You don’t code with your genitals

Jos Schuurmans 21-06-2021 Diversity Technology
Mimmit koodaa program coordinator Milja Köpsi.

Mimmit koodaa program coordinator Milja Köpsi.

Linda Liukas. Maaret Pyhäjärvi. Eeva-Jonna Panula.

Women in tech need role models and in Finland, these are some of the heroines paving the way. They are part of a movement that is working hard to foster diversity in tech, particularly in the software industry.

Mimmit koodaa is a network grown out of the Finnish Software and E-business Association, a member organization of more than 600 IT companies, promoting diversity and women’s career opportunities in software.

Pyhäjärvi is an empirical technologist, tester and polyglot programmer, international speaker and author, and trainer for Mimmit koodaa.

In April, Panula received the first Mimmit koodaa -award for her inspiration and contribution to the cause, handed by former President of the Republic, Tarja Halonen.

While not associated with Mimmit koodaa, Liukas is known for Hello Ruby, her coding book for children, her website Rails Girls, dedicated to helping women learn computer programming, her teenage crush on Al Gore, and her touching TED talk about the opportunity children have to embrace technology as a positive force.

The myth of the math genius

“There’s such a lack of talent. We could fill eight thousand programmer jobs in Finland right now,” says Milja Köpsi (links to Wikipedia in Finnish), coordinator of the Mimmit koodaa program and ‘Nordic Women in Tech Diversity Leader of the Year 2020’. “In an industry that is dominated by 30 to 50 year-old white males, looking at diversity to address the talent gap is a no-brainer. 20 percent of people in our industry are women, but if you look at what they actually do, they are mostly employed in human resources, customer service, executive assistant, and line manager positions. Tech? Not so much.”

Among the bottlenecks that Mimmit koodaa identified are a lack of female examples, lack of peer support, a poor understanding of the opportunities that the software industry has to offer, and a misguided image of the ‘mathematical genius’.

A few years ago, Mimmit koodaa started to address those bottlenecks by building a peer community, organizing workshops, and bringing in women who had earned their spurs in tech to talk about their careers and to teach others.

“We offered small introductory workshops: What does it mean to code? What programming languages can you learn? What can you achieve with AI? In one workshop we re-created the ‘worm game’ that ran on Nokia phones in the late 1990s.”

“Many women came out of those events with the realization that you don’t need to be a male mathematical genius to create code. It turns out that you don’t code with your genitals.”

Breaking down stereotypes

“Now we have some seven thousand people regularly attending our events, almost weekly webinars, social media groups and Slack channels. It has grown into a platform where women talk about balancing family life with a challenging job, as well as very practical aspects of software programming.”

Köpsi sees the impact of the movement not limited to gender diversity.

“As a society we’ve created this gender-dominated system. We need to have a broad discussion about stereotypes and what we expect men and women to be. When we perpetuate these stereotypes, we lose strength and skill.”

“It’s not just about gender, but also about non-binary people, people of color, sexual diversity, age, economic background and diversity of interest. We need that diversity everywhere in the workplace, because the users of our products and services can have any kind of background. In order to truly understand customers, we need to be at least as diverse.”

Last year, Mimmit koodaa trialed a recruitment training program with Saranen Consulting. “We had 400 volunteers to be trained for only 18 vacancies,” says Köpsi. “We are eager to do it again.”

A thing for data visualization

Lempea took part in that program and recruited software developer Emily Koskinen.

Emily had reached out to the Mimmit koodaa network because she was considering a career change. She had studied international tourism management in England and worked as a security officer at Helsinki Vantaa Airport.

“Just before the first wave of COVID-19, I took a three-month intensive bootcamp to learn javascript and full-stack software development,” Emily says. “I hadn’t done any coding before. It was very intensive. I learned a lot, but I still have a lot to learn. I found it really exciting.”

Then in October 2020, Emily was admitted to the recruitment trial with Saranen. The group had three days of training and were then matched with participating companies. Emily interviewed with Lempea and started a six-month traineeship. Towards the end of the traineeship in April, Lempea offered her a permanent position.

She works on visualizing data for RAIN’s front-end. “I’ve always been interested in statistics and research,” she says. “I like that you can make data clearer, easier for people to understand. I was quite into psychology at one point, even applied to study psychology at the university but wasn’t selected. Humans are difficult variables to quantify. Perhaps that has triggered my fascination for data visualization.”

“At the moment I work with this live video stream. At the back-end, an AI algorithm identifies different objects in the feed, like moving cars and people. I create pie charts and bar graphs to show how many objects are detected over time. Next up will be to visualize predictions.”

Mix the tech talk

Working in a predominantly male team is “business as usual” to Emily, she says. “Since I work at an entry level position, the way I communicate with colleagues is not yet super technical. I think I look at the product more from a new user’s point of view, asking a lot of questions.”

“Yeah, men and women do seem to communicate a bit differently. At least male senior developers seem to talk more technically. They also tend to be more straightforward, which can be good. Perhaps women keep a more external, general perspective on things. It’s good to have those different communication styles in the team.”

One of the challenges in filling programming positions is that every company seems to want to hire senior developers, and that segment is even more dominated by men.

Köpsi is outspoken: “Sure, companies need senior developers. But the reality is that we don’t have enough of them. So employers need to decide: will we steal them away from other companies, or will we raise our own seniors? True, it takes commitment, time and resources. But if you can do it, it’s a good way because when people grow inside an organization, they are often more loyal and not so easy to steal.”

“It’s important for us to be aware that we are not as diverse as we could be,” says Lempea’s co-founder and COO Jarne Atsar. “My experience is that when working with women who have made a choice for engineering, they are usually rather good at it. The challenge is really that there are very few senior female developers on the job market.”

Barriers to be removed

“Obviously this opportunity to get Emily on board was great for our team. I hope she will stay and grow with us and that there will be follow-up initiatives by Mimmit koodaa that we could take part in.”

“Especially in our Finnish environment, our male engineers tend to be a bit introverted. Being a startup, we need to mix our team with people who dare to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. I know it’s a generalization, but I like to think that women could shift the culture a little towards more discussion and initiative.”

“When you have more females, the conversations are not so harmonized. You get more different angles, points of view, and different ways to solve things.”

“Also in the school system,” Jarne continues, “the barriers for girls to take mathematics and science classes should be removed. I have four daughters, all of them excellent in maths, but they haven’t chosen to focus on it.”

(Jarne has expressed similar concerns on the Future Proof podcast by Workday Designers, in Finnish.)

Follow the data

At RAIN we see an ever increasing role for smart data collection, edge AI data reduction, availability and control across the edge-to-cloud continuum. Data is our bread and butter.

Are you interested in exploring how your data could improve your business? Then have a chat with our CEO Henri Kivioja. You can book a call with Henri here with no strings attached.