Disrupting the tech stereotype by Ruth James
If you work in tech, you know of Ruth James. Ruth is a Tech Outreach and Engage Coordinator at Xero with the previous title of Happiness Engineer (those tech titles, right? 😋) I know her as kind, generous, caring and always there to help. She is involved in most of the tech events and initiatives around diversity, education and inclusion. In her interview - Amelia Diggle, mentioned that she would love to read about Ruth, “the superwoman behind the scenes”. So here we are with Ruth James on Kia Ora!
Ruth, share with us a bit about your background? How does one become a Happiness Engineer or Tech Outreach and Engage Coordinator and what does it actually mean?
I guess my journey into all things tech started when I first came to Aotearoa.
I’d come out on holiday for three weeks back in late 2006 and fell in love with the place. This prompted me to get a Working Holiday Visa and return in early 2007. By July that year, I’d moved to Auckland where I landed my first decent-size contract with a temp agency working as a receptionist for an IT consultancy called Fronde. This is where my love for technology started. Up until that point I'd been a consumer of tech - now I was working alongside people who MADE tech!
From Fronde, I moved to Orion Health. During my 8 years at Orion, I went from receptionist, office manager to finally events and outreach coordinator. I’ll be honest, when I first started at Orion, if you told me that in less than 5 years I’d be regularly public speaking, visiting schools and running workshops for high school kids - I wouldn’t have believed you! I was very fortunate to get to meet some outstanding people who supported, mentored and worked alongside me to share our love for technology and ensure there was a diverse pipeline of kiwi talent coming into the sector!
After 8 years at Orion, it was time to move on to another challenge. I felt incredibly privileged when I joined Xero, plus, I had the coolest title, Happiness Engineer (even though it was pretty ambiguous!). Fortunately, I still get to deliver on some parts of that role, such as the internal hackathon we run annually across all our development offices. Plus Xed Talks (like Ted talks - but we are Xero - so we like to put ‘X’ in front of everything!)
My current role, Tech Outreach and Engage Coordinator is more of a self-explanatory title! I moved into the role in early 2017, this also prompted me to define what it was that I needed to do in this role so I came up with a purpose statement:
“Increase a diverse pipeline of talent into tech, as well as to support and encourage a thriving tech and entrepreneurial community in Xero’s priority countries.”
And a mission:
Showcase what it really looks like to work in tech
Provide role models, develop our own people
Encourage tech for good: purpose - thrive
I think when most people think tech, they think developers. Your background is quite different so what inspired you to become active in this particular field? Why tech?
Like most 18-year-olds, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school, I made a rather uninformed decision to study Graphic Design and Illustration. After four years of just studying one thing, I got bored. I finished my studies and never touched a sketchbook again!
For most of my 20’s I suffered from mental health issues, but was very much in denial about it. My poor mental health had a serious knock-on effect with my lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. This also led me to work in jobs I didn’t enjoy, namely hospitality and the financial sector.
Working in tech outreach was the first time I felt my work had any genuine purpose.
The outreach work I do, especially with high school students, has allowed me to combine my experience to help empower others.
For me, technology is just a tool. What the industry needs is a diverse range of talented people with different backgrounds and experiences to help solve real-world problems.
When I talk to students I often share with them my experience as someone who is dyslexic, how I navigated the school system, my journey with mental health and ‘getting bored’ - which I have reframed as needing to continually challenge myself to stay engaged.
You are involved in so many initiatives - SheSharp, Code Club Aotearoa, OMGTech. It would be wonderful to hear about your work with these organisations?
In all fairness, I've since dropped a lot of extracurricular opportunities that I used to be involved with. After 5 years of wanting to do everything, I was experiencing burn out so I’ve stepped away from a lot of these opportunities.
Nowadays I focus more on the work I can do through Xero plus there are a few students I’m still in touch with, so I continue to engage and mentor them.
That said, I’d highly recommend to anyone out there to get involved with organisations and opportunities that encourage the next generation into the tech space, I can definitely share some of the work I have done with these groups:
I joined SheSharp as a committee member just as they had formed. We’d run regular events aimed at women and girls to showcase what opportunities there were within tech. The workshops we ran always had a hands-on element which we recognised as being really important and engaging (especially for the younger audience we wanted to attract and retain in the tech sector).
Random fun fact: Code Club Aotearoa was actually an idea that Michael Trentgrove (Code Club Aotearoa General Manager) hatched during an internal hackathon at Orion Health!
