International Women’s Day – my speech for the IT Wales event

I was honoured to be asked to speak at the annual IT Wales International Women’s Day event in Swansea last night. The evening was hosted by broadcaster Mai Davies (who was a delight to sit next to at dinner) and we were welcomed by head of the BCS in Wales, Beti Williams MBE. I must also pay tribute to Sian Jones and the rest of the IT Wales Technocamps team who did a great job organising the event.

It was a fascinating event with some amazing women present. Sharon Bagshaw, Vice President IBM Global Processing Services with the DVLA spoke of her interesting and varied career within the global giant. Perhaps it was a mistake for me to leave IBM after only 2 years?! Siân Hindle, founder and director of La Crème Patisserie was astounding not only for her baking but also her business acumen.

I don’t make 5 cupcakes, I will only make 5,000 cupcakes.

Bridgette Griffiths, IT Delivery Manager for BT spoke of the Superfast Cymru project seeking to ensure all homes and businesses in Wales have access to superfast, fibre-optic broadband which will place Wales in the top 10 globally for internet access. We’ve just got fibre at home and I can’t WAIT until we can get it in school as well!

I was asked to speak about my career route (so far!) and the various things that are being done to promote girls in Computing in Wales. The text of my speech follows. This is slightly longer than that delivered last night. I’ve had a stinking cold all week and was worried I was losing my voice so I cut a little out. Mai’s advice to gargle port was excellent but as I was driving I stuck to water!

Speaking at the IT Wales International Women’s Day event

So what did I have to say?

Waking up on the final morning of my COBOL programming course at IBM as a graduate trainee, I realized I was now, probably, a programmer. It was a bit of a surprise to be honest and despite my best efforts I seemed to have sleepwalked into a technical role in the IT industry. I spent 8 years in various jobs before leaving to retrain as a teacher in 2005. Now, as head of ICT at Y Pant School in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Computing At School hub leader for south east Wales and a member of the Welsh ICT curriculum review group, I am looking at ways in which we can give children the education, training and excitement in Computing that will help them aim towards the huge variety of satisfying careers available in the tech industry.

I was your average bright student in school. Pretty good at everything but with no idea what I wanted to do. Going through a short materialistic phase I fixated on the idea of being a city trader so opted for A-Levels in Maths, Economics and French. I applied to University to study Economics and got a place at King’s College, Cambridge (I must have sounded more convinced to them than I did to myself!). However as they had taken too many students on gap-years the year before, and me being an August baby I was asked to take a year out and defer my entry to university. I was thrown into a panic as I’d just assumed myself to be on the treadmill of school, university, and career. Thankfully my forward thinking dad, through his membership of the then Institute of Electrical Engineers (now the IET) found out about IBM’s Pre-University Employee scheme. Despite misgivings that surely a massive computer company such as IBM would want people to be programmers and I definitely did not want to be a programmer, I applied and successfully negotiated the interview to be offered a position in Basingstoke working in the RS6000 marketing group. My job involved importing big datasets from all over Europe & performing analysis on the data. To be honest I floundered a bit, the data was all in different formats and having not spent years programming on the BBC Micro as many of my peers seem to have done I felt pretty clueless.

I must have made a reasonable impression though as the department offered me summer work for the next two years and I was then put straight through to second interview for their Graduate Trainee scheme. By this time I had switched to Geography from Economics (materialism had been overtaken by crusading environmentalism for a time) but was still adamant that I did NOT want to be a programmer. I was reassured by both the interview process and my time already spent in the company that even huge computer companies need people to work in departments such as sales, marketing and HR. However the reality is that what the tech industry really needs is people doing the front-line work. Network specialists, hardware engineers, systems analysts, database managers, testers, and of course programmers. People who can independently find creative solutions to all kinds of problems.

