Meet the Tech Education Network

  • The TEN committee contains powerful women in tech: The broad range of backgrounds and experience on the team is impressive, and this starts with its three directors. Lisa Donaldson is not only the GM of Ormeau Baths who founded TEN, but has also been a City Lead with Women Who Code Belfast, on the Women in Tech (Lean In) executive, and is a code club mentor and STEM Ambassador. Julie McGrath is the MD of Graffiti Recruitment who is also a STEM Ambassador with a passion for bridging the gap between the education and employment sectors by giving everyone the opportunity to gain new technical skills. Zoe Gadon-Thompson is a Software Engineering student who wishes to inspire professional and personal development in all demographics across society.

    Hoping to turn TEN into a CIC, public good is at the heart of what drives the network: Feeling that some tech outreach initiatives can be unavailable to some people and that a unified network would help solve the problem, Donaldson used her experience as a mother, her technical connections and knowledge, and a heavy dose of research to found TEN with the help of her fellow directors and committee. She discussed the seed for her idea as being born from her Women Who Code role and her desire to find a suitable scheme for her young daughter. 

    “I started off TEN as a Women Who Code lead. WWC obviously support women in their tech career ambitions but we also felt youth was really important. We decided around November last year to see who wanted to get involved in youth outreach, so on behalf of Women Who Code I set up a training day and we invited lots of different people to get involved and TEN has evolved out of that.”

    “My motivation to get involved was from my 10-year-old daughter who at the time was 8. She was bullied and became withdrawn and isolated; she was a creative nerdy kid - she takes after her mummy a bit! So I wanted to find somewhere she could go. I knew she felt uncomfortable around much older kids, and would have been too shy to go to a club of mainly boys, so I had asked Claire Burn at Women Who Code if there was something for girls to do, and she said no - but it’d be really great if I made something!”

    It quickly became clear that the need for programs far surpassed the remit and scope of Women Who Code and Donaldson soon decided that creating a network that many organisations could be part of and network with would be beneficial. She was then on the hunt for other interested parties to drive the network with her, which is when she formally connected with Julie McGrath and Zoe Gadon-Thompson. McGrath has a deep understanding of the tech skills gap that faces Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole, which has motivated her to make the project a success.

    ”I came across TEN through conversations and networks in the local community, and then on catching up with Lisa, our conversations quickly spiralled towards youth tech education and outreach. My background is in recruitment and over the last three years I’ve been asked to go into many schools and community or outreach groups to support their careers efforts and give advice. I noticed that much of the careers advice being given was already 8-10 years old and it quickly became a frustration of mine that they were teaching an old syllabus that wasn’t fit for purpose, then we wonder in the tech market why there is such a huge skills gap when we’re giving advice on how to be a teacher, doctor, or lawyer when there’s a massive tech boom here at the minute.”

    “I was speaking to many different clubs and individuals who wanted to inspire kids and do outreach work, but there didn’t seem to be a cohesive group you could really put your shoulder behind. Through different conversations with Lisa and Zoe and the other members of the team, we seemed to share the same passion for inspiring kids of all ages into the tech network. My passion is to inspire the next generation so the skills gap isn’t left unfulfilled and we’re not left in another predicament: We see so much wasted talent from young people who are in the wrong jobs because they haven’t been guided in the right way to use those tech skills, so we want to signpost young people to people in tech we know, like, and trust that will follow on on our legacy and show them what they can do. We want in ten years to be telling success stories of TEN rather than having the same skills gap conversation over and over again!”

    Zoe Gadon-Thompson’s unique perspective as both a current student and mother has her well-placed to discuss the needs of several key demographics for TEN: Parents, current students, and those who are wanting to reskill into tech from non-STEM backgrounds. She made the switch from art to tech by signing up to study Software Engineering and has strong opinions on how our society marginalises the single parent.

    “I haven’t really been involved in the tech industry that long. I started studying my foundation degree last September at 21, so I was a few years older than everyone else. Being a mum, I felt like there was this expectation of me to only be that, so I wanted to do something else: I left my rubbish call centre job and wanted a career that paid more. I started going to meetups in the tech space and that’s where I met Lisa. I had all these ideas, but they were small ideas: when I heard about the gender pay gap, I knew that’s not the world I wanted my daughter to grow up in, so something has to change. It wasn’t a secret to me that there was a big gender gap, but it goes far beyond that: I didn’t want my daughter to grow up the same way I did being told girls are bad at math and having no aspirations other than working in a call centre job.”  

    “When I had my daughter I was exposed to several different groups, and single mums is where my passion lies. There is no incentive to work financially if you’re on your own as everything is paid for you, and that’s great, but it’s not leaving much room to inspire your kids. I can see people getting stuck in that trap like I almost did, so with TEN we want to aim for those groups that are being marginalised.”

