Start-up boosts women’s tech skills
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.
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.