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THE README PODCAST // S1.11

Creating space and opportunity with She Code Africa

Founder Ada Nduka Oyom on giving women the tools to thrive as developers.

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Ada Nduka Oyom

The ReadME Project amplifies the voices of the open source community: the maintainers, developers, and teams whose contributions move the world forward every day.

Ada Nduka Oyom // @she-code-africa

Ada Nduka Oyom was born in Lagos, Nigeria, where she took turns with her brothers playing on a single PC. While at university, she fell in love with programming, but immediately noticed the uneven ratio of women to men. She was inspired to take action and start She Code Africa to celebrate and enable young women in technology. The non-profit now has over 6,500 community members in 17 African countries. Ada has been recognized as one of the Top 50 TechWomen of Lagos by TechCabal, and is among the Ytech 100 honorees by the Future Awards Africa 2019. In 2020, she received the Role Model award in Booking.com’s Tech Playmaker Awards.

OPENING QUOTE: I want to spotlight as many more people as I can. I want to help people continue to do the amazing things that they're doing, but this time get as much recognition as they can, if it's through my help or that of what I do.

Brian: That’s Ada Oyom, founder of She Code Africa, and this is The ReadME Podcast, a GitHub podcast that takes a peek behind the curtain at some of the most impactful open source projects and the developers who make them happen. I am bdougie aka Brian Douglas…

Kathy: And I am Kathy Korevek.

Brian: In every episode, Kathy and I invite a maintainer or open source developer into our studio to explore their work, their story, and where the two meet. 

Kathy: In this episode, we speak with Ada Oyom who is based in Lagos, Nigeria and through her organization, She Code Africa, is helping girls and women across the country and continent with the tools to be empowered developers. They learn how to not only code but also get the recognition they deserve for their work. She  initially went to University to study science but discovered programming and fell in love. Sensing the huge disparity in women to men in coding and wanting to encourage this burgeoning community, She Code Africa was born and Ada has become a thought leader in the developing community not only within her country but across the globe. In this conversation, we explore what inspired Ada to start She Code Africa, what she has learned and what she hopes to pass on to the next generation.

Here, Ada shares how her journey with computers began.

Ada: The actual journey with computers in general started way back while still in high school. My dad got us this single PC for the entire family. I don't know, from nowhere. He just came home and, "Hey, there's this PC for everyone. You can use it for whatever you want to do. But you have restricted hours and things like that." I was still unaware of all of the things that I could do with it. I have no idea what to do with it, I mean, aside from playing games and doing the homework and just began typing up until I got into uni and I came across this developer community in school.

Kathy: Oh, cool. Well, my journey started very similarly. I was like, I don't know, eight years old or something. The same thing happened, a computer showed up that my dad brought home, and we also had restricted access. I was one of five kids, and we had a signup sheet that my mom had made. It was on this yellow tablet and she had sketched out in half hour increments and you had to sign up. It was like going to the library or something. But I remember when it was your turn to use, I don't know if you have siblings, but when it was your turn to use the computer, you were on top of it. It was like I would go to my brother's and I'd be like, "It is my turn, get off." It was pretty great.

Ada: Yeah, the same thing here. Though I had my brothers spending more time on the PC than me, but it was pretty similar to your situation as well.

Kathy: So you started studying biology, when did you start? You said a year in, you started getting really into coding, is that right?

Ada: I studied microbiology and in my second year, that was when I found out about the developer community. A year into being a member of the developer community, that was when I was able to make friends within that community. A year of familiarizing myself with the people in that ecosystem and getting to understand all of the things about the community and all of the activities. But I don't think I had any friends from non-computer science or non-engineering backgrounds as a friend within that ecosystem. So it felt like I was the only non-computer science or non-engineering student within the community there.

