In Conversation: Melissa Sariffodeen and Lisa O’Brien

Leaders from Ladies Learning Code and the Scratch Foundation discuss the importance of coding, communities, and correcting misconceptions

Executive Director of the Scratch Foundation Lisa O’Brien (left) and CEO of Ladies Learning Code Melissa Sariffodeen (right) are deeply committed to empowering and engaging communities when it comes to digital literacy.

By My Nguyen

Even though they’re separated by hundreds of miles and the Canadian-United States border, both Melissa Sariffodeen and Lisa O’Brien grew up in circles where few women knew how to code.

That lack of knowledge was not at all equal to their level of interest or understanding of computing. But in those days, computer science-related classes were largely targeted at boys. Without inclusive programming classes available, Melissa and Lisa resorted to teaching themselves.

“I actually taught myself to code as a kid in the early to mid-90’s when our family got our first computer. At that time, I did a bit of Java, but it was mostly HTML. That really that was it.” Melissa said.

O’Brien’s experience was similar, but came later. “I’m self-taught and know how to program in Scratch. I feel a real commitment to trying to change that landscape, and to invite more girls into those classrooms.”

Now, both are leaders within the coding space — Melissa is the CEO of Ladies Learning Code and Lisa is the Executive Director of the Scratch Foundation — and deeply committed to empowering and engaging communities when it comes to digital literacy.

The Scratch Foundation recently invited Melissa and Lisa to join us for a conversation around the importance of coding for all, and specifically, for girls.

This discussion has been condensed and edited for clarity.


To start, Melissa, can you tell us what Ladies Learning Code is?

Melissa Sariffodeen: Ladies Learning Code is a non-profit organization. We started as an organization focused on helping adult women learn how to code. We launched Girls Learning Code after seeing great enthusiasm from girls as young as three to five years old. We’re really growing and expanding our mission as an organization. Last fall, we launched Canada Learning Code. For us, it’s all about envisioning a Canada — or a world — where people have the ability to harness technology for personal professional fulfillment. That is the goal. What that looks like right now is in-person coding and other digital skills workshops in school, after-school, and various other settings.

Lisa O’Brien: I love how you used the phrase “personal professional fulfillment.” I think a lot of the narrative that we’re hearing is about the pathway to jobs, which is important. But there’s also that personal piece — learning to code can change how you see yourself in the world and what opportunities are in front of you.

MS: For us, that’s a key piece when we think about women and girls. The fact that I know how to code, or I have this skill, makes me walk through the world more confidently. That’s what it can be about for many girls and women. Not everyone is going to be developer.

That seems aligned with the Scratch Foundation’s mission. Lisa, can you talk a bit more about what the Scratch Foundation is?

LO: The Scratch Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, so we’re separate from the Scratch project that sits at the MIT Media Lab. The Foundation was created primarily to support Scratch, and really to build support for the ideas that underpin Scratch, like creativity and self-expression, and empowerment.

It seems like both Ladies Learning Code and the Scratch frame coding differently than other programming organizations and platforms. Can you talk about why these experiences are important for everyone?

MS: We know that that the looming shortage of ICT workers exists, but for us, it’s really about knowing our community and recognizing the power in having confidence and practical skills beyond just the tech industry. Most of our community don’t become developers; rather, they take on a varied role, or their role is changing, and so they’re adapting to that.

Girls Learning Code programs are designed to help girls see technology in a whole new light — as a medium for self-expression, and as a means for changing the world

We don’t know what the girls who attend our programs will be doing in five, 10, 20 years — I don’t think anybody does. It’s about having them understand how to tackle problems and how to use and build technology, and not just use it. We want them to be able to shape it. It’s hard to know what the future will look like, but we do know that technology is increasingly a part of it. If we can provide these opportunities to build, create, problem-solve, and fail, we at least know that these skills will translate into a world we don’t know.

I remember when I spoke to the Code Mobile team last year, they shared the story of a woman business owner who just wanted to create a website for her business.

MS: Yeah, we just had two young women — Lauren and her sister Ashley — visit us in Toronto. They took some of our workshops and eventually expanded to hardware to design wearable technology that they just debuted at a fashion show in Calgary. They were previously in school, but now they’re home-schooled. They have their own company called Robots R Fun that makes education kits for teachers, and they create wearable fashion as their studies. They’re 11 and 13. That’s why we do it, right?

