Start-up boosts women’s tech skills

Mizzima Business Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - Jaiden Coo­nan

SPE­CIAL – Women in Tech, Busi­ness & the Elec­tions

“Geek is the new chic,” is the tagline used. And the founders of Geek Girls hope their fledg­ling year-old start-up will “in­spire and en­cour­age the next wave of fe­male tech pro­fes­sion­als in Myan­mar.”

Geek Girls is the first of its kind in Myan­mar, a coun­try sad­dled with the legacy of half a cen­tury of back­ward­ness and fail­ure to keep up with the mod­ern world.

Be­cause of this, many have missed the chance to ride the world wave of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances over the last two decades, par­tic­u­larly the in­spi­ra­tion pro­vided by the “geeks” of Sil­i­con Val­ley in the United States. And women have found them­selves at a par­tic­u­lar disad­van­tage.

Geek Girls hopes to change that.

Em­pow­er­ing fe­male tech en­thu­si­asts

Sandi Sein Thein, dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing en­tre­pre­neur started Geek Girls with the as­sis­tance of Ide­abox and Oore­doo. Last year a pro­gramme run by Ide­abox sparked the idea of Geek Girls, which be­gan as an event and ma­tured into a com­mu­nity – of­fer­ing events, work­shops, train­ing, in­clud­ing spe­cific cour­ses on web and app de­vel­op­ment, and more so­cially-ori­ented out­reach to women and the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion .

“Oore­doo is sup­port­ing us, that’s how we got go­ing. I had to sub­mit my pro­posal about how I would work with this com­mu­nity and how I would con­trib­ute for women in tech­nol­ogy,” Sandi Sein Thein told Mizzima Weekly.

“They went through my pro­posal and then they just ac­cepted it. It wasn’t easy. Be­fore that Phan­dee­yar was sup­port­ing us. They cov­ered the events and helped out,” she said.

Phan­dee­yar was born from events in 2014 known as Code for Change that were held to cre­ate “dig­i­tal so­lu­tions” to so­cial and busi­ness prob­lems and nur­tur­ing the rest­less and grow­ing Myan­mar tech com­mu­nity.

Honey Mya Win and Shwe Yee Mya Win were both win­ners in the Busi­ness So­lu­tions hackathon hosted at Phan­dee­yar last year. They were part of team “ACE.”

They helped pro­duce a sys­tem to en­able lo­cal com­pany “Fresco,” a gro­cery de­liv­ery busi­ness sup­ply­ing ho­tels, busi­nesses and pri­vate house­holds to work on a sys­tem to col­lect prod­ucts from Shan State be de­liv­ered to Yan­gon.

The hackathon started on a Fri­day at 6pm and ended on Sun­day at 5pm. The event saw both males and fe­males work and as­so­ciate with one another, some­thing rare in a cul­ture that tends to pre­vent or dis­cour­age women from en­ter­ing tech.

“Most of the IT de­vel­op­ers, they work very hard, they code all night, but girls can’t do this. This is one of the rea­sons,” said Sandi Sein Thein.

Early days

At Geek Girl’s first birth­day in Septem­ber the crowd was small in Phan­dee­yar’s open space. But events tend to draw groups of 20 to 50 at a time. The event Mizzima Weekly cor­re­spon­dent at­tended had a low turn-out as the reg­u­lar at­ten­dees were tak­ing their ma­tric­u­la­tion ex­ams.

Even af­ter a year there is still much more ground that Geek Girls needs to tread. As Sandi Sein Thein ex­plained, the group needs to draw in more women and girls, spread the word of Geek Girls, and try to en­cour­age a more hands-on ap­proach.

“They are more into learn­ing from their text­books. Let’s say if they learn about pro­gram­ming it is all about text books. Maybe the prac­ti­cal (course) is very rare,” she said.

“For that we will be able to pro­vide for them and also with the com­mu­nity en­gage­ment that will re­ally help with their univer­sity stud­ies.”

In the fu­ture with more par­tic­i­pants at events Sandi Sein Thein hopes that they will be able to host the first Geek Girls hackathon where it will only be girls at­tend­ing.

Work­ing in ‘a man’s world’

Events held so far in­clude work­shops on the web de­vel­op­ment frame­work known as “Ruby on Rails,” per­fect­ing an online im­age, im­prov­ing busi­ness knowl­edge online and so­cial media brand­ing.

