Dressed in all black, accessorized with a leather jacket and topped off with a blunt pink bob, Holly Peck doesn’t exactly look like your typical software engineer. But after surveying the room during a recent Women Who Code Vancouver event (of which Peck is co-director), it becomes clear that there is really no such thing as a typical software engineer in 2017.
The IT industry is changing. With exposure, encouragement, and education, the trade is becoming more female and more diverse. According to the United States National Center for Women and Information Technology, there was a 21 per cent increase in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science between 2000 and 2015. It’s a signal of growth, sure; but according to the same study, women only made up 25 per cent of U.S. professional computing occupations in 2016. Combating this homogeneity in the industry is Women Who Code, the non-profit that was founded in 2011 and has since expanded to more than 20 countries. Recently, Peck, along with three other directors, launched the Vancouver chapter, bringing the organization to a third metropolitan city in Canada, following Toronto and Waterloo.
Peck, a Vancouver native, came to technology not through her alma mater Princeton, where she studied anthropology, but rather in a post-grad career switch. Enrolling in a course first at Vancouver’s Code Core, Peck took her beginner skills to boot camp at New York’s Flatiron School. It was in Manhattan that she first attended a Women Who Code meet-up. “It was really amazing to be able to talk about projects, prototypes, installations,” Peck says. “It’s really hostile being a software developer as a woman. I had a really hard problem set that I was ready to give up on, but the women there really encouraged me to keep going.”
Relocating back to Vancouver, that sense of community was absent. “I was getting frustrated wondering, ‘Where the hell are all the meet-up groups? Where are the women who code?’” she says. “Vancouver is supposed to be this really incredible start-up city with all of this money, but there was no place for women here.” As an urban centre that prides itself on diversity, the burgeoning Silicon Valley of the North was falling behind.
Turns out, there were plenty of women in the industry in Vancouver who were waiting for the opportunity to connect. Launched in December 2016, the Vancouver Women Who Code topped 250 members within just two weeks. “Almost all women, almost all engineers,” Peck says. With such instant popularity, the group’s first event sold out in just five hours, prompting it to relocate from a small room at Microsoft to the company’s downtown corporate headquarters (each meet-up is held at a different location). “It was amazing,” Peck says. “Women were coming up to me saying that they finally feel like there’s a space for them in the industry.”
While organizations such as Ladies Learning Code have existed in the city for some time, Women Who Code is the first in Vancouver to focus on not just teaching, but acknowledging and connecting women who already have their footing in the industry. What differentiates Women Who Code is a strong business model (incubated at Silicon Valley’s famed Y Combinator) that aligns women with industry leaders. “People always ask me, ‘How do you create diversity? What’s the secret sauce?’” Peck says. “What we do is we partner with tech companies and use their space. And women and men come together and they kind of get to try on a hat, what it means to be a developer at that company. So they get to see what to see what being at that company means. And if they’re interested, they get to talk directly to a technical recruiter who’s usually at the event, and they go right into the job opportunities there.” It’s a simple system that is built on the concept of women helping women.
In February the group held another sold-out event at Vancouver’s Plenty of Fish, and has already planned more events at Brainstation, Mobify, and Clio. As for growing the network more, Peck doesn’t seem to be too concerned with that. As she explains, “As long as there’s a tech industry in Vancouver, there will be women who code.”