I joined the company in 1996 and went straight to the Hursley Labs in Hampshire. It was a nice twist of fate – my great grandfather had been a gardener on the Hursley Estate decades before it was taken over by IBM. In 1996 the world was beginning to be gripped by the millennium bug so a group of us, actually all girls, found ourselves learning how to put programs through the scanning software IBM had developed. We were looking for data variables with hard-coded 2-byte years. It’s telling that at that point I didn’t know what a variable was and had only the haziest idea about bytes. I was aware, through meeting up with other graduate trainees on the excellent courses we were sent on, that others were learning about something called Java which sounded exciting. Thankfully the millennium bug didn’t turn out to be as contagious as first thought and I was able to spend New Year’s Eve 1999 watching fireworks on the Thames and not frantically fixing code in computer systems as I had first thought. After a year or so I was transferred out of that project to the HUON insurance team. I’d asked to do some of this exciting sounding Java but the need for COBOL programmers was higher – which was how I found myself on that programming course. I later left IBM to join HUON which then became The Innovation Group and thus became one of those thousands of people in the late 90’s and early 2000s who worked at the same desk for several years but for 3 different companies. The desk of course was virtual. I was sent all over the UK on projects for AXA insurance, Norwich Union as it was then, Halifax and Lloyds TSB (which is what brought me eventually to Wales). I designed, wrote and tested code that is still apparently running today in insurance call centres processing home and car insurance quotes. I spent time in the training department creating and delivering technical training courses and was sent to Melbourne to deliver a course. Later on I was involved in piloting a new version of the software to increase the efficiency of the call centre process which also had some synergies with web processes so I was sent to Tokyo to work with Direct Line on a motor insurance project they had running there.

It was a great job. Creative, very well paid, fairly stress-free and with reasonable hours – so why on earth did I leave to become a teacher? I had increasingly become a fairly niche consultant. Expert in a very specific field. The development contract at Lloyds TSB in Newport had come to an end so my job would have gone back on the road. With two very small children it wasn’t something I could do. In my 20’s, unencumbered by family responsibility I had worked with lots of people who did leave their families at home whilst they stayed all week in unglamorous locations but it wasn’t for me (incidentally most were men). I looked around for jobs locally and there were loads, but all required specific knowledge and experience of technologies I knew little about. I had genuinely enjoyed my time as a technical trainer and having always wondered about teaching in the back of my mind, jumped ship.

So in 2006 I started working at Y Pant School as an ICT teacher. Scaling my experience was hard at first. I’d been working on a database with over 400 tables so didn’t see the point of working on one table. I had to learn software in a way I hadn’t really done so before. Programming didn’t enter into it at all. Being new to the job, teaching a subject that just hadn’t existed when I was at school and with a young family I got on with teaching the curriculum I had in front of me – and enjoyed it. I still do. Sure teenagers can be exasperating but mostly are interesting, engaging and funny. The ground is always shifting in schools and there are new ideas all the time but it makes for a very dynamic place to work.

However, as each new cohort of year 7s arrived in September they would take less and less time to get through our carefully planned schemes of work. What took 6 weeks in 2006 was being completed in 2 by 2011. Students had a hunger to learn new skills and to be creative with their use of the computer but advanced PowerPoint wasn’t cutting it any more. I had thoughts that perhaps they would enjoy some of the challenge I had encountered in my previous career but teaching COBOL to 11 year olds didn’t feel right. Still, something had to change.

I discovered Computing At School, CAS, which had been founded in 2008. CAS is a grassroots organization in collaboration with the BCS and supported financially by a number of organisations, including Microsoft and Google. It now has over 3000 members who come from across schools, higher education and industry. The majority of members are teachers and all have been working together to promote computing in schools. In Wales, CAS is led by Dr Tom Crick, an academic at Cardiff Metropolitan University. We have 6 local Hubs, and together with Technocamps, CAS organizes a conference in June every year at Swansea University.

