How do we fix the technology pipeline problem and encourage more women to work in technology? Hot on the heels of International Women's Day we're tackling a question industry has grappled with for a generation (or more). Elizabeth Tweedale is our guest, she is the founder of Cypher Coders, and on the back of enlightening research, she has a clear plan of action.
"What I think really needs to happen is a mandate from the national level to include at least some sort of computer science education from the elementary school age."
In our latest 'In Conversation With' episode we hear a clear pathway to create an inclusive, broad technology sector.
David Savage: Welcome to today’s episode of ‘In conversation with…’, this fourth series where we are focusing on the US market. And it’s in collaboration with UNLEASH who have their conference UNLEASH America at the end of May. In today’s episode, I’m very lucky to be joined by Elizabeth Tweedale. Thanks for taking the time to join us.
Elizabeth Tweedale: Thank you so much for having me on.
DS: You’re a native of Iowa.
ET: Yes I am. Middle America.
DS: Although moving soon to the Nevada California border, right.
ET: Yes, exactly. To Lake Tahoe. I’ve been in London for 15 years. So time to go back home.
DS: Sad to hear that you’re leaving London, but whilst you’ve been here, you founded a company called Cypher. Do you want to just very quickly, tell us a little bit about that company?
ET: Yeah, sure. So, Cypher teaches children between the age of six and 12, how to code. So preparing them for their futures, the digital skills that they’ll need. We do that through creative themes. And we’ve taught 1000s of students and we’re the leading UK coding school, and now branching over back to the US. So that’s a very exciting time for us.
DS: So where did the idea for Cypher Coders come from?
ET: My background is in computer science, and I also have a master’s in architecture. But, I previously co-founded an artificial intelligence company, which I wrote the patented AI for with my co-founder, and acting as CTO, I saw first-hand this digital skills shortage that was happening in the industry. I’m also a mom of three children.
So I thought, number one, how are we going to fix this? The only way is to actually start young with these children.
But then it led into number two, that there needs to be a better way to teach children computer science. And having been educated in computer science myself, in undergrad, I knew the ropes of what was out there and then thought I could tackle this and find a new way to teach.
DS: You mentioned that you’re a mother of three yourself. And you also mentioned that Cypher specifically looks at ages six to 12. Before we get into, why six to 12, when did you start thinking, as a mother; you know what, it’d be good for my kids to have an understanding of some of the languages or what software might be?
ET: This was about 2013. So my eldest child was about four or five by then. And interestingly, that’s when I was also working in architecture, designing buildings using code. I saw a lot of my contemporaries trying to teach themselves how to code and running up against hurdles because they were learning something like Python, just to upskill in that language, but not understanding the broader picture of computer science and coding.
So I thought, he’s four, he’s on an iPad already, he’s going to be even more digitally native than I can comprehend, or even people 10 or 20 years younger than I am. So let’s just give it a go and see how they learn and how they can pick it up. So I started small. And then since I’ve written six books, teaching children how to code and have done a lot of studies around how the brain develops at different ages to be able to learn this complex subject.
But [kids are] kind of like little natural computer scientists anyway, so it’s really just harnessing that natural learning that’s inherent in a four, five, six, eight, 10 year old, and building that knowledge of technology and computer science and problem-solving on top of it. So it was when my eldest was four years old when I thought everyone needs to know.
DS: It’s interesting that you mentioned that children have that inherent capacity to learn. But you have fallen on six to 12 as being an age that’s really important. I suppose you’ve obviously now got experience from teaching children to code and why that age is so important. Are there studies and reports that back up why that’s so important?
ET: Yeah, absolutely. That six to 12 age range comes from two different reasons. Essentially, in that age range, we’re able to target the most opportune time for creating the biggest impact at the earliest possible moment once the brain is equipped for learning.
So on the brain development side, I think it was the 2018 World Development Report that shows that the rate of development in human capital decreases as we get older. It’s one of those things we all inherently know but they really back this up. And so you can see brain development is almost at its full capacity by age six. So essentially saying that we get a higher return as we put in more education early on.
The second part is actually really interesting, shows that a STEM education journal study, that students’ interest in technology before the age of 13, is actually the precursor to their long term success in the educational system, and actually choosing not to progress within their education for their higher years education, but also within their careers moving forward.
