Meet 15 Atlantic Canadian women in tech

Meet 15 Atlantic Canadian women in tech

The story of coding is a story about women.

From Ada Lovelace, who wrote the world’s first computer program, to the Black women scientists at NASA—like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, who became the subjects of the Hollywood blockbuster film Hidden Figures—women were among the first heroes of computer science. They were there from the beginning… pioneers, innovators, game changers. Indeed, studies show that up until the 1980s, there were nearly as many women computer scientists as there were men. But something happened and the number of women began to shrink.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we set out to find some of Atlantic Canada’s women of coding and technology. We found some of the region’s tech trail blazers—women computer scientists and engineers who were first in their fields, women who have built companies and organizations to support the next generation of women to take even bolder steps, women who have created massively successful companies and legacies in the industry. We also found a group of younger women at various stages in their coding careers who are making names for themselves and laying down new paths for the younger generation to follow.

We found a story about women.

Alicia Roisman Ismach
Entrepreneur in residence, Venn Innovation
Moncton, N.B.

When she was just a teenager, Alicia Roisman Ismach realized her parents could hardly afford her. It was 1983. She and her family lived in Rosario, Argentina, which was still ruled by the military junta that took power in the 1976 coup d’état. So Roisman Ismach did something unimaginable: she found a program through the Israeli embassy offering Jewish teens an opportunity to finish high school in Israel and signed herself up.

Her flight left a few weeks after her 16th birthday.

Here’s the thing: that decision, made nearly 40 years ago, is not even the most impressive part of Roisman Ismach’s story. She’s a world leader in international financial technology, with a trajectory marked by the 2001 crash of the dot-com era and a massive blow to her physical health which had her convinced that everything was lost. She came back every time. She had some help along the way—she is, after all, only human—but as she tells her story, recounting each time she got back up again, it’s nearly impossible not to imagine, over and over, that 16-year-old girl stepping onto that plane, ready to fly 13,000 kilometres across the world, away from her family, friends and home, to take on whatever came next.

“I was very independent already then. I was, all the time, thinking about doing things for myself,” she says. “But I didn’t think it was entrepreneurship, I didn’t know about that.”

Roisman Ismach finished her final two years of high school in the mid-’80s, when the world’s very first personal computers hit the market. After using one at school, she knew immediately that her future lay in computers and technology. A scholarship took her to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, on the coast of the Mediterranean north of Tel-Aviv, where she began a computer science degree. She loved it and easily excelled, overwhelmed by the transformative possibilities in this new, uncharted world.

But the scholarship ran out after two years and the babysitting and house cleaning she did on the side wasn’t enough for tuition. She left school and picked up a job selling computers, “all the time dreaming about how I could get back to technology,” she says.

In 1996, she was at a conference where she saw Liora Katzenstein, a prominent academic and leader in Israel’s emerging tech innovation sector. Fearlessly, Roisman Ismach walked over to Katzenstein, hand extended in introduction. The two hit it off—“I think it was very clear to her that I was determined to do something,” Roisman Ismach says—and Katzenstein asked Roisman Ismach to help her bring the graduate program in entrepreneurship and innovation from Australia’s Swinburne University to Israel. Of course Roisman Ismach agreed. By 2001, she’d not only completed the program herself, she’d launched her own tech startup, Divago—it replaced a 404 error page in web browsers with ads related to the page the browser was trying to load.

Still, 2001 was a complicated year. The World Trade Centre fell and the dot-com bubble evaporated, along with Roisman Ismach’s company. “They were right that things were inflated, the values were exaggerated in many places,” she says. “But we created an industry.”

She landed at 888 Holdings, still based in Israel, which was one of the first and biggest online gaming companies to hit the web, and therefore a pioneer in the emerging world of fintech, or financial technology. She helped develop new ways for 888’s online casinos, bingos and poker games to collect payments, something that was still brand-new in the early 2000s. “No one was an expert on that back then!” she says. “It was amazing to learn from the source, from the place where things were actually invented and developed in the electronic payments world.”

Again, the world had other plans. In 2006, the U.S. government banned online gambling, and Roisman Ismach left 888 and launched another company with Israeli entrepreneur Eldad Aharoni. This one, SeerGate, based in Ra’anana, near Tel Aviv, built electronic payment systems for banks. The company took off and was soon working with banks in the U.S. via a secondary office in Atlanta. She sold SeerGate for $3 million in 2015—and was diagnosed with breast cancer as the ink dried on the deal.

