Celebrating women in tech on International Women's Day

International Women's Day
International Women's Day

Women have been a part of history for as long as history has existed. Sometimes, however, our stories don't quite make it to the top of the list of important achievements in perpetuity. I say, let's rewrite the history books and make sure women, across all industries, are given their place in history.

Some day, women won't need a special day to have our achievements recognized. In the meantime, we have International Women's Day to help remind the world that 50% of the population has done our fair share of shaping and making the world we live in today.

Let me introduce you to four app developers that are current history makers. All four women hail from Canada and are inspiring people of all walks of life with their experiences.

Meet Maayan Ziv: Founder of AccessNow

Maayan Ziv, founder AccessNow

Maayan Ziv, founder AccessNow

AccessNow is an app that provides information regarding the accessibility of public buildings around the world. It's contributor-based, so users can submit information about whether an establishment is accessible to people with disabilities. You can identify if a business is accessible, partially accessible, or not at all accessible. You can also include detailed information about the location, like whether there is disabled parking nearby, how easy it is to get to the bathroom, and whether there is room inside for easy movement.

Free - Download now (opens in new tab)

Maayan Ziv created and executed one of the most important apps of our time with AccessNow. Her story began when she was born. She has spent her life navigating a world that isn't particularly friendly to the needs of people with disabilities.

After two decades of frustration at not knowing, in advance, whether a meetup location was accessible, she developed AccessNow.

How old were you when you decided to get into app development?

I was 24 when I began building AccessNow, this was the first time I'd ever ventured into tech.

How has your creation and development of AccessNow influenced you?

I was focused on solving a specific problem — that being a lack of accessibility information. Tech quickly became the best way to solve this problem. Now that I work in this field, I've become so inspired by those who have been able to solve truly important social challenges. I'm inspired by people who dedicate their time to making the world a more inclusive and inviting place.

Crowdsourcing is a difficult category to have success with. How did you manage to get the word out about AccessNow?

Accessibility is a basic human right. I think we have touched something within people with the work we are doing. We are solving a real problem and building an authentic community to make it happen.

I have a disability myself, and I can speak to the challenges that people with disabilities face on a deeply personal level. I think my story resonates with people, and it's been a motivating factor for people to get involved because we are working together to empower each person to find access when they need it.

It's inspiring to see the success you've had creating something so useful to so many people. Do you have any specific moments of glory along the way you'd like to share?

What inspires me most is knowing that we are creating something that truly helps people. I grew up feeling alone in facing the barriers that came my way. It was just me, my family, and some friends who understood that the world wasn't so accessible for me. Now, we have built an international community of advocates and allies who can empower each other. There is an acknowledgement there that the barriers are real, and we are not alone in this experience.

Every time someone shares a testimonial of using the app to find an accessible place, or a story about a positive experience they had thanks to our technology, it really inspires me to keep going. Our tech is about people, it's about empowering people to live life to the fullest.

Girls and women are becoming a more prominent percentage of the coding demographic. How do you feel about the representation of the accessibility community in coding?

We need to recognize that people with disabilities make up 17% of the population, yet, are extremely underrepresented in the tech community. We always speak about a labor pool shortage, yet people with disabilities face high unemployment rates. Something is not adding up.

It's time to recognize the power, creativity, and strength that people with disabilities can contribute to tech. When diverse perspectives are included and integrated within our design and coding processes, we can develop better, inclusive and more successful products.

My dream is to see this vision become a reality; where the tech community is actually representative of our overall communities. Imagine how beautifully diverse and truly powerful that would be.

What would you want to say to a girl or young woman looking to start coding, but is intimidated by the idea?

I would say that the most important thing is to follow your dreams, follow that guiding instinct fueled by what you are passionate about. It doesn't matter what other people think, it matters that you believe in yourself. At first, it can be scary to put yourself out there, so find those people who can support you, the people who remind you how talented and amazing you are. Talk to those people, share your ideas with them and they can be a tremendous source of strength for you when things are challenging. Then it's just about taking the first step … and then, just keep going.

Meet Huda Idrees: Founder of Dot Health

Hua Idress, Founder Dot Health

Hua Idress, Founder Dot Health

Hailing from Toronto, Huda Idrees created Dot Health as a reaction to seeing how difficult it is for patients to get easy access to their own health records. With your consent, Dot Health collects all the information from the various doctors, hospitals, labs, and clinics you visit. For some, this can be a daunting task on their own. Dot Health is a sort of personal assistant for your medical records. It's only available in Canada.

Free - Download now (opens in new tab)

How old were you when you decided to get into coding?

My school introduced a new class called "Information Technology" in the 5th grade. I must've been 10 years old. The moment I was introduced to it I was hooked! I started my own web development agency at 12.

