Cyber Summit keynote shares story behind her digital literacy initiatives for women and youth

Cyber Summit 2017 is excited to welcome Heather Payne, who will be delivering the keynote address on November 9. Heather is the CEO of the HackerYou College of Technology, a programming bootcamp based in Toronto, and the founder of Ladies Learning Code, a national not-for-profit that is encouraging thousands of women and girls to learn to code. Since 2011, Ladies Learning Code has expanded from its Toronto headquarters to over 34 cities across Canada.

Heather was also the founding director of Toronto’s Mozilla-backed youth digital literacy initiative, and was named one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network.

Join us at Cyber Summit this November in Banff, Alberta, to learn about Heather’s passion for technology education, how she's helping to make the tech industry more diverse, and her tips for companies and individuals looking to succeed in a digital world. Here’s a quick peek into what Heather has been up to!

What inspired you to start Ladies Learning Code?

In 2009, I was just about to graduate from business school in the wake of the recession and I thought that learning to code would help me differentiate myself. It wasn't something I had been exposed to before, but I loved it almost immediately! I taught myself to code for about two years, with help from Google and online tutorials. Learning to code on your own is tough — some months I felt like I was making lots of progress, and some months I made none. 

In early 2011, I was in LA for work when I came across a workshop for women who wanted to learn Python, led by the PyLadies. I signed up and was hooked! That's when I realized there should be a similar group in Toronto for women who want to learn to code.

I was inspired to create a beginner-friendly group for people, just like me, who wanted to learn to code but didn't know where to start or who to ask. Although men are welcome, the name "Ladies Learning Code" sends the message that this is a learning environment designed to be comfortable for women. Now tens of thousands of women have taken part across Canada — something I never could have imagined when I started the non-profit back in 2011!

What are the main barriers that prevent people from learning to code?

There are a lot of barriers to learning to code, but one of the biggest hurdles has to do with role models. Because coding and programming aren't mandatory subjects in school, there is no guarantee that a child will be exposed to it. Their only chance to learn about coding and programming is if they have a parent, friend, or teacher who introduces it to them. Further to that, it seems that boys are introduced more often than girls. Lower-income children are even less likely to be exposed to coding and programming because they lack the technology. There is lots of work to be done to make programming and coding something that all children are exposed to, in a friendly, positive, and meaningful way.

What other initiatives are you working on in the technology education space?

I'm currently the CEO of the HackerYou College of Technology, which is a Private Career College in Toronto that teaches people how to code, and helps them become developers through a nine-week Web Development Immersive. I started HackerYou in 2012 and we've grown to serve around 1,000 students a year from our 12,000 square foot facility, with the help of my 13-person team.

One of the things I love about HackerYou is its welcoming nature. About 70% of our students are female, so we're doing a lot to improve the "women in tech" problem, especially within the Toronto tech community. It's so exciting to watch students graduate and then see what they're doing with their skills years down the line! We have grads who are now starting their own companies, leading teams, speaking at conferences, and teaching others. It's very rewarding to be a small part of their journey.

Since you created Ladies Learning Code, has there been a key moment where you realized you were having an impact on people’s lives? 

My proudest moments are when I hear that someone's first experience with learning to code was at a Ladies Learning Code workshop, and now they're a developer. There are hundreds of people like that. A lot of them ended up coming to HackerYou, but many were also self-taught, went back to college or university, or learned at another bootcamp. But without that positive first experience with coding — where they realized that it's fun and creative and that they can do it — they might not be where they are today.

If you could make one bold statement that summarizes your mission, what would it be?

Helping people achieve their potential is my passion, and being able to do it though the work I do every day is so exciting to me. I'll never get bored of what I'm doing right now.

Want to attend the 2017 Cyber Summit? Buy tickets now.

Cyber Summit 2017 will focus on the issues surrounding technology disparities, and how they affect different regions, and different sectors. The event will help public organizations, tech leaders, and everyday citizens understand and communicate the need for unrestricted access to digital resources. And it will highlight the organizations, tools and services that are helping to close those technological gaps.

The Summit will take place November 8-9, 2017 at The Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta, with pre-conference workshops being held on November 7. Buy tickets now!