Sick and without her company—her “baby,” she says—her world went dark. “I was in the worst times of my life,” she says. “I really felt that the world ended that day.” Now married with two children, her husband took care of their kids while she went through radiation and multiple surgeries. She willed herself to smile through it, to be strong. At just 48 years old, she felt finished. Until another door opened.

In the middle of treatment, she was invited to meetings with Rhodium Ventures, a well-known private investing firm in Israel whose founder, Daniel Recanati, was a legend to Roisman Ismach—a name behind so many companies she admired. Though she’d just sold SeerGate, she couldn’t see why a firm like Rhodium would be interested in her, especially at that time. “It was clear that I was not in my best shape. Treatment, surgery, no hair … not exactly the way you would go to present yourself to a business partner,” she says. Still, she got out of bed and she went to the meetings.

“It was so extreme for me to see that I still had value,” she says. “I understood the importance of doing something for someone, just because. That gave me the strength and the belief in myself to get back (to work) immediately after I finished my treatment.”

She wound up working on a wearable tech project at Rhodium called Wearable Valley until once again, entrepreneurship beckoned.

At the end of 2015, the year that nearly broke her, she joined two other fintech innovators, Mark Bishopp and Ori Hay, to launch Amaryllis Payment Solutions, a company still innovating and thriving today. Now a towering figure in the fintech world, she caught the attention of the Jewish community in Saint John who, through a tech workforce growth initiative, invited her to visit New Brunswick and consider relocating. It worked: she and her family moved to the province in 2018.

Roisman Ismach is now solely focused on her role as entrepreneur in residence at Moncton’s celebrated tech accelerator program Venn Innovation, helping Atlantic Canadian fintech companies reach the same heights she did. “These companies have huge potential, with great entrepreneurs, and are really underestimated,” she says. “It was like finding a treasure.” Her work at Venn has shown her what really drives her, she says—and perhaps what drove 16-year-old Alicia to get on that plane nearly 40 years ago: it’s the challenge, the work, of taking something with so much potential and helping it grow into a force that changes an industry, she says. “It’s my true nature.”

Roisman Ismach’s career traces another remarkable story, beginning just as young Alicia fell in love with computers at that boarding school. After climbing steadily for 15 years, the number of U.S. women computer science majors peaked at nearly 40 per cent in 1984 and then plummeted. Many of the field’s early heroes were women, like Dorothy Vaughan, a self-taught expert in the Fortran programming language who helped NASA transition from manual to electronic computing. Margaret Hamilton’s code then helped NASA put a man on the moon. “The software industry was built by women. That’s a well-kept secret, unfortunately,” says Roisman Ismach. “And it takes a long time to change things back.”

She says we need to be actively looking for and supporting young women who show early interest in science, mathematics, engineering and computers. Young men are automatically encouraged to pursue those interests, she says, but young women often are not. “It’s very important to work specifically to discover them, to support them and to make sure that they don’t disappear over time,” she says.

Meaningful change also happens when tech companies commit to having an equal number of men and women in the office and then act on it, she says. “Go and find them. Give them a job as a junior when they are out of university.” It happens when companies look at their hiring practices and their culture, when they re-examine their values, she says. “I am very feminist, I push for that,” she says. “I think that any woman … who wants to make her own decisions, economically speaking, is a feminist. Simple. If someone doesn’t like that word, they need to give up on those rights.”

Sreejata Chatterjee
Co-founder and CPO, LeadSift
Halifax, N.S.

Sreejata Chatterjee’s resume is an impressive read, a roster of accomplishments any ambitious mid- to late-career woman would be proud of. But Chatterjee isn’t mid- or late-career. Though she’s been running her own tech company in Halifax for eight years and has two computer science degrees under her belt, Chateerjee is just 36 years old.

She’s just getting started.

She started learning computer science—actual, albeit simple, programming—in the fourth grade, in India. “It was love at first sight,” she says. “I got really good marks and I knew I was going to be good at it.”

That love carried her through both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in computer science, completed at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “I just really, really enjoyed learning,” she says. “Getting a Master’s doesn’t really get you a better job, you have to get a PhD to get better jobs. But I was really interested in natural language processing and information retrieval.”