Kathy:      Ada joined two Developer communities at school: A tech club by Google student ambassadors, now Google Developer Student Clubs (GDSC) and a Developer community program called Google Developer Groups (GDG). Being one of the very few non engineering students within a community of engineers and coders at her University must have felt pretty strange to Ada. But Ada comes from a family of four kids, and she’s the only woman, so she was used to feeling like the odd one out. Ada was wearing two hats: One was a microbiology undergraduate and the other was as a developer. At the time, she was equally passionate about both but soon the scales tipped. As she got more and more engaged with the developer community at school, she realized she also wanted to advocate for the women within it. Soon enough, she found that her voice was being heard and she started taking more of a leadership role, one that she felt really comfortable with. She wanted to support the women in the community and started thinking of ways to do so.

Ada: A lot of times, because the community leaders were also students in this department, some of the activities favored what they were learning, their coursework they were actually learning in school. For me, it was two different things. So at one point in time, I'm a microbiology student fully vested in everything biological sciences. Then after that, I have to switch to the other character of being someone in tech and then having to learn something that as of then I didn't think would be of any use with my immediate environment or with anything that I was doing within that period.

So I was fighting two characters at the same time, or having to switch characters every now and then from being that tech community leader to being that student who's an undergraduate and needs to excel in her coursework. 

Brian: Yeah, there's a term that gets used a lot about that changing characters, that gets leveraged in that context called “code switching.” I'm curious, what was the makeup of the female to male ratio in this cohort of community?

Ada: The ratio was definitely glaring. You had a lot more male figures dominating the space. At some point, you would see in a gathering, you could have about 20 to 30 guys and just about two to three ladies. One thing I also noticed was as I continued to progress within that field, I noticed a lot of the ladies dropping out. It was a thing of, "Okay, it's my first time seeing five ladies." Yes, that's something, I have people to associate with. But then as we're going, I'm seeing people dropping out and I'm asking myself, "What am I still doing in this field?" But I still keep going. But, yeah, that ratio is very, very glaring.

Kathy: As Ada got more involved in the developer community at University and realized that she wanted to make a change in the male to female ratio, so she founded She Code Africa right after graduating, with a vision to help create,  “An Africa where women are equally represented across career roles and levels in Technology.” She Code Africa is a not for profit organization and it supports young girls and women across the continent through technical learning initiatives and bootcamps, soft skill Classes, technical resources, an active community and so much more. 

Ada: I founded She Code Africa right after school. Throughout the rest of my year in school, I grew to become a community leader as well for the same developer community. I grew from being a member to one of the leaders in the community. I noticed that same ratio, that same gap. One thing that stood out and made me realize, "Okay, I need to start something," was the year I founded She Code Africa during World Programmers Day. I noticed it was just a lady, one lady that was celebrated from Africa in terms of women in tech. It just came off weird to me somehow because over the couple of years while I was in school for my secondary to my final--that's about two to three years--it was a defining moment for me because I got to also interact with so many other amazing women in tech. And I thought to myself there are so many people out here who are doing amazing things, but they don't have that opportunity to be spotlighted. That was why I decided to start She Code Africa.

Brian: I was going to say we hosted an event called CodeNaija back in 2019, and the one thing that we noticed was how challenging it was to encourage non-males to join the hackathon that we were hosting. We were looking for organizations to help collaborate with to increase the numbers, and your organization did come up as a list.

I don't believe we actually reached out directly, but you've been in the back of my mind since then. I bring that up because another correlation is the GitHub Stars program. We've got two Nigerians who participated in She Code Africa last year, and I wanted to ask about the connection to that. But also they both cited their experiences and contributed to open source, specifically to the Linux GNOME project. I was curious if you could speak on the open source angle, but also how you're coordinating and encouraging females to get involved in programming?

Ada: Definitely. Asides being the founder of She Code Africa, I'm also the founder of Open Source Community Africa, which is another community specifically targeted at people who are trying to come into open source or who are trying to network and meet other like minds in open source. Last year we had our very large first festival, and we targeted the Open Source Festival. While working with my co-founder on planning something, I looked at the ratio of participants who were indicating interest in wanting to participate at this event. Obviously, the ratio was very, very low when you look at the gender of those who identify as women and those who don't.

