Introducing – Ruth James

Tech Outreach and Engagement Coordinator Xero

Tell us about yourself, and your journey into tech/STEM.

So, without giving you my whole life story, I moved from England because I met a boy (what better reason to move country right?)  and realised that in Napier there weren’t many what I’d call “career jobs,” other than working in hospitality or in a vineyard, and that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. So I moved up to Auckland by myself, and did the usual thing; signed up to temp agencies, because I wanted to get a foot in the door. The first long time contract I got, which I think was around three months, was working for a tech company called Fronde. They were basically an IT consulting company, so they often took on project work, from the government, banks, Telecom, those sorts of places, to implement specific projects. 

The role I had for the first three months was pretty much a receptionist, and eventually I was there for about three years in total, moving a bit more into an office management type role. I remember the agency calling me saying, “we’ve got you this contract for a few months for an IT company,” and this was back in the day when we had internet cafes. And I couldn’t help thinking “oh, it’s a tech company, they’ll all be really geeky.” And I guess those stereotypes which certainly the media pumps out about working in tech, so I kind of thought, “well, it’s a three month contract, how bad can it be?” The first day I turned up, the lift doors opened straight onto reception, and my soon to be manager, the lovely Julie, was on the floor in fits of giggles because the general manager had just told a joke. I just remember thinking that I wasn’t expecting that; this might not be what I thought it might be. I ended up really loving it, really loving the people, and kind of getting a greater understanding of tech, especially because up until then, I’d only really been a consumer of tech. 

After three years, I moved to Orion Health, and I guess that’s where I got my big break. Moving from a reception role to an office management role, getting really interested in that outreach space, understanding that there is a lack of diversity in tech, and showcasing what it really meant to work in technology. It’s still a major challenge, I think we’re getting better at selling it as tech companies understand it, but this is something we need to be more proactive at changing and being more diverse and inclusive. There’s no silver bullet, but I feel like suddenly in the last five to ten years since I’ve been working in this space the industry has started moving in the right direction. However we need to look at all spheres, such as education – being the only girl in a class for tech causes lots of girls to drop out of tech because they are the only female. It’s a tough gig encouraging people to stay with it, both with women and other underrepresented groups such as Maori and Pasifika groups.

One of the things I found really surprising that even though I work with some really smart people, they’re relatable, they support people. The media pumps out the image of guys in hoodies working in basements typing and hacking away at things, but you come into the office, and it’s nothing like that. I’ve been mainly at home for the last month or so, and when I came back I spent 45 minutes just chatting and catching up with people, so this idea that everyone in tech is antisociable, is not correct at all, and I think it’s so important to change this image.

Why did you choose to go into tech/STEM?

Apart from what I covered in the previous question, the only other thing I’d add is how there were a number of people I was surrounded by who really inspired me. There were two main people, one of them is a good friend of mine, Matthew Gatland, who is currently somewhere in Scandinavia, working for the company that make Minecraft (I’m sure the readers will remember what this company is, but I forget, because I’m not a complete geek!). He’s an uber nerd (I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me describing him as this, because he really is), he looks very much “University Professor”, and is incredibly introverted. He recognised that he needed to challenge himself, and so he put himself out there, started going to meetup groups. I’ll be honest, when you start going to meetup groups it’s terrifying putting yourself out there, when you don’t know anybody and a lot of the community already know each other. He really inspired me, because if he can push himself out there and take on this challenge, I have no excuse!

I started putting myself out there, which led to doing some public speaking. I’ve always been terrified of public speaking, but in tech outreach a lot of it is public speaking, communication and story telling, and we have school groups coming in. High school groups are pretty intimidating, so another one of my friends who inspired me, Shrikkanth, would share stories about his journey in tech. And it’s funny, I remember thinking “Shrikkanth is so good at this, he’s just a natural speaker”, because I would do my introduction and then Shrikkanth would tell his story, and within seconds he’d get people laughing. With public speaking, it’s important to remember that you come to it as your authentic self, and if you manage to make an audience laugh then that’s great, but remember that everyone has different strengths – for example my strength is in storytelling. I feel like I’ve now conquered my fear of public speaking – although I’m still challenging myself with bigger and bigger audiences. It’s not like either of these people sat me down and told me what to do, but they both helped me to understand that everyone needs to do it in their own way.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in tech?

