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Heather Payne: Self-taught Coder, Tech Diversity Advocate, and HackerYou CEO

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Heather Payne: Self-taught Coder, Tech Diversity Advocate, and HackerYou CEO

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This post originally appeared on I Love Toronto.

One of the many things that makes a city so vibrant is the people who choose to make it their home.

They add an energy and sense of community which in turn creates the soul of a metropolis. Like real life super heroes, they work hard to make the world a better place. In 2013 Heather Payne was listed one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women, accomplishing so many inspiring projects, all before turning 30. She is an entrepreneur, a mother, an angel investor, and a role model to anyone striving for improving their careers and lives. Heather’s work is helping to mold a new generation of women in technology and leadership; one that focuses on exciting learning and career opportunities for women and girls of Canada. Her work has already had a tremendous impact, and she’s just getting started!

Q: How did Ladies Learning Code evolve from Twitter to what it is today?

I started learning to code in 2009, just by googling tutorials and trying to piece information together. It was really tough. So after an inspiring experience at a PyLadies Python workshop while in LA for work, I decided that Toronto needed a group for women who wanted to learn how to code. I tweeted about the idea; the response was incredible and immediate. It was clear that this needed to happen. I brought together a group of about 80 people for a brainstorming session, and from there we came up with a framework for what the organization would become.

Someone (I wish I remembered who!) used the hashtag #ladieslearningcode when tweeting about the event, so that became our name. Tickets for our first workshop on August 6th, 2011 sold out in less than a day, and for a while, a Ladies Learning Code ticket was the hottest in the city! To get one, you had to be online at the exact moment they went on sale – people would just keep hitting refresh until they got through. Tickets to the workshops sold out in minutes for the first six months, until we scaled to accommodate the demand. I ran the organization from when we launched until the end of 2013, when I stepped down from a day-to-day management role to focus on HackerYou, which I launched in June of 2012. Today, I’m on the Board of Ladies Learning Code and remain incredibly impressed by the work that CEO Melissa Sariffodeen and her team have done over the past few years.

Q: Why is digital literacy education so important for women and girls?

Technology and software are becoming a bigger and bigger part of our daily lives, and for that software to serve everyone, it needs to be created by everyone. To have 50 percent of the population sitting on the sidelines while the world innovates makes no sense. So we need to get women and girls to the point where they make up 50 percent of the teams doing the most innovative work in the world. The other reason it’s so important to get women and girls to get code-literate is because tech jobs are the best jobs. They pay better than average, have low unemployment, and often have great benefits and flexibility. Women need to have access to these jobs, just like men. It’s important for narrowing the pay gap, having more women in the most senior roles, and could even play a major role in making balancing work and family easier for women.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions you've seen when it comes to women, girls, and technology?

As founder & CEO of HackerYou, I have helped hundreds of men and women launch careers in development in Toronto and beyond. There is absolutely no difference in the abilities of men and women when it comes to this career choice. So anyone who thinks that is completely wrong. At the same time, anyone who thinks that women don’t face additional and unfair challenges navigating careers in technology is wrong. There are certainly exceptions, but anyone who thinks it’s a level playing field is living in a fantasy world. We have a long way to go, but I have some projects in the works that I hope will bring some of these issues to light. Awareness is the first step.

Q: What were some of the biggest lessons and challenges you faced when expanding Ladies Learning Code from a local program to a national one?

The biggest challenge when expanding an organization is maintaining quality. Ladies Learning Code started in Toronto, and the core team lives in Toronto. Ensuring we could create an experience similar to the well-loved workshops we had hosted in Toronto was critical. At the same time, Toronto is unique, just as every city in Canada is unique! Assuming that what worked in Toronto would work everywhere else in Canada would have been a big mistake. We had to consider things like price point and venues, and ensure they worked for the community in that city. One of the ways we succeeded as we tackled this challenge was by having a local Chapter Lead in each city. This person was responsible for leading their city’s LLC chapter and running each workshop. Having a local champion helped us bring the best of LLC to those communities, while ensuring that what we were doing was a fit for that community’s unique needs and wants.

Q: Is there an ideal age to expose and encourage a person to pursue digital literacy? What are some of the major differences you see between younger and older program participants you've connected with?