What has been your source of inspiration?

I tend to use the magic of mobile to make products and services accessible to the masses. Growing up in Saudi Arabia and observing inequity in society made quite an impact on me.

What inspired you to work in the health industry? Did you have any particular experience that led you down this path?

From my experience, money is being funneled into frivolous technology while real problems in industries, like health and education, are deemed "too difficult" to solve. I've always wanted to use my powers for good.

I first created Dot Health to help a single cancer patient manage his own care. It snowballed from there. We released our iOS app in Dec 2017; I remember the day we launched in the Apple App Store. It helped us reach a much larger audience and fundamentally changed how we thought about accessibility.

Can you tell give us a story of how the team at Dot Health came together?

Tessa Thornton, our Chief Technology Officer, is incredible. I knew her from the community and offered to help her connect to anyone in my network. It was early days at Dot Health, and I didn't think I'd be able to afford to hire her. Two weeks after Tessa took a role at a different company, she came into Dot's co-working space and said, "I want to work on this problem." There is no way Dot Health exists without Tessa.

Do you see a shift in the culture of coding that is positive for girls looking to become professional app or game developer?

First step in solving a problem is acknowledging it. I'm thrilled to see the tech industry acknowledging this problem. That's half the battle! Initiatives like Canada Learning Code also go a long way in building community around programming so new entrants don't feel alone in their journey.

I learned mobile programming for iOS in Objective-C. Apple's shift to Swift in the last few years has been exciting to watch — it makes app development more accessible to everyone. That's how we all win in this industry — using access to technology as the great equalizer.

What would you want to say to a girl or young woman looking to start coding, but is intimidated by the idea?

Technology as an industry has the power to change our world like no other. Today, the people building technology systems are overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white. If women and people of color don't pursue their passion in building technology, we will soon live in a world designed by a homogenous group of people that won't take us into account. That's not only dangerous, it skews power and influence in the world significantly. We owe it to future generations to do our part.

Meet Jane Ji: Co-Founder of Springbay Studio

Jane Ji, founder Springbay Studio

Jane Ji, founder Springbay Studio

Jane has had a passion for science since she was a little girl. Her love of biology opened the doors to a career in engineering, which ultimately brought her to Toronto, where she founded and developed iBiome-Wetland and iBiome-Ocean. If you've got a little one that's interested in life under the sea, the iBiome series will fill their heads with knowledge and their imaginations with stories they'll love to retell on the playground (and they'll be about science and biology!).

$3.99 - Download now (opens in new tab)

How old were you when you decided to get into coding?

I started to learn coding when I was in my second year of university, and that was one of the mandatory courses for engineering students.

Why did you choose to become an engineering student? Was that a common education path for your age group at the time? Were you doing something different from most young women your age?

I loved science when I was young. I remember I went to the woods close to my home every single day before I went to middle school. I was collecting leaves, insects, climbing trees, gathering flowers, and went wild petty much. I only went home when I felt hungry. My parents gave me some kids' science magazines and many books on science literacy. One of my favorite books was about biomimicry. It fascinated me so much that led me to choose Biomedical Engineering as my major, because it has "Bio" and "Engineering" in its name. J

I was good at schools and loved books. So friends around me were all like that. It was in my first year of university that I realized the gender gap in engineering and science programs.

How did you get into the gaming and app development industry?

I was around in the right time in China when it opened its door to foreign investment. A Taiwan multimedia company called Inventec setup an office in Tianjin, and I was hired as a programmer to work on interactive games. That's how I got started in the game industry. There was one PC game that got me hooked into game industry – The 7th Guest (opens in new tab). I wished that one day I could make a game as good as that, and gradually, I began to pursue game design and was a senior game designer when I left China.

What was the shift like from PC game programming in mainland China to creating educational games for kids in Toronto? Was it easy to make such a big career transition?

When I worked in mainland China, I worked for game companies, but for educational games for kids. I now work for my own studio. It became my business, taking up most of my time and energy. When I left China back in 2000, there were no online games and the Chinese game market was hit hard by piracy. I really love making games, so I came to Toronto for opportunities. After I finally learned to speak English before translating from Chinese first, I started to look for positions developing games. However, it was very challenging to convince other people that I could design a good combat game or racing game. Fortunately, some of my consulting work led me to casual games. It was eye-opening to find out that other developers could make a living making casual games. A bold idea came into my mind: make the games I want to make. So, I started to test the waters.

