Best In Class: Our Pick of Northern Ireland’s tech educators #3

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  • With technology developing at an ever faster pace - and the flow of new tech skills critical to our economy - the role that tech educators play in Northern Ireland has never been more important. 

    In our third instalment, we would like to celebrate (in no particular order) some of our tech educators...

    Jen Hanratty – Django Girls & Women Tech Space

    Jen Hanratty is a software engineer at SpotX, having made a switch into the tech industry after raising a young family. Jen is involved with Django Girls, which provides free 1-day workshops for women. More recently, she set up Women Tech Space which provides a monthly space for women to come together to learn, network and support each other in their career, no matter what stage of their journey. She is passionate about continuous learning and making the industry a more welcoming place for women.

    Django Girls provides free 1-day workshops for women. It runs twice per year and has been fully booked on every run. The women who attend try out some of the skills needed to deploy a web application using Django and Python, supported by a team of coaches.

    Women Tech Space spun out of Django Girls and provides a regular monthly slot for women to come together to learn, network and support each other in their career, no matter what stage of their journey.

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    After several years being at home with small children, I decided to switch careers completely. I was mostly self-taught and  in 2017, completed a remote intensive course. This meant a lot of late nights after kids had gone to bed, a lot of working solo. Django Girls was initially an opportunity to meet women in similar situations, get out of my comfort zone and gain a bit of confidence but quickly became a tool to motivate and inspire other women to do the same.

    Now that I am in a role of a software engineer, and know that it can be done, I am more motivated than ever to show this as a viable route for women, especially those that have children. This is a really awesome career option for someone who has a lot of other responsibilities. I can work from home, at night and keep learning and improving upon myself every day. I want other women to know that they can do this too.

    What do you enjoy about it?

    I really enjoy the people I get to meet. I've met so many fantastic people over the past few years and made some really good friends. There is such a buzz of anticipation and excitement on Django Girls days and everyone comes away with something new, a motivation to try something different or just change one thing which can lead to just about anywhere. I love chatting with the people that come along and hear their motivations for attending and what they take away from the day.

    The women that attend share life stories, make important connections and hopefully realise that being stuck or breaking something is ok. It's part of the learning process in becoming a better developer. Once you get over that fear, you can do anything you want.

    Django Girls HQ have provided such a great tutorial to follow. It is not like other tutorials (and I've done a lot!). The DG tutorial takes a person through all stages of development, from an introduction to the command line, virtual environments and version control to deployment. Learning the Python language itself is not the end goal, but having a finished product that you can take home and continue in your own time. We have had previous attendees make the career change after attending Django Girls, and we have had a good number return as coaches, which is amazing. 

    The coaching team that we have at Django Girls Belfast are second to none. They are incredibly dedicated and motivated, and regularly give up their spare time to help women that turn up. Super thanks to them!

    What are the challenges you face?

    Mostly time. Sometimes I can feel like I'm pulled in about 20 different directions. I have Django Girls, Women Tech Space plus my own job, a family to manage and a thirst to learn. It can get overwhelming and difficult to switch off at times. In saying that, I wouldn't change any of it for a second. 

    What’s in store for the future of Django Girls?

    We have lots in store for 2018 for Django Girls. We hope to have an announcement due very soon which is very exciting and a few more workshops in June and November, so watch this space! I am hoping that 2018 will cement Django Girls Belfast into the fabric of the local tech community and a go-to for any women wanting to enter the industry.

    I would like to continue with Women Tech Space and gain more understanding of what the women who attend these events want to achieve, so that we can support them accordingly. 

    And ultimately what I want, and what I'm going to push hard for in 2018, is to get local companies to put their money where their mouth is and recruit more people from non-traditional backgrounds. They are doing themselves a huge disservice by not considering an army of incredibly motivated people who just need that one chance to prove themselves.



    James Atkinson – PwC Big Data Summer Camp

    • My name is James Atkinson and I am 27 years of age and from Lisburn
    • I attended Friends School before studying Business Management at Northumbria University
    • I joined PwC in September 2011 as part of our first Technology Consulting graduate programme
    • I am a manager in our Data & Analytics team in Belfast but split my time working between our Belfast and London offices

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    Initially it was about self-development as selfish as that may sound. When I first joined the firm there were opportunities to visit local universities and schools to present on what a Technology graduate role in PwC looked like. I wanted to improve my presentation skills so I volunteered. Since then I have always maintained a close relationship with our Recruitment Team in Belfast and always make sure that I support them when my day job allows. 