That interest, and that graduate degree, did wind up getting Chatterjee a better job, as a co-founder and chief product officer of LeadSift, a data analytics company that mines the internet for business-to-business sales leads. It sprang from evening gatherings with her friends, where they’d talk about ideas, play around with data analytics and write experimental programs for the ideas that seemed to have promise. Chatterjee managed a huge workload as LeadSift came together, working at other computer science jobs and completing her Master’s coursework, but she stuck with it. “My dad was a businessman,” she says. “Growing up, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Eight years and one minor pivot later, LeadSift has 10 employees and continues to grow. Her focus is to help that growth and see where it goes. Beyond that? “It’s hard to say. I think I’ll always be in the tech entrepreneurship sector.” She’s also been volunteering with Ladies Learning Code, now Canada Learning Code, for the past seven years and she mentors young women through Dalhousie. “I try to be involved with the community of younger women in tech just because it can be lonely. Usually the thing that I tell them is to keep at it,” she says. “We want to be part of the future.”

Lesley Chard
Interaction Developer, Clockwork Fox Studios
St. John’s, N.L.

In the five years since Lesley Chard got her computer science degree from Memorial University in St. John’s, the opportunities in the city for coders have exploded, she says. But there’s still something missing: “We’re still not getting the gender diversity I would like to see,” she says. A developer at educational gaming studio Clockwork Fox, she’s one of two women on a team of 12 coders. “And that’s a good ratio for our industry,” she says. “But it’s not good enough.”

Chard says there simply aren’t enough women in the talent pool, which is why she volunteers as a chapter lead with Canada Learning Code. “People think it’s a lot harder to get into (coding) than it is,” she says. “People think that I literally perform magic. But it’s really not that difficult once you sit down and learn it.”

Chard got her first job out of school working as a web developer for a local marketing company, something she’d been doing since before university. Wanting to do more coding, she moved to a new job, helping to design and build training software. That experience, coupled with her design background, set her apart as a hybrid designer-developer. And that’s what she recommends to any young woman eyeing a similar career: figure out the unique talents you bring to the table as a coder and find your niche.

Sandy Fadale
Senior Cyber Security Analyst, Government of New Brunswick
Fredericton, N.B.

Sandy Fadale’s career began in 1978, on the day she enlisted in the U.S. military. She was just 18. They gave her an aptitude test and found she had superior technical skills, a result that didn’t surprise her. “So they guided me into what was … essentially UHF radio operations, setting it up and encrypting the transmissions,” she says. Fadale and her team would be deployed in the field, setting up encrypted communication lines between stations. “We were the first to go,” she says. “At a specific time and a specific date, we would have to go in … and pick up these booklets and encrypt or decipher the code.” If the radios went down, she’d have to go back in and figure out how to fix them.

She loved the work and wanted to be a communications expert in the military for the rest of her life. But in 1980, disaster struck. While she was deploying to the Czechoslovakian border, Fadale got hurt and had to leave the military as a disabled vet.

“It took me a few years to find myself,” she says, laughing. “I lived in a commune in Eastern Oregon in the mountains, things like that.”

In 1986, she got a degree in microcomputer applications, in Florida, and landed her first cybersecurity job a few years later. She’s been building cybersecurity programs, from risk management to governance, ever since. She’s worked for the Home Shopping Network in St. Pete’s, Florida, for IBM and for Bell Aliant. In 2008, her wife, who designs fire alarm systems, was offered a transfer to anywhere she wanted to live in Canada. So the couple started researching and found New Brunswick. “And we were like, this is everything!” It suited their outdoorsy lifestyle and there were jobs to be had. So they packed up and moved.

Now Fadale is a senior cybersecurity analyst with the Government of New Brunswick. She also helped build the Atlantic chapter of the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) and is the only person in Atlantic Canada teaching three ISACA major certification courses. Looking back on her career, she says her work with ISACA is something she’s most proud of because it allowed her to give back to the profession she loves so much.

“I love what I do,” she says.

Jingwen Zhu
Front-end developer, silverorange
Charlottetown, P.E.I.

When she was just 18 years old, Jingwen Zhu made a fearless move. She didn’t know what she wanted to study in university, but she did know she didn’t want to follow what she saw as a traditional path for a young woman. So she enrolled in electrical engineering. “I thought, ‘I’ll do this just to show that I can,’” she says.