In fact the last year has seen an enormous sea-change in ICT education, which appears to be rippling through schools, universities and also the IT industry. For those of you not directly involved I’ll summarise the main points. In August 2011 Eric Schmidt, then Executive Chairman of Google delivered the annual MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh with a devastating critique of technology education in the UK: “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools,” he said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.” He wasn’t entirely correct as thanks to CAS the tide had already started turning. OCR launched the first GCSE in Computing to a pilot group of schools in September 2010 and that has since been joined by Computer Science GCSEs from 3 other exam boards including the WJEC here in Wales. In January 2012, Michael Gove, Secretary for Education in England “disapplied” the mandatory programme of study for ICT in England inventing a new word in the process. However, education (and thus thankfully, literacy)in Wales is fully devolved, with a distinct National Curriculum. For many, this decision was just what they’d been waiting for but sadly, less enlightened schools took this as a sign to take ICT off the curriculum altogether and replace it with the humanities subjects praised so heavily by Gove as part of the English Baccalaureate. However, the publication of the draft programmes of study in the revised National Curriculum for England a couple of weeks ago has marked a step-change for Computing in the UK. The subject has been rebranded from ICT to Computing, a sweeping change that sees computational thinking, algorithms and programming being taught from the age of 5, while still teaching aspects of digital literacy.

In Wales, our curriculum has always been less prescriptive. Many schools had been using this to teach some aspects of computing for a while. However it was never a compulsory subject at GCSE and whilst some schools, including my own, had made it mandatory for all students, the number of students opting to take it at GCSE and A-level have been falling year-on-year. Computing A-level which has been around for many years was also seeing a drop in numbers all over the UK – and it had always been a niche subject anyway. In 2012 just 298 students in Wales sat A-level Computing and only 38 of those were girls – but I’ll come back to that later. At the CAS Technocamps conference in June last year, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education Leighton Andrews spoke of the importance of Computing as a high priority for growth in Wales stating that “It is [therefore] vitally important that every child in Wales has the opportunity to study computer science between the ages of 11-16.” In November he announced a review of the ICT curriculum in Wales and formed a steering group comprised of teachers, industry professionals and academics to advise on this. The group is co-chaired by Janet Hayward, Headteacher of Cadoxton Primary School in Barry (and also a computer science graduate!), Dr Tom Crick and Stuart Arthur, Head of Operations at Box UK, a software development company based in Cardiff. I am one of those in the group. Obviously the curriculum review process is ongoing but I think it’s fair to say that there will be a significant change to what students are being taught in schools.

It’s an exciting time for computing education at the moment. This little device (hold up raspberry pi) the Raspberry Pi, made at the Sony UK Technology Centre near Bridgend has created enormous worldwide interest in physical computing and programming. Over 1 million units have been sold and Google have announced they are donating 15,000 to UK schoolchildren. There are amazing, and freely available resources on the web which are being used in and out of schools. Organisations such as Code Club and Young Rewired State are doing a great job in enthusing, engaging and empowering young people to become creators with technology. Here in Wales we are lucky enough to have Technocamps to support us. Technocamps is a 6 million pound project funded by the EU Social Convergence Fund via the Welsh Government. They deliver free workshops to 11-19 year olds across the convergence areas of Wales led by Swansea University in partnership with Bangor, Aberystwyth and Glamorgan universities and are generating real excitement for the discipline in their work.

So, what about computing and girls? It’s well documented that the IT industry is dominated by men. According to Little Miss Geek founder Belinda Parmar, and the e-skills Technology Insights Report in 2012, only 17% of the jobs in the UK tech industry are held by women.. We hear negative talk about “brogrammers” and the booth babes at conferences but whilst perception is a problem the audience and speakers here tonight are evidence that this is not the only story of the IT industry. From my own experience I was often the only woman on the team apart from those in admin roles but apart from isolated individuals, it wasn’t a problem. However my lack of background in computing meant that the roles open to me were fairly limited. The males who joined both the Pre-University programme and the Graduate trainee program at IBM at the same time as me often had years of bedroom coding behind them and were therefore directed towards the new and exciting research and development projects. That wasn’t IBM’s fault – a business has to use its staff in the best way possible. We’re now seeing fewer and fewer students generally programming in their spare time but hopefully projects such as the Raspberry Pi will begin to turn the tide.

However if we carry on as normal, we probably won’t see any more girls programming Raspberry Pi’s as we saw girls programming BBC Micros in the late 1980’s. As I said earlier, just 13% of those students taking A-Level Computing in Wales last year were girls. Exam board OCR has told me that nationally only 14% of those in the pilot group of students taking the GCSE for the first time were girls. We offered GCSE Computing at Y Pant for the first time this September and not a single girl opted for it. Our ICT option courses see a variation of between 10 and 30% girls as well.