I still remembered the first time when I went to an IGDA (International Game Developer Association) meeting in a downtown pub here. I was the only woman in the group, sweating, struggling to find words to chat with anyone else there. However, I thought that I had a great game idea that worth pursuing. That pushed me to get out of my comfort zone, connect with people who make games, find artists and resources to make the idea gradually flourish. I went to GDCs and asked people for advice. Finally in 2008, my co-founder and I made up our mind to develop our first casual game – Mark and Mandi's Love Story.

After we released our second game, Living Garden, I tried to add more simulation elements to it. I wanted to simulate a backyard ecosystem. That became the biggest turning point in my career. My work connected me with environmental issues. The environmental crisis can't be fully reversed in our lifetime. If we don't educate future generations, they will be inadequately equipped to build sustainable solutions. We decided to shift our focus from commercial games to educational games. That led to the iBiome series, two games released thus far and another in the making.

Can you share some success stories relating to starting and growing Springbay Studios?

Our industry experience and passion were critical in getting us off the ground. As members of a small studio, we have to assume many roles. My experience in both game design and programming and my co-founder's skills in project management helped us to release our games with low budgets. As we are making games that align with our values, many times we have to face the challenge of marketing.

I remember the words from our first business mentor: having your own business is kind of like being in the ocean. You have the freedom to go where you want to, but you will be scared that you can't see any path at all. Passion will help you to gather a little bit more energy when you are close to quitting. That happened to us when we released our first game in the iBiome series — iBiome-Wetland. The excitement of releasing our first educational app in the iTunes store quickly vanished and replaced by the worries about the download numbers. Knowing nothing about app marketing, we started to try everything we could think of: dropping the price, buying ads from kids app review sites, using social media, you name it. We tried to create as much noise as we could, until one day someone from Mom's Choice Award reached out to us. After that, a librarian noticed our app which led to an award from the American Association of School Librarians. Fortunately enough, we got the attention from Apple's team. Their support and features helped us get funding from Ontario Creates and released our second iBiome game, iBiome-Ocean. We are now working on a new entry in the series, iBiome-Melting Ice.

Congratulations on the awards your team has won! Do you have any anecdotes about kids' experiences with your games?

Thanks! I'd like to share two stories with you. One is from the editor of Eco Parents Magazine about her daughter and iBiome-Ocean. "I just have to tell you how much my six-year-old daughter loves this app! Even months later, she still spends time making biomes and telling us all about the things she's learned."

Another one was a 7 year old Chinese boy I met in Florida. We were waiting for a bus and he was bored. So I offered him the iBiome-Wetland to play. I told him it was in English, which he knew very little, but he started to play. He finished half of the game, and talked to me about why mosquitoes were important for Redwing Black birds and Dragonflies, which are the species taught in the freshwater marsh in the game. He learned that species are connected through the food web from playing the game, and although we don't like mosquitoes very much, they are part those ecosystems.

What would you want to say to a girl or young woman looking to start coding, but is intimidated by the idea?

I want to say that it is ok to feel uncomfortable at the beginning. Like other things in life, you will get better as you progress and practice. You will be proud of yourself when you see your first coding project come to life. Also, there are many roads to Rome. You can choose the programming tools/languages you like. It doesn't matter whether it's Scratch or Swift, Java or C#, start with something that makes sense according to your goals. I love seeing the fruits of my labor when I program. Programming will be an essential skill, the way reading and writing are today. You don't have to love it, but it is a very useful skill to help you do what you want to do in our tech-dependent society.

Meet Brie Code: CEO and Creative Director of Tru Luv Media

Brie Code, Founder Tru Luv

Brie Code, Founder Tru Luv

Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, I just don't want the day to exist. I just want to stay in bed and do nothing. Brie Code's app #SelfCare is a meditation game of sorts. It lets you take a moment or two out of your day, whether it's first thing in the morning or in the middle of a hectic day, to relax and take care of yourself. Mini games allow you to play word games, practice breathing exercises, and more. It's simple. It's calming. It gives you a few minutes to shut off the world and just enjoy doing nothing in particular.

Free - Download now (opens in new tab)

How old were you when you decided to get into coding?

My aunt showed me how to script her Commodore 64 when I was 6 years old and I've been programming ever since then. When I went to university I was more interested in psychology or architecture. But I had to keep my scholarship to afford tuition, and I knew I could ensure As in computer science by staying in the lab until my program worked. So I decided to study computer science to make sure I could get a degree.

Did you have a particular person as your source of inspiration that led you to choose programming as a career?

Yes! I loved Roberta Williams' games while I was growing up. I especially loved The Colonel's Bequest—a game about getting to know a family while exploring their home and its secrets.

Going from Ubisoft's fast pace to developing #SelfCare seems like a big change. Is the relaxing nature of #SelfCare a direct reaction to the experience you had at Ubisoft?

