Article By Heather Wood Rudolph
Alaina Percival never envisioned a career in technology. But after a successful career in marketing and brand management that took her around the world, the 34-year-old quit her job, learned to code, and changed careers. Today she runs Women Who Code, a nonprofit mentoring and education group focused on increasing the number of women in all areas of the technology industry. Percival talks to Cosmopolitan.com about feeling the gender gap in tech and the importance of a good challenge.
NOTE: For those wishing to enter the coding profession, Micro Colleges like the Boulder, Colorado-based DaVinci Coders offers a 11-13 week intensive training to help enter this industry. There is currently a huge need for women programmers.
Female role models have always been important to me. After my parents divorced during my elementary school years, I grew up mostly with my mother and sister. My mother was very independent, and I could sense her strength, even at a young age.
I feel like I discovered the world when I was 17 and went to Europe for the first time as an exchange student. In high school, I always felt slightly awkward, but when I got to Europe, something clicked. Looking back, I think that realizing that the world is actually a very small place broadened my horizons. I learned as much about myself from the places I visited than I did from the place I am from. Later, when I started to travel the world on my own, visiting less-developed countries, I realized that the advantages we have can all be boiled down to the luck of where we’re born.
In my family, deciding not to go to college would have been a challenging decision. Everyone on my mother’s side of the family has a college degree. My father has advanced degrees. Going to a public high school in Atlanta, that expectation wasn’t exactly the norm. I had a lot of peers who would be the first ones in their families to attend college.
I went to Georgia State University on a Hope Scholarship, which is a full academic scholarship for Georgia residents with a certain GPA. It was such an amazing opportunity that I never considered leaving the state for college, even though I knew I wanted to explore the world. I ended up with an interdisciplinary degree with a focus on international relations and environmental studies.
I was always more extraordinary in science and math than my other academics, but I was never pushed to go in that direction. Even when I had a full academic scholarship to attend any university in Georgia, I didn’t even think to apply to Georgia Tech, where my father went. I think it’s really sad, and it’s a reason why we need to remind women and girls that technology is a great career.
When I was finishing school, I knew that I wanted to move to a country where I didn’t speak the language, but I also knew that to get a job, I needed to speak the language. I found a congressional scholarship for new graduates seeking international careers. There is language immersion for the first half of the year, and then an internship for the second half. So I went to Germany.
I looked at it like a marathon. If I could go to a foreign country and get a job, a country with 13 percent unemployment, and compete with native speakers, I could be competitive in my career for the long-term. My internship was with the office of international relations doing English-to-German translations for the EU and the Lord Mayor of Nuremberg.
I knew I wanted to stay in Germany for my first job, and I was really motivated to connect with people at Puma because it was one of my favorite brands. I decided that nothing was going to be a second choice. I just kept talking to people who worked there until I was able to land an interview.
I was 23 at the time. I had friends back in the U.S. who already had secretaries and were working on Wall Street. But people in Germany usually don’t graduate from college until they are in their late 20s. They looked at me and offered me an internship. I wanted a job, but I ended up accepting an internship because once you have experience at the company it’s easier to compete for a job.
I took the first full-time position I was offered because I was working under the most senior woman at the time, and I worked with the CFO and the CEO on the projects I was doing. I had exposure to very senior people within the organization and a great female leader to look up to. My boss was the business manager for the running division of Puma, and I was a retail assistant. My responsibilities included participating in product and design meetings, leading projects, organizing events for our retailers, and coordinating talent, such as the gold medal athletes who represented the brand.
My boss had a significant influence on me. She was extremely busy, but every time she spoke to me, she was very present. She always made me feel like whatever I was bringing to her was the most important thing at that time, that I was the most important person in that moment. That’s an amazing skill that I certainly hope I am able to emulate.
Even though Puma is a large company, they really allowed me to take on as much as I was willing to do. So at the end of the day when I was finished with my work, I walked over to another department and asked them how I could help them. In that way I was able to connect with more people and move up very quickly. I owe a lot of my success to the fact that I was always willing to do more. There’s a time in your career when it’s going to really benefit you to hustle.
Within a year, I was offered the position of international niche product manager. I was in charge of our collaborations with designers and our custom shoe program. I worked with the legal team, managed operations, marketing, PR, and helped in all aspects of store development. I was pretty early in my career, and I was in a position where the people reporting to me were in more senior positions than me.
I knew I always wanted to get a higher degree. Working at Puma, I was already ahead in education because four-year degrees aren’t as common in Germany. But without an MBA, I knew it would be four to five more years before I would get promoted again. I started to think about what to do next. I had been away from my family and the U.S. for four years, so I was excited to think about coming back.
I left Puma in the summer of 2007 and started an MBA program at Georgia State University, which I finished at the end of 2008. It was a really cool program that allowed me to travel. I had sessions in France, Brazil, China, and Atlanta, and I did my final internship at Versace in New York.
After graduation, I went to work at Nfinity in Atlanta, which was the top women’s cheerleading shoe manufacturer in the United States. I was the brand manager in charge of launching their first-ever women’s basketball and volleyball shoes. I was competing with Nike and Mizuno. I wasn’t in a position to throw money at things or use elaborate marketing techniques, so I learned to focus on influencers — people across all industries that could spread the word about our brand. It takes just as much effort to convince someone who can influence 3,000 as it takes to convince one athlete or mom that they should buy your shoe. It was a challenge, and I really like challenges in my career.
This was a small company of about 10 to 15 people with a profit of about $15 million each year. I was the head of my department but typically managed freelancers and one employee under me. It felt like a startup, and I understood the value in thinking outside the box. That’s when I started to think about how to translate my skills into the tech world.