It’s exciting for us to see things like that. One of Lauren’s first workshops with us was with Scratch, and then HTML and CSS. Coding is a part of what she’s doing with her hardware projects, and it was the spark and connection that she needed. Then, she applied it to fashion — something she’s really passionate about. You just need that one experience that sparks something bigger.

LO: I completely agree. Another thing that I was thinking is that we both do community — but in different ways. Scratch has this robust online community where kids can meet, share ideas, and learn from one another. At Ladies Learning Code, you are creating this in-person network for women, which I think is so important. It supports the learning, and it serves moving forward no matter what you do. Having that supportive network and community is key.

MS: I couldn’t agree more. We’ve had so many people, including partners and other organizations, ask about our decisions regarding what tools, languages, and technologies we learn, teach, and use, and that’s one of the main reasons I always give when it comes to Scratch — the community piece. There’s such a vibrant community of people, resources, and organizations that are using it. Also, that fierce commitment to accessibility is so important for us, never underestimating the fact that it’s available in multiple languages, online, and offline. That’s what helps foster adoption and community.

I actually want to touch on the community piece as it relates to National Girls Learning Code Day. This May, Ladies Learning Code will host the fourth annual event. Melissa, can you share its origins?

MS: Yeah, that’s such a good question because I don’t actually really know. [laughs] Either in the shower, or in a car somewhere, I decided that coding should be a national holiday. And, for the same reason that we have Girls Learning Code, we wanted to create a day that is explicitly welcoming to girls and women. We have this community of girls and chapters that is growing — we’re up to 30 and counting! How we can bring together all of these different cities and chapters in a powerful way? We are all about in-person, meaningful experiences, so it was obvious that it should be presented as workshops using Scratch.

We also saw all of these different opportunities, like Scratch Day. That was actually an important consideration in picking our timing and date. We wanted to be a part of a bigger movement.

Scratch Day is a global network of events where people gather to celebrate Scratch, the free coding platform and online community for kids.

I like what Melissa said about prioritizing meaningful experiences. We use the word “meaningful” a lot with Scratch, too. Lisa, can you share how the Scratch Team has been working to engage young people in meaningful programming experiences?

LO: The Scratch Team is working hard to meet young people where they are, and to find different entry points. One of my biggest pet peeves is the language that’s used around “getting girls into coding.” They’re excited; they want to learn; they want to code! We don’t have to get them to do anything. It’s much more about inviting them to see the possibilities and then engaging in a way that’s meaningful to them.

You’re most motivated when you’re creating things that you care about. The kind of “cookie-cutter” approach of following a set of instructions and coming up with the same project is not that motivating or exciting. I’m a former art teacher, and I didn’t teach art that way either. There are so many similarities between art, music, and coding in terms of why you engage with it. Because it’s meaningful to you in some way, right?

Why are events like National Girls Learning Code Day, or spaces designed specifically for girls, so important?

MS: It’s about being explicitly welcoming to girls and to women; that’s the most important piece for us. But it’s also about inspiring and exposing people — these big initiatives draw attention!

You can do what we’ve done for years — which is to approach things slowly and steadily through workshops. That’s super, super important. But, you can really amp that momentum when you do something fun and engaging. We want to do really big, fun things that also involve the government, industry leaders, funders, and partners to get everybody excited. Once you work together, and you all see that impact, it makes it easier to do all of the other stuff throughout the rest of the year. My new favorite saying is, “An object in motion, stays in motion.” It’s about putting these things in motion.

On May 13, 2017, Ladies Learning Code will host its fourth annual Girls Learning Code Day in celebration of Scratch Day.

LO: For girls, it’s also this idea of being a part of something bigger, you know? Additionally, I think some kids dip in or maybe when they get exposed to something, the timing might not be right, but they may come back to it. Having several opportunities to give it a try is important.

Melissa, what has the response to coding initiatives been in like Canada?

MS: We’re in such a cool time for coding right now. Our federal government is super excited about teaching kids to code! They actually just announced a fund of $50 million over the next two years for a kids coding initiative — this is unprecedented for Canada!

