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Toronto founder of Ladies Learning Code wanted to 'scratch her own itch'

Heather Payne started Ladies Learning Code with an idea for laid-back technology workshops where beginners would feel empowered to ask questions and build their technical skills in an comfortable environment.

This idea has since flourished as a self-sustaining, women-run not-for-profit group, with sold-out sessions. Their courses include intros to Photoshop, HTML and they even host a summer camp for girls!

What was the inspiration behind Ladies Learning Code?
Ladies Learning Code was inspired by a workshop experience I had when I was in Los Angeles on work assignment in May of 2011. At that point, I had taught myself to build websites (thanks, Google!) and I wanted to dive deeper and start to learn a programming language so that I could build simple applications – entirely as a hobby. But I found trying to learn how to program on my own really tough.

I wasn’t sure what language to choose, or what tutorials to try, and I didn’t know any developers or others who wanted to learn, so it was pretty isolating. I’d almost given up, but then I came across that workshop in LA.

It was organized by a group called the Pyladies, and it was a great experience. It was comfortable, and social, and it wasn’t intimidating. We all asked tons of questions, and never felt silly about it. It made me think that, if this is what computer science class had been like during my first year of university, I might not have been so turned off.

After the workshop, I wrote a blog post about my experience, and the tweeted about how we should have a group in Toronto for women who want to learn how to code. It got retweeted a bunch, and then I started getting emails from people who were interested or joining or helping. It was pretty amazing.

Did you imagine it would be as successful as it is?
Definitely not! I had no idea that so many people would be interested in the idea. When I’d received about a dozen emails from people interested in joining in or helping out, I decided to organize a brainstorming session to bring together people interested in making the group a reality. When 85 people registered, though, I started getting excited.

At the brainstorming session, we decided as a group to organize a workshop for exactly a month later, not knowing where we would host it, or what we would cover, or who would teach it, or any of the other details. We ended up offering a JavaScript workshop and it sold out in a day. Now, just about nine months later, over 1000 women (and men) have participated in a Ladies Learning Code workshop. Plus, we also offer day camps for girls, under our Girls Learning Code brand.

We’re an incorporated not-for-profit, but we’re almost entirely self-sustaining. Not relying on grants or large sponsorships means we can focus on providing a best-in-class experience for the people who attend our workshops.

Why did you specifically want to help women?
Interestingly, Ladies Learning Code didn’t start in an effort to address the lack of women in technology. In fact, I wasn’t even fully aware of that problem when we started, which I’ll blame on my non-technical background (I studied business at university).

Starting Ladies Learning Code was one of those “scratch your own itch” situations. I had such a great time at the Pyladies workshop that I wanted something similar to their group to exist in Toronto.

It was later that I realized that Ladies Learning Code can actually have a role in exposing a new group of people to technology.

Will Ladies Learning Code solve the issue of the lack of women in the technology industry? Certainly not – that problem is a big one, and will require sustained effort from many different groups. But we’re spreading digital literacy, and we’re also showing people that, in fact, women are really interested in acquiring these skills. I mean, just in case that wasn’t already clear.

How important is technology to our daily lives?

Technology, and in particular, knowing how to use technology effectively, has never been more important to us on a day-to-day basis. And that trend isn’t going away. There is a ton of energy right now around the idea that knowing how to code has become a fourth literacy, and even typically non-technical roles are becoming more and more technical in nature.

Everyone should be working on improving their skill set, and for people who are interested and have an aptitude for programming, this is a great time to re-train and start a second career. The great thing about learning to code is that there are more and more resources popping up every day, both offline and online, that make it possible to learn without quitting your job and going back to university or college.

How do the skills taught by LLC empower Canadian women?
There are two main reasons Ladies Learning Code workshops are empowering – one is tangible, and one is more intangible. First, at our workshops, you learn tangible skills. By the end of the day, you’ve built your first website, or written your first program.

There’s something incredibly empowering about the idea that maybe, just maybe, if you spend a little bit of time every day enhancing your skills, you’ll eventually be able to build something yourself, without having to hire someone to do it for you. Lots of women have launched websites after attending one of our HTML & CSS or WordPress workshops, and many of those women are just getting started.

The other reason Ladies Learning Code workshops are empowering is less tangible: it comes from the fun of challenging oneself to learn something new. Learning how to program, even as a beginner, is awesome exercise for the brain. At the end of our workshops, a lot of women take the time to come up to me and tell me about their experience, which I really appreciate. A lot of the time, I hear that they feel exhilarated, because of the challenge, but also because they were able to tackle it. As adults, we need to seek out these types of learning opportunities. There’s something about dancing right on the edge of our comfort zones that is thrilling.

What do women need to succeed in business?
To succeed as entrepreneurs, women need the same things as men: perseverance, confidence, and a certain level of comfort with saying, “I need help”. Among many other things, of course.

When I was first getting started as an entrepreneur, I sought advice from people who had been at it longer than me. That’s when I realized something else: that feeling like you not exactly sure what you’re doing is part of the game.

So, to succeed as an entrepreneur, you also need to be comfortable with the unknown. Sure, we all have plans, but most people who are working on start-ups are doing things that haven’t been done before, or haven’t been done in this market, or at this price point, or under these new conditions. Plans don’t always pan out, and successful entrepreneurs can effectively handle that stress. It actually motivates them.

What inspires you?
I’m inspired by the idea that people who take initiative can make great things happen.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years/10 years?
I get really excited about the idea of disrupting education. It’s a really exciting time – there is a lot of really cool stuff happening in education right now, mostly fueled by technology, but also fueled by growing levels of dissatisfaction with our current system.

The opportunities in education (both to do good, and make money) is what gets me excited to wake up in the morning. I also love the idea that we – anyone, even young people – have the opportunity to chip away at an age-old institution, and replace it with things that work better for the world we live in today. I have a few exciting initiatives, outside of Ladies Learning Code, that are already in the works. You can follow me on Twitter for announcements – I’m @heatherpayne.

Heather Payne | @heatherpayne
Heather Payne is the founder of Ladies Learning Code, a Toronto-based not-for-profit startup that runs wildly popular workshops for women (and men) who want to learn computer programming and other technical skills in a social and collaborative way. She’s also working on a project for the Mozilla Foundation: her job is to build a community of people in Toronto who care about raising youth as web makers. She’s an investor in ShopLocket, and in a former life, Heather helped startups like Pinpoint Social and Shopcastr to acquire their first users.