She completed her undergraduate degree in Beijing and then a Master degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She worked as an electrical engineer in St. John’s for Altera, a subsidiary of Intel, where she was exposed to the world of computer programming. “But I kind of felt like that is not what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she says. So she made another fearless move: she quit, moved to Prince Edward Island and started working as a front-end web developer.

So far, the role fits. “You can actually help people. You can actually create something and make other people’s lives easier,” she says. She loves the problem-solving, the creative collaboration and that there’s always something new to learn.

She’s now working with silverorange, a 20-year-old web and mobile development company that’s built apps for giants like Mozilla and Duolingo, and she hasn’t looked back. Her advice to young women? “Don’t be afraid to try.” After all, she says, you can always change your mind.

Angie Sutherland
Freelance game art designer
St. John’s, N.L.

Angie Sutherland’s coding story reads more like a story of an artist who first found their medium and then success. She is a coder-artist: she designs and animates characters for video games. Sometimes she makes award-winning movies with them.

Sutherland was always into video games, drawn in by the art and storytelling. “When I was a teenager, I remember telling my mom, ‘I wanna make games!’” she says. “I didn’t have a whole lot of support in that idea, so I just chose something else.” She wound up in geography and classics, but didn’t finish her degree.

In 2017, her roommate made an arcade game using a program called GameMaker. “I thought, well, if he can do it, I can maybe do it!” Spending hours, days and months working through online tutorials, she eventually mastered GameMaker Studio herself. Fast-forward to just a few months ago, and she’s finally been able to quit her part-time job and fully support herself freelancing for companies like Living Phoenix Entertainment, in B.C.

“It’s terrifying,” she says, laughing. “I’m all in now!”

She even used GameMaker to make a few short animated films, winning the Best Emerging Filmmaker award from the Nickel Film Festival last year. “Don’t let anybody stop you from doing the things you want to do,” she says. “Because eventually, you’re just going to do them anyway.”

Julia Rivard Dexter
CEO, Squiggle Park
Halifax, N.S.

She sits on the federal Economic Strategy Table for Digital Industries. She was named one of Canada’s 50 most inspiring women in STEM by Canada’s Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. And she credits her success to her past as an Olympic canoe-kayaker for Team Canada—but not in the way you may think.

With athletics taking up much of her youth, Julia Rivard Dexter says she graduated from NSCAD University in 2003 without much work experience. She went knocking on doors with her design degree, hoping someone would give her a shot. No luck. “And I have always been so passionate about Nova Scotia and living here and raising my kids here that I didn’t want to leave. So it forced me to start my own thing,” she says.

She began launching her own companies. She started with Queen Street Studios, a co-working space for creatives, and then launched her own career as a graphic designer. As she worked with more developers, she realized her design skills had an expiry date, so she started learning more and opening herself up to newer technologies. She was CEO of SheepDogInc.ca, the first authorized Canadian Google Apps reseller; she founded Pursu.it, a crowdfunding app helping athletes achieve their dreams; and she was a partner with Code + Morter, formerly Norex, a design and software studio whose work got a nod from the International Webby Awards.

In 2015, after working on a diagnostic tool using eye patterns to track which kids might have reading problems, she co-founded Squiggle Park, a company making games that help kids with their reading skills. The games are now used in more than 6,000 schools across the world and counting. As she spoke to Atlantic Business Magazine, Rivard-Dexter was packing for a month of travel that would take her to Miami, Austin and Korea for meetings.

When asked what she sees as her greatest accomplishments so far, she responds without hesitation: “My perseverance. I think it’s extremely difficult sometimes to stay motivated and persevere through the hard things. But over the years I’ve gained a very strong confidence in my ability to lead a business and my ability to persevere even when times are tough.”

Her advice for young women looking to break into the industry? Find your champions. “There are so many opportunities in this field,” she says. “The only reason I’ve been able to see success in anything I’ve built over the years is because there have been people there willing to help me.”

Jen Liu
Senior IT Advisory Consultant, KPMG Canada Learning Code Halifax chapter lead
Halifax, N.S.

Jen Liu would love to see more women in tech leadership and hasn’t ruled out being one herself someday, perhaps as an entrepreneur. “A lot of people say it’s for young people … but I don’t see older people having any barriers to start their own company. So I’m just looking for the right time,” she says.

