Holly Peck is reshaping the face of the tech industry in Vancouver. She says she’s often fuelled by anger or frustration and directs that towards helping technical women connect, find inspiration, network, and discover their place in a currently male-dominated industry. When she isn’t leading a growing number of women at Women Who Code’s new Vancouver chapter, the software engineer works as a web developer and also studies data science. Though she is a true performer as both an industry leader and as a musician with girl punk band Wet Clit, Holly says underneath the vinyl bodysuit is an extroverted introvert who values alone time. Her anthropology background uniquely informs her current field of study as she considers what data science says about culture, ritual and the economy.
4" Black Platform Boots
Black Leather Jacket
Latex Body Suit
My Terminal (Version Control)
Black Celebration by Depeche Mode
Seven Of Nine (Star Trek Voyager)
Japanese Death Poetry
You are the founder and director of Women Who Code in Vancouver, an organization dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. How did you get involved?
When I was living in New York studying web development at a boot camp, I went to many Women Who Code events out there. Being from Vancouver and knowing the tech community here, I just knew that something like this had to exist. When I moved back to Vancouver, I applied to launch the Vancouver network, and I applied to Global Women Who Code, which is located in San Francisco. I recruited three other female software engineers, and together we filled out an application. At that point, Women Who Code was the second non-profit to ever to be incubated through Y Combinator, which is the premier accelerator in the Bay area. At that point they had incubated and written their entire business model on how to onboard different cities, and what happens when multiple cities all over the world want to start a Women Who Code chapter. So Vancouver was actually selected as one of 16 cities to then go through a cohort or global launch in 2017.
What does your work with Women Who Code look like?
I partner with tech companies and we organize events, which feature a female software engineer or data scientist or anyone in ML or AI, who then gives a technical presentation. We get a base at the company we partner with, and we get a place for female engineers to congregate, collaborate and learn from one another. Tonight I’m launching an event at Microsoft in which we’re featuring Rachel Nabors, who is a world-renowned animator turned web developer advocate on the Microsoft Edge platform.
Has Vancouver proven to be a successful place to set up this network?
Yes! In only five weeks operating, our meetups have reached almost 400 people, who are almost all women, and almost all engineers.
Why was this such an important community for you to get behind?
There’s a real gender disparity in tech and I’m sick and tired of only a certain kind of person building technical products that the whole world uses.
I understand you studied economics before going onto to major in anthropology at Princeton. How does an anthro major find coding and a career in tech?
I’ve always been interested in code and software development and so I’d taken a fundamental course at Codecore, a boot camp which is on Hastings Street in Vancouver; I fell in love with coding, and I fell in love with building. After graduating, five of my anthro classmate friends went to Flatiron School, which is considered one of the best web development boot camps in the world. I really wanted to go back to New York and go to that school if I could get in, so I applied. I eventually got in and spent four months there; it was an incredible experience – really phenomenal.
You make web development, building and coding sound powerful; is that an accurate way to describe it?
It’s amazing; I keep saying this time and time again, but women want participation in society and building the tools that govern it is crucial. Tech is not one career, it’s every career, and there’s something to be said for learning how to think programmatically. It’s a really great step in learning how to break a problem down into sub-problems. Becoming a coder has made me better in every other field imaginable, fields I wouldn’t even think are related to coding. It’s made me a better storyteller, it’s made me a better writer, it’s made me a better musician. The benefits to working with code are actually innumerable. I think it’s especially important now, with the advent of data science applications in every single industry, and it’s only going to become more important with time.
It sounds like you have an analytical mind and really enjoy soaking up knowledge. Does is take a certain type of person to understand and thrive at coding?
Probably a really stubborn person because it’s really hard, especially if you’re learning it for the first time. In coding you’re learning to work with data, learning different concepts and different types of languages. It takes time and it takes a person with lots of grit and tenacity to become a good builder because 99% of the time you’re working with something broken.
What would you say is the biggest misconception one might have of the tech industry or the software engineer profession?
That you have to be this certain kind of person that’s introverted, and that you have to have a CS degree to be a good developer. The stereotype is this stock character, a middle-aged white man tinkering around with code in his basement and that’s a really dated, archaic trope. The majority of software engineers today come from an array of inter-cross disciplinary backgrounds. The popularity of tech bootcamps have especially helped a lot of people actually leave marketing, legal, and econ careers and go into code because they know it can open up a lot of doors.
Could you tell me about the different avenues that one could explore if interested in the tech industry?
Being an engineer encompasses a lot; everything from being a UX UI designer developer to content engineer working on web development and designing how websites look. Web developers create and build websites, products that go on websites, or widgets for websites. There are back end engineers and front end engineers, there are product management roles. I know a lot of engineers who’ve gone on to manage a team of engineers in a more product PM kind of role. You can go into data science, you can go into machine learning and that’s just with websites. We’re entering an Internet of Things age so you can actually build or take certain robotic frameworks and integrate a wifi connection and then make kind of a device or computer. If you want to go into hardware there’s working with wearables, or you can be an IOS developer and develop phone applications. There is also tech in arts, a more creative programming, which is really cool. Everything is software nowadays, whether it’s using Photoshop to edit a photo or scripting the certain tools in Photoshop; it’s not all building an application front to back although that’s an option too. The field and the range of careers in coding are just immense.