So it’s kind of that sweet spot of brain development hitting almost full capacity at age six. And that crucial time before puberty, before 13, that we need to instill this at least interest in technology and coding, in order for them to want to actively take it forward within their future career. And that’s not to say that we want to create a world of little computer scientists – we all know that’s not the future workforce, right? But as a base level, the future workforce needs to have a proficiency in computing, understanding technology, problem-solving. And really, that’s the foundation based on coding; it’s not to create a world of little computer scientists, it’s just to educate us all.
DS: I think it’s really interesting that you point out that there is that real period where children are almost like sponges, and it inherently comes in very easily. And that’s been mirrored in studies about how we pick up language and we almost have a language acquisition stage that switches off around about puberty.
Do businesses recognize, when you’re talking to organizations, if you’re thinking about American companies, and I assume that they’re going into high schools, and they’re going into colleges, and they’re talking to the children and to young adults, but past the stage that we’re talking about, I can’t imagine that there are many who are going that far downstream to think about fixing the skills gap.
ET: I think you’re right, but I think it’s a huge opportunity that we have because a lot of the workforce have children in that age range. So we’ve worked with companies before to be able to offer it to their employees’ children, for example. So not only is it something that we need to focus on in order to fill that skills gap that will be coming in another five or 10 years.
So for those six-year-olds, yes, it’s past the 10-year mark, but to build a sustainable business, we will be thinking about 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now. So it’s something that, you know, we can put a number on, and we can actually support places for children and actively support the children of our employees, but also find middle schools and grade schools, elementary schools out there to support and educate and really just cement that interest and base proficiency in computer science and problem-solving.
DS: I agree with the sentiment of everything that you’re saying. The slight cynic in me thinks if you are a people or talent leader in an enterprise, with finite resources, and pressure around targets and performance – working with an elementary school, yes, will lead to perhaps solving problems 10 or 15 years down the track, but they might turn around and go, ‘Yeah, but we’ve got hiring problems NOW. And we need to fit our resources into problems, this problem solving NOW.’
How do you win the argument with someone? How do you go beyond ‘This is something that we agree with,’ to actual action? Or are there ways that these businesses can help fix this problem without it feeling like it’s a huge strain on perhaps limited resources?
ET: Oh, that’s a great question. But if we think about it from a different angle, what proportion of their workforce are parents and actually parents feel this pain.
If I was pitching this business for investment, I would talk about the pain of the parents knowing that their children need to be educated for this technological future. It’s their pain point. It’s their problem.
The industry is seeing it 10-15 years later than that six to 12 age range, but actually helping your employees that are parents fix their problems is a big win in my view. There’s also the Corporate Social Responsibility side, which I know is something that as industries, we’re trying to focus on more. And this nicely fits into that side of the business as well, because it is impacting their future and their future workforce, potentially. But it also is giving back to something that will change our society and be impactful for us going forward.
DS: I find it really fascinating that you talk about the fact that we don’t need an industry or a sector full of data scientists. I was actually having a conversation this morning with a contact, who was putting out a report on gender within technology, who was confused because they were reading one set of statistics suggesting that there were 31% participation rates of women within the technology sector, versus them knowing from years of tracking these results that typically speaking when we think about it is around the 17% mark, or that is the quoted number globally that’s generally accepted. And then we look at our numbers, and we say 15%. So they were concerned about where this 31% came from.
Do you think it’s because people are beginning to redefine what we mean by a technology career? And actually, that’s the explanation for why you’re saying we don’t need lots of little data scientists, it is this appreciation that technology is the foundation for many jobs now.
ET: Yes, absolutely. I think one of the things, [and] obviously being a female in tech, something that I’m passionate about is getting more girls into computer science, and 52% of Cypher students are girls. And I think the main reason for that is not just because we’re focusing on content that girls like, but it’s actually focusing on creative themes, like sustainability or design, to engage a broader range of children.
What I’m getting at there is that by thinking about what technology impacts and what industries technology impacts, it starts to define what kinds of jobs are technology jobs. And so the fact that we’re getting more than 50% girls into our courses, using things like conservation shows that we’re also getting a broader range of boys interested.
And that links up with what types of careers should be considered tech careers isn’t just the people that are sitting behind the scenes and writing out the algorithms, because those aren’t the ones that are necessarily coding it or making the websites; there’s kind of three little niche pieces of what you would call a coder these days.
If we look at something like digital marketing, and Google Analytics, and tying together all of these analytical softwares, people are behind the scenes writing a lot of code.