To me, it was another opportunity to see how we could get more women excited in open source. Then just before that festival, there was also an opportunity to attend some specific open source events. That issue was also brought up several times. If you look at the ratio of women who are into tech, and then look at those who are participating or contributing to open source, it's like a smaller or a lesser ratio as well. I wanted to get more women, not just coming into tech, but also actively participating in open source knowing the amount of opportunities that are open to them. She Code Africa decided to partner with Open Source Community Africa to form what we call The Women of Open Source Community Africa. 

Now that's, in short, WOSCA. What WOSCA was planning on doing, and that's what we're currently doing right now, is create specific initiatives that would help those ladies who have come into tech already. Get them more into open source, get them introduced to open source, get them comfortable making open source contributions. And pushing opportunities while also using these different initiatives that we have to get them more active within the field, and it has grown from there. 

Kathy: The journey Ada took is fascinating. It’s not only getting women support in their tech pursuits, but also introducing them to open source. That adds an entirely new dimension, one that I imagine comes with its own set of challenges. What were some of the challenges the women in the program were facing?

Ada: The first major one will be them not being aware of how to get started. It felt more like we had to take them by the hand and have them work through the very basics. There was also, impostor syndrome. It's one thing bringing women into tech and saying, "Oh, yes, these are the several fields that we have. You can learn on your own." That's what happened, they would decide to learn on their own in their comfort zone. But then having them come into open source and making open source contributions, it's like putting them out on the global stage and saying, "These are the people that you have to work with. People are going to review your submission." There was a heightened level of impostor syndrome. That's the very major one. 

Then there's also other issues that if you take it out of open source, it also correlates with other challenges that women in tech, here in Africa, will generally face. Those things also include things like access to resources because we get this complaint a lot of times where, "Oh, I was paired with this project, but I don't have the means to be able to read up on how to solve this particular issue or this particular task that I was assigned to." Then the impostor syndrome comes in again. Those two top the table, if I was to give you a list, but those two top the table. Impostor syndrome and then that access to resources as well.

Kathy: Yeah, impostor syndrome, it's something I know really, really well. I am not ashamed to admit this. But I've struggled with impostor syndrome my entire career. Even like I'm Senior Director of Product at GitHub, and you would think like, "Okay, yeah, she's made it. She's been in tech her whole--and dev developer tools--most of her career." But I, on a daily basis, struggle with impostor syndrome. I don't know about you, Brian. You are a much better coder than me, so I don't know if you struggle with it.

Brian: I would say better is subjective, it depends on what I'm doing and what time of day it is. But I'm curious, Ada, what are some things you do to combat against impostor syndrome? But also just like you started She Code Africa right after college. That's pretty early in your career, so you became, eventually, you became a leader in the space and also Open Source Africa, I completely forgot that was on your resume as well. I'm very familiar with that event, and Samson Goddy as well. You're a leader in the space, so what are ways for you to reaffirm that you belong where you are today?

Ada: Okay, I would say that's a tough question. But, for me, I don't do what I do to keep my space or to maintain my record or to have everyone know that, "Oh, yes, that's a thought leader, in that environment." I just find myself, it just happens. But my major aim is I want to get this category of people into this level. I want to spotlight as many more people as I can. I want to help people continue to do the amazing things that they're doing, but this time get as much recognition as they can, if it's through my help or that of what I do.

I think to answer that question, it would be me just putting out all of the initiatives to achieve everything that I've just pointed out. When people keep seeing that you're doing this thing and it's repetitive, it's having traction, there's a lot of success story from it, people just tend to assign that level of priority to your name or to your profile. But, for me, it's really just about putting the other person on the spotlight.

Brian: Yeah, I love that you make space for others to shine. The two [GitHub] Stars that I've met, they are definitely shining stars for GitHub Stars and doing a great work and speaking at conferences and recommending projects to do open source with. The program, I just want to say, you're doing a great job. The folks who are excelling and graduating through the program are shining right now. 

I'm curious, though, a question about She Code Africa. Is it, specifically Nigerian focused, or do you coordinate with other female developers across the continent?

Ada: It's across the continent, but obviously, there would be a large attraction because I'm currently in Nigeria and I'm Nigerian. And I have a lot more larger reach within the Nigerian ecosystem, but it's definitely focused on the African continent. We have members from over 17 African countries, and we also have chapters in over five African countries. It’s Africa focused.

Brian: Ada’s reach is far and wide. Empowering people to become more tech savvy can also give them the tools to be more political. In the Fall of 2020, there was an uprising in Nigeria that was associated with a hashtag on Twitter, #EndSARS. It was a movement to end the rampant police brutality that exists in Nigeria. SARS stands for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), and it’s a unit of the Nigerian Police that is notorious for abuse. Protests and movements are often engendered and encouraged through technology, people gathering online to make change. I wondered what role, if any, did She Code Africa have in #EndSARS movement?

Ada: So police brutality and oppression is, I don't think it's just Africa focused, I mean it's everywhere. In Africa, it's I wouldn't say a little bit, it's way more intense in the sense that you have leaders who don't respect your human rights. We have leaders who really don't do what they're meant to do. We have these leaders using the police force to oppress the same people that elected them into office. Just a little bit of background, SARS is tagged as Special Anti-Robbery Squad. They were created during days where kidnapping and robbery was rampant within Nigeria, and their aim was to help curb and solve issues like that. But then things have turned around and now they're using their forces, they're using their arms and everything to extort the average Nigerian youth.

The average Nigerian youth, in their opinion, or in their own ideology is one who is jobless, is one who fits a particular persona. More like profiling the Nigerian youth. Unfortunately, Nigerians in tech, they fall into that category in terms of dressing, in terms of hairstyle, in terms of work culture, you're working remotely, you're working in an ecosystem, or a company that isn't particular about the outfit that you wear. As long as you're delivering, you're working in an ecosystem that is more focused on your creativity and things like that. They've used that profile to set up their own targets in terms of the Nigerian who they look out for and who they arrest.

Being in a country where your rights are not respected, where if you get arrested, there is a very slim chance of you being released. Things like bail, being free, that's really a lie, it doesn't really happen here. This period where tech is booming within the ecosystem, especially, in Nigeria, it's become way more rampant. 

It's been so many back and forth and many issues. It's quite more serious than I am explaining it to be. Then this year, it became more serious from the killings and all of that. Recently, we found the government's banning popular social media that we used to share our thoughts and share everything that's happening within the country, which is Twitter. All in a need to oppress our voices.

Brian: Yeah, it's all really sad and unfortunate to hear too as well. I'd say I'd love to empathize with this. But, as you mentioned, police brutality it's a global issue. I think we're seeing it very differently in Nigeria. But I think, at the end of the day, it's all unjust.

I'm curious, and from where you sit, do you see a trend of more Nigerians taking tech roles and eventually leaving? Do you see that space continuing to--I don't want to say the word disintegrate, but like a lot of good talent is now moving on to other places--what's your take?

Ada: Definitely, it is going to double up, especially with everything that's been happening lately. But unfortunately, tech within the ecosystem, within the continent, not just within Nigeria, has moved from... it's still something people do out of passion, but it's also something some people do as a means of escape from poverty and from the rugged life. You definitely cannot exist or grow or succeed in an economy or a nation that is doing everything possible to press down your growth. I'm definitely sure a lot of people are going to take up more opportunities as they come their way to leave that country and moving to better environments that would enable their growth.

Brian: While the tech community is growing, I have seen many people in tech from Nigeria move on to other tech centers like Dubai or Amsterdam. And although the role of She Code Africa isn’t necessarily finding ways to have people stay, it’s making sure that those that do stay have the tools to grow and effect change. Hearing Ada speak about her mission made me wonder how those outside of Nigeria may be able to support She Code Africa.