The first Code Club we ran was with a group of friends at Orion Health, it was very much a leap of faith for all of us. We’d never worked with kids before (Code Club is aimed at 10 - 13-year-olds). It took us a while to feel comfortable in this space but once we got there, wow, it was super empowering.
What I really enjoyed about Code Club was the meaningful relationships you could build with the students over time. I watched a lot of the people I volunteer with become role models for the younger generation. I’m still in touch with a few of the students who I used to teach, it’s great being able to watch them grow and thrive.
Like the other two organisations, I really aligned with the values and purpose of what the OMG Tech team were trying to achieve. Since those early days, the team has pivoted the work they do to extend their impact and range. They spend a lot more time and effort empowering and training teachers.
That said, a few months ago I used my Xero Volunteer day with some of the OMG Tech crew at a school in South Auckland.
With all these opportunities and groups - one of the added bonuses is the number of amazing friendships, connections, and networks you make with the people you work with.
On Kia Ora we really try to share more vulnerable and personal sides to stories that people might not see day to day. Could you share some of the professional or personal challenges you have experienced?
I’ll touch on something I’ve already mentioned, being dyslexic.
Fortunately, this was picked up from a young age. I was so bad at reading when I started school, they thought there was something wrong with my eyesight! My reading is still pretty bad, last time I was assessed (when I was 16 and about to sit my GCSE’s) it was confirmed I had the reading age of an 8-year-old, I don’t think it’s changed since!
I still hate reading aloud, I’m also very unconfident when it comes to pronunciations. This also means I hold back from learning languages. I hate that inevitably I often get people's names wrong (especially non-European names).
That said, I find that technology is a GREAT tool to help with my disability. I frequently use the text reading tool on my computer to read back to me what I’ve written (I’ve done it with this interview!). I also have a voice recording app on my phone which I use to record peoples’ names I’m worried I will struggle with. For example, the other day we had a group of Pasifika students visiting the office. Before they arrived I asked a colleague (who’s Samoan) to help pronounce the names. I recorded her answers which I played back a number of times until I felt comfortable saying their names.
I’m also at the age now where I accept who I am and how my brain works. This means I care less what people think of me, so I have no shame when I turn opportunities down (and explain why) or ask for help.
A lot of people don’t really know what they want to do with their lives. We often think it’s young people but I think all people might feel lost from time to time. What’s your personal journey with that feeling?
I didn’t figure out who I was and what I want to do with my life until I was 35+!
During most of my 20’s, I felt there was something wrong with me as the general consensus was I needed to find a career, get married, buy a house and settle down (that’s what seemed to be the measure of success). I didn’t want any of it - I didn’t feel I was ready for any of it! This all led me to have a quarter-life crisis at the age of 25.
I felt like an utter failure, and that I hadn’t achieved anything and I was just surviving!
Ironically, the one time when the negative chattering in my head switched off and was constructive instead was during my crisis. I’d taken myself for a walk, and was running through a list of ‘failures’ in my head when I found myself asking the question - so what?
Why was I so desperate to find a career when I didn’t know what I wanted to do?
Why was I in such a rush to get married (especially as I was single!)
Who did I know in their mid 20’s who owned a house - maybe 1%?
I started to make small changes in my life and set myself challenges. I learned to drive and started visiting my mum and my grandparents more. I found an amazing mentor at work who challenged me and helped me look at what I might want to do with my life. A few years later I challenged myself to travel solo (which was where my New Zealand adventure began in earnest!) - nuff said!
What advice would you have for someone who wants to get more involved in tech and volunteering but doesn’t know how or doesn’t think that they have the right skills?
My first experiences in tech outreach and volunteer spaces were never alone. I always looked for someone to do it with me, or ‘hold my hand’. Once I felt more comfortable, I started seeking opportunities solo.
Not being from a tech background, I felt I had to find my ‘super power’ and use that. For me, it was my ability to start a conversation with a student and encourage them to give something a go. If a technical issue came up that I didn’t know the answer to - I’d just wave over a fellow volunteer and ask them to help out.
When I started out, I didn’t really know what I was doing, or where it would take me. I remember a fellow Code Club volunteer saying that what she loved about volunteering was watching that moment when the student ‘got it’ when something had clicked. I’d have to agree with her, it’s watching the student go on the journey of self-discovery, whether it’s during a workshop or once a week for 2 years at a Code Club!
