Meet The British CEO Whose Org. Teaches More Women To Code Than Any UK University

This article is part of an exciting series we launched in 2018 called Today’s Wonder Women – designed to celebrate the inspiring, impactful, empowering and extraordinary things ordinary women are doing every day. Over the coming months we will be sharing interviews, essays, articles and guest posts about women who are creating change. If you have a story to share and want to add your voice to the Today’s Wonder Women conversation, get in touch by emailing

Meet Amali De Alwis. She is a pioneer, a CEO, and an all-round badass in an industry which is accustomed to singing the praises of men on a daily basis. Amali is the CEO of Code First: Girls, and has just been named the UK’s most influential woman in tech. Throughout 2018 she was featured across a number of UK and US publications, including The Times and TechCrunch, and took part as a speaker at leading diversity and tech events such as London Tech Week and Dublin Tech Summit.

Code First: Girls is a multi-award winning social enterprise working with companies and women to increase the proportions of women in tech and over the past 4 years it has delivered £4.2 million+ worth of free tech education, taught 6,000+ women how to code for free, and has helped companies to recruit and train better tech talent in their firms. At the end of 2017, Amali spearheaded a campaign to teach 20,000 women to code by the end of 2020.

The reason we are highlighting Amali in our Today’s Wonder Women series is because the work she is doing deserves more recognition. Her org. is credited with teaching more women to code in the UK than British universities do! Their approach to engaging a demographic which is only in recent years being sought out by the tech industry explains why they are having so much success.

We had a chance to ask Amali about her own career path, her work with Code First: Girls, and her advice on how others in the STEM world can do better to ensure girls, especially women and girls of color, are not left behind.

Tell us where your interest in coding and computer programming came from?
My first experiences of coding were learning simple Basic as a kid, and then I learned Fortran as part of my engineering degree. But my focus wasn’t on coding, it was on building things – whether that was sewing a waistcoat for my Barbie doll or making a radio with my electronics set, I didn’t mind as long as I was making something and using my creativity.

What barriers, if any, did you face in your own career as you progressed through the STEM world?
My career has swung from footwear design and manufacturing to quant research consulting and thought leadership, and I’ve been fortunate to have some great supporters and mentors along the way with each of them. There are always hurdles that you encounter as you develop your career – companies or roles that can’t give you the type of career development you are looking for, or people that you clash with. But what I think is the most important thing to remember through all of that is that the only person who ultimately has control over your career is you. So if you are fortunate to be developing your career in a place where there are various job and training opportunities available, then there are lots of opportunities to drive change if you wish to.

Why did you choose to create Code First: Girls?
I was hired into Code First: Girls (CF:G) as its first CEO in 2015. It had started as a small program in a company called Entrepreneur First (EF) and had been running as an internal program at EF for a year. As EF grew and changed direction, they still had lots of interest in the Code First: Girls courses, so they decided to spin off CF:G as an independent company and then brought me in to build the program into into a company.

Prior to that I had a varied career working on diverse projects across the financial and professional services sector including a variety of programs looking at tech and digital. At one point I also became increasingly involved in mentoring. So when I came across the opportunity to head up Code First: Girls as its first CEO, I couldn’t say no!

Clearly what your team are doing is working, as CFG has been training more than the annual number of women studying coding-based subjects across the UK’s university system. How did you figure this out?
As someone who is a former quantitative researcher, I always like to look at the data. So when we were trying to understand the tech talent landscape for our 2020 Campaign, we went and pulled the UCAS university undergraduate application datasets. What we found was that for UCAS acceptances in 2017, of the 27,400 individuals who were accepted onto a computer science degree, only 3,750 (13.7%) were women.

We didn’t believe that this was enough, so set ourselves the target to teach 20,000 young women how to code for free by the end of 2020. And we’re well on track! This semester we delivered 85 coding courses across the UK and taught around 1800 young women how to code for free. That will be increasing to 2000-2200 next semester, which means we will be teaching around 5000 women how to code for free each year.

In a Computer Weekly article, you state that you are not trying to “shame” colleges, but instead work in collaboration with them to increase their female numbers. How are you doing this?
A degree in computer science is not initially easily accessible for everyone, but we have found that by supporting women to take that first step into tech through our courses, we can encourage them to consider the benefits of a tech education, both traditional routes and non-traditional, and the the difference that can make to their careers. We’ve always worked closely with Universities across the UK and Ireland to do this, and host about 60% of our free community courses at Universities with the support of students and staff at the Universities.