It’s been said, by Emma Mulqueeney of Young Rewired State, that in terms of getting girls into computing, “Year 8 is too late”. That is, if girls are not introduced to this subject before the age of 12, they may well never bother. By then, it appears that the perception of geekdom has been set. Computing and IT is seen as a boy’s subject and at secondary school, girls seem to be much more susceptible to the need to fit in and be part of the crowd. It’s not irreversible. Technocamps have easily met their target of 45% girls for their work by encouraging teachers to bring whole classes to their workshops – not just the geeky boys. They also run fabulous events in creative wearable technology and are approaching computing from the creative and artistic side to get away from this perception that computing is all sweaty programmers sitting in darkened rooms. They are also setting up Technoclubs for Girls. Many of us have been teaching programming at school through computer games – game development is an easy hook into algorithms – but games appeal massively to boys and less so to girls so the work Technocamps is doing in this area is vitally important.

We need to be starting right at the beginning with computing. Girls don’t have a problem with the perception of maths or science in general. It’s quite cool to be good at maths in junior school. If we start teaching everyone computing, right from primary school then everyone will have had some experience of this regardless of gender or family background. By the time girls get to secondary school they will be putting their logical skills to practice writing programs and engaging with creating technology not just using it. e-skills forecasts that the IT sector will grow at twice the rate of other sectors in the UK by 2020 and here in Wales there is huge potential for the industry to play a role in driving growth and providing jobs, it’s one of the priority sectors for economic renewal Just a month ago Virgin Media announced 230 jobs in product development, sales and customer care here in Swansea. We need to be doing everything we can to make sure that the technical jobs in the future are sought after by women and men and that we don’t just leave girls standing on the sidelines.

Much of the problem of girls and computing is cultural – so what can we do? Curriculum change is already happening as I’ve said. It’ll take time for the effects to be felt in the workplace. Change obviously starts at home and schools cannot bear all the responsibility. We all need to be aware of the unconscious gender bias we exhibit in talking to children about technology and probably the biggest impact comes from parents If parents subtly, or not so subtly indicate to their daughters that tech jobs are boys jobs – then that’s what they’ll grow up thinking. It’s not easy, Belinda Parmar of Little Miss Geek refers to boys often having a “magnetic attraction to computers”. My son is obsessed by technology and it’s therefore easy to leave my daughter out of the conversation and choose different conversations with her. I was lucky enough to have a mother who encouraged me to aim high and an engineer father who has always felt gender should never be a barrier to any career. Role models are important and at the moment faces such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs dominate the perception of success in computing. There are many unsung female heroes of computing and some are here today. We need to celebrate what they are doing but we also need to celebrate what WE are doing. Whether you are male or female, next time you are in the company of a teenager, talk to them about your job and why you love it so much. Tell them how creative it is, how absorbing and if they show some interest, help them to learn more about it. Volunteer to help your local school whether through joining CAS or by running a Code Club at a primary school.

I think my 8 year old daughter possesses the logical skills to be an amazing computer scientist. It may not be what she wants to do, but if she does one day find herself working as a programmer I hope it’s because she chooses to do it, without any negative stereotypes holding her back, and that she has the educational experience behind her to forge a path of her choosing through the industry. It’s an exciting time for education in this sector and to be part of genuinely creating a new subject at school. It’s vital for the future of the children of Wales that we get this right and enable them to have a deeper understanding of technology whatever career path they eventually choose. Especially those that become programmers.

Why Jurassic Park is great for female (computer) scientists!

Watching Jurassic Park with the kids last weekend I was struck by the strong female characters.  Something that hadn’t occurred to me at the time – overawed as I was by the special effects.

Initially I was irritated by Dennis Nedry the stereotypically geeky, male computer scientist with hygiene and ethical issues played by Wayne Knight.  But reasoning that this was made 20 years ago and it may have reflected the times relatively accurately fair enough.  It’s also a central plot point.