These days, it should be considered very early on. I have a three-month old daughter, and once she becomes interested in computers, I plan to have her complete a typing course before being allowed to use a computer regularly. I never learned to type properly, and it’s something I regret! But programming concepts can be taught at any age. There are tons of games and toys these days that teach basic programming concepts. I’ve even played a game with kids where I was the computer, and they had to program me to walk left, or right, pick up an object, or drop an object in a pail. I would execute the commands exactly as they said them, which can be very funny while also remaining educational. We do find that comfort with a computer is helpful in teaching people how to code. Knowing shortcuts like CTRL + S to save can save a lot of time, and these types of shortcuts are often second nature to those who have been using computers since they were kids. Those less familiar with computers can sometimes find it frustrating. But Ladies Learning Code is for everyone. The 4:1 student to mentor ratio helps us to ensure we can support every learner, no matter what their comfort with computers when they show up for the day.

Q: You have been extremely successful at a very young age and have been listed as one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women. What do you attribute this success to?

I’m a really hard worker. Everyone in my family has a strong work ethic – I think it’s something I learned from a very young age. My parents helped me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do, as long as I was willing to work for it. The other thing that helped was that I had the opportunity to develop my leadership skills from a young age. In Kindergarten, even, my mom asked my teacher at a parent-teacher interview, “Don’t you find Heather a bit…bossy?” And my teacher replied, “Bossy?! Not at all! She’s just showing good leadership.” I was promoted to Manager at the McDonald’s I worked at in high school when I was 16. I’m 29 now, so I have a lot of experience in a leadership role and managing teams. I think this experience helped me to feel comfortable in these roles so early in my career.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience as an angel investor?

I’ve invested in four companies to date: ShopLocket (acquired by PCH in 2014), CareGuide, Zoocasa, and Shoelace. Fifty percent have female founders – a ratio I’ll always try and stick with. I invested in each of these four companies specifically because I believe in the founder. Being a founder myself, I strongly believe that a capable founder will figure out how to make it work, no matter what. And I want a seat on that bus.

Q: Why did you choose to make Toronto your home? What is your favourite thing about the city?

I grew up in Brampton, moved to London to attend Western University, lived abroad for a year, and then moved to downtown Toronto in 2010, and I’ve been here ever since. I love that Toronto is a large and diverse word-class city, while being only an hour from where my parents live. I will live here forever.

Q: What are the biggest career and life barriers for women today, particularly within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Careers?

We need to expose more girls to programming during childhood and in their early teens. Ladies Learning Code is doing some great work in this area, but parents needs to take the initiative to make sure this exposure happens, no matter where they live. We need University Computer Science programs to make their first year computer science courses more welcoming to both beginners, and women specifically. There are some schools, such as Harvey Mudd College, that are doing some great work in this area and proving that it is indeed possible to bring balance into these departments. And then, we have to fix work. There are so many points along the career journey where women are opting out of careers in technology. We need to recruit better, retain better, pay better, promote better, and make balance easier. We need more women to join startups that end up exiting, because this can give women the cash they need to start their own business, which can lead to massive increases in wealth for women, which can lead to more women-led businesses or more female VC partners. Luckily, I’m only 29, so I have quite a few years left in my career to tackle each of these issues head-on. I’m just getting started.

Q: Which projects are you most proud of and why?

I’m really proud of what HackerYou has accomplished in terms of getting more women into development roles. We’ve created over 300 professional developers since 2014, and about 60 percent of them are women. Most of them work in Toronto. I get so excited when I think about what Toronto’s technology industry is going to look like in five years, as our female graduates take on senior roles, become CTOs, or start their own companies. We are on the path to making Toronto’s technology community the most gender-diverse in the world, and HackerYou had so much to do with making that happen!

Q: How do you define success? Has your definition of success changed over the past several years?

Success is a life you love. Your career is just one part of your life. A great career is definitely part of the equation for happiness, but just as important is your partner, your family and friends, your financial situation, your health, your social life, and giving back. I spend a lot of time reflecting on where I’m at, and love tweaking the knobs to try and make all parts of my life happiness-inducing. I’ve always been pretty big picture about what success means to me. My definition has remained pretty stable over the years.

Q: What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur?

Find an inexpensive way to test your idea first. Read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries for more on this. Also work hard. It won’t automatically make you successful, but you can’t succeed without it. Things are great now, but when I was getting started, I worked constantly. I did everything that most people are too lazy to do. I cancelled my Netflix subscription. Until you’re happy with your life, you should not have a Netflix subscription.

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