Liverpool Girl Geek Alexandra Hindley: This One’s Personal

Bandcamp software engineer and Liverpool Girl Geek Alexandra Hindley speaks to Polly Checkland Harding about why Binary Festival’s coding workshop is an opportunity for feminist action...

It’s not often that a photo of a female software engineer goes viral on Facebook – less common still that it's in black and white.

In the image, Director of the Software Engineering Division at MIT Instrumental Laboratory Margaret Hamilton is pictured standing next to bound volumes of code, written by her and her team and stacked one on top of the other; volumes that helped take humanity to the moon. The pile is nearly as tall as she is.

Now – according to Alexandra Hindley, a tutor for Liverpool Girl Geeks coding collective – “for a member of the public, good code is invisible.” It’s used in far more everyday, less specialist ways than getting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to coincide a piece of rock orbiting the earth at (roughly) 1km/second. Code is what makes all software work, and software is, as Hindley points out, “just everywhere.”

Hindley got into coding at 15, teaching herself HTML “because I was really into anime, and wanted to build websites so that I could talk to other anime fans online and share nerdy things”. Now, after several years previously in HR, recruitment and even the construction industry, she’s a software engineer at Bandcamp; she writes code, helps to create new features on the site, fixes the occasional bug and more. In Hindley’s own words, Bandcamp is “a platform for independent musicians to sell their music. The original idea behind the site is that we’d like to be like an extra member of every band, whose only job is to handle the technology side of things.” She got the job after a prolonged interview and trial process, working 10 hours a week for six weeks alongside her full-time job (standard practice for Bandcamp). “I found out that I'd passed my trial via email at 10pm on a Friday night, while at an Alice in Wonderland-themed party dressed as the White Rabbit,” she says.

This May, Hindley will be teaching a Get Your Head Around Code workshop on behalf of Liverpool Girl Geeks as part of Binary Festival Gatherings. True to form for Liverpool Girl Geeks – an organisation with a mission to change the gender imbalance in tech through workshops, events and courses, and to give women the opportunity to be part of Liverpool’s strong history in the field – the workshop is aimed squarely at women. Why? Well, code might be “just everywhere”, but in Stack Overflow’s 2016 Developer Survey, women make up only around 6% of total respondents.

Hindley, who loves her job – working “from home, in Liverpool” (“helped and hindered” by her two cats) as part of team of “35 staff, spread-out worldwide” – is clear about the problems with this stat. “Even throughout a terrible economic situation, there are still people looking for coders", she explains. "For half of the population to be locked out of that because of stereotyping, or their own beliefs about their own abilities -- it’s not on, it’s not fair.”

Get Your Head Around Code is, Hindley says, “designed for people who don’t code, who have never coded.” Taking a hands-on, web-based approach, the workshop runs through the coding mechanisms behind web forms through which attendees can search for word definitions, or, more amusingly, input a sentence and have it translated back to them in Yoda’s speech patterns. By copying, pasting and adapting the code used for each, they can then create their own mini facial recognition programme. “By the end, they’ve always written something that works,” Hindley promises.

Theories as to why there are so few women programmers abound (Hindley’s “favourite pet theory” is that it stems from the gender imbalance in the gaming industry, a customary route into coding in her experience), but the implications of not solving this problem are more troubling than you might think. “Software is so integrated into our lives,” argues Hindley. “The only alternative really is for people to be absolutely surrounded by something that’s impenetrable to them – and to be at the mercy of the few people who do understand it.” At the moment, the majority of those people are men.

Alexandra Hindley and Liverpool Girl Geeks’ workshop – and the wider Binary Festival – is one proactive, hands-on way of redressing the balance. Margaret Hamilton taught herself to code; now you can too.

Polly Checkland Harding is Editor of Creative Tourist and a freelance writer

Twitter: @PollyCheckland

See Get Your Head Around Code (SOLD OUT) at Binary Festival: Liverpool Science Park, 13:30 - 16:00, 24 May 2016

Binary Festival 2016 Blog: a special media partnership between The Double Negative arts magazine, Creative Tourist culture and travel site and Binary Blog. See the Festival on 24 and 25 May 2016 in Liverpool, UK

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