That's the IT girl

Coding right,

That's the IT girl

You wouldn’t expect a petite, fair-haired, 28-year-old woman to be one of the most powerful people in coding. But Linda Liukas, who lives in Helsinki, Finland, and describes herself as someone who enjoys cooking, running and has 'way too many children’s books’, is just that.

She has co-founded a global initiative to get more women into programming that is active in 227 countries, and she is now writing and illustrating a series of books to teach children to code through her protagonist’s adventures. “Women make gifted coders because they are creative and brilliant communicators,” she tells me when we meet at a technology conference in London.

Linda, who is chatty and likeable, is recognised as a talented programmer who has pioneered the reinvention of code as a visual, highly creative art form. She was one of the first employees at the US website Codecademy, which raised $10 million in funding to offer free programming lessons online. She became the poster girl for the profession when she co-founded the global network Rails Girls in 2010, a not-for-profit organisation that teaches women to create web applications.

Rails Girls started as a weekend course for her friends; she aimed to demystify coding by teaching the participants to use a web toolbox called Ruby on Rails, an open-source web application created in 2004. It is rather like painting by numbers, but with code. Run by volunteers, the organisation has more than 10,000 women, aged 11 to 65, involved around the world, in countries from Germany to Mozambique. “Normal people who don’t interact with the programming community think code is written by computers for computers, but it’s not,” she says. “Code is written by human beings for other human beings; it’s profoundly human.”

When she was 13, in 2001, she decided to build a website devoted to her crush. “But it wasn’t Orlando Bloom,” she says, laughing. “I was obsessed with Al Gore! He was the underdog of the presidential races. He wasn’t as suave as Bush, but he was very interested in the environment.” She googled everything written about him and set about creating a digital shrine. “I had to teach myself to code almost from scratch,” she says. “But I learnt I could create something from nothing, without needing anything but words. I remember feeling that I could make the computer do whatever I wanted.”

Life-changing experience

Both her parents had studied economics and encouraged their daughter to do the same, although she found her minor subject, visual journalism, more engaging. When her university offered the students an oppurtunity to study at Standford University, California, for a year - Linda seized the oppurtunity and learned product design. It was here that Linda  took a coding class and discovered Ruby, the language that would change the course of her career. Created by Yukihiro Matsumoto in 1993, the “deeply human” language appealed to Linda, and she began to anthropomorphise the code.

“Whenever I ran into problems, I used to imagine describing them to a six-year-old girl called Ruby,” Linda says. “I would draw pictures to explain.” She posted her drawings on the social-media site Tumblr, and people who stumbled across her blog started to ask what Ruby would do next; some even encouraged her to turn the cartoons into a children’s book. It was with trepidation that Linda began writing and illustrating what would become her first draft. Hello Ruby is her book about technology and coding in which a clever but mischievous red-headed girl loses her prized collection of magical gems and must embark on a journey to retrieve them. Along the way, Ruby joins forces with a lonely snow leopard, a group of chatty androids, a 'firefox’ who throws
parties, and a wise penguin.

In order to self-publish her books, Linda set up a campaign on the American crowdfunding site Kickstarter in January last year. “I asked for $10,000 to cover the first 500 books,” she says. “During the first 24 hours, we passed $100,000. By the end (in February), we had raised $380,000. It changed my life entirely.” Once word of her successful crowdfunding campaign got out, Macmillan offered Linda a publishing deal to create a whole series of books in the US. Her editor helped her expand the story – it is now twice its original length and there is an accompanying activity book containing simple programming exercises. The books are expected to be available on her website in the
autumn, keeping them updated on her blog regularly.

She puts her success down to the fact that “there were just lots of nerdy mums and dads out there who wanted to show their kids the world of programming technology but didn’t have the words, or the story.” But really, Hello Ruby tapped into a growing need for young coders worldwide – with Britain adding it to its curriculum in September 2014 to bridge the shortage and skills needed. Watching new female coding stars arrive on the scene is heartening for Linda, who sees it as a return to form for women in technology. “It’s a total fabrication that men are more suited to coding,” she says.

“Ada Lovelace was the first ever programmer. She was the daughter of Lord Byron and had a mathematician mother. It was those roots in numbers and poetry that helped her create the first programming language.” Linda sees herself at the crest of a wave that could change society as we know it. “In the 1970s, there was punk; that drove the whole generation. This generation is all about software,” she says, with just a trace of evangelistic fervour. “A single line of code can affect millions of people.”

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