An interview with Vicki Iverson, CTO and Co-Founder of Iversoft, where she dives into the tech industry and topic of women in STEM.
Women are still seriously underrepresented in the tech industry. A 2017 report found that only 13 percent of Canadian tech companies are founded or co-founded by women. And, in the 2019/2020 academic year, women made up just 27 percent of mathematics and computer science students at Canadian colleges and universities.
Leaders like Iversoft’s co-founder and CTO, Vicki Iverson, are working to change those numbers.
Vicki is a kick-ass coder and award-winning entrepreneur. She’s been recognized by Ottawa Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 award, and Women in IT Awards Canada named her CTO of the Year in 2019. In 2017, she received the University of Waterloo’s J.W. Graham Medal in Computing & Innovation and was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year by Ottawa’s Women in Communications and technology.
Yeah, she’s kind of a big deal.
Besides racking up awards and running a leading mobile app development company, Vicki is also a hockey player and mom. Though she’s got a lot going on these days, she still finds time to volunteer with organizations that support women and girls in coding and technology.
As one of Canada’s leading women in tech and computer science, Vicki has had a front-row seat to the industry’s changing attitude toward women. She knows first-hand how important it is to encourage women and girls in male-dominated fields.
In an effort to share her insights and experience, Vicki sat down with us to answer a few burning questions about her journey from student to CTO, the history of gender inequality in tech, and the importance of mentoring other women in computer science.
When did your interest in computer science begin? How did you get involved in the industry?
My family has a bit of history in computer science. My Grandfather, Kenneth Iverson, was a pioneer in computer science, and both my father and uncle were in the industry. Despite this, I didn't want much to do with computers or programming when I was younger. I remember thinking computers were for boys (my brother spent a lot of time playing computer games that I didn't want anything to do with!) However, I took a programming course in grade 10 and immediately fell in love with it. I loved the problem-solving aspect. From that point on, I took any computer course I could, and it was an obvious choice for me to study computer science at university. I don't think I even considered alternatives.
Your family history gives you a unique, long-term perspective. How has the tech industry changed in terms of opportunities for women?
Believe it or not, there used to be more women in computer science than there are now. Prior to the 80s and the advent of the personal computer, there were more females in the industry. Back when "computers" used to mean "people who compute things by hand”, there were lots of women working in this role. One factor that changed this is the marketing that accompanied the personal computer, which was geared towards males and computer games. The marketing affected me personally, as I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and I definitely thought computers were for boys. Since the 80s, there's been a downward trend in women in computer science, which has only recently started to improve.
What are the major barriers that prevent women and girls from entering STEM fields, specifically computer science? How have these barriers changed over the past few decades?
One of the major barriers is that young females don't see themselves represented as computer scientists in the media and online. There are stereotypes of a typical developer, and they are not female. I think this has been changing over the last few years as there is more awareness of this (ie. in online imagery), and it will hopefully start to trickle down to youth and undo some of the stereotypes that have been built.
A lot of young females may never consider pursuing computer science because they don't picture themselves in that field, and their peers may even question their choice about why they'd want to pursue a career that's "for boys".
I think it's important for females to meet female role models in the field, and have a support network of peers in a similar situation to themselves. Since I went to school, there has been a lot of change here. Universities have groups specifically for females to help support them and share their experiences with others in a similar situation. I went to University of Waterloo and wasn't aware of any clubs for women in STEM, let alone computer science. I had to navigate being one of only a handful of females in my class. Now they have groups like Women in Computer Science (at University of Waterloo), and a lot of similar initiatives to help support and promote females in the industry, which are fantastic.
You’ve done a lot of volunteer work with groups that encourage girls to get involved with coding and STEM. Why is this work important and what does it mean to you?
Mentoring youth is something that really resonates with me, as I want to give others the opportunity to try out computer science and spark their love of it the way that I did at that age. Once I realized how much I enjoyed programming, I didn't really let any of the other barriers get in my way.
Most recently, I've been involved with Technovation, which pairs teams of middle school and high school girls with mentors from industry to bring a mobile-centric business idea to life. As part of the project, the students develop and test their own mobile application to solve a real life problem. I enjoy coaching the girls through the coding challenges to see their product come to life. I hope that by doing this, and by seeing myself as a female who has been successful in the tech industry, I inspire them to consider pursuing it themselves. They are at an age where they are still considering what field to pursue, and having an opportunity to show them what is out there is really exciting.
One thing I've noticed is that most of the mentors aren't necessarily developers themselves. They often have marketing or business backgrounds. I'd love to see more female developers out there joining these programs!
What challenges did you face as a young entrepreneur? How did those challenges shape your business philosophy and practices for the better?
I had to learn a LOT as a young entrepreneur. I didn't go to business school, so I learned a lot of it on the job. When Iversoft was small, I had to fulfill a lot of roles on my own that I wasn't always comfortable with (bookkeeper, project manager, sales, etc). As we've grown, I've stepped out of some of the roles that I didn't enjoy as much (as well as the ones I'm not good at) and have been able to focus more on what I do enjoy and what I am good at.
One piece of advice I'd give to young entrepreneurs is that you should know how to do all the roles in your company, so that you know if the people you hire are doing a good job. But once they're doing a good job, get out of the way and let them do it! Focus on doing whatever it is that is your superpower.
I’d also add that once you have people that you’ve hired that are doing a good job — listen to them! One of our values at Iversoft is “a good idea can come from anywhere”. Whether someone is a junior employee or senior management, their insight can make the company stronger.
What advice do you have for young women who are interested in a career in the tech industry?
If you're interested in technology and programming, do it! When it comes down to it, the only person who can really stand in your way is you. There is growing representation, support, and initiatives already, so join in and be part of it. You can be successful, and you can help pave the way where others in future won't need to have the same doubts.
At Iversoft, we know that diverse, inclusive teams make for diverse and inclusive tech. We’re proud to be a woman-led company that’s paving the way forward for gender equality in the industry.
Wondering what you can do to make a difference? There are amazing organizations all over Canada (and the world) committed to supporting women and girls in technology.
University groups, like University of Waterloo’s Women in Computer Science which helps advocate for gender equality in computing, often accept donations and volunteers. We also recommend checking out Technovation, which connects student teams working on mobile apps and AI projects with professional mentors. Alternatively, you can find (or start!) an organization in your local community!
Want to learn more about Iversoft? Got a great app idea that you’re burning to bring to life? Let us know!