I studied the wrong course at university, and learnt this important lesson for women starting their tech careers

Nina Mujdzic. Photo: Supplied

At 27, I’m not your stereotypical idea of a computer programmer. For starters, I’m a girl and I’m excited by technology.

I’m inspired by the potential it has to improve our lives and make a difference to the world.

But, for the tech industry to achieve the innovation we need, it desperately needs to attract more girls, because without increased female participation, the big ideas of our generation may not be realised.

This is why I volunteer to help inspire girls as young as 6 years old right through to women in their 50s considering a career change.

I know how isolating it is in the male-dominated tech industry and how for girls it can be a challenge to simply feel like we belong.

It’s estimated by 2020, Australia’s digital tech sector is expected to require 700,000 information and communications technology workers. Women currently only make up less than 20% of Australia’s digital tech sector. So, if by sharing my personal story I can help inspire the next generation of girls to study coding, robotics, artificial intelligence or computer engineering then my experience has been worthwhile.

How I first became interested in coding

My interest in programming emerged when I was 14, living in my home town of Gothenburg in Sweden. It was the early 2000s and I was busy trying to customise my MySpace page. I got really excited learning I could enter the code, change the background colour and add styles that none of my friends had on their page. It wasn’t long till I was competing with my friends over who could create the best looking one.

At this time, basic HTML and CSS was used and I became curious about what other things were possible with those languages. When I was in year 10 I could start choosing what subjects I wanted to study at high school. I chose a media course which included two web design subjects. This is where I learned the fundamentals of programming. I started at least 10 blogging accounts in that year, only to take apart their web template and change the structure and styling to my liking.

Although I was already teaching myself how to code, I thought that since I was changing the styling of websites, I really must be interested in design. I think being a girl made it hard to see myself doing an IT or computer science degree. It just seemed like I should be interested in design and so without any female role models to challenge me to think differently in 2010, I enrolled in a double degree – graphic design and web development at Jönköping University.

In hindsight it’s baffling that I did this, given I was terrible at drawing. I rationalised that if the design degree had a web component it would be more digital and I would be okay. Out of 100 students enrolled in my degree most of the women chose graphic design and the men web development. I was one of few girls in web development. During the course, I enjoyed learning to code but still didn’t feel like I fitted the ‘programmer’ stereotype. I felt like a designer trapped in a web developer’s mind.

Coming to Australia

Towards the end of my studies I undertook an exchange program and came to Australia in 2013. Once in Australia I applied for an internship at a design agency as a graphic designer, but the owner of the business responded he was a graphic designer and what he really needed was a web developer, having noticed it on my CV. I had sent off my resume hoping that a graphic design role in Australia would be much more exciting than what I had experienced in Sweden during my studies. But, to my surprise, the company wasn’t interested in my design skills at all. In fact, I failed the initial design test! Instead, they were interested in what kind of websites I had built. This was the first time someone actually hired me to code and I have always seen myself as a web developer since then.

It’s now four years on and I am still the only developer at Letterbox.

Problems in the tech industry – where are all the girls?!

Being the only web programmer at Letterbox, I’ve had to be very quick with learning the latest web technologies and languages from online forums, Slack channels and blogs. After a while I started reaching out to the developer community to see how they were learning the same things.

I thought it was difficult to find inspiration and connect with other developers on my own. So, I started going to developer meetups and soon realised that I was the only woman in the room and since this itself was a rarity, the other attendees didn’t really know how to react to me. Instead of talking about technology and programming, I was hanging out in a corner, awkwardly eating a slice of pizza.

It didn’t take me long to realise as an industry we have a diversity problem and so I set out to debug it. I started searching online and found several articles on incredible women that were directing, leading and assisting tech teams but were struggling to find girls like me that were coding for a living.

That was until 2015, when I made a break-through and connected with Ally Watson – another female programmer who had been grappling with the same issues and had started her own organisation to have a positive impact, Code Like a Girl.

The initiative suddenly gave me a safe environment where I could network, attend meet-ups, participate in discussions and most importantly feel like I belong.

Debugging the problem – Code Like A Girl

I’m now donating my time to teach junior workshops and help young girls learn skills that I wish I’d been able to learn as a child. I’ve seen girls use their imagination to give me dance instructions (while pretending that I’m a robot), create extraordinary games on their computers, code together and explain complex coding terms like algorithms, functions and loops.

Every time we teach a Code Like A Girl junior workshop, I’m amazed at what these young girls are capable of and it gives me so much hope that we will have a whole lot of women in the industry in the not-too-distant future.

If you are a girl interested in tech and finding it hard to pursue your dreams because you’re in minority or because you don’t fit the stereotype, it’s important to know you’re not alone!

There are a lot of us struggling, but there is strong support out there.

Email someone who you admire and I’m sure that they will get back to you with suggestions and connections. Join a female tech group, attend their events and workshops. Join tech Slack channels and start a conversation with your classmates or work colleagues. You’re going to be surprised at how many other girls feel the same way.

Good luck and I hope to see you and many other females at future tech events.

Nina Mujdzic is a volunteer trainer for Code Like A Girl, developer at Letterbox and teacher at General Assembly.

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