    What do you enjoy about it?

    The look on students faces when they realise that they don't necessarily need a technical background to work in Technology. I studied History, Geography and Economics at A-Level and Business Management at university and never imagined I would have a career in Technology Consulting. When I first joined the firm I took part in an extensive 16 week technology training programme to prepare me for the professional world. I believe explaining this to students is important. It makes them more likely to consider a technology career with PwC and gets them asking me more questions about my professional journey and what it is like to work in PwC.

    What are the challenges you face?

    The main challenge is around getting students to understand that it doesn't matter what career path you choose, the need to be able to understand technology is increasing. Advances in technology continue to impact all industries and therefore being 'tech-savvy' may give you an advantage when applying for future jobs. 

    What’s in store for the future of PwC’s Big Data Summer Camp?

    We are running the Big Data Summer camp again in July 2018. The feedback from the students last year was very positive but there are a couple of changes in store for this summer. We are looking at doing a couple of site visits to leading tech companies in Belfast as well as introducing some new content and practical sessions to the week. Last year we ran this initiative in our Belfast, Manchester and London offices, moving forward I would like to think we could roll this out to all of our regional offices. 


    Simon Hewitt - Django Girls/Women Tech Space/Google Developer Group

    Simon is a software engineer currently working as a platform engineer in Flexera, but has seen tours of HP, WANdisco, Shopkeep and Alert Logic... He likes sunsets and long walks on the beach, mostly as an opportunity to try and work through whatever piece of code is currently causing him headaches. 

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    Like many in my position I seem to have never used any information I actually was taught in university, learning all of my good and bad habits in production. I was very fortunate throughout my career to have access to colleagues who were very accommodating to the stupid questions and ridiculous scenarios and gently pointed me towards wisdom and not hurting myself. Being involved in tech education and meet ups seems like a natural way to give back and apologise to all of those people.

    What do you enjoy about it?

    There are many motivations required to drag yourself out to Farset at 7pm on a  rainy Wednesday night after a long day of work nightmares to try to explain something to some of the best and the brightest. The most obvious is passing on any knowledge that I have on a subject, even if in some cases it is a fine example of what not to do. More so is the requirement to understand the subject matter at hand to the point where I can explain it to anyone from a beginner to battle scarred veteran.

    What are the challenges you face?

    The simple reality is that there is so much to learn and know, with new technology, techniques and methodologies being release seemingly by the hour that trying to keep on top of everything is a constant struggle - determining what is useful and what is not  and then diving into it to try and develop some understanding. Thankfully I am fortunate enough to be working in a city with a population of smart people all delivering and collaborating in a vast number of meet ups who all help with knowledge discovery and dissemination.

    What's in store for the future of Django Girls/Women Tech Space/GDG?

    Django Girls continues to go from strength to strength, largely driven my the huge amount of effort that goes into it by the team lead by Jen Hanratty. We are moving to a biannual schedule which doubles our workload, but also gives us the opportunity to assist twice as many women be introduced to development or learn something new.

    Women Tech Space is still in its infancy but looks promising already. Our proudest achievement to date has been standing back and watching attendees pair together and resolve the issue that they've been working on. Empowering people to solve problems and develop new ideas is incredibly rewarding

    Google Developer Group continues to march on, with new faces showing up in the organising group and better minds than mine leading the way in presenting new topics. We're hoping that following the success of our one day Android Workshop (with huge thanks to Gareth Fleming) we will be able to run a few more to give people a slightly deeper dive into a subject that we can achieve in a normal evening. 

    Also of interest is the work we are doing with Code 4 Good. Starting initially with a one day hack at QUB, we are looking forward to running 2 hacks early in the new year looking at Transport in January and Space in February. The website is currently a work in progress, but if you want any more information get in touch on twitter at @code4goodNI and I'll provide as much information as I have).




