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October 30, 2014
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Movers and Starters: Heather Payne
Igor Bonifacic chats to the woman behind Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou

Photo courtesy of Jon Lim

Movers and Starters is an exclusive series that profiles the individuals who drive Toronto’s startup community.

Since starting Ladies Learning Code in 2011, Heather Payne and her talented team of co-founders, instructors, and mentors have helped countless women (and men) realize that learning to code needn’t be an impossible task. In that time, Ladies Learning Code has changed the lives of a lot of people, but it’s also had a dramatic effect on its creator. Here, Payne shares what starting Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou have taught her about entrepreneurship and, more importantly, about herself.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m the founder of Ladies Learning Code, which is a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that runs workshops for women and men who want to learn tech skills in a beginner friendly, social, and cooperative environment. More recently than that, I started HackerYou, which is a way to bring long form tech education to Toronto through a variety of three-month long courses. I just wrapped up a gig with the Mozilla Foundation where I was working with non-profits to help create programs that taught youth digital and technology skills. And I was the first investor in ShopLocket

You’re most well-known for starting Ladies Learning Code–want to tell us how it was shaped by your experiences in mainland China and Los Angeles? 

I never considered entrepreneurship as a career path. When I was in university, my plan was to get a job at a Fortune 500 company and work my way up. I spent my last semester of school on exchange in Hong Kong, and it was that experience that opened my eyes to the fact that maybe I wasn’t ready to move to Toronto and start my career just yet. So I found an excuse to stay in Asia by applying for a scholarship sponsored by the Chinese government. If the government accepted you into this program, they selected the city you lived in and the university program that you joined. I ended up in this amazing city called Xiamen, which is located in Fujian province near Taiwan. Academically, I wasn’t that into the program, but what it did give me was time to think and read. Being a young professional, I decided that I wanted to have a site for myself when I came home, so its at this time that I started learning to code; the thought of hiring someone to build my website for me never crossed my mind. I launched my own website within a few months, and I was hooked on the process. 

I came home to Canada and ended up at a job with a big company, and it was because of that company that I took a trip to Los Angeles in May of 2011. In LA, I came across a workshop for women that wanted to learn Python. That workshop, which was organized by the PyLadies, made me realize that Toronto could use a community and organization that helped women learn to code. So when I came home to Toronto, I sent out a tweet, asking people if they would like to meet up and put together something like the workshop I had attended in LA. I didn’t have big plans for it at the time: I thought it would be at most a dozen people that got together at a coffee shop once a month, and convinced a developer to come and teach us something.

Payne at Girls Learning Code. Photo courtesy of Women and Tech

If you can name one highlight from Ladies Learning Code, what would it be? 

I’m really proud of the fact that Ladies Learning Code is consistently able to offer such an awesome experience to people. My team and I have done an amazing job of bringing in the right mix of instructors and mentors, as well as making sure that the people that help teach our workshops know that we appreciate them. There’s also the fact that even though we’re a small, not-for-profit group, we’ve been consistently able to grow and deliver a great experience. Now, we’re also not just in Toronto, but in other cities across Canada. 

I’m also proud of what we’ve done with Girls Learning Code. I know that for the girls that come consistently to our workshops, it is going to change their life. Those girls that are coming once or twice a month to learn Ruby and Python are not only gaining skills that will help them down the road, they’re seeing how cool it is to become involved in technology. They also have these amazing female roles models in Laura Plant and Ashley Lewis who are showing them that it’s okay to be a girl and interested in tech. I would be surprised if, 10 years from now, we didn’t have some women in core tech roles that can say that they got their start at Girls Learning Code. I know it’s a long term view, but it really makes me excited. 

Beyond Ladies Learning Code, you also recently started HackerYou. Want to tell us what the company is all about? 

The idea for HackerYou came to me about a year ago. The people that took part in Ladies Learning Code continually told me that they loved the hands-on nature of the program and the low ratio of students to mentors. However, they also said they wanted to learn the things we were teaching over a longer period of time.

And at the same time, I realized that was something that I needed as well. At that point, I had been to every Ladies Learning Code workshop since the start–not always paying full attention, of course, because I was there to help run the event–and, through the workshops, I had gained about beginner-level skill in a lot of different areas. What I needed at that point, though, was to do something more intensive to help get me get to the next level. I also realized that although Ladies Learning Code had become this great organization, it wasn’t going to be my full-time job. 

So the Ladies Learning Code team and I created HackerYou. HackerYou is a regular company, because if you have instructors coming in to teach for several months in a row, you really do have to pay them (laughs). Besides, we really couldn’t find a good reason for it to be a non-profit… it didn’t need to be, so it’s a regular training company, though obviously we try to do things differently than other companies out there. 

We launched in June of 2012. Our first course quickly sold out and began in mid-September with Wes Bos as the main instructor. The results of that first course totally exceed my expectations, and a lot of that has to do with Wes being a truly amazing teacher and the fact that a group of truly awesome people took part in our first course–either because other courses out there did not appeal to them or for whatever other reasons they might have had. 

Photo courtesy of Jon Lim

In preparing for this interview, I read a previous article the Toronto Standard published on Ladies Learning Code. In that article, you said something that really stood out for me: “[Being technologically literate] means you are armed with the tools you need to be a creator–not just consumer–of the web. Even if you never actually launch a website, knowing that you can is empowering.” Can you expand on sentiment and tell us where it came from?