Being so close to people in the tech industry, what do you think are some of the challenges that people don’t expect? What are some of the most exciting things that people don’t expect from this industry?
Ironically, I think the biggest challenges in tech are people. What I mean by that is we are the ones who have unconscious biases, our egos get in the way or we become blinkered in our thoughts and perceptions. I think these attributes hold us back when it comes to how we collaborate with others, the products, and services we build and the problems we choose to look at solving.
I’m as guilty as anyone at this, over the last few years I’ve tried to make a conscious effort at recognising it more. For example, I’ve been known to judge people negatively if they ‘don’t smile enough’ when I first meet them. I started to question this when I heard stories from women in tech and business talking about the fact they were TOLD to smile more! Recently, a girlfriend told me she knows a woman who had had botox specifically to enhance her ‘smiling face’. She’d done this due to the negative feedback she’d received from others in the business that she didn’t smile enough. There’s nothing quite like a friend telling you how it is to make you realise you are PART of the problem!
What are some of the most exciting things that people don’t expect from the industry?
For me, it would be the endless opportunities that tech can offer when it comes to solving problems. The younger generation are deeply passionate around social, environmental and inequality issues and challenges. Using tech as a tool can be incredibly powerful in helping to solve these problems. Some examples of technology being used as a tool to do this:
Callisto - a non-profit that creates technology to detect repeat perpetrators of professional sexual coercion and sexual assault.
Kara Technologies, who make content available to the deaf using AI.
Sit With Us - an app that was inspired by a miserable experience of being bullied in middle school. Apart from the verbal taunts and violence, one of the worst things was having to eat lunch alone, and the embarrassment of having others see me eating lunch alone.
Just to name a few!
From your perspective, what can we all do better to encourage younglings (and especially non-males) to be involved with technology?
There is a whole range of things people can do to encourage more diversity in tech.
But I will just focus on three things:
Be a champion
There’s a GREAT Ted Talk by Rita Pierson called Every Kid Needs a Champion. When it comes to encouraging a diverse pipeline of talent into the tech sector - this is incredibly powerful. You can champion kids in your own whanau, encourage them to try out online opportunities like Hour of Code.
Not really into the whole ‘hands on thing’ - find opportunities to pay it forward. Nanogirl Labs is GREAT at providing opportunities like buy one give one with their Kitchen Science book or pay it forward tickets for families who couldn’t normally afford admittance to the show.
Be an ally
Diversity isn’t enough on its own - you also need inclusion to experience the true power and potential of a prosperous and thriving workforce and economy. Being a white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, woman with no kids, whose mother tongue is English, I understand I have a lot of privilege. I try and leverage that privilege to be an ally to others. In the workplace, I use this to call out or speak up for others. With the students, I use this to sponsor, champion and encourage them to be the best they can be.
If we can’t create an inclusive tech industry, all the effort of champion a diverse pipeline of talent would be entirely wasteful.
Find your tribe
I would have never attempted to do any of this stuff if I didn’t have an awesome group of people around me to back me and to take the ‘leap of faith’ with. For the people who were there at the beginning, they have all gone on to find other tribes, share their passions and inspire others into this space.
I continue to find people who are also deeply passionate about this and want to get involved and make meaningful change. I often use my tribe/network, to empower others. For example, earlier this year, Lisa (an old Code Club volunteer friend) reached out to me, she’d been helping run the latest GirlCode program and had met a student, Ashleigh.
Ashleigh was in her late 20s and looking for a career change, she’d been mainly working in retail since leaving school but was interested in getting back into programming - which she used to enjoy at school. Lisa had invited Ashleigh to visit her office where she worked (a tech startup), but she was keen for Ashleigh to visit a bigger more corporate tech company (like Xero). A month or so later I invited Ashleigh over for a catch up (I think we ended up talking for about 2 hours!). Through meeting her and understanding where she was at, I introduced her to Cecelia at Datacom. Cecelia got her along to one of the Datacomp hackathons (Ashleigh hadn’t been to a hackathon before). She also took Ashleigh with her to help out at Geek Camp - a youth digital workshop in Otara during the school holidays.
Ashleigh will be starting Dev Academy soon, I’m hoping through the connections she has already made that she will continue to find her own tribe of people who support her to be the best she can be.
And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?
Sonya Renee Taylor, I met her at a Women in Tech Meetup shortly after she’d move to NZ. She shared her story with me - I was instantly a fangirl - the woman is AMAZING!!!