If you look at marketing, study statistics, and the gender balance in marketing, I guarantee you it’s more swayed towards the female thing anyway. So what we’re getting at is understanding and starting to adapt and change our understanding of what a technology career is. And that actually it’s starting to filter its way into all careers. So you will still have those hyper-specific, super sparse, CERN data scientists, of course, but we need to be able to understand that being in tech can also be in edtech, or prop-tech, or doing lots of different roles within technology.
DS: And whilst I agree with you, if I’m playing devil’s advocate, I have heard women in the industry say we shouldn’t be including project management or business analyst roles as technology roles, because they’re business-facing, they’re not technology roles, and that obscures the fact that we still need more women in in ‘hard tech’ roles.
What would you say to people who have that concern that if we inflate the figures by including a broader range of roles in technology, are we actually fixing the problem?
ET: The short answer is no, not if you just look at it by inflating the problem. But the access to thinking that you’re in technology and the psychology behind that would then change.
I am a huge proponent of ‘yes, we should have more representation of women and men writing algorithms’, for example. And that’s why, the patented AI that I wrote with my co-founder, we are in complete agreement that we wouldn’t have gotten to this amazing solution if it weren’t for the way that a female thinks and the way that a male think, so in order to create the technology of the future, we absolutely need to have representation of both female ways of thinking and male ways of thinking.
When I went to computer science school, it was a bunch of boys playing video games – luckily, I also liked to play video games I fit in, right. So if we can change the perception of technology, careers being ballooned out and broadened, then we’ll have more girls that will actually go into that hyper-specific data scientist or full-stack developer role because it’ll be more explosive. So I think you’d win still.
DS: So we get more six to 12-year-olds involved in or interested in technology, even in a creative sense, there is more chance of a high proportion of those going on to become kind of a data scientist who’s very, very technical.
ET: Absolutely, exactly.
DS: This is great that you’ve set up a company to address these problems. But why can’t public education fix these problems?
ET: That’s a great question. I think it’s a bigger issue, some public education systems do try to mandate the solving of this problem, such as the UK government having computer science as part of the national curriculum. That being said, in the US, it’s about a 50/50 split. But if you look at the different states, some of them include computer science in their curriculum, others don’t even offer it.
What I think really needs to happen is a mandate from the national level to include at least some sort of computer science education from the elementary school age.
That being said, it’s a subject that can’t easily be taught the same way that, for example, our grandmother would have used a French book to learn French, and we could probably still use the same French books, technology needs to move quickly.
Therefore, the education system that’s teaching about it also needs to be agile and adapt with the times. I think it really lends itself to a privatized solution. And, again, comes back to where industry can really help to support this within the educational system. So a bit of a top-down and bottom-up approach is really what we need to solve the education skills gap.
DS: This is one of my last questions, but it’s a quick one. And I think it probably is an opportunity to address parents in the states where you’re launching the courses, right? I look at myself and I have been culpable on God knows how many occasions throughout the course of my life of saying, I don’t do numbers, I don’t understand numbers – maths equations, they’re not my friend. I got through to GCSE, I then left it behind. I am a humanities student through and through. I don’t think I’d be able to learn how to code genuinely, I think that it would be beyond me now.
But what would you say to parents who go, ‘my wife and I were humanities students, what if my kid’s not wired that way? Are they going to be employable in the future?
ET: Well, what I would say is that all children need to learn how to code but also, coding is for everyone. And the content that we create with Cypher is built to engage a broader range of children. So we do things to inspire those creative types or those analytical types, or write a story and then use animation to act it out. Taking the skillsets and the interests and the love for all of those different ranges of things, and then just applying technology behind the scenes.
If you were a child, and you like humanities and those kinds of things, we would give you back content that’s going to engage you and bring you in. And then as a side thing, you also learn about algorithms and loops and repeat functions and how to use technology.
So it’s sort of like layering in the broccoli in between the like chocolate cake, so you don’t actually know you’re eating broccoli, and you love to eat cake. You end up being healthy in the long run. It’s the creative themes that really are the most important thing.
DS: Last point, then, if someone is watching and they’re interested and they’ve got a child is four, five, six years old, they’re coming into that age range. How do they find out more? How do they get their kid on a course?
ET: Yep, just go to www.cyphercoders.com.
DS: I really appreciate your time this morning and good luck with the move.
ET: Great. Thank you so much, David. It’s lovely to speak to you again.
DS: If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode of ‘In conversation with…’ please head over to the Harvey Nash Group website to see all of the episodes in this series, where we focus on the US and do head over to UNLEASH find out about UNLEASH America, where this conference will be focused on education and skills in the States.