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!
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.