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Unlocking the code for success

Heather Payne, HBA’09, and HackerYou looking to change lives

by Angie Wiseman

As Heather Payne, HBA’09, sat taking online coding tutorials in a café in China, she had no idea that moment would become a full-fledged career – and she would be at its helm.

“My plan was to join a Fortune 500 company and work my way to the top – that was my definition of success,” said the founder and CEO of the career college HackerYou.

“Being in an entrepreneurship class didn’t get me thinking about entrepreneurship for myself. But looking back now, it was my favourite course. Learning about making deals and how things are done, those are the parts of my career today I love most. It was an impactful experience, despite my not being ready for it in the moment.”

An exchange brought Payne to Hong Kong in her fourth year of university. It was there she decided to stay in China and continue her schooling, while starting to learn how to code.

“Even when I moved to the Chinese mainland, I knew I was moving back to Toronto. I thought I should improve my skill set. I thought if I learned how to code, if I could put coding skills on my resume, I would be a more attractive candidate to potential employers,” she said.

Even though she didn’t get a job in technology when she moved back to Canada, she continued to build her coding skills. In Los Angeles for business, Payne stumbled upon a workshop to learn the programming language Python.

“I drove out to a workshop in the middle of nowhere and had the best day. It was productive and fun and gave me the idea there should be something like this in Toronto because there wasn’t at the time. I tweeted about how there should be workshops in Toronto for women who want to learn to code,” she said. “It took off from there.”

Payne’s tweet created a buzz. More than 80 people signed up for a brainstorming session she offered to figure out how to build the workshops. From there, she gathered a small group of women to bring the ideas to fruition.

“The energy was really high and it felt really exciting,” she said.

“I had a plan to announce that our first workshop would be one month later. I didn’t have an instructor, a venue, or a curriculum but I thought by making a public commitment, it was the best way to make it happen.”

And make it happen, she did.

From there, Ladies Learning Code, a not-for-profit organization focused on teaching beginner-friendly technical skills in a social, collaborative way, was born. Payne quit her job to work full-time for the organization she created with fellow alumna Melissa Sariffodeen, HBA ’10, and two other co-founders. During this time, Payne heard from participants that they wanted more than a one-day event.

“People loved the style, the energy and the way we were teaching with a low ratio of students to instructors. But they kept saying that one day wasn’t enough. People wanted a multi-month-long course so they could really build their skills and put them on their resume,” she explained.

“First of all, our participants were asking for it. Second of all, somebody is going to do this in Toronto and if it’s not me, I will be really upset,” she laughed.

In 2012, Payne’s vision came full circle with HackerYou, a career college in Toronto, with compressed web development courses, officially launched with an article in the National Post. It now serves almost 1,000 students with 140 full-time students and 850 part-time students.

Today, she has expanded the program and moved to a larger space. While the future is promising, she is not rushing things.

“I don’t have a thirst for growth. What I have is the desire to change people’s lives. I’m OK with changing fewer lives if we change them deeply. That’s just as impactful,” she said.

What she wants to do, however, is shake up the status quo for women in tech.

“I’m an entrepreneur and I’m a woman. I’m an entrepreneur and I’m a mom. I’m an entrepreneur, a young person and a mom. I want to show people it doesn’t matter what other people think you are capable of – you can do whatever you think you can do.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Alumni Gazette
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