In the meantime, she feels like she’s zeroing in on her passion. She started her career in 2012 supporting startups at Innovacorp, a Nova Scotia crown corporation managing early-stage venture capital investments. There, she saw brilliant ideas turned into full-fledged businesses and interacted with innovative new technology every day. In love with the latter, she moved from being on the business side of tech to the product side, taking a job with IBM in 2015 as a project manager. Now she’s at KPMG’s Halifax office, helping companies make sure their tech products fit the market and comply with regulations.

In the background, she’s been running the Halifax chapter of Canada Learning Code, formerly Ladies Learning Code. There, she’s learned she loves helping women nurture their interests in technology and she’s taught herself how to code. Coupling that knowledge with what she loves about her work, she’s now teaching herself machine learning and Python, knowing both will help her career. “My employer is really supportive of what I do,” she says.

Gabrielle White
Digital Nova Scotia
Halifax, N.S.

In a way, Gabrielle White was part of a major disruption in Canadian coding education. She’s a graduate of the very first intensive coding bootcamp offered by HackerYou, now called the Juno College of Technology, in Toronto. She first got herself a degree in design from NSCAD University and worked in advertising firms, putting together mock-ups of websites. Eventually, she wanted to know more about how the sites were built. She’d picked up enough HTML and CSS to volunteer with Ladies Learning Code in Halifax, so when she heard Heather Payne, Ladies Learning Code’s founder, had started HackerYou, she moved to Toronto for the nine-week boot camp in 2014. “I look back on that time now and see that the real learning started after I came back to Halifax and started looking for work,” White says.

With bootcamps still new, especially in Atlantic Canada, White had a hard time convincing employers a nine-week course had given her the chops to be a developer. Ultimately, she found work at a startup launching a skill- and service-sharing social platform for women entrepreneurs, and then freelanced for a few years. Now she’s a senior service designer with the Government of Nova Scotia, helping the province with a massive digital overhaul that will see most of its services offered online. “The truth is, there’s no one way [into the field],” she says. “You can really forge your own path.”

Shaimaa Abbas
Senior Programmer Analyst, Government of New Brunswick
Fredericton, N.B.

Shaimaa Abbas can’t see any reason why Google or Microsoft wouldn’t want to open an office in Atlantic Canada, and she’s hoping the coding community she’s building in Fredericton might help entice them. Abbas moved to Fredericton in the fall of 2018 when she got a job as a senior programmer analyst with the Government of New Brunswick’s digital transformation team. When she arrived, she noticed there weren’t a lot of meet-up groups or events for coders. So she built some.

She’s now the founder of the Fredericton chapters of Google Developer Groups and Women Techmakers and hosts regular meetups. “My mission is to grow this community, make it the source of help for anyone working in the field, and provide visibility, community and resources for women in technology.”

She’s also a mother of two. In fact, her employer in Dubai let her go when she got pregnant with her first child in 2014. For the next few years, she did freelance app development with a growing baby on her hip, wishing there were more women in the field.

Abbas found her passion for health care systems after a decade-long career spanning Egypt, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates landed her a job at an hospital in Egypt. “I was trying to make an impact in my country to achieve what other countries have done,” she says. She came to Canada to learn from its systems, studying health informatics at George Brown College in Toronto in 2018. Now she’s using what she knows to modernize online systems for New Brunswick citizens. “My plan was to transfer the knowledge from here to [the Middle East],” she says. “But I am living here, it’s my home now.”

Cathy Simpson
CEO, TechImpact
Vice-President People and Culture, T4G Limited
Co-founder, UP+GO

Saint John, New Brunswick

In 2013, Cathy Simpson had what she calls a “Holy shit” moment while she was part of a women’s leadership group. One day, looking back over her impressive career in the Atlantic Canadian tech sector in major roles at NBTel, T4G, the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation and even co-founding Propel, a massive question bowled her over. “It was like, ‘Where have these women been all my life?’” She hadn’t realized how much she’d been working with men up to that point. “It hit me how different the dynamic is when you have really strong women leading,” she says. And she realized that she wanted to help young girls get on a path toward leadership, toward tech and toward STEM. She wanted to help girls realize they could fail a million times and keep going. She wanted them to know they were capable and she wanted to help them build the confidence to take risks and build companies.

She did a course at Stanford University in California and then pitched a program to a Saint John school in which she’d work with a dozen or so high school girls, helping them develop their leadership skills. “And I wanted to introduce them to really cool, interesting women doing things here.” And that’s how she co-founded UP+GO in 2016, a non-profit offering leadership and mentorship programs to young girls aimed at helping them get into tech, become leaders and launch companies.