However the character of Lex, John’s grandaughter (Ariana Richards) really shines through.  She is irritated by her brother calling her a nerd early on in the film – preferring to be labeled a hacker (go girl!).  Later on she saves the day when she is able to reboot the computer systems through the park, turning on the door locks at the critical moment before the velociraptor bursts through the door.  Probably my favourite quote in a film.

It’s a UNIX system! I know this!

from added by user Eagc7

Dr Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern) also has some great lines.  Notably:

Dr Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs”
Dr. Ellie Sattler: “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”

A nice nod to the everyday sexism in language which 20 years later is still with us. (Yes, yes I KNOW you mean men and women when you say man – but it’s an easy cop out).

John Hammond (Richard Attenborough): [Ellie is going out to the maintenance shed to switch the circuit breakers, the dinosaurs are on the loose] It ought to be me really going.
Dr. Ellie Sattler: Why?
John Hammond: Well, I’m a… And you’re, um, a…
Dr. Ellie Sattler: Look… We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.

I think the best bit about all this is that none of it is really made into a big deal.  The role of the hacker-kid could have been swapped to the brother with no effect on the plot.  Ellie’s feminism equally could have been dispensed with – but write Michael Crichton director Steven Spielberg created two strong characters – good for them.  I’ve not seen 2 and 3, and apparently Jurassic Park IV is due for release in June.  Let’s hope it also has strong female scientists and not just love interests.  Lex should be running the show by now!

Advice to potential Computer Science teachers

The UK Government has announced today a scheme to entice Computer Science graduates into teaching in England with a £20,000 incentive.  I am delighted by the message this sends out about the importance of Computer Science.  I hope it doesn’t detract from the very important job of retraining hundreds of excellent ICT teachers to teach Computer Science.  I also hope that Computer Science graduates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be similarly tempted soon!

7 years ago I started a PGCE in ICT after a career in industry.  Several of my friends have sought my advice about going into teaching and it’s always the same, do it, but do some preparation.

Before applying to do the PGCE I spent a week in a secondary school (coincidentally the one I work in now).  The school and department were kind enough to plan a programme of lessons for me to observe and even take part in.  I was able to find out about the curriculum, the way it was applied and the pressures of teaching.  I could also observe the rhythms of the teaching week.  I started the week with the determination not to see it through rose tinted spectacles and finished it more enthused about it than before!

I was on maternity leave at the time so time off work wasn’t an issue and I managed to sort childcare for the week and I know for some of my friends, the ability to take time off work is limited.  Consider this though, a week of unpaid leave is NOTHING compared to the fact that your salary in a years time will probably be 1/3 what it is now.  If you’ve made the right career choice then that won’t matter to you but if it was the wrong decision – it’s a costly mistake.

  • Find out about your local secondary schools (this link will help)
  • Check their website for the name of the head teacher
  • Write to them enclosing your CV and ask to spend some time observing lessons, point out your expertise
  • You don’t need a CRB check to work in a school if you are not alone with children – a qualified teacher will be with you at all times
  • Check how much input the teacher wants you to have during the lesson (we’re all different)
  • Go round the room and speak to children about their work – get involved!
  • Ask if there is anything you can help with during lunch time or after school.
  • DON’T tell them that they’re doing it all wrong and when you start teaching you’d wipe the slate clean – we’re in a state of curriculum flux in ICT/Computing in schools and we know how to handle it!
  • Remember that this could be a week-long interview if a job comes up later (it was for me!)

Teaching – as if it were industry

Having spent roughly the same amount of time teaching as I did working in IT as a programmer / analyst, I thought I’d summarise what the teaching day is like for these new would-be Computer Science teachers.  It’s a tongue-in-cheek analysis!

You arrive at work at about 8-ish and spend a little time preparing for the day.  At 8:30 you have a 1 hour meeting.  During this meeting you need to impress people.  The attendees don’t especially want to be there, although some of them are quite excited, but it’s important that they know more and can do more at the end of the meeting than they could at the beginning.  You spend most of the meeting walking around the room.  It’s a good idea not to talk for a long time yourself but instead to ask questions of the attendees.  Make sure you ask well thought out open questions and ensure all the attendees are called upon to respond.  You need to have thought up some stimulating activities for these attendees to do during the meeting as well.

