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HackerYou and Ladies Learning Code founder Heather Payne sees even bigger days ahead. ‘I’m really obsessed with quality, and the idea of being the best program of our kind in the world.’ (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)
HackerYou and Ladies Learning Code founder Heather Payne sees even bigger days ahead. ‘I’m really obsessed with quality, and the idea of being the best program of our kind in the world.’ (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

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Heather Payne: Closing the gender gap in coding Add to ...

Innovators at Work is a contest to recognize talented people who not only have great ideas but also turn them into reality through their drive and their actions.

Heather Payne graduated into a recession. So she moved to China.

While she was there, among other things, she taught herself to code. “I didn’t have a lot of exposure to it previous to that,” the 2009 University of Western Ontario business graduate says. But once she got the hang of it, she realized how important those skills could be to find work.

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After “moderate” success with her self-taught coding experience, Ms. Payne realized that “learning in a vacuum is really difficult.” She posted an idle tweet about a coding workshop in Toronto just for women. It took only a handful of those workshops to get the ball rolling. Ladies Learning Code was born.

Today, Ladies Learning Code workshops have taught women an assortment of coding skills in 18 cities. Its success prompted Ms. Payne to help launch an even bigger program: HackerYou, the first women-founded programming boot camp in North America. While it’s co-ed, HackerYou’s enrolment is about 75 per cent women – a huge contrast to other boot camps that sometimes have to push scholarships to get women in their programs at all.

Ms. Payne’s two programs help counter the critical problem of a lack of women in today’s tech industry, opening up opportunities to work in the sector that weren’t there before.

“Everyone is coming from a different walk of life,” Ms. Payne says. “A lot of people get a really bad taste in their mouth” from traditional school-based programming education, she says, but these boot camps and workshops “make a huge difference.”

HackerYou’s co-founders are Laura Plant, Melissa Crnic and Breanna Hughes, who came on board Ladies Learning Code early on.

While the beginner-focused Ladies Learning Code is already three years old, HackerYou is in the midst of its third nine-week boot camp for semi-experienced developers. (It also offers part-time classes for beginners.) The structure is very hands-on, with students quickly building websites or games. And instruction is personal: Ladies Learning Code has a 4-to-1 student-teacher ratio, with one teacher for every eight to 10 students at HackerYou.

Mandy Thomson worked as a video editor for 11 years before signing up for HackerYou. Hoping to make a change in her life, she almost started a food business before hearing about the boot camp.

“It really felt right,” she says. And, clearly, it worked: Right out of the program, she got a contract with Telus Corp. as a front-end developer.

“I’ve never been this engaged in something ever,” Ms. Thomson says. “You can tell [Ms. Payne] really cares about the students and finding ways for us to engage in the Web community.”

There’s only room for the boot camp to get better, Ms. Payne says. “I’m really obsessed with quality, and the idea of being the best program of our kind in the world.”

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