“They just don’t have exposure to this,” Simpson says. “How could they?”

In 2018, Simpson turned 50 and was asking herself big questions again, this time about what kind of impact she wanted to make in the next decade. She knew she wanted to keep helping the tech sector grow in Atlantic Canada and to keep supporting women. When the CEO position opened up at TechImpact, an organization focused on growing the region’s tech sector, she knew it was a fit. She applied with a goal of helping the organization reboot and renew its push to attract new workers, further innovation and grow the industry. When she was offered the job, she accepted with one caveat. “I said, if the members aren’t cool with how vocal I’m going to be about women in the industry, you should not hire me.”

They were definitely cool with it. She’s now their first female CEO.

Deirdre Ayre
Head of Operations, Other Ocean Group Canada
St. John’s, N.L./Charlottetown, P.E.I.

In summer 2018, she was on the red carpet at the Emmys. This fall, she was signing autographs for mobs of fans in Japan. But Deirdre Ayre isn’t a star of the kind of screen you might be imagining. She’s head of operations for Other Ocean Group Canada—a gaming company with studios in St. John’s, Charlottetown and Emeryville, California, that has seen massive commercial success in the past two years. The company was tapped by Microsoft in 2016 to build the Nintendo 3DS version of Minecraft. Their work bringing Adult Swim’s bizarro cult cartoon Rick and Morty to PlayStation VR got an Emmy nomination. And their latest game, an eight-player strategy game called Project Winter—in which players must survive a hostile landscape and back-stabbing allies—is a full-on frenzied phenomenon in Japan.

“I just got goosebumps,” Ayre says when asked to look back on all she’s accomplished. “We’re not still just trying to do it. We’ve done it, and we’re going to continue to do it.”

Setting up in Charlottetown wasn’t part of the original plan. The company was founded in California by Ayre’s brother, Andrew Ayre, who happened to be one of those Atlantic Canadian genius types who wound up in Silicon Valley. He always wanted to open a studio in Atlantic Canada, ideally in Newfoundland, his home province. With his sister’s history working in media and government, the siblings knew she had the connections and the chops to make it happen and she took up the charge in 2005. But at that time, it was impossible to tear the Newfoundland and Labrador government’s eyes away from the oil offshore.

“There was a lot of talk around diversification, but you weren’t actually seeing it being done and supported in the way that it needed to be done,” she says. “We weren’t getting any attention.”

Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island was rolling out the red carpet, she says. There were rebates in place, and the P.E.I. government worked to bring the federal government, Holland College and UPEI to the table, too. Other Ocean’s Charlottetown office opened in 2006 and has since grown into two studios: Sculpin and SculpinQA. The P.E.I. government developed a strategic plan to grow the gaming sector in Charlottetown, and both UPEI and Holland College worked to create programs that would put their graduates directly into gaming jobs. “Industry people have developed the curriculum and are running those programs,” Ayre says, adding that two former senior Other Ocean employees are running the video game art and animation program at Holland and another is running the program at the university.

In other words, the development of the sector on P.E.I has largely been the result of careful, collaborative planning, with everyone on board. Ayre even helped launch a new industry association on the island, called Video Games P.E.I.

Back in Newfoundland, after some help from Danny Williams’ government, she established a St. John’s studio in 2008. The city is now home to a booming tech industry and the sector is finally getting the support it needs to diversify the economy. It’s exciting, Ayre says, but it hasn’t grown from a similarly collaborative approach.

Ayre says that of the Other Ocean studios, when it comes to talent, the St. John’s office is the squeaky wheel that’s always in need of staff. There aren’t enough students enrolled in or graduating from computer science or engineering programs in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the ones that do don’t necessarily have the skills she needs. With a number of tech startups now clamoring for those same few graduates, employee poaching has become a bigger problem, she says, making it harder to keep what precious staff she can find.

To that end, Ayre is an outspoken advocate for women in the industry and for immigration and diversity. In 2018, she won the Association of New Canadian’s Diversity Award for her work building a more inclusive and diverse industry. Ayre brings people from all over the world to work in Other Ocean studios and says some of her proudest moments come when reflecting on the life those employees have built in Atlantic Canada. “At the Christmas party in P.E.I., I was looking around, remembering standing around the little Charlottetown airport as so-and-so got off the plane from India and now he’s met someone and has a family and their part of this family with us—it’s just so cool,” she says.