Ada: First off, would be to donate and that's up on our website, shecodeafrica.org, is a very easy way to donate. There are different ways or means to donate. As regards to resources, we are definitely open to organization. It's one thing to give cash or to give financial donations, and it's another thing to provide these extra resources that these girls need. From providing things as basic as laptops to learning resources, access to platforms and things like that. So we are definitely open to organizations who are willing to work with us on that.

As we are growing we are discovering or rediscovering new ways that we can improve on what we’re doing. And if we see that there's a need for a particular skill set or for a particular role that we need to achieve success within that plan that we're working on, then we put out call outs for that. If anyone wants to volunteer, I mean it's as simple as maybe just looking out for this opportunity within our community.

Kathy: Awesome. In the very beginning, we talked about your family and getting into tech. I'm wondering, are your brothers in tech today? If they are or if they're not, what do they think about your success in tech and in the community?

Ada: I think from everything that they tell me, it's been inspiring to them. No, they're not yet in tech, though, I've had two of them dabble into tech. That's my younger ones. I have one older brother and two younger brothers. I've heard the younger ones dabble into tech, one in design and one in front end. But because of school and all of that, it's been a bit difficult for them to keep up. But I know, for sure, because they tell me that it's inspiring to them, and also seeing the whole career change. I have shown them that it's possible to be good at different things.

Kathy: You mentioned that one of the things they're inspired by is that you can be good at many things. And you do content creation and podcasting. How does that help you? How does being interested in having other hobbies or other passions besides what you're doing in technology help you focus in what you're doing?

Ada: It gives me ideas, and it gives me ways to diversify. And it gives me the opportunity to think outside the box. A lot of times I can be so focused on running different programs, creating ideas on what next to run, that I forget to see, "Okay, is this something that, when we put this out there, is going to be beneficial to people?" Or you keep running things in a loop that it becomes a pattern and there isn't any creativity anymore. So having other ways to express myself gives me another angle to see things. Yeah, so it gives me the idea.

Brian: Ada’s aspirations go beyond Nigeria and into the whole continent, thus the name of her organization, She Code Africa. Why was that aspect of the organization important to Ada?

Ada: Maybe it was because I was lucky enough to be part of an existing program that focused on the Sub-Saharan African continent. Funny enough, I currently lead that program that I was a part of. Being a part of that program and experiencing or meeting other ladies and other people, other developers from the other parts of the continent, I knew there was something bigger. It wasn't just Nigeria, there is a space outside Nigeria that I should be focused on. At that point I thought to myself,"Okay, what if we make it She Code Nigeria, for example, and we're focused on Nigeria, what happens next?" I was making a larger projection about that for looking into the future. And trying to see how much impact I could make at the same time.

I also did a little bit of research and found out that even though things are not rosy within the African tech ecosystem, there are some communities, there are some ecosystems within the African continent and other countries that are way worse. Way deprived than what the Nigeria ecosystem is facing, and I wanted to reach those women. I know, for example, the average woman in Nigeria, the average woman in tech in Nigeria has some sort of leverage to possess probably a fairly used laptop or cell phone. But when you look at some other countries, it's worse than that. They don't even have an idea of how to even purchase or get things like that. I wanted to make an impact within those communities as well. I had to look at the larger continent, so She Code Africa.

Tech is continuously evolving within the continent. Looking back at how it was when it started to how it is now, there has been a very, very obvious change and growth in terms of development and in terms of people coming into tech. Back then you had to go an extra mile to convince the average person to come into tech. But these days, it's the other way around. You're seeing people who, you don't even have to say anything, they just need to see that you're succeeding in it and that's enough for them, or that's enough push for them to want to come into the ecosystem. You have people who are now being employed by tech giants, you have people who, because of tech, they've been able to reframe their financial features, they've been able to reframe their backgrounds and things like that.