    Margaret Debbadi - Head of Digital Technology and Computing at Campbell College Belfast

    Margaret Debbadi has over twenty years’ experience in teaching ICT and Computing.  She is the Head of Digital Technology and Computing at Campbell College Belfast where she is responsible for the delivery of ICT, Digital Technology and Computing to KS3, GCSE and A-level students.  In addition, she is Principal examiner for GCSE ICT with CCEA and co-ordinated the development of the new GCSE in Digital Technology for CCEA, for which she will continue in her role as Principal Examiner. She is the co-author of a series of text books designed to support the CCEA GCSE in ICT and Digital technology and is a member of the Computing At School NI Committee whose aim is to assist schools in the provision of a high quality education in computing in both primary and secondary education.  In her role as Head of Department at Campbell College, Margaret has developed a wide range of curricular and extra-curricular programmes of study which support students in the development of computational thinking skills and to encourage the continued study of Digital Technology and Computing. Many of Margaret’s past pupils have progressed through third level education and into very successful careers in the computing and ICT industries.  

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    My interest in technology was sparked through my own study of GCSE Computing some years ago.  I enjoyed the problem solving aspect of the subject and the challenge associated with code development, debugging and testing and then the final feeling of satisfaction when a coded example works as planned.  Having progressed from GCSE to A level and then a degree level qualification in Computing my interest in this area did not lessen.  I found I received greatest satisfaction from helping others problem solve using technology and programming languages and so my career in teaching began.  Outside of the classroom, my efforts of late have been focussed on the development of a current and accessible curriculum in digital technology which will help encourage our young people into this thriving NI industry.  I have received much satisfaction from knowing I have had a key role to play in the development of a curriculum area which plays such an important role in our local educational system and economy.

    What do you enjoy about it?

    I achieve the greatest level of satisfaction teaching young people in the classroom, particularly when they have that ‘light-bulb’ moment when a difficult concept is unexpectedly comprehended.  Teaching is about finding ways to inspire young people but also allowing them to inspire you.  Students interests in the area of technology extend way beyond those areas we can cover in a fixed curriculum and working with students outside of those areas in after-school clubs and workshops is both enjoyable and challenging.  The work I also do outside the classroom provides great opportunity to network beyond the school setting and this I find invaluable in the development of interesting and inspiring programmes of study.

    What are the challenges you face?

    The challenges are numerous but the three key issues I currently face are:-

    1.        The focus in education has moved from the use of computers to solve tasks through the use of generic applications towards the development of specialised applications through the use of programming languages.  As an undergraduate the modules I studied at university were primarily focussed on software development through the use of procedural programming languages.  The focus not tends to be more towards the use of Object Oriented Languages and for me the biggest challenge is finding the time to keep ahead of the skills students are developing in this area.  A key point to succeeding in this challenge is to take the time to not only learn through professional development courses but also to learn from the students I work with. 

    2.       The fast paced changing face in technology in general also continues to present a challenge.  The students I work with are more technologically aware and are developing a keen interest in areas such as cyber security, robotics and digital application development and I feel it is our job as educators to help harness and appropriately direct the skills our students are developing.

    3.       Provision of time and curriculum restraints both tend to place restrictions on the content we can deliver to our students in the classroom.  Students with an interest in areas such as cyber security and robotics can only really explore these areas in afterschool clubs which then puts additional demands on their time outside the classroom. 

    What’s in store for the future of tech education?

    For me the future of tech education needs to be led by the demands of our young learners.  They are the people whose interests we need to feed and maintain and we need to take our direction from them.  Tech education now means so much more to our young people than the development of skills in programming and app development.  For educators, the reintroduction of programming into our current curriculums has resulted in a dramatic need for upskilling. The incorporation of the additional demands of our future leaders in the technology industries will mean our educators must remain current in their own upskilling journey.  Ensuring we prepare our student appropriately for the place of work will not only mean ensuring continued provision of support for our students but it will also require significant investment in our technological infrastructures and the exploration of links with industry partners who are willing to offer outreach programs to support our students.  Not only do we need to ensure our pupils and our educators are well versed in the skills required by our industry partners but I feel it is important they are also experienced in the exploitation of technology in a way that is current in the industry.  This could mean giving students the opportunity to complete group work projects remotely through teleconferenced links, facilitating exploration of robotic technology and supporting our young enthusiasts in their investigation and application of cyber security methodologies. 