As soon as that meeting finishes you have a second meeting.  The format will be largely the same as the first although the attendees will be different and the subject matter will vary.

At the end of the second meeting you need to go to a third, shorter meeting (only 20 minutes this time).  To get there you have to walk up a 50m corridor which is about 1.5 m wide.  The difficulty is that about 200 people will be coming the other way.  Most of them will not be looking where they are going and 3 of them will be swinging their bags.  At this third meeting you have 20 minutes to make announcements, find out why some people didn’t attend meetings, and sign forms for 25 attendees.  You are also supposed to pray for a bit.

Finally you get to have a cup of tea after this as you have 20 minutes without meetings!  A large room is allocated to this but only a small corner has been given over to the facilities to make the cup of tea.  It seems to have been designed by someone who has never made a hot drink.  Nevertheless the 40-odd people who use this space perform a daily dance around each other and manage to make some sort of drink.  If you are lucky you will get to drink it too.  Try to fit in a loo-stop before the next meeting.

Once a week however you can’t put your feet up during this session as you have to stand outside and watch some of the meeting attendees running around, or instruct them on queuing procedures.

After this well deserved rest you will have another 2 hours of meetings back to back before lunch beckons.  You may find however that you spend much of this lunch “hour” talking to meeting attendees about why they didn’t pull their weight in your meetings.  You don’t have to do this of course but it’s quite hard to do your job well otherwise.

After lunch, another meeting.

During any of these meetings, certain unexpected things might happen which you should be prepared for:

  • attendees are sometimes late
  • someone might cry
  • someone will probably sneeze all over you
  • you will have to ask someone to wash their muddy hands before touching your keyboards
  • someone might say “I dont gedddd itttt” in a really whiny voice despite you having explained “it” in 4 different ways and asked them to stop looking at their hair in computer screen 3 times
  • someone will delete all their work without realising it and claim the computer didn’t save it

Occasionally you will find yourself with an hour (10% of the time) where you have no meetings and can do some work.  The work you have to do comprises planning for meetings and assessing what went on with them as well as countless other tasks.  Hopefully coming from industry you will be familiar with the concept of hotdesking.  This will be useful to you as the first 10 minutes will be spent finding somewhere to work.

Sometimes you will be able to leave at 3pm – like you might have done on Fridays in some industry jobs.  More likely you will be there until 4:30 or later catching up on work.  You will also do a bit more work later that evening.  From time to time you will have meetings with the parents of your meeting attendees.  This will involve 3 hours of 5 minute appointments.  Most of the people you see you will talk about what a great attendee they are raising.  The ones you need to talk to won’t be there.

You will get lots of holidays and your friends will probably moan about this.  Holidays are when you catch up with the work you don’t have time to do at work.

Of course, while all of this is true.  There are some genuinely great things about teaching (which mean that I won’t be heading back to industry any time soon).

  • year 11 coursework deadline isn’t going to move and isn’t going to be shelved due to a changed business direction or a takeover
  • you won’t be lining the pockets of an already rich industrialist
  • very often some of your pupils will absolutely “get it” and be delighted to show you their progress
  • one of your pupils will make you laugh out loud in a good way every day
  • occasionally pupils will come up to you after the meeting and thank you for a great meeting
  • you get to go on school trips to interesting, cool and fun places
  • you get to take part in madcap charity fundraising events (1:36) which gets over 8,000 YouTube hits
  • you are challenged, every day, in a way you often can’t predict

Gender, Computing and Culture

This annoyed  me today in Tesco.

 In case you don’t quite see it, Wired is placed in the “Men and Bikes” section of the magazines, in between Viz and Loaded.  Presumably this kind of thing has been annoying female bikers and readers of smutty humour for years but I’m less concerned about them.

Wired magazine in Tesco

Computing is a serious academic discipline.  The wider IT industry employs thousands of people in the UK and contributes billions to the economy. We have a serious lack of young women taking Computing as a subject in school and university.

There are lots of magazines aimed at computing enthusiasts out there.  I read Wired – I subscribe – as it goes beyond the “how to” and product reviews and looks a little wider at issues to do with computing and technology more generally.  I bring old issues into school for students to look at but I’d be horrified to recommend this to ANY student locally.  Can you imagine, suggesting a teenager (of either gender) going into their local supermarket to buy a magazine their teacher had recommended and being faced with THIS?!