They've been able to achieve a whole lot. Then you're looking at all of the innovations that is coming from the tech scene within Africa. It's exciting. From technologies to platforms to resources, there's a whole lot that's growing. I don't think we are... I feel like we're still scratching the ground for all of the amazing things that can happen within the tech ecosystem. But one thing I'm very sure of is that it's changing, it's evolving. What we might know as tech in 2021 in Africa, in three years time, is going to be a lot different from how it's going to be perceived. But I know it's constantly changing, and that's amazing for me.

Kathy: Is there something that you're really excited about or looking forward to? I know I'm asking you to look in a crystal ball. But in those three years, if there's one thing that you are just really hoping happens, what is that?

Ada: That I'm hoping… the word hope is a very good one. It's the introduction of tech education into existing curriculum. As a Nigerian in Africa, sometimes you might feel like it's a long shot. But we've seen some countries that are already implementing this and starting from the very scratch or from the roots and getting the young ones from primary, secondary into this field. I know if this continues and if it picks up, there's going to be a whole lot of more influx into the ecosystem. But that's one thing I'm hoping for, the introduction.

Kathy: And for the next generation of girls? If you were, say, speaking to your daughter to be, what would you hope?

Ada: I'm not going to be that average African parent who dictates what their child or kid is going to be. But I definitely know for sure that having a mom who is super active in tech, she is going to get some skills, digital literacy. She's going to have those skills, just me bringing her up, and then she gets to decide what she wants to do. But I know, for sure, if it's tech she wants to go into, I'm definitely going to support her with everything. Because I've been there and I have the experience and I'm going to help her.

Kathy: Yeah, thank you so much, Ada, this has been amazing and very, very wonderful and lovely to talk with you today. Thanks for your time.

Ada: Thank you Kathy. Thank you, Brian.

Brian: Pleasure.

Brian: It was great  to speak with Ada Oyom and have her on the ReadMe Podcast. To learn more about Ada and She Code Africa, please visit shecodeafrica.org.

I am Brian Douglas, and I am a developer advocate here at GitHub.

Kathy: And I am Kathy Korevek, I work in product at GitHub. The ReadME Podcast is a GitHub podcast that dives into the challenges our guests faced and how they overcame those hurdles. In sharing these stories, we hope to provide a spotlight on what you don’t always see in the lines of code, and what it took to build the technology that inspires us all. 

Brian:  It’s been really great spending time with you. The ReadME Podcast is part of the ReadME Project at GitHub, a space that amplifies the voices of the developer community: The maintainers, leaders, and the teams whose contributions move the world forward every day. Visit GitHub.com/readme to learn more.

Our theme music has been produced on GitHub by Dan Gorelick with Tidal Cycles. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. 

The ReadME Podcast is produced by Sound Made Public for GitHub.

Please subscribe, share, and follow GitHub on Twitter for updates on this podcast and all-things GitHub. Thanks for listening!

Meet the hosts

Kathy Korevec

Originally from Alaska, Kathy’s journey into tech didn’t start out like most. Her first tech job was redoing her college’s library website, and she later helped a car dealership put their inventory online. There was also a brief stint as a pastry chef in Tennessee. But she ended up at Google in San Francisco, which put her on her path as a product manager. Now at GitHub, she manages the Documentation team, where she works to make it easier for developers to learn about products and unlock solutions to their challenges. Kathy firmly believes that great products start with good conversation, and should be built on data driven design, business goals, and, above all, put the user first.

Brian Douglas

Brian grew up in Florida, and was in full-time sales before the birth of his son inspired him to build an app—and he saw an opportunity for a new career. He taught himself how to code, and started blogging. His content caught the eye of a San Francisco tech company, and he never looked back. Now living in Oakland with his family, Brian is a developer advocate at GitHub, where he creates space for other developers to find their voice. He’s passionate about open source and loves mentoring new contributors. He’s also the host of the Jamstack Radio podcast and created the Open Sauced community.

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