Cracking The Code
Alaina Percival - CEO of Women Who Code – on advocating for women in tech
Alaina Percival had no background in the tech industry whatsoever when she moved to San Francisco in 2011. What she did have, as a product brand manager who’d risen through the ranks at Puma and Versace, was an unerring nose for the next big thing—and she quickly determined that the tech world was where all the hot, brainy action was in her new hometown. “I wanted to work for a small startup,” she says. “I had to increase my skills to make myself more valuable.” How could you move to San Francisco and not learn to code? she wondered.
“The earliest software engineers were women. It was considered a women’s job,” Alaina explains, referring to the early punch-card operators of the 1950s and 60s. “But computers and video games were marketed to boys, so as the industry grew, more and more boys entered the field.”
It was a situation that eventually led a handful of frustrated women in the Bay Area to form a support group. When Alaina joined Women Who Code in 2011, the organization’s grassroots were but tender young shoots—with a vague mission to demystify the big, bad boy’s club of coding for women.
Noting the self-perpetuating misconception that coding is for dweeby nerds, Alaina explains that the tech industry is not really about “that hacker in a basement who hasn’t any friends and only talks to people online. The reality is, it’s a well-paid job where you’re typically working in beautiful offices with fantastic benefits.” Benefits women would enjoy taking advantage of as thoroughly as do men.
Alaina had spent the last few years launching lines of women-specific athletic footwear for shoemaker Nfinity, and those skills translated easily into community organizing; within a month of joining the fledgling volunteer organization—and still never having written a line of code—she was running it.
“I absolutely fell in love with spending time with smart women in technology,” she says, “seeing them succeed in their careers as a result of the community we were building.”
By day, Alaina eventually parlayed her branding and relationship-building expertise into tech consulting, and ultimately into a plumb job as Head of Developer Outreach for Riviera Partners. Oh, and she learned to code along the way, of course—while running a thriving volunteer organization and holding down a full-time executive-level job in the tech industry—because that’s just how she rolls.
“I’m personally not great at work/life balance,” she admits. “I’m definitely working on a passion project.” She tries to eat well (including any LUNA bar with the word “chocolate” on the label), exercise and get plenty of sleep, but that leaves little time for friends. One late night, she points out, can have a cascade effect, leaving her tired for days, something she can scarcely afford. “I wear four or five hats,” she explains. She oversees four full-time staffers and hundreds of volunteers. “So it’s both a very tiny and a very large organization.”
Without Alaina’s vision the organization might well have remained a well-intentioned ladies’ booster club. But something about the situation ate at her. The issue wasn’t really that not enough women were entering the field, although that was true enough; it was that even the women who successfully entered the industry just weren’t advancing. “Around that mid-career point, women report feeling stalled out in their careers. It’s the same point at which men really feel their careers taking off.”
She attributes this not to overt discrimination, but to unconscious bias. People in tech couldn’t envision a woman in a leadership role quite simply because they’d never seen one.
“I was spending time with talented software engineers, and they would always mention that people didn’t view them as senior enough,” Alaina explains. Soon, she had an aha moment. “The beautiful conversation we were having about teaching women to code was actually a threat to the women in the industry if we didn’t also raise that issue.”
Under Alaina’s deft hand, the organization pivoted. While they still provide scholarships to help women learn to code ($300K in 2016 alone), their main emphasis now is on helping brilliant engineers learn how to step up, lean in and get ahead.
“The program I’m most proud of is our leadership program,” Alaina says. “We didn’t start out thinking this would be the most important program, but it’s turned into that.” She rattles off several success stories. “One of our directors in Mexico said her salary had increased 200% since she stepped up as a Women Who Code leader. We also just announced that we’re launching in Richmond, VA, and already those directors have had their names in the paper. That’s incredibly meaningful for a woman’s career, to have her name and her voice elevated in that way. It tells their company, ‘Hey, this is someone important—you need to keep your eye on her and help her succeed.’”
By 2014, when Alaina finally filed for 501c3 status and quit her day job to become WWCode’s CEO, she had grown an international organization with a presence in 20 countries. Today membership exceeds 80,000(!), and the organization holds over 1500 events a year. And by assuming the leadership mantle, Alaina has given women who code (and Women Who Code) what they need most: one more female tech CEO to look up to. We know we certainly do!