I think most of the challenges have been more on the personal level, both at Orion Health and Xero I’ve been really encouraged to be fully autonomous – to understand what the problem is, and find the best way to resolve it. I guess with regards to challenges I’ve been incredibly fortunate because I’ve always been supported in this role, and being able to carve this journey for myself has been awesome. Whenever I’ve asked my work colleagues, especially in tech, if they can help out with a panel or group discussion for a school group they’ve always said yes. 

More of the challenges have really been about personal things – like the public speaking thing, or remembering that it’s ok to say no (which I’m still working on now). I’m definitely one of those people who wants to say yes to everything, to help all of the people, but taking care of your own health is also really important. And this is not just me, but everyone, it’s difficult to find that work life balance. So remember that it’s ok to say no, even though you want to change the world, remember it doesn’t have to be done today. Changing the world takes time, and changing the world takes a team – it’s not down to one person. And I feel especially in the tech industry it’s all a team sport – there’s groups like SheSharp, the Women in Tech meetup group, who are doing some fantastic, awesome stuff. And I feel in regards to tech outreach, I much prefer doing collaboration with other groups – they know their audiences, they have their resources, and it’s all about how we can support each other.

Tell us about a highlight from your career and why it is significant to you.

There are so many! Certainly in the tech outreach space, a lot of what we do is event based – we’ll have events, or we’ll have a school group coming in, it’s a lot of working with people. And I feel it’s a great place to showcase the really powerful and long term changes. Early on I volunteered with Code Club (which is still going) at Orion Health. Through Code Club there is a regular group of students coming in, and so you can build up role models for them and encourage them to go to other opportunities, and it’s those long game things that have more of an impact.

One of the biggest highlights for me is my relationship with a student called Penny. I met Penny about 7 years ago, when she was 7. I was doing some volunteering with OMG Tech, who used to do a lot of STEM workshops – designed to be really easy, to show kids that technology is for everybody. We were in South Auckland, on a Saturday outside a library – I was on the robotics table. Not being an engineer myself, I’d only been taught that morning how to program a robot, so I was mainly working on encouraging young people to come over and create their robot. Later that morning, Penelope came and did the robot activity, and after about 20 minutes said to me “usually I’m a shy girl and I don’t do stuff like this, but I’m really really enjoying this”, which was music to my ears. We carried on with the activity, and we programmed the robot to go around the course, and I got my camera out and recorded it. When her mum (Liz) came to pick her up in about 45 minutes, she brought her over and I showed her the video that we’d made. I gave Liz my business card, and told her about all the online learning that was available. 

About three months later I got a (slightly panicked) phone call from Liz, and she just said “I don’t know what to do, Penelope will not stop talking about the afternoon she spent programming the robots”. So we agreed to catch up, and for about a year we caught up every weekend at the workplace, because I wanted to show her what an office environment was like, and we started going through coding material, starting with Hour of Code, and then the Code Club material, and we got to a point where I couldn’t teach her anymore. Now Penelope is 12, and she’s an awesome tech girl. She’s Pasifika – I think we’re all aware that there’s hardly any Pasifika women in the tech space, and I just love the fact that she’s still really curious about tech. I don’t see her as much anymore – we catch up about once a year, but this is the sort of long story that really is a highlight for me. Total credit to Liz as well for engaging with this, with young kids they really need someone to champion this space – whether that’s a parent, teacher, family member or other mentor. It’s definitely been a journey for Liz and I – neither of us have really ever known exactly what we’re doing but Penelope has just taken it and run. Every now and again I’ll share opportunities with Penelope – the last one was pre-COVID, we ran an event at Xero called Girl Code, run by Matt and Alice Gatland, and it was a really easy introduction to web and problem solving. Penelope came along to that – she was the youngest student, the oldest girl was 18, and they all got along really well – by the end of the first day it was like they’d known each other for years. Knowing Penelope from the age of 7, it was really exciting seeing her stepping into this space. Stuff like this is what keeps me going.