Some people tend to think they’re just not good with technology. What do you think of that attitude?
I think there are always people who are slow to change or adapt. I think there is an especially high barrier to entry into tech for women through social and cultural conditioning. The earlier we expose it as a discipline to women and men, the better. To be perfectly honest with you, I think it’s time we rid high schools of home economics courses and replace them with chem and engineering courses. The concepts that ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m supposed to get this in one try’ are really toxic because entering any career with that kind of mentality isn’t ever going to get anyone anywhere. Building spaces that are more hospitable to women through Women Who Code is really important because it gets women who are dabbling in software development thinking about doing it full time.
What advice do you have for women in particular who may feel overwhelmed or unable to learn code?
Come to a Women Who Code event, I urge everyone! I think about 40 per cent of women leave tech mid-career and when you have a really small talent funnel going into the industry to begin with that number is just terrible. I had a woman who was actually a computer science graduate from UBC come to one of our events and talk to me; she said she left her role as a software engineer because she was sick and tired of working on an all-male team and feeling just totally left out of the ‘bro culture’ – she felt her voice wasn’t heard and she didn’t feel respected. This woman graduated with one of the best CS degrees in the country! We need women to stop leaving tech in order to have a diversified viewpoint, which produces better products at the end of the day.
It sounds like you’re inspired by supporting women as well as tech. Have you always been passionate about pushing the female agenda forward?
I’ve always been a feminist. I’ve been privileged with the education that I’ve received and I’ve felt the need to speak up for equality wherever I’ve been. In finance, in tech, and anywhere I truly believe women deserve to be in the spotlight, they deserve to have the mic. I also identify as a queer woman so that’s just my prerogative through and through. I really believe the world is a better place with more women in power and leadership roles.
You’re obviously already busy working as a web development consultant and leading Women Who Code; what inspired you to also take on furthering your education?
I’ve always been really interested in machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence), and I know that’s completely male dominated, so I really wanted to learn how to sit at the table and articulate my ideas; I didn’t want to feel left out. I’ve always had this me-too complex since I was a kid, where if you’re talking about something and I’m not involved, I have to learn it and I also have to be able to add to the discussion. I really wanted to be able to sit at the metaphorical table when it comes to data science.
Data science is your current field of study. What drew you to that subject?
Ever since I majored in anthropology, I’ve been curious about how to use my degree in the future. I’ve always loved working with social data, whether it is economic data, data about Vancouver’s insane housing market, political data or demographic data. I’ve always been interested but I never really had the technical skillset to work with it, so data science really attracted me, partly because I had a foundation in coding but also because the world data doubles every five years. When you think about data as this trail of human interaction and economy and culture, as a sort of historical artifact, it becomes really,really interesting. I’ve really gravitated toward figuring out how can we study data anthropologically, and what data tells us about culture, ritual and economic and symbolic systems.
Do you look at the world differently since you’ve been studying data science?
I read this really interesting quote the other day that is becoming my new favourite quote: “A statement without data is just an opinion.” I think that’s really cool because a lot of people have a lot of opinions, but unless the data is there to back it up, it’s just an opinion. I think especially with what’s going on in the United States politically right now, it’s going to become more important to make actually legitimate claims.
Tell me about the scholarship program you are currently part of and how you landed the opportunity.
Microsoft has this really cool engineering community called Codess, which is basically like a Women Who Code within Microsoft. It’s a group started by this amazing woman in the UK; she’s now the global diversity manager for Microsoft. She left her university as a young woman studying computer science because the program was so unequal in terms of gender, even though she was really good at CS and really analytical. She went into recruitment and hiring and she always regretted it, so she built this community under Microsoft as an initiative to foster a female engineering community. They reached out to me and wanted to do a blog article on me – I was flattered – and through them I found out about this cool new data science scholarship 100% paid for by Microsoft. I applied for and I got it, and I’m now working with 10 other women around the globe on this Microsoft-sponsored data science program. I think they’re going to offer this scholarship each year to get more women into data science and also because there are going to be something like one million vacant data science jobs by 2020 – it’s insane!
What does the world not know about Holly Peck?
Probably that I really feel I’m secretly an introvert. It’s funny because in my interview with Lauren (creative director of The Prevail Project) she was asking me about being so extroverted and being a kind of performer. I mean, I am – I’m in a punk queer band called Wet Clit with my partner – but I really do value my alone time and kind of consider myself an extroverted introvert.
Women Who Code requires leadership in a sort of performer role; it’s about getting people hyped, whether it’s talking about something tech related or singing while wearing a latex body suit on stage. It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing as long as you get people off and turn people on and show people different ways of thinking.