I'm an expert in game design. But most of my friends are not interested in video games or anything like them. A few years ago, my cousin Kristina, who is also my best friend, received a game console from her husband's brother. She asked me if there was something she should try playing. On a hunch, I asked her to play my favorite game, Skyrim. She googled it, told me she doesn't watch Game of Thrones and won't play this, and I didn't hear back from her. I assumed she didn't play it.

Three weeks later, she called me, crying, because she had accidentally killed Lydia, a character in the game who is sort of a friend and who joins you on your adventures. Although Kristina wasn't interested in medieval settings or swords or dragons or fighting, she loved playing Skyrim because she loved having a connection with Lydia. She told me in that phone call that after all these years, it wasn't that she didn't like video games, it was that she didn't know what games could be. She didn't know they could be spaces for taking care and being taken care of, for connection with characters, and for identity experimentation and healing. That conversation changed everything for me. I realized from the way Kristina was talking about Skyrim that the way we interact with games and with apps could be different.

So I went away and I thought at depth about what she said, and I starting reading every piece of related psychological research I could find. I came across something transformative.

Interaction design theory assumes that we put the user in a psychological flow state by managing a balance between stress and reward. This exploits your fight-or-flight response to stress. The fight-or-flight response makes you want to master a challenge—to win a game, or to get a like on social media—and when you master the challenge, you feel good.

But, it turns out that there is another little-known, little-studied, but very prevalent human stress response, called tend-and-befriend. When you experience a tend-and-befriend response, you are more interested in taking care, connecting with others, and finding solutions that work for everyone. This provides an explanation for why about half of people find video games frustrating or boring and also implies a framework for both games and apps that might leave more people feeling relaxed.

So, I started TRU LUV to explore using game design and game AI algorithms to create companions—characters like Lydia, who take care of you and whom you can take care of. I wanted to know what would happen if we tried this. Our journey began with an iPhone and iPad app called #SelfCare.

What do you hope users will learn and take with them from #SelfCare?

We started #SelfCare knowing only that we wanted to create an iPhone or iPad app in collaboration with Eve Thomas, a magazine editor and artist in Montreal who isn't interested in video games. Our goals were to explore was possible with tend-and-befriend and to create an experience that Eve and people like her would find truly relaxing and energizing and fun and useful. We started by doing a brainstorm together about what Eve cares about, and she chose the self-care community on Tumblr and Instagram as something she was very interested in. We brainstormed some ideas for a companion who is taking a virtual mental health day on your iPhone or iPad for when you don't have time to take one. We made a prototype with Eve's ideas and then brought it back to her repeatedly for her feedback.

We experimented with creating different interaction curves based on tend-and-befriend. Instead of creating experiences that go from easy to hard, the set of mini-games in #SelfCare go from messy to tidy, awkward to smooth, or disconnected to connected. Debugging this app was the most peaceful debugging experience any of us have ever had! It seemed to work.

But, most other designers and publishers we showed the app to told us it would fail. They told us it wasn't interesting. I lost confidence, but we decided to release it, in the hopes that we would get a few thousand users and be able to iterate with their feedback and find what we were looking for.

And then when we released it on the Apple App Store, we reached 500k downloads within 6 weeks, with no advertising. We were overwhelmed with reviews and emails from fans saying things like, "It's like it put me in a trance. It's the most calming app I have," "I feel like the little avatar is looking out for me as much as I am looking out for them," or "Thank you for this app. I can tell it will change my life." Apple named us one of their Best of 2018 apps under a top trend of self-care (opens in new tab) (view on iPhone or iPad). We still haven't done any advertising and have now reached a million downloads.

We hope that users will find in #SelfCare a way to take a quick mental health day when they need one but can't take one.

Do you see a shift in the culture of coding that is positive for girls looking to become professional programmers?

There are great organizations out there, from Dames Making Games to Pixelles to Code Liberation who are involved in getting more young women interested in programming and other adjacent technical fields. And with Russian Doll (opens in new tab) we finally have a television show about a woman programmer.

What would you want to say to a girl or young woman looking to start coding, but is intimidated by the idea?

Earlier in my career barriers that I faced due to my gender were extremely frustrating. I had to fight hard for opportunities, walking a careful line of putting myself forward but never raising my voice or having tears in my eyes. But eventually, as I became an expert, I realized that, while underrepresented people face larger barriers to success, we also have greater opportunities to create the most interesting, innovative, necessary, and revolutionary changes. Men in the tech industry have made what they like and are refining details now, while women are just getting started and have sweeping change we are ready to make. Join us!

Lory Gil

Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books.  If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).

1 Comment
  • Incredible spotlight! Thanks so much for sharing these diverse stories.