How the power of storytelling can foster diversity in tech: Linda Liukas

What does storytelling have to do with computers? At the Rakuten Technology Conference 2017, most sessions revolved around current trends including robotics, AI, IoT and cloud computing. The focus of Finnish author and illustrator Linda Liukas’ session was very different: computers and how future generations will relate to them.

Liukas was present at the conference to receive the Rakuten Technology & Innovation Award Gold Prize for “achievements that contribute to the evolution of society through cutting-edge innovation.” Chief among those achievements is her best-selling 2015 book “Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding,” which was designed to introduce young children to coding and coding-like problem-solving skills. A second Ruby book, “Hello Ruby: Journey Inside the Computer,” was published in October 2017.

“Technology is far too important to be left only to the technologists of the world,” says author and programmer Linda Liukas.
“Technology is far too important to be left only to the technologists of the world,” says author and programmer Linda Liukas.

In her session, Liukas reminded her audience that the world’s first computer programmer was a woman: British mathematician Ada Lovelace, who worked on Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer known as the Analytical Engine. Lovelace’s story is an inspiration for girls who are interested in coding, she said.

Liukas believes there’s a fundamental disconnect between the degree to which computers have saturated our lives and how young people are taught about them. This is particularly evident in the historically uneven representation of males and females working in computer science. Things are beginning to change, however, with the emergence of nonprofit organizations such as Girls Who Code, which grew from 20 girls in New York in 2012 to 40,000 across the U.S. today.

Liukas learned Java as her first programming language and spent hours immersed in role-playing video games. She later studied at Stanford University, worked as community manager for startup Codecademy and co-founded a group called Rails Girls, which organizes workshops in cities around the world to encourage young women to code. Aside from the Rakuten award, she has received multiple accolades for her work, including China’s 2017 Design Intelligence Award, worth 130,000 euros, but she says she gets the most satisfaction when she meets young readers who have embraced Ruby.

“Especially here in Japan, I’ve had to explain to many adults that this is not just a book for girls,” Liukas told Rakuten.Today during an interview at the conference. “I’ve tried to create something that would have resonated for me as a little girl, but it’s less about gender and more about the things I was interested in. Seeing little boys in Japan saying Ruby is their favorite character is the moment when I feel empowered. This is how societies change. I see boys playing Rey from the latest Star Wars. It’s great that a girl can be a Jedi knight or a programmer. That’s something I find very resonant and meaningful in my work.”

Liukas sees a future in which computers are embedded in everything and augment the skills of professionals such as doctors. That’s why she thinks it’s crucial to ensure that the creators of such omnipresent technology represent a diversity of people – not just males of certain sociopolitical backgrounds. She was pleased to note that the Rakuten Technology & Innovation Award Silver Prize was given to Masako Wakamiya, an 81-year-old app developer who created an iOS game for seniors called Hinadan.

“Technology is far too important to be left only to the technologists of the world,” says Liukas. “We need far more pathways and meaningful ways to become part of the computing industry. Mine is only one way, and I hope to see others. ‘Hello Ruby’ isn’t a panacea to make everyone excited about programming. That’s why we need more approaches.”

Read more posts from the Rakuten Technology Conference here.

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