Seemingly minor things like this are the reasons why girls aren’t going into Computing in any numbers.  There’s no one big issue.  To borrow a phrase I’ve used before and paraphrase it badly, it’s the aggregation of marginal losses.

How Can I Help My Child get Into Computing?

I was asked yesterday by a friend to advise on some ideas for her 10 year old who wants to do some App building.  I thought a few more people might be interested in this too so here are some ideas for getting children into computing generally. I’m focusing here on the younger age group.


A visual development / programming environment developed by MIT.  This is a free download and whilst it can be used for some very basic stuff is also good (later on) for helping kids develop ideas about algorithms.  Proven from age 6 by by Genevieve Smith Nunes and also used at 16 in the DiDA Games Authoring unit.

It’s fun and easy to use.

You can also buy (for about £35) a Picoboard which allows you to control Scratch with light, sound a slider and other custom sensors.

Scratch can also be developed with a modification called Build Your Own Blocks.  There are lots of Scratch tutorials on the web and also some books on Amazon.


This is another free download development environment, this time from Microsoft.  It can be downloaded to run either on a PC or an Xbox and children can build games to be controlled either using the keyboard and mouse or the Xbox controller (a USB wired controller is about £17).

You can’t (yet) build games on the PC and then transfer them to the Xbox.  Kids seem to enjoy the very gamified environment and it comes with a fair number of tutorials. Another good place for tutorials is Geeky Nicki’s brilliant site (also good for Scratch).

App Inventor

For actual App development you can’t beat MIT’s App Inventor.  This site takes you through the basics of building Android apps.  It can take a little time to figure out setting it up – especially if you want to plug your phone into it but the absolute excitement my 10 year old son had from his App being tested on my HTC Desire was brilliant.  There are 3 parts to it – the designer (which works in the browser), the building blocks editor which is a Java-based download and the phone.  If you don’t have an Android phone or yours isn’t supported then you can use the emulator on the screen which works just as well.

It builds nicely on from Scratch and there are some very good (if a little wordy for younger and more impatient children) tutorials. All the tutorials are text / image based – no video which is good if your internet connection is poor.

Code Avengers

This site contains lessons in learning HTML, CSS and Java Script.  It’s actually aimed at teenagers and I think the JavaScript would be over the heads of the 10 year olds but the HTML is good.  You sign in and build a profile page on a “phone” – and if you plug the URL into your phone you can see it on your phone!  Nice idea.  It awards badges as you progress and they are adding functionality all the time.  Nicely styled for kids too.


There are of course loads of other suggestions.  This is aimed at being a quick intro into things I KNOW will work for a keen 10 year old.  They are all free and should appeal to the kids as well as be suitable for them.

Finally if your child is really keen on getting into Computing and not really being provided for at school by ICT lessons then please join Computing At School!  CAS is a grassroots organisation with a wide range of members from teachers, university professors, industry experts and parents all keen to get kids into Computing.  It’s grown now to over 2000 members with an active online forum and 2 annual conferences.  There are local Hubs all over the country (I’m Hub leader for South East Wales) where we try to help out with the needs of the local people.  Joining CAS could provide a link into lots of local people really keen to point you in the direction of organisations and activities that can help.


Why don’t girls choose Computing?

Gender imbalance in the IT industry has been in the press a lot recently.  This article in Computer Weekly nicely sums up the industry position – why is IT less attractive to women?  Wendy Grossman in the Guardian questions why women don’t seem to want to go into the industry, citing the example of Marissa Meyer as a role model that women don’t seem to be following.  Maggie Philbin, also in the Guardian raises the issue of gender stereotyping in games etc. and also the perception that older women are not users of technology.

From the age of 18 – 30 I spent my life working in the IT industry – with 3 years out for university.  Now as an IT / Computing teacher the gender imbalance bothers me.  We are offering GCSE Computing next year for the first time and have no girls doing it.  Does it matter if they are choosing subjects they enjoy and are good at? No.  Does it matter if they are not even considering a career choice they might find interesting and well paid? YES!