So after two years with Nfinity, I quit my job and decided to move to San Francisco in the spring of 2010. I didn’t have a job lined up yet. I wasn’t in a rush to figure out my next step. I was moving to a new city, getting married, and changing industries. I started volunteering, consulting for startups, and created a few of my own side projects, including LocalTasting.com, a mobile website that suggested only notable restaurants in the area around you. I launched in San Francisco, NYC, Atlanta, and Berlin.
I quickly learned that to compete in the San Francisco market I needed to learn to code. I started with Chris Pine’s book, Learn to Program. I still use that book. But I found that going to events made it easier and more fun. I started attending startup launch parties, speaking events, tech conferences, and RailsBridge workshops, which teach you how to code using specific programs.
I was coming from a world where marketing and branding are the most important departments in a company. It’s absolutely not true in tech. I felt as though I was a little bit out of place. I had to struggle with learning new skills. That’s when I started Women Who Code, as a meet-up group to help me gain a better understanding of the industry. I posted an announcement at the RailsBridge website. They do some promotion of events. But it’s mostly been word-of-mouth.
Initially, it was just a great place to network and get together and code. We’d sit with out laptops in a conference room at one of the cool tech companies that donated their space to us. We kept the structure to a minimum to encourage collaboration. This enables a beginner and senior engineer to find value at the same event. There was no instructor, just everyone working on their own projects and networking with each other. Study groups and hack nights are still core programs at Women Who Code.
The community grew quickly to a few hundred. The first event was so popular we decided to meet weekly to work on Ruby on Rails, an open-source coding program. It wasn’t long before a second programming language was added. In addition to networking, many events include a short talk by one of the members. This often gives women their first opportunity to do a tech talk. The rest of the time is spent coding.
It was just a fun thing where I got to hang out with smart girls. For the first year I didn’t want to broadcast it because it was like a cool club. I didn’t want it to get too big and lose that feeling. But after that, I felt that more people should have this too.
That’s when I focused on expanding the organization. I started by just bringing up Women Who Code to everyone I talked to. If there was a way they could help, we figured that out. For example, I met a woman named Stephanie Shupe at a Github party in 2012. She had just learned to code and was looking for her first job as an iOS engineer. At the event I encouraged her to get involved with Women Who Code leadership. She went on to co-build the Women Who Code iOS group with Michele Titolo, our current CTO. She also ended up accepting an iOS role at Lookout Security. Lookout has decided to come on as an official partner and financial sponsor of Women Who Code.
After working briefly for a series of startups and doing my own side projects, I ended up at Snip.it in 2011 to become their director of marketing. When Snip.it was acquired by Yahoo! in 2013, I accepted a job at Riviera Partners as the head of development outreach, which means constantly interacting with the tech community. Riviera Partners is the top technical recruiting firm. They place more than half of the VPEs and CTOs at funded startups, so I got to spend a lot of my time working with some of the smartest people in the tech industry. I also saw there weren’t nearly enough women getting these roles. It was my job to interact with the engineering community, and that could include Women Who Code. I also managed Riviera Partner’s charitable efforts with a focus on getting more underrepresented groups into engineering. This included great organizations like the Level Playing Field Institute, Code2040, and of course Women Who Code.
There were many different groups around getting women into coding. I wasn’t the first who started a women’s coding group. Early on, there was a lot of debate if we would allow men into events or if we would try to keep it only women. There were some very vocal people in the group who said they really appreciated having it be women only. I was conflicted at the time because we could have had even more high-level mentors with both men and women. But I think we did it right by keeping it all women.
Tech is a great place for women to be. It is the future of every industry and one of the few careers with a starting salary close to $100,000. My goal is to make that understanding the norm. We need to create a cultural shift where women discuss their success and also for society to be enthusiastic when they do. That’s a major issue we’re trying to tackle.
Women Who Code received nonprofit status this summer, and I quit my job at Riviera three months ago to do this full-time. I now have a staff of four full-time employees, all of whom are paid, plus a team of more than 100 volunteer leaders who participate in our events. Many of our leaders are becoming leaders in the tech community as a whole. They are speaking at tech conferences and receiving awards, in part as a result of the work they do with Women Who Code.
I have invested a lot of my own money to make Women Who Code a success. Now we make most of our money through in-kind donations. We’re doing about 500 events this year. At each of those events, we’re getting space, personnel, Internet access, and food and drinks donated, and at least $1,000 from the company that hosts us. We’ve been hosted by more than 100 great companies — Nike, Zendesk, Yelp, CapitalOne, Hired, Twilio, Google, Facebook, Etsy, Dropbox, Square, Heroku, One Kings Lane, HipMunk, TaskRabbit, and many more. We also have formed financial sponsorships with a handful of wonderful partners, which are all represented on the Women Who Code website. In the future, I think most of our funds will come from large individual sponsors. We are hosting our first-ever women in tech awards and our first fundraiser this fall. My goal is to raise $1 million this year. We now have more than 16,000 members who have signed up for our newsletter and attend our events.
The tech community is very supportive of community groups. It’s part of the culture to help each other. Every industry going forward is going to be a tech industry. Nike is one of our sponsors because they are hiring 200 digital positions this year. Fashion, health care, finance, all of these industries are going to be involved in tech. These are job skills that everyone should have. The primary goal of Women Who Code is to provide an avenue into tech. You will meet people in the industry and you will learn to code — for free. Tech isn’t for everybody. But cashing in on the opportunity to see if it is may be a worthwhile investment to make.
I want to see Women Who Code grow to our goal of 1 million women connected in tech by 2019, but if I were to leave it in the next five years, I would consider venture. I’d love to use my experience working with great women in the tech industry to see more women becoming successful entrepreneurs. I’d want to work in any way to help create a culture shift that makes women feel comfortable talking about their career successes and have it be culturally acceptable for them to do it.
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Article Source: Cosmopolitan