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National Coding Week – A Q&A With Kara Sprague, EVP and GM of BIG-IP and Girls Who Code Board Member

It’s National Coding Week in the UK from 14 September! To mark the occasion, we connected with Kara Sprague, EVP and GM of BIG-IP and a board member at Girls Who Code, to talk about coding’s growing influence—and why everyone should have an opportunity to participate.

Describe your relationship and history with coding...

I was around ten years old when I was first exposed to coding. My dad would give me pages of BASIC commands from a book that we would then type into the computer to generate images of fractals. It really captured my imagination! I started picking out patterns in the commands and making my own adjustments—for example, you could change the colour on it, the scaling of each subsequent recursion, or the number of recursions. That was when I started to understand the power of coding to bring to life whatever design you can imagine.

Over the years, I got more exposure through various computer exercises on school computers and by tinkering with my family’s PC. I also took a coding class in my senior year of high school.

My original plan for college was to study Political Science but, when I got into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was surrounded by others passionate about technology, I chose to major in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science instead. Throughout this time, I also undertook several internships for tech companies, including Hewlett Packard and Agilent Technologies. When I graduated, I joined Oracle as a member of their technical staff, developing software for a middleware product.

Why does coding matter, especially for young people?

The influence of coding continues to disrupt and transform all industries. For example, look at what businesses like Uber and Lyft have done in the transportation space. Or what Airbnb has done in the hospitality sector. Or Amazon in retail. Technology wields an enormous influence these days, bringing disruption and profound change. That is why it is so important for young people to not only gain an appreciation for that impact, but also build a capability to participate in it.

What misconceptions do people have about coding itself, as well as their own ability to develop related skills?

The prototypical coder that is represented in a lot of our media is usually a male working alone in the dark, and somebody that is not totally socially oriented. I don’t think that kind of persona is very appealing to a large proportion of prospective coders. It isn’t accurate either!

The reality is that there are a whole range of activities associated with bringing a successful technology or software product to market. It involves a wide range of skillsets, as well as many different types of jobs and contributions—all of which come from a foundation of having an understanding about coding, and a passion for unlocking the potential of technology.

What advice do you have for people that want to learn how to code?

I recommend starting simple, and there are many free resources and offerings from different organisations online. I am a board member for Girls Who Code, so I am particularly partial to their work and mission to achieve gender parity in technology. For example, they run Summer Immersion Programs and sponsor clubs both in the US and internationally that teach girls to code. There are many other organisations that offer similar enablement and education opportunities. My main advice to those interested in learning to code is to stick with it. As with most competencies, coding is something that comes to you over time—there’s no group of people that just can’t get it. What you put into it is what you will get out of it.

How did you get involved with Girls Who Code?

I got involved with Girls Who Code when I was at McKinsey and they reached out for help with their strategy. At the time, they were one of the fastest growing non-profits in the United States and also recognised as one of the most innovative.

Their mission really resonated with me, so I leapt at the opportunity to support them pro-bono. In 2016, I was invited to join the board. My work with them is primarily around advising on growth and thinking through what kind of programmes they can offer to expand their impact. Their goal is to achieve gender parity in technology jobs within this decade. To myself, and so many others, this is a really exciting and important mission.

How has the organisation helped drive change?

Girls Who Code started in 2012, and the first girls that went through the programme graduated from college in 2016-17. Through a combination of their teaching, awareness-raising initiatives, and advocacy work, Girls Who Code is now responsible for a large proportion of women entering the technology world. The organization is making a big and meaningful impact when it comes to increasing diversity in technology.

What can wider industry do?

I am encouraged by how some countries have adopted requirements in their core curriculums for kids to learn coding. This bodes well for their technology sectors and job-creation abilities moving forward. I’d love to see something similar happen in the United States.

Outside of formal curriculum requirements, there is a lot of work taking place across the technology industry and non-profit sector to upskill young people, with a focus on under-represented groups. It is vital that all kids are given the opportunity to learn coding. To secure a more equitable future, we must nurture a diverse pipeline of talent that can build and excel within technology organisations. Coding and technology are now so important to the global economy—and life in general—that everyone should have an opportunity to participate.

How does F5 support skillsets like coding?

F5 has a large engineering organisation, and we employ close to 2,000 engineers—the large majority of which are software developers. This type of talent is hugely important to our future development as a business. In addition, F5 runs several philanthropy initiatives, including our Global Good programme, which has a strong focus on supporting STEM education for underprivileged youths. As a business, we are very committed to advancing coding and broader STEM education around the globe.