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How Code First: Girls uses partnerships to teach girls to code

CEO of social enterprise Code First: Girls explains how partnerships with firms such as Trainline and Goldman Sachs are helping to reach the firm’s goal of teaching 20,000 women to code by 2020

In March 2018, digital rail platform Trainline announced it would join the firms supporting social enterprise Code First: Girls in its aim to teach 20,000 young women to code by 2020.

The Girls 20:20 campaign, launched last year, includes partners such as KKR, OVH, Goldman Sachs, Trainline and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, as well as several universities and other organisations that are providing access to mentors, spaces to run workshops and insight into the skills they need.

Since the social enterprise was launched, the number of courses it runs has increased from about 25 per semester to 51, a total that Code First: Girls CEO Amali de Alwis says could not have been achieved without partnerships and collaboration.

Eventually, De Alwis hopes the organisation can run 90 courses per semester across the UK, with “key partnerships” helping to scale the number of courses it can offer.

“When we come close to that target of 90 courses, we will be teaching, on average, somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 young women to code for free each year,” says De Alwis.

There is a lack of women in the technology industry, with the number in technical roles in the UK hovering around 17%, and it has been said that tackling both the gender gap and the skills gap could help to solve both.

As part of the Girls 20:20 campaign, Code First: Girls has been aiming to raise between £500,000 and £1.5m to teach women to code for free, but as well as teaching the technical skills that employers need, De Alwis says it is important for partner firms to help women understand what is involved in a tech career.

“Our focus is very much to say it’s not just about becoming a developer, it’s about saying there are these opportunities in tech and digital available,” she says.

“If you’re someone who doesn’t have a background in tech, if you’ve never done coding before, it’s all a little bit ‘black box’. You’re not quite sure how it works, you’re not sure how your skills and your interest might align to that.

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“For us, it’s really important to bring them to those organisations and bring them to those skills that show them this is what’s involved, these are the kinds of things you could be doing.”

This could be a role in UX/UI (user experience/user interface), digital marketing, communications or project management, roles that are often not associated with tech skills or coding.

But there is a misconception that all roles in technology are very technical, and many young girls say they don’t take science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects because they think they are too hard.

As well as giving young women the skills needed to fill empty roles in the industry, the programme is also about making the industry “a little more approachable” by introducing young women to the types of role they could be doing and by giving them a sense of community by allowing them access to other women going through a similar experience, says DeAlwis.

Building a community of women in tech can make them more confident because they can see other people like them in the industry, helping to tackle stereotypes and give women more confidence in their skills and abilities.

“If you are isolated in your knowledge, it’s very hard to gauge how knowledgeable you are,” says De Alwis. “There are amazing communities and support structures and amazing women who work in tech. But it’s not everyone’s experience. If you don’t feel you belong there, it’s not a far stretch why people might feel they were outsiders in that and then question their own knowledge.”

Digital skills as life skills

Many argue that there is a disconnect between the skills firms expect from tech graduates and the skills people are leaving higher education with, leaving the technology industry with skills gaps and skilled graduates out of work.

Code First: Girls does not require degrees or computing qualifications from candidates – anyone over 18 who identifies as a woman or non-binary can apply.

De Alwis says: “We’ve had people who are doing PhDs, we’ve had people who are being processed as refugees, and they learn to code alongside. We’re focusing on people who want to build things. The types of questions that we ask when we put out our application forms are around tell us about the tech companies that inspire you, tell us about what you would build if you had these types of skills.”

Many young women now consider coding a “life skill” that they want to learn in the modern age, says De Alwis, but because of the fast pace of technology and the disconnect between the tech industry and education providers, she admits universities and other higher educational institutions are not always the best place to learn these skills.

“The world is a slightly different place – companies have a role to play in educating as much as educational institutions do,” she says. “How do we actually make sure the types of things we are teaching relate to businesses so you don’t get this gap between education and when people go into work?”

The Code First: Girls course is project-based, without exams, and participants are asked to build websites or web applications from scratch to embed the technical skills most companies require for even non-technical roles, which are becoming increasingly digital.

De Alwis emphasises that coding is not just about technical skills, but also about being creative and working with others.

But digital skills are becoming increasingly important for every role, which is why education of all types needs a focus on both, she says. “Having to understand some of these basics wherever you go into is really important.”

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