Ally Watson’s story is like something out of a rags to riches movie. Raised in working class Scotland with a single parent and a big family, she pursued her dream of becoming an artist, only to be rejected from art school twice in two years.
Now based in Melbourne, Ally is the .NET Developer at Deepend and the Founder of Code Like A Girl, an initiative which gives girls and women of all ages and experiences the opportunity to learn coding fundamentals, leading to more opportunities and bigger salaries.
We talked to Ally to learn about the person behind these kick ass initiatives and what tips she has for anyone of any skill level on asking for what they want at work.
How did you decide you wanted to be a .NET Developer?
It wasn’t something I saw myself doing, to be honest. In high school, I loved art, design, fashion and saw myself doing that as a career. After high school I left to become an artist. I put together an art folio, learnt life drawing, photography and prepared for Art School. But I didn’t get in.
I tried again the next year. I got rejected – again. I was two years out of high school, and I was worried about wasting time. It was always drilled into me that ‘you needed a degree’.
It was all a bit of an accident. I started to look elsewhere for something that wasn’t art. I saw a course in Software Engineering and enrolled because as I was good at maths at school.
Talk about a 180. What was it like?
There were five girls in a class of one hundred. It was like a moment out of Legally Blonde, when Elle goes to Harvard. I felt I wasn’t quite right, that I was different to everyone else. Everyone seemed to have experience and I felt like I was behind already.
I soon realised there were so many elements of creative thinking, psychology and design involved – the whole process was so human centered. I fell in love with it. I started applying my art background to these subjects and suddenly others were wanting me on their team. It really helped my confidence.
Did you have role models to look up to?
My mum is a single parent and she went back to college when we were young. I watched her work hard to keep food on the table, and get us to school. Having a strong role model helped me suck it up when things got hard.
How has her work ethic influenced the way you look at work?
I remember how tough things were when we were younger. When I was growing up, I couldn’t go to dance class, learn an instrument, there were no extra curricular activities because we weren’t very wealthy, and there were sacrifices.
So, when I run workshops and events [through Code Like A Girl], I want them to be accessible to big families. It shouldn’t only be the ones who can afford it that get these skills.
I always think if I didn’t have these skills, I’d be stuck where I grew up. Education can give an escape to people.
You’re working two jobs: one at Deepend, the other managing Code Like A Girl. What’s been some of the surprising elements of running two jobs?
One aspect I never anticipated was keeping in check with my mental health. I went through a rough patch when I took it too personally and I was setting myself up with too many expectations [with Code Like A Girl].
I describe it as Lord of the Rings [laughs]. It’s like when Gollum gets so obsessed with it until he starts losing his hair over it. When something you care about is such a part of you, and you become so passionate about it, learning not to take things personally when they go wrong was a big learning for me.
You have to take the knocks, be ok with it, and keep going, surround yourself with support. If something upsets you – talk about it. People always offer to help and offload, and it helps share the problem.
How do you manage your time and keep your mental health in check?
Your friends and family come first. Wednesday nights and weekends are for my friends. At the end of the day, work is just work.
Switch off. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to do your best. Even if the emails aren’t stopping or you’ve got a big deadline coming up, you deserve it. You have to give yourself dedicated time to switch off.
When things get too tough, I give myself rest, eat healthy, make sure I’m looking after myself. Let’s just say I make sure I have Uber Eats on my phone and order dinner while I’m ordering lunch [laughs].
What’s been the impact of the success of Code Like A Girl on your day job at Deepend?
I was an employee, and I had started a website. It was just a blog, and I wanted to host the first meet up at our offices. My boss [Deepend Managing Director Kath Blackham] was really on board. We thought we’d get 8 people to the first one – but 120 people RSVP’ed!
I then did an accelerator programme with PWC and Foundations of Young Australians who picked up Code Like a Girl and put us forward. We formed a mentor team and they gave me the confidence that I could turn the initiative into a real business.
How did you fit it all into your day job?
It came to a point where I knew I’d have to sacrifice something. My annual review was coming up and I had a conversation with my boss and explained that my time was so much more important to me than getting a promotion. She knew where my heart lay.
How did you sell it in to your boss?
I didn’t sell it – it was just a conversation. They’re [Deepend] big advocates for flexible working hours, so already I had been working flexibly to manage it all. We both negotiated a way to make it work for both of us.
Can you share some examples of what you said that demonstrated value for your employer?
Communicate your dreams and aspirations to them to demonstrate how important it is to you. That gets them on board to so they can see the benefits.
Pick your timing and don’t just bring one thing to the table. A lot of people go in thinking ‘I just want a salary’, or ‘I want X’. A mentor told me to not present just one thing you want, because they can turn down that – but it’s harder to turn down options [laughs].
To be honest, the initiative had already done the sales pitch for me. We’d already proven having Deepend affiliated with Code Like A Girl was positive and our MD, she loved it.
What’s next for you and Code Like A Girl?
Lots! We’re looking at workshops, consultancy and recruitment.