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Creativity and tech ‘two sides of same coin’, says 2018 Most Influential Woman in IT, Amali de Alwis

The winner of Computer Weekly’s 2018 Most Influential Woman in UK IT award, Amali de Alwis, says creativity and technology go hand in hand in the modern world

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Code First: Girls started as a not-for-profit organisation that offered female graduates part-time coding courses to give them a better understanding of the modern working world.

Its CEO, Amali de Alwis, was hired to run the social enterprise when it was made into a company, and Code First: Girls now teaches more women in the UK to code than the UK’s university system.

After four years at the firm, de Alwis says she is most excited about the impact the role has helped her to make on people’s lives.

“When the opportunity came up to run Code First: Girls, to me it seemed like such a perfect fit, an amazing opportunity,” she says, adding that the programme is “truly impactful and genuinely changes people’s lives”.

De Alwis has found her career in technology “fulfilling”, having spent time as a quantitative researcher at TNS and then working in research and thought leadership at PwC, and wants to help others feel the same about their careers.

But before entering the world of tech, de Alwis studied for two degrees – the first in manufacturing and engineering and the second in shoe design.

It was during the second of those that she realised she had “done the same degree twice”.

“Whether you’re manufacturing shoes or aeroplane propellers, you’re going through the same process,” she says.

“You really need to be creative, you need to be a good problem-solver, to be in tech”

Amali de Alwis, Code First: Girls

Drawing on this experience later in her career, de Alwis realised that through Code First: Girls, it is more “impactful” to get people excited about technology concepts than to just teach people a skill.

“Even if I could teach someone everything they needed to know today, it would be out of date tomorrow,” she says.

De Alwis also emphasises the importance of creativity in technology and the necessity for life-long learning in the modern tech-driven world.

“Creativity and tech are practically the same thing,” she says. “They are two sides of the same coin – you can’t really pull them apart.”

This includes skills such as creative thinking, problem solving and communication, which are becoming increasingly important as automation takes over some of the more mundane jobs in the industry.

But there are many stereotypes surrounding the tech industry that make people overlook what is required for technology roles, and de Alwis says it is a misconception that men or women are more or less suited to roles that require more creative skills.

“Those kinds of skills, whether you’re male or female, that’s for all of us,” she says. “This idea that women are more creative than men – I think you’re doing men a disservice.”

“It’s never too early to start mentoring someone – there will be someone out there who can benefit from your experience”
Amali de Alwis

But on the flipside, she adds, you are also doing women a disservice by saying that men are better in roles such as software engineering because of the difference in skillsets.

Although de Alwis had an “inkling” during her manufacturing and engineering degree that the tech industry was male-dominated, she found it “bonkers” that the fashion industry should be so female-dominated when those two industries “have so much in common”. This led her to conclude that women “still have the skills and mindset to do [tech] jobs – they’re just applying this mindset to other industries”.

She adds: “Actually, you really need to be creative, you need to be a good problem-solver, to be in tech.” 

But there is an under-representation of the need for these skills in the technology industry, and because of misconceptions surrounding the type of people who take up tech roles and the skills needed for tech roles, some people tend to get excluded from the industry.

De Alwis says that because of the “opaque” nature of the industry, including what roles are available and the skills needed for them, people also give up on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) early and miss out on opportunities in the sector.

Ways to encourage more women into the tech industry include ensuring there are visible role models and mentoring younger people, says de Alwis, who has been mentoring others at all stages of her career.

Although this can be helpful at every stage of the career pipeline, de Alwis says young people should be encouraged to consider technology roles. She urges the industry to “roll your sleeves up and get involved” with organisations that encourage industry members to mentor young people and act as role models.

“It’s never too early to start mentoring someone – there will be someone out there who can benefit from your experience,” she says.

Read more about women in IT

  • Each year Computer Weekly recognises several great women from the IT industry and their lifetime achievements in its Most Influential Women in UK Tech Hall of Fame.
  • Diversity has been an issue in the IT industry for a long time, and the number of women choosing IT for a career has been stagnant over the last few years.

Parents and teachers, and other people in positions of influence, such as scout leaders, can also play an important part in encouraging young people to consider particular careers, she says. They should do what they can to “share some of those experiences with those young people” regardless of whether they are part of the sector or not, she adds.

This could simply be something like taking children to the Science Museum, or asking organisations such as Founders4Schools to bring role models into the classroom, says de Alwis.

“There is real power in exposing kids to what these things are,” she says. “It’s never too late to learn, either. We really need to start looking at proper lifelong learning. It’s never too late to understand more about tech.”

De Alwis tells the story of an intern she worked with who was teaching her 82-year-old grandmother how to code. Basic digital skills are becoming increasingly important for even the most basic of everyday tasks, so those who don’t understand tech don’t understand the world they live in, and this can be “disconcerting”, she says.

A large number of adults in the UK don’t have the digital skills to perform tasks such as applying for jobs, says de Alwis, and if you don’t have these skills, “you are automatically discounting yourself from all of these other opportunities out there”.

She adds: “Tech is wonderful and amazing. It’s also easy to take for granted for those of us who are comfortable with IT.”

“The tech to date has been very selective and it serves some of us, but not all of us”
Amali de Alwis

But along with the knowledge of technology comes the responsibility to support those who are currently excluded, she says. The industry is growing rapidly, and those in the sector are making technology advancements that are “building the foundation for the future”.

“This is the industrial age,” says de Alwis. “There is a point of discussion around this being a time where we’ve gone from a ‘no computer’ childhood, to go from that to being a society where the vast majority carry around super com in our pocket every day. That’s an extraordinary change in the space of a generation.”

The government has tried to adapt to the pace of technology adoption, implementing a new computing curriculum to try to ensure the UK has the digital skills it needs, but the government is slow to change, and some are being left behind.  

“The cycle of innovation and iteration has to feed into culture and has to be reflective of the culture it supports,” says de Alwis.

“The tech to date has been very selective and it serves some of us, but not all of us. We need to make sure that the people who are building products are reflective of the people who are using them as well. We need to do better than we are at the moment because, at the minute, it isn’t reflective of the people who are using our products and services.”

Ensuring diverse technology teams and increasing the amount of diversity in the tech industry is one of the ways to ensure the sector is more reflective of the people it serves, she says.

But although the pace of change in the industry is slow, de Alwis is optimistic.“It’s very easy to feel pessimistic sometimes,” she says. “I personally think things are getting better.

“There’s lots to do, but there’s lots being done as well.”

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