    A lot of the work I have carried out recently with organisations such as CCEA and Cyphra I feel has helped pave the foundation for our students in these areas.  It is important to look to do this through both the curriculum and extra-curricular options we facilitate in our schools.  When co-ordinating the new GCSE Digital Technology specification myself and the team of teachers I worked with looked towards not only making initial steps towards the re-introduction of programming into the curriculum but also towards inciting interest in areas such as cyber security, cloud computing and current technological developments. 

    At Campbell College, the introduction of the Cybercenturion competition has inspired career interest in this area in a significant number of our students.  I also hope to continue to encourage interest in this area through the CyberFirst Adventurers Course (run in conjunction with Cyphra and NCSC) which we are hosting at Campbell College in February 2018.  Extra-curricular clubs focussing on robotics technology in addition to hosting of a series of coding series of Sentinus facilitated workshops have also sparked an interest robotics and in the students in our college and has been key in illustrating to me the interest among the students in our College.  In an ideal future however I would want to be able to offer our students accreditation in qualifications which would illustrate their competence in specialised areas such as robotics and cyber security and this is where links between our examination boards and industry partners can help!


    Siobhan Matthewson - Senior Teacher and Authour

    Siobhan lectured in Computer Science for 12 years before joining Lumen Christi College in 2000.  As a senior teacher there, she delivers the A Level in Software Systems Development (CCEA) and GCSE in Digital Technology.  She works closely with education stakeholders across NI in the development of new digital skills specifications and creates resources to support the learning and teaching process in this area.  As an author, she has written a number of textbooks and e-books to support the digital skills curriculum. 

    What made you get involved with tech education?

    I have always been involved in tech education from teaching Pascal in 1987 to C# today.  I believe there is a real need to embed computational thinking and elements of computer science into our curriculum now.  This will give our young people a basis for considering computing as a career.  It will give them the chance to engage and contribute to a real growth area where there is potential employment and good salaries.  The CCEA A-level in Software System Development provides a great opportunity for the study of fresh, relevant and up-to-date material.   In 2013, I wanted to teach it but my programming skills were rusty and the thought of embarking on teaching object-oriented programming was very daunting.  I worked with the Foyle Learning Community, Ulster University Magee and the Digital Skills Group in the North West to develop a programme which would enable teachers to deliver the new A Level.  Teachers were released over a 16 week period to study the material associated with the A Level. From that I gained confidence and I haven’t looked back. 

    What do you enjoy about it?

    Students nowadays are consumers of computing and they have a real understanding of what is possible. As developers, they are using their knowledge of real world applications and applying this to interface design and the development of functionality.  I can see engagement and creativity emerging during the problem solving process.  In addition, I am connected to a wide community of practice; companies like Allstate, Kainos, Cyphra and organisations such as Computing At School, CCEA and our two universities are making a concerted effort to support schools in their endeavours.  This type of collaboration is bound to ensure that provision is targeted to the needs of the Northern Ireland economy. 

    What are the challenges you face?

    One challenge is keeping girls involved in the computing curriculum so that they have the chance to be a part of the talent pool and become employed in the sector.  I know this is a common theme but more needs to be done to address any gender differential.  Only 10% of cyber security roles are filled by women.  Competitions like the Cyphra – Cyber First Competition for girls, will help discover potential and may influence subject choice.  The new CCEA GCSE in Digital Technology provides an excellent stepping stone for all students to explore their potential in this area. Also, I am passionate about ensuring that teachers have the opportunity to partake in training and to keep their skills up-to-date.  It is vital during this time of tight budgets that we continue to encourage and facilitate the much needed teacher professional development in this area. 

    What’s in store for the future?

    Tech ed is not just about coding.  I believe that it is necessary to expand computing in the curriculum and to provide every student at school with the chance to study aspects of computing and computational thinking.  Every subject has something to offer in this area and the skills gained are highly transferable and valuable in a wide range of disciplines.  I enter students into the BEBRAS Computational Thinking Challenge annually and they have competed in the All-Ireland final; this competition is about discovering potential – a key activity if we are to awaken interest and create a sustainable model to address the skills deficit in NI.


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