“I don’t think we can break any bar­ri­ers any­time soon, so far we are only one year old. It has been a strug­gle and quite dif­fi­cult to get the girls to­gether to at­tend a meet­ing,” Sandi Sein Thein.

Women work­ing in tech­nol­ogy have found they have had a trou­bled ride. Of­ten they have found they have been taken less se­ri­ously than their male coun­ter­parts. And on oc­ca­sion, they have been the tar­get of “cy­ber bul­ly­ing” that ex­tends from child­ish ha­rass­ment, to threats against ones life and body.

Shwe Yee Mya Win, who is cur­rently a free­lance web devel­oper with plans to re­turn to stud­ies to im­prove her knowl­edge and one day run her own busi­ness, had this to say about work­ing with men: “It de­pends, some­times they were re­ally nice. Some don’t give us a chance be­cause they know ev­ery­thing. Some were okay and we worked to­gether but some didn’t want to give us the space.” Men con­tinue to rule the tech sec­tor. “I guess that’s my own per­sonal opin­ion. IT in Myan­mar be­longs to men. It is a male dom­i­nated field,” she said.

Some work would ap­pear to be out of bounds for women.

Honey Mya Win is a RAN engi­neer with the net­work tech­nol­ogy depart­ment at Huawei. She noted that it was dif­fi­cult for her to learn in the tech­ni­cal field as work­ing on com­mu­ni­ca­tions tow­ers was seen as too dan­ger­ous for women.

“Site assess­ments were in higher places they found it dan­ger­ous for girls to go there and things like that. For study, I don’t think I had many dif­fi­cul­ties,” she said.

In­spi­ra­tion from books

Cho Zin Wint, founder of Myan­mar High So­ci­ety, a soft­ware com­pany based in Yan­gon, spoke of books be­ing a ves­sel for in­spi­ra­tion.

“I read about peo­ple in the IT field as pro­gram­mers, soft­ware en­gi­neer­ing – in Ban­ga­lore about how peo­ple are work­ing in In­dia in IT. I thought that the fu­ture would be very good. So I think that was in 2001 then I de­cided I wanted to work in soft­ware en­gi­neer­ing.”

Cho Zin re­turned to Myan­mar in 2014, af­ter work­ing from Sin­ga­pore since 2007. Yet the story she told of study­ing in 2001 is sim­i­lar to how fe­male stu­dents are en­gag­ing with tech­nol­ogy.

“That is the prob­lem that Myan­mar girls are fac­ing; they think they aren’t good at all, they think men are bet­ter,” she said.

“I en­cour­age them not to think like that and not feel that way. The im­por­tant thing is that you can do that, es­pe­cially those who like to work as a pro­gram­mer, you just need to be go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

But it would seem as though tra­di­tion is seen as a block to en­gag­ing the girls of Myan­mar in tech­nol­ogy. And the so­cio-eco­nomic di­vide does lit­tle to help, with around 66 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in ru­ral ar­eas.

Tech is a grow­ing field

Yet tech is a grow­ing field in Myan­mar, both in terms of soft­ware de­vel­op­ment and the ex­pan­sion of hard­ware de­vel­op­ment and prod­ucts. The tech out­reach in­cludes mo­bile phone de­vel­op­ment. Oore­doo, Te­lenor and MPT are rolling out re­li­able 3G con­nec­tiv­ity around the coun­try.

The ar­rival of for­eign play­ers Oore­doo and Te­lenor helped spur growth in the mo­bile phone sec­tor, and help en­cour­age in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies keen on tech to jump in.

On her re­turn from Sin­ga­pore, Cho Zin Wint found she was sur­prised how quickly Myan­mar was go­ing tech.

“It was about 2013, I was quite sur­prised that many peo­ple could use ap­pli­ca­tions and again they have their own mo­bile, their own tele­phone line, it sur­prised me,” re­mem­bers Cho Zin Wint.

Mo­bile out­reach is help­ing en­cour­age the coun­try’s tech drive, in­clud­ing the ef­forts of women to en­ter the field. The ex­pan­sion is rapid. In just about two years, mo­bile phone use has jumped from around 4.4 mil­lion to 18 mil­lion users to­day, with the com­pa­nies aim­ing for about 90 per­cent coun­try cov­er­age within five years.

“It is easy to see how nowa­days in this IT age, and it is very easy to be pop­u­lar be­cause of the younger gen­er­a­tion,” said Cho Zin Wint.

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