What are you working on now?

Lots of things! COVID-19 has really disrupted what is happening – already in Auckland having two lockdowns this year, and with a lot of the stuff that I do being event based it has really been shaken up. Big events are off the cards – for example the kiwibots nationals were cancelled 3 times. There are two or three big things in the arena at the moment. There is one thing coming up with a group in Palmerston North, called Amanaki STEM Academy, which was started about three years ago by an awesome couple, and the dad works in the STEM industry, so he formed a Pasifika homework club. The Pacific community being what they are, it lead to lots of parents wanting their kids to also be involved, and so from a small homework group around the kitchen table it has now grown to 50-100 students, all Pasifika students from Palmerston North. Within the three years since starting this, the transformation it’s made to the students, families and community has been massive. They often have STEM role models coming in, because “You can’t be what you can’t see”, and they have an event coming up where we’re looking to send some speakers to help out with the event. 

The other group that I’m working with is a group called Take2, which is a model that is originally from the US, but we’re piloting it here in one of Auckland’s men’s prisons. It takes a handful of inmates and puts them through a boot camp like what you would do with Dev Academy or Mission Ready, and it covers web based coding, to get them ready for when they leave prison so that they’ve got the skill sets to apply for a tech job. It’s really important not only because of diversity inclusion, but also making sure when people leave prison they’ve got a role or a skill that they can tap into. At the moment we’re looking to run a few workshops with them, our Talent Experience Team are going to work with them on interview skills, our User Experience Team are going to do a workshop around UX Fundamentals, and ideally we’re looking to offer one of these students an internship and potentially a job. Even though most of my work with tech outreach is with school students, I’m very aware that it’s important to get diversity into tech, because classically most of the people coming into tech come from universities. I think now we know that there’s a whole lot of other ways to get into tech, via self learning or Dev academies, and that’s where a lot of the diversity is coming from – because not everyone can afford to go to university. And so we’re working on finding opportunities and entry points for people to come into Xero.

Why do you think we need more women in tech and/or STEM?

So many reasons! More from a personal perspective, I’m in my early forties, and even though I’ve only been working in tech for ten years, I can see how the workplace has changed as more women come into it, and how mindsets have changed around diversity inclusion in the workplace. Attitudes are changing for the better now. I remember my manager’s manager, Annemarie Brown, who was VP of Global Marketing at Orion Health saying that when she’d come back to the workplace after having her kids, the first thing her boss said to her was “don’t let being a mum affect how you are in the workplace”. Basically, when you come to work you can’t be a mum. And the thing is that she was a mum, and that wasn’t something she could just deny in the workplace, why wasn’t she allowed to take time off to go to her kid’s first day at school. And I think that that attitude is changing, I’m lucky working at Xero, but being able to be your authentic self in the workplace, whatever that is, is being more accepted. One of the things I love about Auckland is how it’s a melting pot of cultures, and I feel that certainly at Xero we embrace that now.

Going back more now to why we need diversity, we all benefit from diversity inclusion, we all feel safer and it creates more of that psychological safe space when we have diversity inclusion in the workplace. I think it also opens our eyes. For example, one of my friends, who’s originally from Kenya has been talking about what has been happening with her family and COVID-19, and other than that I wouldn’t have any idea about what has been happening in Kenya. Having diversity in the workplace really does broaden your horizons. 

The other reason, just to show this isn’t just a warm fuzzy thing, Anna Curzon our Chief Product Officer at Xero talks a lot about how more diverse and inclusive companies perform better financially. This is because these companies have great diversity of thought which leads to greater innovation, plus in more inclusive workplaces people are happier. 

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