pros, I can tell Ness (Vanessa) anything. She’s seen me at my worst, best, most embarrassing times and that’s continued with our professional relationship. Cons, we often turn up at meetings with the same or v. similar outfits on and there’s no escaping ‘work chat’. Our attempt at having a night out often derails and plummets into deep conversations about how Code Like a Girl can change the world, one workshop at a time.

But in all seriousness she’s the CSS to my HTML. We specialise in very different skillsets and when combined we’re a force to be reckoned with. I’m grateful to have met someone not only intrinsically aligned to the values and beliefs that I hold dear but who’s an incredibly hard working and inspiring leader for me to look up to.

‘She’s the CSS to my HTML’

V: For most of my working life I’ve read stories of people who achieved this utopia of finding a job that didn’t feel like a job.
I would find their story frustrating and believe it to be nothing short of a fairytale. How “work” could ever be anything more than “work” was as foreign to me as camping (I’m not one for the outdoors). But since working with Ally on Code Like a Girl, I finally get what they’re talking about, and I feel incredibly lucky to have achieved it.

Aside from doing something that has meaning and purpose greater than yourself or a commercial mission, I think working with your best friend has a lot to do with it too!

I was friends with Ally for a while before working with her, and I think that’s made for a pretty special partnership. We have a differing (and very complementary) skillset which has also made running a business easier than I imagine a lot of other startup founders have it.
I’ve often heard a business partnership is often like a marriage and in a lot of ways it is; there’s an underlying acceptance and knowledge of the person which allows for a vulnerability where you can truly be yourself without fear. I’ve never experienced that feeling in a work context before Code Like a Girl.

Make-your-own-VR-game workshop at Zero Latency.

How is Code Like a Girl different from other initiatives that help women in tech in Australia?

A: I often explain that we’re not just about ‘women in tech,’ we’re focusing on ‘women building tech’ and ‘women creating tech,’ and that’s probably our biggest differentiation.

Our workshops go beyond ‘drag and drop’ programming platforms; we teach girls from as young as 8. They learn industry languages like HTML and CSS or Python. We’re very tech-agnostic due to the diversity and range of skills from our highly technical team of volunteers.

Our workshops are also very accessible in costs thanks to both our sponsors and volunteers. We strongly believe that any girl, from any background should have access to digital literacy and coding education not just the top % of schools or families that can afford it. It’s an underlying value that Code Like a Girl will always uphold to.

Can you describe what the experience is like at your events?

A: ‘Coding Sister’ is a term we use on our ticketing and meetups page. This reflects our ethos – we’re a warm, welcoming sisterhood that are looking to create strong networks and lift each other up. It’s an inclusive environment, relaxed and grassroots. You feel welcomed from the minute you arrive and we go to great lengths to create a casual, happy place for our audience who’ve maybe had a hard day sitting at the computer all day coding.

How will attending the events/workshops help women in tech?

V: For women working in tech, the events are a great place to meet other women, to network, build confidence, skills and your community. You’ll learn about different areas of technology that you perhaps don’t have exposure to in your organisation.

Workshops are a great resource to refine the skills you learn at an event, we’ve started running intermediate as well as beginner level workshops to cater for women already working in the field.

Ally at the Cyber Sec, Melbourne IT. Photography by Stina Evjan from Gold & Grit.

What advice can you give to girls that want to get into coding?

A: Get yourself into a growth mindset, fail fast and fail often as there’s no better way to learn than to embrace the error message.

V: Persist. It’s a skill that isn’t always easy to pick up, but hard work and determination are just as important as intelligence.

Also, find a way to learn that suits you, and if you have one bad experience don’t give up.

Find a way to stay connected to the industry and build a support network who can assist and

What did you think about the Google Manifesto?

A: We spend night and day debugging the gender gap in the technology industry and are well versed in the effects that gender stereotyping, culture and gendered beliefs has had on the lack of female representation within technology.

As a result of our work, we’re often in a bubble, an echo-chamber, surrounded by like-minded and incredible male champions of change to get more women into technology. When faced with articles or opinions like those shared by James Damore [in the Google Manifesto], it often catches me completely off guard.

However as an optimist, I like to concentrate on the positive outcomes of the manifesto. What followed after it surfaced was an incredible support from media outlets, professionals and voices setting the record straight and I hope that anyone who shared some of the naive and ignorant statements in the manifesto are now better informed.

Mai and Lyndsey (volunteers at Code Like a Girl) at the Cyber Sec event, Melbourne IT. Photography by Stina Evjan from Gold & Grit.

Who are your female developer role-models?

A: The CLG Girl Gang and the many many women we’ve had speak at our events; Stephanie Andrews, Melanie Huang and a long standing role model of mine, Finnish programmer and founder of rails girls Linda Liukas.

V: Ally Watson.

What would be the dream scenario for Code Like a Girl in five years time?

A: We’ll see at least a double in enrollments of girls to IT based degrees and a more diverse IT workforce as a direct impact of our national roll out of our workshops and events.

V: That we’ve helped girls in every state and territory gain confidence and build skills in technology. That we’ve shifted the dial in the number of women entering into tech roles.

Envato is proud to be a National Partner of Code Like a Girl.

To learn more about Code Like a Girl, visit their website

Nina Mujdzic

About the Author Nina Mujdzic

Nina Mujdzic is a front-end developer that writes about the latest trends on web design and development with a special interest in WordPress. You can follow her on Instagram @neendreams_.