It was her childhood passion, but for years Pauline Narvas kept her incredible computing and website design skills a secret after being targeted by school bullies for standing out as a girl who loved IT.
But a chance email during university set her on a path to teaching dozens of other young women her technology skills, being named on influential ‘ones to watch’ industry lists and into a job as a developer for mobile communications giant EE.
Still just 22, Pauline, who grew up in Sheffield and now works for EE in Leeds, has made it her mission to encourage women to work in technology and other fields in which they are under-represented such as science, engineering and mathematics.
She knows through first-hand experience how girls can be discouraged from following their interest in what are perceived to be male-dominated fields.
Pauline started coding – a form of computer programming – at the age of eight after her interest in playing an online role-playing game called RuneScape sparked her curiosity about how it and its characters were made and she began looking into the basics of website development.
“I wanted to build the same thing but with more characters and different worlds. Back then, I would draw the characters, scan then and put them on the computer. I made it into a website of my ideas of games I wanted to make and then I made it into a blog.”
She also loved the Disney film series High School Musical and started to make a series of website and fansites dedicated to it as her coding skills developed.
“Initially, I was so frustrated and remember giving up a few times. Eventually though through trial and error, it just got easier. Because I spent a lot of time doing it, it was quite easy for me to pick up. I only told a few of my friends and got some of them involved. We had our own little website club.”
But her initial pride in her talent – which led her to hand out pieces of scrap paper with her website details to fellow pupils as she got older – was crushed as bullies posted hurtful comments on her blog and teased her at school, to the point of one person even ripping up a website design she had drawn out.
“I only had two girls who had got involved but they grew out of it and didn’t want to pursue it. I used to get picked on at school for being a tom-boy. People would make fun of me because I would go to the library to do coding. It got to a point where I definitely was like I don’t want to do this anymore.”
She stopped talking about her love of coding and made an anonymous rather than public website. “I was very quiet about it and didn’t talk about it to anyone. I would slow down in IT lessons because I didn’t want to stand out like a sore thumb. I actually did GCSE Computing and was going to do it at A-level but because I was the only girl I dropped it.”
Pauline instead went on to do a biomedical sciences degree at Sheffield University but she initially kept quiet about her technological skills because of the effect of her experiences at school. “At university I felt like being a bit different and enjoying different things was accepted a lot more compared to at school. It is a different environment. But I wasn’t open about coding until my second year at university. I didn’t want anyone to know because I was embarrassed about it,” she says.
But her life was to change when she received an email about a course being run at Sheffield University by a social enterprise called Code First: Girls. “In my second year, I thought I had chosen the wrong degree,” she explains. “The more I did it, the more I thought I don’t know if this is for me. I remember going back home from a lecture, being sat on my sofa and thinking I’m going to quit. But I got an email from the department of computer science saying they were launching a coding course for girls at the university with 30 places.
“When I read it, I remember feeling really surprised. I had never even heard of a coding course before. Going into the first class, I was really nervous because I had not been public about my interest in it since school. It was a big room full of women on computers and as soon as I sat there and started speaking to the other students I completely felt at home.”
Pauline’s existing skills quickly became apparent and she was asked to teach future courses. “I just remember feeling quite overwhelmed in my first session. I had become almost ashamed of it because I was used to people making fun of me. Nowadays I’m doing all these talks around women in technology. It is quite overwhelming when I think I’m embracing my passion.”
She taught around six eight-week long courses and also set up a Facebook group for all those she was teaching to build a community of like-minded young women and encourage them to attend various technology conferences and events.
With women making up less than one in five workers in ICT professions and under a quarter in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics-related jobs, Pauline says it was a privilege to be in a position where she could take some action towards redressing the balance.
“It was a chance to share my passion and knowledge with a group of women. The tech industry is very male-dominated and having a group of women learning and getting a place in the industry is just so refreshing. It was the highlight of my time at university and life-changing really.
“Learning how to code was fantastic but my vision was building this community and showing that girls could work in tech if they want to.”
After being named on the Code First: Girls ‘Ones to Watch’ list and being nominated on a similar list of top women to watch by student website The Tab, Pauline was offered a job in Digital Development and Operations on a two-year graduate scheme by EE.
Around halfway through the graduate programme, she has worked on many projects including the development of the ‘My EE’ customer app, which is used by millions of customers around the country, while maintaining her own website and blog – pawlean.com.
“I was applying for various graduate schemes in technology, I found EE and it was the perfect role for me. My website is for everyone but especially for women in the tech industry and future recruits.”
For International Women’s Day earlier this year, Pauline organised an event at the offices of EE-owner BT in Leeds with local Yorkshire speakers from the tech community which was publicly praised on Twitter by Marc Allera, the chief executive officer of BT’s consumer brands.
As she put it in a recent speech, Pauline’s philosophy towards supporting other women in technology is a simple one inspired by one of the songs from High School Musical she loved as a child; “We’re all in this together”.
Coding ‘gives instant results’
Pauline says her love of coding comes in part from the way you can turn an idea into reality almost instantly in a way that is considerably different to the more time-consuming science work she did for her degree.
“For me it is the fact I can draw out an idea – my favourite part is being about to visualise it and then build it exactly how I want it,” she explains.
“I did biomedical sciences as a degree and laboratory work takes so long to get a result.
“With web development you can get results instantly.
“That is what I love the most about it.”
EE’s graduate scheme opens for applications later this year. For more information and details on how to apply, visit here.