Women In Tech Must Persist Says Kirthi Jayakumar in new column Codess of Small Things

Women in Tech

In Class X, I sat in the last row of my Computer Science classroom, barely able to understand a word that my teacher spoke. At some point in the class, I was dazed, and made a quiet observation that would come back fifteen years later, to haunt me. This was a classroom of about twenty-five of us. About eighteen were boys. All of them were in the front row, while the girls sat at the back row. The teacher talked to the boys – talked, not even taught – and so the lessons were tied to the first row, and were filtered into whispers caught in the wind by the time it reached the last row. Just your regular patriarchy saying hello.

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By the end of the class, I went to my teacher and asked him for help. He smiled at me, but not the benevolent “let-me-help-you” smile, but one that offered a “tumse-naa-ho-paayega” subtext. “Should have taken art, no?” I let the jibe hurt me for a while, enough to return as a memory someday in the future. But for then, I let it slide, cataloguing it in the files of my mind, waiting to retrieve it at an opportune time.

I had to be the Executive and the Electrician, the CEO and the Carpenter, and the President and the Plumber

Fast-forward eleven years. I was all set to found my own initiative, The Red Elephant Foundation, without a penny to support it. And so, I had to be the Executive and the Electrician, the CEO and the Carpenter, and the President and the Plumber. In a world that was just going to springboard towards what we know now as the tech-revolution, the internet and social media was the new playground, and naturally, I needed a website. I thought I was smart when I created a blog: but the interface lacks the power that a website offers. I spent days sitting on Google, searching for such things as: “How to change the background of a website” or “How to remove the older posts sign on a blog.” It was frustrating, tiring and confounding. There were times when I would close my eyes only to find a kaleidoscope of hashes, v-brackets, words like “html”, “body”, “</a>” and what not. I wasn’t doing such a lot with my coding, though, just small things invariably centered around beautifying a blog-based platform.

And still, I persisted.

(Sue me for finding a way to put that line into the article. HA!)

What began then to code websites as a one-woman-army stood me in good stead for a stunt I would attempt four years after that. I’d identified a problem. I want to be part of the solution. The problem was the lack of access to services specific to the needs of a survivor of gender-based violence, and I found that a simple tech-based intervention could do the trick. It started with a web app on an Ushahidi Crowdmap that led to the creation of the GBV Help Map. I worked with my team of volunteers, where we looked up organizations, verified their credentials and put them up on the map, segregating them into categories. And somewhere in the process of putting that together, it was apparent that only a few women would access the platform on a computer, and a mobile version of the web app looked something like me trying a fox-trot (pathetic, if you’re wondering).

What began then to code websites as a one-woman-army stood me in good stead for a stunt I would attempt four years after that.

So how would I manage this gargantuan feat, again?

I looked everywhere. Someone recommended an app called Fiverr. Whoever I asked, wanted me to shell out a neat one-kidney-worth sum, and well, I kinda need my kidney. A few coders came forward to volunteer their services, but however well-meaning, time was of essence and they didn’t have enough to spare. A corporate house agreed to get on board, but like a relationship where the partners lapse into silence and walk their ways one fine day, that bond splintered.

Then, the Codess of Small Things rose, again.

This time, the challenge was intense, different and a whole lot more abstract than it was before. Websites and blogs come from templates, and you can learn to modify things on the fly without worrying too much since the base code is already built. But a mobile app is a whole different ball game – especially if you don’t have a foundation in coding, or a copious understanding of coding in entirety. I wanted to this so badly, and I was willing to do anything it took – even learn coding from scratch. With time not in my favour, I turned to a brilliant course on Coursera called “CODAPPS: Mobile Coding for Entrepreneurs.” It made me cry, it drove me furiously mad, because I just wasn’t getting it. I’m always analytical and cause-effect in my thinking, and being one to work with emotions, situations and real people, I didn’t speak machine.

And still, I persisted.

The frustration was real, and my determination to cross the path was even more so. I went back to the conversation I had in that classroom. Fourteen year old Kirthi was (stop calculating my age!) given a message that day, one that she can recall and use even today: art. The answer was in art. I am an incredibly visual person, and what I can’t visualize is difficult for me to relate to. When I realized that coding from scratch was not going to get me there as quickly, that I was terribly rough around the edges, and that while I decided I would code, I could also rely on what they call “SDK” in the coding world – i.e., software development kits. I learned about them on the course. These blocks of pre-coded technology help you rely on several functionalities to put the choicest features together to build your app. It was smooth sailing, easy to understand and also gave me the flexibility to visualize things as I built it. Now, the app is well on its way, having survived a round of testing and raring to go for the next.

Today, when I look back on the journey, I can see so many nuanced truths. One, girls can science, too. Two, girls are resilient, incredibly tough, and persistent. Three, failing is perfectly okay – because you learn and grow, and evolve. And four, when you start knocking on doors, the right one for you opens.