If course a choice at 14 does not limit career choices but it might make things a little more difficult.  I think role models are important.  Not just the high flying Marissa Mayer type of role models (although knowing she was profiled in Vogue might help some – but if she didn’t conform to society’s stereotype of what a successful woman “should” look like would Vogue have been interested?  Just saying…).  No I think girls need more immediate role models as well.  Thinking back to 6th form, I only switched to do geeky double-maths A-level when I saw there were girls doing it (I didn’t have the option of computing).  I realise how utterly SHALLOW that sounds but that is how my 16 year old self felt.

Personally I think there is a perception that the IT industry is male dominated, that computer science is a male choice and that this puts girls off choosing this as an option.  If you don’t study computing early on, you can still take it later.  However most of us only have one shot at an undergraduate degree and if you haven’t done Computer Science (as Mayer did) your level of entry into the IT industry will be that bit lower.  You can of course self-study at a later date but once life intervenes in the form of families and paying for mortgages, most just don’t have the time.

We need to get girls interested in Computer Science at a much earlier age – so they have the best chance of entering a potentially fantastic profession at the highest level they can.  Emma Mulqueeny of Rewired State has said the year 8 is too late, and I think she’s right.  Primary schools need to engage girls at a younger age in computing (actually all children).  In secondary schools we need to do more to attract younger girls to computer clubs (without making them pink).

I asked a class of year 10 students how they perceived the IT industry and computing as a career and all said male-dominated.  When asked why, the names Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were mentioned – they’d never heard of Marissa Mayer.  It’s a vicious circle at the moment.  Girls are less likely to choose Computer Science degrees, so they are less likely to found high-profile startups and therefore be the kind of high-profile individuals that have books and films made about them.  Marissa Meyer, by completing both her undergraduate degree and her Masters, and not dropping out to move to California and found a company, is not the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Thinking back on my career, oddly I don’t ever recall there being a problem with the gender imbalance – at the time.  But with the benefit of hindsight and certainly the wisdom of age, it was definitely there.  Never enough to put me off the job but it offered certain discomfort.

At 18 I found myself in IBM’s Basingstoke offices as a pre-university employee.  There were women in the office so I didn’t really notice any gender issues.  But these women were admin assistants and at that age, I didn’t perceive the difference.  Every day, older male colleagues would comment on my clothes and the length of skirts I wore but somehow I normalised that.

Post University and on the IBM Graduate Trainee programme there was a fairly equal spread of men and women but as soon as I started out on client sites the differences became clear.  I always felt conscious of the age issue more than anything. Going out on a client site as a “consultant” at the age of 23 is frankly laughable.  I always felt I had something to prove.  One week spent at a big London bank with a suspicious team of men was awkward.  I invited myself down to the pub with them on Friday lunchtime and drank 2 pints of Guinness.  After that I was an accepted part of the team.  Sadly it wasn’t my work that sealed the deal but those two pints of Guinness. I was “one of the boys”.  I normalised that too.

Much later I was sent to Tokyo with a team of (male) clients to advise on a product.  During the week we were there, they “forgot” to invite me out for a meal in the evening with them twice.  Maybe it was nothing to do with gender.  Perhaps they just didn’t like me… Anyway, in a hotel with no restaurant and no room service it was rude.

I spent several years as one of the weekly commuters staying Monday – Thursday in a hotel somewhere in the UK.  We’d be working as part of teams with clients so there were a number of women, but the consultancy teams were very male dominated.  Of the women who did work on these teams, none, bar one, had children.  All the men were fathers.  They were quite happy to spend 4 nights away from their families every week, for years.  The one mother who did this was questioned CONSTANTLY about her motives, her suitability as a parent, her sense of responsibility etc.  At the time I didn’t have children.  I do now and can’t imagine choosing that lifestyle – but that’s a choice I make as a parent not as a mother.  Of course this isn’t an issue that applies only to the IT industry – female explorers are routinely asked how they can go on dangerous expeditions and risk leaving their children motherless.

There are a lot of studies out about the gender imbalance and I intend to look into this in more detail over the next few months.