Soft Skills Needed in Tech

Ladies need to realise tech suits their abilities.
Nov 24, 2023
Communication skills underpin all programming projects.

If tech is the future it’s still looking like it will be a future that’s pretty short on women. The tech industry will be a significant employer but the number of women involved, apart from a prominent handful, remains dwarfed by the number of men.

What is odd is that tech needs the kind of skills that women are often strong in, soft skills are at a premium in the industry.

Renee Noble, software engineer, teacher, women in tech activist and recent winner of a 2023 Women In Digital Awards in the Champion of Change Category says, “I think you can know all the tech in the world, but to really make your mark, you need to work well in teams of people from a diverse range of fields. Working directly with your stakeholders is key, as well as collaborating with UX designers, dev ops engineers, product managers, and anyone else who is contributing to the project.

“Being able to speak about what you've been working on is important not only to keep everyone on the same page but also for career progression. Explaining what you do know means others will come to you for help, whilst if you can explain where you don't know something yet, you can get help.”

Noble says there are two aspects that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in technical roles; “The pipeline issues and the end destination issue - sometimes called ‘the cesspool’. Generally, we spend a lot of time talking about the pipeline not having enough girls and women, but a bigger concern for me is where we are sending young women out into after supporting them through the pipeline. Are these women going to survive and thrive in these environments? If they don't, we're once again left with no role models to encourage girls to join the pipeline to start with.

“It's fantastic when a company has a woman at the top, but it's essential to have women at every rung of the ladder all the way down to the ground. Women plural, many, not just one; we need proper representation and networks. Having both accessible peers and mentors who are women is essential to making a company a place that feels like a comfortable and supportive work environment. Feeling like you have to prove yourself every day because you are a woman is exhausting.

“While not everyone is guilty of actively perpetuating the stereotype that ‘boys are better than girls at tech’, it is an unconscious bias held and left unquestioned by many and acted upon by some. The few who are still perpetuating this culture are polluting the pool for everyone, so everyone needs to be part of the solution by calling out people - of any gender - who are acting on their biases that create workplaces where women feel less valued, less welcome, or less deserving.”

Noble is being proactive about the supply of female tech workers, having launched and run the Girls' Programming Network (GPN) program towards engaging young women and encouraging them to enter the industry.

GPN provides free coding workshops for girls and gender-diverse kids, run by women and gender-diverse people.

“Around the country, we run a one-day weekend workshop each term, where high school students of any experience level can come along, build a fun project, understand how technology can solve problems they care about, and meet peers and mentors who look like them. Every GPN workshop is free because breaking down barriers is at the core of what we do, whether that's dismantling stereotypes of who is good at tech or making tech education accessible by providing free workshops, where everything you need from the electronics to the food is provided.”

Each term, GPN tackles a different project, with the goal of giving everyone who attends an accessible challenge. They present different ways of approaching the project depending on whether it's a student's first day coding, or their tenth visit to GPN. The workshops look at a variety of topics, whether that's learning the key coding concepts behind modern cybersecurity, creating a video game, coding World War II era cipher crackers, using old-school AI to generate new songs, or turning craft supplies into gaming machines with the power of electronics and code.

Students can join GPN at any stage of high school, overall the program looks to reinforce that participants are completely capable of taking on the world with code. They spend a lot of time focusing on the core concepts of Python and its versatility. While each workshop is a single day, many students return for many years, building up their coding skills, confidence and knowledge.

“After a few sessions at GPN, we find that students have the understanding to start exploring coding concepts on their own and return to GPN with a new zeal and a desire to get an even more thorough understanding from our talented volunteers.”

GPN isn't just about the students, and the benefits don't end at a student's high school graduation. GPN is a full pipeline approach to learning and career progress, with volunteers having as much opportunity to benefit from GPN as the students do. When GPN students graduate high school, they’re encouraged become GPN volunteers.

“Girls' Programming Network definitely fits into the school calendar of nearly any high school student. We even try to alternate whether it's on a Saturday or Sunday to allow students with different weekend obligations the opportunity to attend. These workshops are dedicated to a high school student audience.”

Many schools have asked GPN to run the course on site, which isn’t possible right now as it is staffed by volunteers, so in 2020 Noble started her business ConnectEd Code, to help bring a GPN-like experience to schools, or provide teachers with the training and resources they need to deliver engaging tech learning experiences in their classrooms.

The tech industry in Australia is pretty hot, data science has been growing rapidly for the last decade - for this, learning Python is a key skill, as well as developing the curiosity to design experiments to find out what the data is saying.

Cybersecurity is also a key area; with more of our data being stored online than ever, we're hearing of more breaches that impact us personally every month. So, programmers with a passion for protecting people are key, and this normally involves having an inquisitive mindset to find out how you can use apps and websites in ways you're not meant to.

Front-end development is always an in-demand area, especially with more and more tech being able to be run on the client side. Anyone who can write some serious JavaScript will be in high demand, because so many new websites are born every day.

There are stand-out former GPN students all over the industry, the COO, Alex Penna, is a former GPN student herself and is now working as a software engineer at Atlassian, and running GPN and Tech Inclusion by night.

Many former GPNers work at all the major players like Google, Microsoft, the Big four banks, consultancies and trading/finance organisations. Many work in start-ups and others are at uni doing their undergrad, or finishing their honours, masters, or PhDs. Some students also go on to become teachers or lecturers.

Noble’s coding journey didn't start until she got to university, where she was studying chemical engineering and chemistry.

“I happened to meet two people living in college with me who thought that it would be fun to teach me to code at 11pm one night. It all started there, once I could see what ‘tech’ was really about. I had previously thought it was about plugging in printers and routers - I can remember thinking about how people could possibly do a four-year degree in plugging stuff in, while I was choosing a university course.

“But once I understood what coding was and that you could just do it on any old computer, I could see that it was actually a superpower. So, I crammed another major into my university schedule and picked up the skills that I never knew came so naturally to me and were applications of the kinds of maths I loved in high school. Then, I took this new superpower and looked for places I could make a difference with it.

“First, I combined it with my chemical engineering aspirations for renewable energy, and then I spent some time in bioinformatics and natural language processing at Usyd and Data61-CSIRO along the way. But GPN, something I first got involved with during university once I built up the courage to give teaching code a try, ultimately brought me to education technology.

“So, my career trajectory in tech has been anything but straight. It was not an easy journey, especially when I was surrounded by boys in university who had been coding for a while and claimed to know absolutely everything about tech. It was an intimidating time, feeling like I was behind the eight-ball and working my butt off to come out at the top.”