There are a lot of reasons why I think people should learn to create–and not just consume–things on the web. One, of course, relates to job opportunities. The more philosophical reason, however, is this: imagine back when humans invented the printing press. At that time, there was a select group of people that could read, write, and distribute their ideas using the printing press, and, for a time, this small, elite group took advantage of that technology to shape history. That’s what’s happening right now: there’s a relatively small group of people that know how to code, and they’re the ones creating the technologies that the rest of us use. If you don’t become a part of this group, you will forgo the opportunity to shape the future of our country, society, and the technology we use everyday. It’s totally up to you how involved you want to get, whether that means having a blog or a full fledged website, you should know enough to build it yourself so that it suits your needs. Or, for instance, let’s say you want to get involved in an open-source project: there’s a very small number of women in open-source projects–I think it’s about 2 per cent–so at this moment, most open-source projects are being created by men, and I wonder what kind of impact that’s going to have on these projects and how they are conceived and built.

Today, we can all participate, so, in a sense, why wouldn’t you? 

What would you say to young people looking to take a dip into the world of entrepreneurship, especially young women?

I guess the biggest thing–and this is something that I struggle with–is be extremely ambitious. Even in my own life, I act more risk averse than I should. I think that HackerYou could be a huge company if I decided to pursue that direction, but I’m having trouble making that decision. I know that I should act more ambitiously, but I also know the exact reason that I’m not.  

Do you mind sharing that reason? 

I guess it’s just a question of the person you want to be, and the life you want to lead; I actually love the place I’m in right now. For me, it’s a decision between being in Toronto and living the way I am now, having all my activities and friends here, or being one of those people that builds a company that operates in multiple cities with lots of staff members and customers that I wouldn’t see on a daily or weekly basis. I love knowing every single person that takes a HackerYou course, and I don’t necessarily want to give that up. It’s one of the decisions my team and I dealing with now and I can’t decide yet… It’s not an automatic choice.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be an automatic decision, and it’s perfectly fine that you’re having a hard time deciding? 

Yeah, and I also think that it’s something that time will help me sort out. Being self-funded, which is the path we’ve taken so far, it means that our options are slightly more limited. There’s only so much we can do with the limited amount of capital we’ve invested in our business. Studies have shown that women are more likely to self-fund their business and men are more likely to raise capital. I feel like I’m seeing that in myself, which feels both frustrating and right at the same time. I know all the typical differences between female and male entrepreneurs–there’s always exceptions, of course–and yet somehow I find myself following a fairly typical path. 

Photo courtesy of Women and Tech

If you don’t mind me asking, what are some of the main differences? I’m sure there are people who will read your interview and like to learn as well.

One of the major differences is the one I just said, which is that women are more likely to self-fund their businesses and men are more likely to seek out outside investment… (Payne takes a while to think over the rest of her response)… Personally, I like having no one to be accountable to other than myself, my team, and our customers. People that come to HackerYou or Ladies Learning Code are my main priority. Beyond that, I’m focused on making sure that my team and our instructors are happy and motivated. And so, in some ways, I enjoy not having investors say, “What’s your growth rate this month?” or “Hey, revenue is down–what are you going to do about it?” I’m motivated enough by the things that I’ve mentioned, and those things keep me going and pursing excellence in everything we do. I’m not sure if that’s how most people feel. In some ways, though, I think the dream is to do with your business what you want. 

That said, most large tech companies today could not have been self-funded. They required outside investment in order to grow to the point where they are now. So it all depends on what your company to be. 

Beyond your work and coding, what are some of the other things in your life that motivate and inspire you?

People ask me what are my hobbies are, and I literally tell them that my hobby is learning to code…(laughs) If I have free time these days, then I’m working on an app or website inspired by something I need in my life. For example, a few HackerYou students and I are working on rebuilding the Ladies Learning Code job board, with the help from Rebecca Putiniski from Xtreme Labs. In some ways, I don’t feel like what I’m doing is work. I lead this blended life where I’m spread out around these ideas of technology, education, learning, and self-improvement, and so it seems natural that I spend most of my time coding.

I’m learning to snowboard, which is slow and a painful process. I’m learning Rails at HackerYou’s Rails course, and, oddly enough, I’m learning how to type properly. I am a terrible typer (Payne shows me how she types; it doesn’t seem very efficient) I don’t know how I do what I do using only three fingers. 

Going forward, what’s next for you?

I have a bit of time now that I’ve moved on from my role at the Mozilla Foundation; it’s nice because I have been stretched thin over the past year. It’s not that I couldn’t handle it, but I definitely saw that I was doing too much, and I’m happy to have a little bit more balance in my life now. I feel like I’ve done a lot of great things with Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou, but I haven’t done a good job of documenting what I’ve learned through them; it’s something I think that would help people–it certainly would have helped me a couple of years ago. I’d also like to do more speaking at events and conferences and spend more time engaging with people. That’s the main reason I put in the time and money to design and develop my website myself: I wanted a good home for all the stuff that I want to do in the future. 

Finally, I’ve been thinking over this idea that came into my head a couple of weeks ago. I’m enjoying the HackerYou Rails course, so I’m toying with the idea of seeking an internship for this summer as a Rails developer. It’s exciting that I’ve gotten to the point where I could take on an entry-level technical role for a company or startup, and not just for my coding skills. It would only be for the summer, since HackerYou doesn’t offer any courses in July or August, and ultimately, I’m an entrepreneur, so I know could only work for someone else for a limited amount of time. 


Igor Bonifacic is a writer working for the Toronto Standard. You can follow him on twitter @igorbonifacic

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