EdTech and Academia: Meet Tara

This profile is republished with permission from TechSydney — an entrepreneur-led industry group that connects, supports and promotes the tech industry in Sydney.

Member profile: Tara Murphy, co-founder, Grok Learning

What led you to co-found Grok Learning; what was the “aha” moment?

My co-founder (and partner) James and I had been teaching large computing classes at the University of Sydney and running an online programming competition for thousands of students. To do this, we’d developed an innovative platform for giving students intelligent feedback and marking their assessments. At the same time, two PhD students who had been working with us on this project were keen to develop it further, but we couldn’t see a way to do this within the university. So the four of us decided to start a company, find a way to create a sustainable model, have greater impact, and create jobs for Nicky and Tim!

Grok Learning recently formed a partnership with the Australian Computing Academy to provide its platform to teach coding to year 5 and 7 students. How did this come about, and what’s disruptive about how Grok teaches kids to code?

James was one of the authors of the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies, the new national computing curriculum, and we have been heavily involved in school computing education for nearly 20 years. Grok and the university tendered for the Australian Digital Technologies Challenges and Cracking the Code project, as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda announced by the prime minister in December 2015. We were uniquely placed in technology and expertise to support teachers as they deliver digital technologies for the first time.

Our approach to teaching kids (and university students) to code is different because we don’t shy away from the fact that coding is hard! There’s a massive wave of “learning to code” initiatives at the moment, and that’s awesome, but many of the sites only touch the surface. We want kids to go away actually being able to code something useful, and to have some understanding of how coding and computers work. That is what will really empower them to be creators of tech, not just consumers of tech.

The majority of Grok’s staff are female. “Diversity” is a big buzzword these days, but there are also real, systemic problems with how tech businesses approach hiring and working with women. As a female co-founder and leader of a mostly female team, can you offer any insights into what practices and processes make a growing team thrive?

The biggest mistake people in science and tech make when thinking about hiring is believing they are running a meritocracy, but actually using very narrowly defined metrics to evaluate potential employees. I believe in hiring the best people, but if you consider the whole person when you define “best”, diversity naturally flows from that. In a startup you need people who are extremely technically capable, but you also need those people to contribute to all parts of the business — talking to customers, evaluating priorities, and building the system. We look for people that excel in multiple dimensions.

Another misconception is that small businesses can’t provide the support for staff that large organisations can. We have several staff that work part-time, including one who has just returned to work after having a baby. We also support people working from home. If you take the attitude that you can make this work (just like you have to with all other aspects of running a business), it is possible for a small business to accommodate more that you might initially think. By being flexible, you don’t limit the type of people who can work with you.

You’re a professor of astrophysics. Not gonna lie, that is ridiculously impressive. How do you balance your academic responsibilities with running a company? In other words, how do you hack your to-do list?

I won’t deny it’s a challenge, or that I am a bit of a to-do list obsessive. The absolute key is prioritisation — being able to get the most important things done. The biggest challenge coming from academia to start a business is that suddenly you don’t have that safety net that a large organisation provides. You have to go from being an expert in astrophysics, to an expert in finance, and hiring, and strategy, and everything else that comes with running a business. It’s been intense, but I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t also great fun!

How did you learn to code as a kid?

My primary school gave their old BBC Micro to my family when I was about 7 or 8, and my mum bought one of those “20 programs to write at home” kinds of books that consisted of pages and pages of BASIC source code. We worked on typing in our first program for several days; it was an English-to-French translator. When I got to the part where you typed in the English and French words, I felt completely disappointed — I thought the computer was actually going to know how to translate things. However, once I got over the disappointment, it was a great insight into how computers actually work, and was the start of my programming career!

Favorite piece of consumer tech that you’re currently using? And favorite place to hang out in Sydney on a Sunday?

I couldn’t manage all the different things I do without my iPhone, and my favourite thing to do on a Sunday is checking out all the animals at the Australian Museum with my 5-year-old son, Thomas. His constant questions are revealing all the gaps in my understanding of science and tech!

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