Our organization was actually mentioned in the budget speech as one of two organizations in the country doing great work in the space. Our team is pumped! The investment is there; the private sector is getting there. As a country, we’re small population-wise, so the momentum or excitement that might exist for Girls Who Code — we don’t have that here yet. But the federal government calling us out means that the average person who may not have heard or realized that coding is important can now see that the government is committing to it.

Microsoft recently commissioned a survey focused on young girls in Europe, which found that many girls become interested in STEM topics around age 11, but become disinterested by age 15. While the reasons they lose interest are significant, I’m more interested in learning how we can nurture girls’ innate passion for these subjects.

MS: It’s so tough, because there are a lot of players in this space, with so many different things that we want to tackle. Overall, we need to create more opportunities and more spaces for girls to have meaningful experiences.

I think we also need to be thinking about how technology has been framed and gendered in the past, and how we can change that. How do we create enough role models? How can media, like movies and television, better portray women and girls in this space?

There’s a lot we can do to make sure that these experiences are meaningful, so that girls stay engaged and excited, and — I hate the word, but — persist. I feel like “persisting” means there’s this bad environment that you’re persisting through. But that is a part of it — creating and shifting the balance.

LO: I also think it’s about being in a lot of places at the same time. With Scratch, we talk about reaching “all kids,” and one way to do that is in schools. So, for us, it’s making sure that Scratch is available and accessible in school; but if you’re having an experience that may not be particularly creative at school, knowing that there’s a library, or a makerspace, or a CoderDojo, or another group with a similar opportunity. To your point, Melissa, then, maybe we’ll start to see a critical mass of girls who are staying. They’re not just driving by — it’s sticking.

MS: Yeah, I mean, I could go on forever. I think the U.S. has had a bit more success from that perspective than even we have in Canada.

LO: It’s still a process here. It’s not one solution, it’s lots opportunities and entry points.

What is one common misconception about girls in coding that you hope to correct in your work?

MS: I mean, that it’s not cool, you know what I mean? It’s a piece we don’t talk about in our programs, but one of my personal motivations is to correct that — to make others realize that coding is cool, and the people doing it are cool, and to amplify those people. Really, this is for everyone, and it will take you where you need it to take you, and there’s so much opportunity and power in that.

National Girls Learning Code Day builds on LLC’s mission of teaching girls 21st century digital skills and encouraging them to tell their story through digital media.

LO: Along those same lines, there’s a narrative out there that for kids, coding means making games. But making games can sometimes feel gendered. And there’s more to it than that — you can create so many other types of interesting things, not just games. I’d like to think that we’re fighting that misconception.

What has surprised you about this work?

MS: The biggest surprise was a good surprise. Prior to Ladies Learning Code, I worked on a bunch of different things. What I found so interesting about being a part of the tech community first, and now the non-profit community, is that it’s so open and collaborative. I think Scratch’s commitment to being open-source, accessible, and free — that is the tech community in a nutshell as I’ve experienced it.

I don’t want to disregard the fact that there are hostile environments for women in the tech industry — but the way the industry as a whole approaches solving problems was so surprising to me. It’s like, “Hey, we’re just going to put our stuff out there for anybody to use.” That was super awesome to me — and that’s something we’re applying to the work we do now.

LO: Speaking specifically about Scratch, I think it’s just the sheer size of the Scratch community. It’s also the eagerness that kids have to make stuff. It’s profound for them— there’s this tool that exists, and you can share what you make and put it on the site for everyone to see. For me, it was like, “Wow, it’s just so big, and it’s used so broadly.”

What are you looking forward to in the future?

LO: There are so many things. I’m looking forward to seeing a broader understanding of why this work is so important. We’re doing a good job of getting the word out and sharing our ideas and our stories, but I think there still are some people that don’t fully understand the value and the benefit for young people. So, I’m looking forward to more awareness in the future.

MS: Well, Girls Learning Code Day! That’s one thing I’m looking forward to. I’m also excited about this huge commitment that the government has made to this space in Canada. There are still a lot of unknowns and work to be done, but as someone who’s been advocating for six years for leaders to notice that this is important, it’s encouraging. I think what we’re going to see in Canada in the coming years is a lot more interest, excitement, aptitude, resources, and support. Things are going to change a lot from what they’ve been, and I’m ready for that.

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