    Each director echoed frustrating experiences of finding scattered and oversubscribed schemes, a lack of opportunity for marginalised sectors of our community to enter the tech industry, and an unbridged skills gap that everyone is aware of but is largely left unaddressed by action.

    “When I was looking to get my daughter into something”, explained Donaldson, “you heard code club and coder club everywhere. When I actually looked into it, there were two between us and Carrickfergus and they were vastly oversubscribed. When we go into the schools, we see that there is a really varying amount of tech available to the children. There are some schools that do want to do code clubs during school as the types of children they want to attract with the club don’t go to after-school activities. You’ve got single parents, those from poorer backgrounds, who just don’t have access if it’s not during the school day.”

    Donaldson was sure to point out that those who wish to be involved simply need a passion for tech: Schools and groups who are looking into TEN activities need volunteers who can inspire the young people they work with, and that comes from passion rather than acumen.

    “Teachers desperately want help to make tech come alive for their kids. They ask how they can do this, and they want someone from industry who loves it and has the passion for tech to come in and communicate that. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or super smart, you just have to enjoy what you do and people react to that.”

    Remembering a careers fair she attended, Gadon-Thompson recounted an awkward experience in which her chosen career was painted as boring and miserable. “ All these different companies were around me and were talking about what they were doing, and one of the teachers said to me that one of his friends was a senior java developer and he hates his job. I was left thinking “is that the only impression these children and the teacher have of a software developer?” We need to change how people view people in IT because we’re not all miserable!”

    McGrath was keen to highlight how diversity can address the skills gap if the tech industry can proactively become more inclusive and open-minded to the backgrounds it selects from.

    “I think whenever you go to those sort of workshops or reach-out groups, it’s much more about the diversity within the field and looking at other careers that involve or touch tech -- if someone’s creative or loves design or photography -- and making sure there’s much more awareness around jobs that involve tech rather than just programming. I know there is a huge programming skills gap, it’s the number one skills gap in the UK at the minute, however there’s so much talent out there within other groups and there are hidden gems within the NEETs community and other demographics. We need to ensure they have an awareness of what’s available to them, and that groups with disabilities who are maybe overlooked as well know where they could flourish in the tech industry too.”

    Donaldson readily agreed, adding that “TEN wants to be somewhere that volunteers within the tech community can hook people up with organisations who will always be eager for people to help. We really focused on how we can move beyond a network - to something that takes people in from industry and allows them to share their knowledge back out with the wider community. So we started doing just that. We sat down and created programs where we saw there were gaps but we also continued to work as volunteers in schools, events and signposting people to all sorts of existing initiatives.”

    McGrath discussed the first of these in-house programs and how it came about, which is a course in Digital MArketing and Design that is aimed at NEETs.

    “We had a call in for an information day from one of the youth groups in the town, and they were wondering how to make money from IT. We took that on as a committee and bounced around lots of ideas of how we can make these young people from 16-24 with disadvantaged backgrounds make money from IT. We set up a 6-week program that covers everything from how to set up a brand, including photography, digital marketing, digital design, web design, and programming. We are going to be rolling that out at the end of July to twelve young people who come from all types of different backgrounds, who have maybe been involved in the justice system or left school at a younger age. We’re trying to bring them back into a community spirit that can support them further. Once we have targeted the key areas it’ll give them exposure to what’s out there, but more importantly the follow-up and the network of people we’ve built up is in place.”

    Though young, the support for TEN across both the tech community and the education support sector has been incredible, which Donaldson was very keen to note during our interview.

    “We got really great support through STEM through the STEM hub here in Belfast with Julia Carson at W5, which means that anybody who wants to be a volunteer can come in and go through that training and then be registered straight away. We can go into schools and say “here’s a link to that person’s portfolio. You know now that they are qualified, cleared to work with kids, and know how to follow through.” We’ve had so much support from the tech community: For me as an individual I couldn’t have done this a few years ago. I’m 44 and I hid my whole life until I got involved in the tech community in Belfast. The amount of confidence they’ve instilled in me and the support peer groups have been phenomenal. This is just another aspect of our community, it’s just looking outwards rather than just enjoying ourselves.”

    The launch event is the best way to get involved with the work TEN plan to do, though Donaldson was clear that there will always be a need for interested individuals to come forward long after the informative evening and that there are other ways to get in touch with the TEN team. “You can make contact with us through our website, on social media, in person, through people who know us… we really would love for anyone interested to reach out to us and get involved. Better than that, we’d love to meet everyone interested face-to-face at the town hall: You can accomplish more in five minutes in a town hall than you can back and forward with emails!”

    Tickets are still available for the event and anyone with any level of tech skill can benefit TEN, so be sure to head to the Baths to hear more.

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