An interview with Clarice Hilton

Clarice Hilton is the Programme Manager at Code First: Girls, a social enterprise that specialises in helping young women to learn coding skills.

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Clarice Hilton Code First Girls

Tell us about how Code First Girls came about and how you got involved...

Code First: Girls was originally set up as a programme in Entrepreneur First, a company that helps technical individuals to build their own tech start-ups with seed funding, office space and mentoring. The co-founders of Entrepreneur First - Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford – found that very few female graduates were applying, and those that did apply tended to come from non-tech backgrounds. Following huge demand, Code First: Girls was spun off as an independent company in September 2014 and we’ve continued to go from strength to strength since.

My personal involvement started when I took one of CF:G’s courses in autumn 2014. At the time I was working for a food start-up, and part of my role had involved helping to update the company website. It became clearer and clearer that an ability to understand the fundamentals of HTML and CSS would be really helpful. I found that I really loved the experience, and it happened that Code First: Girls was expanding at the time, so I had the opportunity to come on board as their programmes manager in early 2015.

My own role is mostly about managing the communities, courses and events that CF:G runs, and to help foster partnerships with businesses that want to diversify their workforce. I’m also continuing to study coding on the side.

What does Code First: Girls do?

Code First: Girls has two main brackets of activity; our community activities and our corporate services.

Our community activities include free coding courses, masterclasses and career development events. Our primary audience is female university students and recent graduates, and we currently run coding courses at universities across the UK, as well as non-university based courses in London.

On our corporate services, we offer coding courses for company staff and also help companies look at their tech talent recruitment and retention policies and processes, the focus being to help them better understand how to increase diversity in their workforce and how this could benefit their business.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Our biggest challenge at Code First: Girls is quite a comforting one – there’s so much interest! We hate having to turn people down, so our main goal at the moment is to keep scaling up and get as many courses running as possible to accommodate the demand.

We’ve also had a lot of interest from women outside the 18-25 bracket, so this autumn we’ll be expanding our offering to include courses for older women who also want to learn how to code.

Tell us about some of the most inspiring moments you’ve experienced...

We recently held our summer intensive course, in which students spent two evenings a week over four weeks developing a personal project with the support of our volunteer instructors. The moment when you see them present what they’ve been working on is always so uplifting and inspiring, particularly when you hear the women talk about how much they’ve enjoyed themselves and how their confidence has increased.

In a nutshell, why should people learn coding?

People should learn how to code because it opens up so many opportunities. Even if you have no plans to become a developer or to work in IT, in the future it’s likely to benefit practically anybody to at least be familiar with the basics. It enables you to have conversations with people who do work in the computing industry, and if you need to edit your own or your company’s website, you’re more likely to be able to do so without relying on a third party.

The government recently changed the curriculum to introduce coding to pupils as early as 5 years old. What do you think of this initiative?

I think it’s incredibly important to introduce children to computer programming skills from an early age. There’s a huge talent gap in the technical world in the moment, and the earlier children become familiar with the basic concepts, the easier they’re likely to find it to develop more advanced skills as they get older.

Does changing the curriculum go far enough, or is there more that needs to be done?

Putting coding onto the curriculum is a big step in the right direction, but of course there’s always more that could be done. Government initiatives can be very powerful, but the private sector and organisations like ours have a role to play too. In terms of reaching out to young people, we need to be developing projects that take help children to find the fun and creativity of coding. There are great organisations like Apps for good, Stemettes and Code Club already doing this, but it’s really important that all the different parts of the tech community are mobilised to get kids motivated.

Codefirst Girls

In a recent survey conducted by Farnell element14, we found that female teachers are generally less confident in their ability to teach coding than men. Why do you think this might be the case?

When it comes to STEM subjects in general, we definitely suffer from a leaky pipeline. There are fewer women with a background in coding and computer science, and it’s very difficult to teach something you don’t have a lot of experience with. That’s why it’s so important that we’re not just encouraging young women to enter the programming space, but also ensuring that teachers are properly supported.

What advice would you give for young women who are interested in learning more about coding and programming?

There’s no greater barrier to success than your own mind. Learning to code can seem intimidating at first, but it’s really not as scary as it seems. There are loads of fantastic resources out there if you do a little research. You can find some of the resources we recommend for self-learning on our website.

Do you think the landscape is changing for women in coding?

It’s become a widely recognised fact that there’s a serious lack of diversity as a whole in the industry. From speaking to a wide range of companies, we’re confident that the will to make changes is definitely there. It’s not a single issue though – we need to get more women into learning STEM subjects and engaging with computer science at an earlier age. When women do break into the industry, it’s vital to nurture their talents and encourage them to stick around.

Which coding languages do you think are the most useful to learn at the moment?

In our courses we focus mainly on the web development so we cover HTML and CSS for our beginner courses, in addition to more advanced courses in Python and Ruby, which I think are great languages to learn. In general though, it really depends on the area you want to get into. There are so many languages available that cater to a wide variety of requirements – it’s difficult to say that one is necessarily more useful than another.

Finally, where do you see Code First: Girls five years from today?

We’re working a lot on building ourselves into a true social enterprise and expanding our service to accommodate more women. This autumn we’ll be increasing our intake by around 50% - meaning over 450 women will be taught how to code between October and November 2015, which is really exciting.

Of course, we always say that the ideal outcome would be that the landscape would progress to a point where Code First: Girls didn’t need to exist at all, but until that happens we’re going to keep developing our service to empower as many women as possible to enter the tech space.