Mona El-Tahan
Director Emeritus, Women in Science and Engineering N.L.
St. John’s N.L.

“I’m considered a pioneer in my field,” says Mona El-Tahan, with a laugh.

That, dear reader, is an understatement.

In 1977, she was the first woman to complete a Masters degree in engineering at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. During that work, she developed the first mathematical model in North America to predict iceberg movement. In 1980, she became the first woman to ever work as an engineer for Lavalin-Fenco Newfoundland. In 1988, she became the first woman engineer in Newfoundland to launch her own engineering company, InCoreTec Inc.

Oh, and she also helped develop technology that reduced friction on the Canadarm. Yes, the robotic arm on the International Space Station.

“[My work] started in marine and ended up in space!” she says, laughing again.

But of all those accomplishments, El-Tahan, who came to St. John’s from Egypt in 1975, is most proud of the work she’s done encouraging women to pursue education and work in science and engineering. As she was launching her company in 1988, she was also orchestrating another first, setting up a Newfoundland chapter of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), of which she was the director and is now the director emeritus.

Being the first woman to make serious inroads in engineering in Newfoundland and Labrador often meant she was in labs, lecture halls and massive conference rooms as the lone woman amongst hundreds of men. At some of those conferences, emcees would even address the crowd with a “lady and gentlemen” joke, she says. “I felt really lonely. And there were not too many role models to encourage young females to even consider engineering or science as an option for them,” she says.

In her pioneering work, she had to break down assumptions about immigrants as well as women. Sometimes her peers would be surprised to learn El-Tahan was from Egypt, having assumed the country was somehow behind in technological development and education, she says. “They quickly changed their opinions.”

With the help of WISE’s mentorship programs and support, Memorial University now leads the country in women engineering students. According to Engineers Canada, in 2018, 27 per cent of undergraduate engineering students in Newfoundland and Labrador were women. It’s a title Memorial has held for the past four years.

“I feel really rewarded by that,” she says. “We are ahead of everybody, even ahead of universities in Europe.”

Meghan Doherty
Technical Account Manager, Microsoft
Toronto, O.N. (from P.E.I., went to UNB)

Meghan Doherty is reluctant to call herself successful—“I’m just starting out,” she insists—but she’s sure ticking a lot of the necessary boxes. Doherty was headhunted by Microsoft before she’d even finished her computer science degree and now she’s working for the company in Toronto as a technical account manager, helping customers plan their technical systems and solve any problems that come up.

Those victories were hard won.

As one of the few women in her program at the University of New Brunswick, she spent the first two years of her degree feeling isolated and overwhelmed. Most of the guys in her classes began programming long before she did, and she struggled with her confidence. “I didn’t think I would make it,” she says. But encouragement from her mother kept her going and she eventually found her way.

She also wound up working as a regional director with Cyber Launch Academy, then a startup offering technology courses and camps for youth aged seven to 17. “It was at a point where I was so unsure of my own technical skills, I wanted to be done with computer science. But through teaching, I really found there is a lot of joy in computer science.”

Doherty credits much of her success to the soft skills she picked up through teaching and dealing with the students’ parents and says she hopes to run her own company some day.

Uwera Ntaganzwa
Software engineering student at UNB
Fredericton, N.B.

Type “wedding dress” into the Google search bar and you’ll wind up staring at pages of mostly-white women in long white dresses. “But there are very many different wedding [dresses] from different cultures that should be showcased, too,” says Uwera Ntaganzwa, an undergraduate software engineering student at the University of New Brunswick. It’s an important example of what Ntaganzwa sees as a way that technology could bring communities together and deliver a more accurate representation, and hence understanding, of the world. She’s hoping to spend her career creating ways for technology to do exactly that.

Lucky for us, she’s well on her way.

Ntaganzwa grew up in Rwanda and moved to Fredericton in 2016 to begin a degree in software engineering at the University of New Brunswick. Looking around at her mostly male peers—just seven per cent of UNB software engineering undergrads are women, she says—she knew she wanted to help young girls get coding earlier in life, so she started volunteering with Cyber Girls, a UNB program offering tech workshops to middle-school girls.

She’s also been making a difference back home in Rwanda, through a summer position with Irembo, a government-led initiative helping people without phones or computers access government services online through agents who visit their community.

“I really believe that technology has great potential to change the world for the better,” Ntaganzwa says. •

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