2nd March 2021

Educating women in tech: Q&A with Petra Kotuliakova

Aj Ty v IT enjoys cooperation from the IT faculties of Slovak University. It offers workshops, courses, and academies to 14,000 female students in nearly 30 Slovak cities. It’s no wonder the organization was nominated for the prestigious UNESCO Prize for Girls' and Women's Education in 2020

We asked Petra about her mission, her challenges, and how we could work together to promote diversity in the tech field. Her answers show how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

Avast: How did Aj Ty v IT get started?

PK: When I worked for the Faculty of Informatics and Information Technologies (FIIT) at the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava in the areas of communication and PR, I noticed that only 3-5% of the total number of students were girls. I felt sorry that girls were missing out on great opportunities offered by the university, so we discussed how to improve the situation.

At first, I had no idea what the problem was, or whether there was a problem at all. I didn’t know why girls were avoiding IT faculties. However, the very first workshop we hosted was a huge revelation. Many girls attended. They were interested in what we did and what we talked about. It’s just that none of them had pursued this interest yet. That was in late 2012. That’s when our story started.

Gradually, as the small project grew bigger, I found out that FIIT was not the only IT faculty in Slovakia with a small share of girls among their students. It was about 5% at every faculty at that time. The problem was present across Europe, and even across the world. 

Aj Ty v IT grew into a civic association operating all over Slovakia and cooperating with several IT faculties. At the moment, the share of women studying or working at our collaborating faculties is 12-15%. We are glad that the number has increased, but we realize that it’s still not enough, and there’s still much work to be done. Our association works with girls as young as eight, as well as adult women, including primary and secondary school IT teachers.

Avast: How can Avast and Aj Ty v IT collaborate in a way that supports diversity and inclusion?

PK: Aj Ty v IT’s mission is to enable girls and women to find their place in the IT world, to receive an education in tech and find a job in this field. Avast’s aim is to employ skilled professionals who can help develop the organization with their views, with special attention being paid to the diversity of its teams. So, we can find and support talented women, and Avast can give them an opportunity to grow. That’s why this cooperation is so important for us. It would be useless to educate new talents if they had nowhere to use their skills.

During the first years, Aj Ty v IT’s team was very small, composed of enthusiastic volunteers without the need for any organizational structure. In 2018, we received a larger financial subsidy from Google, which helped us expand our team and the scope of our activities. At first, we worked cross-sectionally, which gradually proved to be very complicated. So we switched to smaller teams working on specific projects. It slightly disrupted our former system – people felt fragmented among several projects and we had to rebuild our information flow management. But we got used to it and, in time, it turned out to be the right step, which ultimately brought us all closer together.

Avast: How has your organization been strengthened by difficulties and challenges? 

PK: The success rate of our graduates is approximately 50%. A successful graduate is not just a woman who finds her first job in IT, but also someone who has advanced in the field, getting a better position either in their first company or another company. Our most successful graduates tend to be those who join a company that’s trying to boost its diversity and inclusion, especially when it comes to medium-sized and large businesses. In small companies, which often don’t have a specific diversity and inclusion policy in place, the key retention and success factor is the supervisor’s nature and the team atmosphere, which must be friendly and, above all, helpful.

Avast: Through observing the experiences of your graduates, which soft skills and/or management techniques stand out to you as being particularly valuable to female jobseekers?

PK: Apart from technical skills and knowledge gained during the courses, it is important for graduates to react to problems and questions in an assertive and active way when they don’t have an immediate answer or solution. Continuous education is also greatly important. It’s not enough to complete one of our academies, graduates must further expand their knowledge in related areas (automated testing) or in totally new areas (SQL). If the employer supports them in continuous education, financially or timewise, their success rate improves.

In the first Women Tester Academy, we admitted Zuzka from Veľký Krtíš, which is 210 kilometers away from Bratislava. It was a two-month course and sessions were held twice a week in the evenings. Before that, Zuzka worked in the pharmaceutical industry. To be honest, we were not sure how she would handle the commute – it was a two-hour’s drive both ways. She handled it most excellently! Once the academy finished, we introduced her to our partner at that time, and within two months she was hired as a junior. We still follow her growth. Her career curve is on the rise and we are very happy about it. Women’s motivations are very strong attributes for their growth, and we are happy that we can help these women grow.

Further reading:
What it’s like to completely change careers midway
Showing up for women in business during Covid-19

Avast: Aside from skill and knowledge, what else do your graduates take away from your courses? 

PK: We focus on building hard technical skills in the topics we teach. However, we also realized how important it is to focus on topics related to personal growth, career, and self-presentation. Women in Slovakia are often surprisingly modest – too modest! Their self-confidence is low. They don’t feel good enough for certain jobs. That’s why we help them in these areas, so that they have a way to apply the skills they gained.

Avast: When it comes to IT skills, how experienced are the majority of your students? 

PK: Most of our courses are designed for beginners. Sometimes women with previous experience enroll in a beginner course simply to brush up and review those skills. Their potential for professional growth is huge, so they quickly learn the basics and move forward. We also offer intermediate courses, but to a smaller extent.

Avast: How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the way you manage your organization?

PK: At Aj Ty v IT, we are used to working online, because our team members are scattered all over Slovakia. Some even live abroad. That’s why a vast majority of our meetings were always held online. Nevertheless, Covid-19 brought a total transfer to the online world, which took away many of our social interactions, the joy of mutual sharing, celebrating achievements, and banter. We miss it. 

At the same time, the pace of our work increased incredibly last year. That transfer to the online world allowed us to reach women all over Slovakia. Distance is not an issue anymore, and the availability of trainers is amazing. Last year, we focused on a trainer program set up to help trainers move to the online world – speaking for two hours in front of a “live” audience is different from talking to a dark screen. It’s difficult in terms of preparation, group management, and maintaining the group’s attention.

Avast: Have you observed any changes in the accessibility of digital literacy and education for women in general?

PK: High-quality education is now available without any limitations. A bigger problem lies in personal and family availability, because apart from their work and education, women are often responsible for supporting and educating their children who have been home-schooled for almost a year.

Further reading:
Back to (home) school: Preparing for continued distance learning
Distance learning advice for parents

We often talk about undiscovered women’s potential in Slovakia. In the category of adult women, we focus on those whose surroundings, schools, or parents guided them to areas based on their external preferences rather than the individual’s preferences and skills. But they now come to us, and they bring a strong motivation to develop what they used to love – including logic puzzles, problem-solving, and math competitions. 

There is a whole generation of women who were taught to be heads of families, not heads of businesses or product teams. What a waste of talent! We need to help those women, and we will help them together with Avast. We want to prevent IT from losing more skilled women. We’re focusing on this process this year, and we see it as the start of a new era. We’re moving forward.

Avast: What message do you have for women contemplating a change to a career in IT?

PK: Technology is the future and women should be part of it. It’s like building a house. No matter where you want to work, you need to stand firmly on the ground first and acquire basic skills. Later, you can expand it with more bricks. The form of the house – its shape, size, and color – is up to you, but without good foundations, you will have no house to live in. If you don’t start with basic digital skills, your professional life will deteriorate. To change your career, you need only two things: willingness and motivation. We’ll help you with all the rest.

 Grace Roberts

Members of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic