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Women led the software revolution, Q&A with Lorraine Steyn

In light of greater focus given to empowering women in the economy from the AU, creating an inclusive environment that promotes gender equality seems to be a hot topic again. One of the fields in which women have been absent (in numbers at least) is the information technology industry. Why have women shown less interest in this industry and what can be done to address this? Lorraine Steyn had a few words to say about this.
Lorraine Steyn
Lorraine Steyn

You have been in the software developing industry since 1978, so you must have seen and experienced first-hand some of the changes in the industry. In your opinion what were the biggest changes since you started your career?

One of the biggest changes has been in the expectations people have of software. Originally, it was enough that computers recorded large volumes of data and sped up processing. Now it's about how we interact with software. The professionalism of each piece of software has become very high, compared to the early basic processing days. It must be intuitive, fast, available on a wide variety of devices, wherever the user needs it, and must also look good!

A lot more focus, from government and agencies, are given to women entering the industry and gender equality, recently. Why is it important that women are encouraged to participate in the industry?

To harp back to the early days, women were very well represented in IT careers. When I started out as a junior programmer, there was very close to parity between the genders. The gap unfortunately widened over the next few decades, and we now have around 15% women in IT compared to 85% men. When we consider that we have a dire skills shortage in software development and related careers, and there's this huge untapped skills pool in the women, it's a big loss that women aren't that keen to re-enter the field.

We need to find out what the impediments are for young women to enter the software field, and we need to address them. We are doing a disservice to women who are losing out on opportunities in a very dynamic and well-paid field, and we're doing a disservice to ourselves as the industry by losing out on a great skills pool.

What are the key reasons women haven't been so active in the industry and what advice would you give women who are trying to get in?

They have. We can thank Grace Hopper for the first ever compiler, and the COBOL language. And remember that the first electronic computer (called ENIAC) had an all-female team of six mathematicians who developed programs for it. Women led the software revolution and have only dropped out in the last few decades.

I would like us to show young women these role models, show them that this doesn't have to be a male-dominated field, show them that there's more to this career than pimply youths playing online games and creating toxic anti-women environments. That may be some of the gamergate world, but it's not the business world. Software is a fantastic career opportunity, and experienced developers can also become freelancers - a great option for a woman who'd like to work from home if she starts a family.

So I think we have to address the desire for women to enter the industry by showing them strong female roles models, both historically and some of the current female high flyers like Marissa Meyer, first female engineer at Google (employee number 19, I think) and now CEO of Yahoo, and by showing them how suitable the career actually is for women. This assumes, of course, that the education system hasn't let the women down and gender biased them away from any science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) careers.

You have been successful in developing mobile and web technologies that can enhance people's lives and businesses. What projects, programmes and technologies that you have worked on stand out in your career?

I'm a problem solver! I love all the projects that have helped businesses or individuals in some manner. My latest project, the I'm Bored kids app, has been particularly satisfying as I learnt a lot about interacting with people via social media, working with a very talented graphics designer and development team, and lots of new tech (new to me) like NoSQL databases and mobile app development.

You are currently building (or finished?) I'm Bored, a social media 'what's on' channel for families and kids. What prompted you to start this project and why is it special?

I'm Bored addresses the need to find out what's on in your city. There's always a host of activities on the go, but most of us are unaware of most of them. The big ticket entertainment is usually well-promoted, but the local community and small enterprise activities are hard to find.

I'm Bored offers free promotion for family-friendly activities in Joburg, Cape Town and Durban, to our following of almost 60,000 families. The app also offers lots of local knowledge, like where to find an ice rink or a paintball game, where the best walks are (not too strenuous for kids), play parks, etc., plus local puppet shows, what's on at the movies and of course, the big events that everyone is covering. I'm Bored is a one-stop service for parents to find lots of activities to do with their kids, especially free events along with the more costly formal events.

I'm Bored was born of my own need to find things to do with my son, and it is special because my son and I created the content together. Before we even developed the software, we had already built an impressive library of great places to go with kids. He also participated in the design sessions and helped to build our website. It was great to involve him in the business of creating software and to get his ideas on what kids would like!

You are joint CEO at Khanyisa Real Systems, and you're building I'm Bored, and you have a family! How do you manage it all?

I've been very fortunate to have a great team around me. It's much easier to achieve great things when you work as a team. We all share the same vision, and we can have hectic debates when we're deciding on a new path to follow. That makes for great, well-thought out decisions.

Personally, I make sure that I eat well and exercise enough to keep healthy. I'm a big believer in exercise to help control stress! And I make lots of time for my family, as the childhood stage passes so quickly.

Any last words of wisdom that you would like to share with us?

I like to live without regrets. I'd rather try something, and maybe fail, than regret not trying. I do try to "fail small" so I take small steps and try out ideas, rather than betting the house on an idea. And people matter more than anything, so build good relations at work and in your personal life.

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