Additionally Code First: Girls was recently named as a Diversity Partner for the Institute of Coding (IoC). The IoC was announced by Teresa May and UK Government at Davos this year, with the specific aim being to work with universities and other higher education organizations, as well as organizations such as ourselves and companies, to understand how we can all work together to deliver better digital education at a Higher Education and University level in the future.

Why do you think there is still such a huge gender gap in colleges for STEM subjects, as well as the workforce? Is it just one issue or multiple?
There are a lot of issues at play, many of which often start from a young age. But the good thing is that it’s never too late to get started! We’ve taught women of all ages how to code, and aim to support women who hadn’t considered a tech career previously access the training they need to take those first steps, and do so with a supportive community of talented individuals who are going along the same journey.

Change has to start at the leadership level, and when we look at the CFG team, we see women and women of color. How do you encourage other businesses and academic institutions to look at their leadership team as well as how they encourage the pipeline of women?
The key is to frame diversity discussions around what that organization needs to grow and thrive. For all our businesses, access to tech talent is an ongoing challenge. And with Brexit soon upon us, we will have to think carefully about how we can continue to nurture a talent pool that can support our organizations and enable us as the UK to remain a global leader in tech and innovation. So encouraging people to look to the future and consider increasing diversity can help support those objectives and become a powerful catalyst.

Tell us about the campaign to teach 20,000 women to code by 2020, and the main ways you help to increase diversity?
Our 2020 Campaign mission is to flood the tech industry with women by teaching 20,000 young women how to code by 2020. We’re doing this by expanding our range of free coding courses run for women at higher education/early career stage. To achieve this we’ve set the target to raise £1.5 million in the next three years, which comes to £75 per woman, and we have some fantastic partners who are helping us to do this such as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, OVH, Trainline, and KKR.

This feeds into our ultimate mission which is to help get more women into tech. We do this by supporting women through training, mentoring and career development, and also by working with companies to help them improve their tech talent processes and train their staff. Our flagship commercial programs have included Vodafone’s ‘Code Like a Girl’ program where we trained their staff to deliver a coding course for girls across 25 countries, and the recently launched BT furtHER digital intensive training and recruitment program.

In addition to the free and paid training programs and corporate advisory work we do, we also manage a number of communities such as our “Ones to Watch” list and FinTech mentoring program which we run with Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Do you feel there is an added race component in the barriers to women’s success in STEM? And how does culture play a role in sometimes holding women of color back?
Ethnicity and culture, and the intersectionality between them and gender play a complicated role in career progression – especially when it comes to whether people believe tech careers are suitable for themselves or for others. Unconscious bias does play a role. As does self-selection of career path based on what we grow up with seeing as ‘normal’ or to be expected. It’s why it’s so important that the public narrative we have on tech includes people from diverse backgrounds, as it’s the only way that we can reposition what we expect as ‘normal’ in tech.

What are your thoughts on the need for more visible female STEM role models in a world where names like Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg are always the first three that come to mind when we say “tech”, for instance?
Having female role models in STEM is so important. We have to help more girls and women see what a role in tech can look like, and imagine themselves in those shoes. It also helps change the perception among people in the industry who don’t think of women as being individuals who work in the tech industry.

Who are some women in STEM you personally admire and why?
There are so many! Thinking about tech specifically, Jude Milhon who was a hacker and author, civil rights activist and coined the term cypherpunk. Marian R Croak, a pioneer in internet telephony and Voip technology who holds over 350 patents. Radia Perlman who was an early pioneer of the internet, and created the spanning tree protocol which is a network protocol that helps avoid looping issues in Ethernet network – critical for the broadcast industry.

Lixia Zhang is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of California who is one of the pioneers in protocol designs and security. She was also one of the 21 participants in the initial meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (where the first standards for the internet were created) in 1986, and the only woman and the only student at the meeting. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! There are so many more including so many inspiring young women in our community such as those in our Code First: Girls ‘Ones to watch’ community – truly inspiring!

And finally, what makes you a powerful woman?
For me, the power I have is around the ability to influence. Through Code First: Girls we’ve been able to build a powerful voice of change for tech industry, and create a common narrative where others who want to access a tech career, or encourage others from diverse background to be able to do so, can come together and drive change together. This is about helping women access exciting, well-paid careers, and support companies to hire more effectively and build better businesses. I think that’s pretty powerful stuff!

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