Lots of girls are enjoying learning to code at school, with many also joining after-school coding clubs. The skills they’re learning today could lead to a rewarding career in software development.
But what does that mean in practice, and what kinds of projects could you end up working on? We talked to Jane Orme, software engineer at Pool-based Bluefruit Software (and TECgirls cofounder), about coding, AI and cream teas.
Jane, tell us a bit about what Bluefruit Software does
We write software that runs on embedded devices. It’s software that you don’t really see, but which powers things like pumps and medical equipment, such as devices that people hold in their hand and press buttons on.
The work we do is on the border between engineering and software development, and it can be quite technical compared to some other areas of software development.
What does your job involve?
I'm officially a software engineer, but I've had a lot of roles on the technical side of software development. I've done technical authoring (writing documentation and help guides), I've done testing, and I've done coding.
I'm currently what's called a product owner, which means I see the big picture of what the software is meant to do, and I plan and prioritise the work of the team. At the moment we’re working on an artificial intelligence project, which is quite exciting.
Could you explain what artificial intelligence is? It’s about training computer software to identify patterns in the information that you're giving it. So you can give it a pattern and it will be able to tell you what type of pattern it is. At a basic level, it could identify whether a picture is of a dog or a cat, and with more training (showing it more pictures which have an identified breed) it could identify the breed of dog in a different picture.
We actually started off by training our AI to look at pictures of cream teas, and identify whether the jam or the cream was on top! That was fun, but AI has a lot of serious uses as well. In medicine, it can analyse scan images to detect cancer. It’s not always 100% accurate, but it can sometimes do it better than human consultants.
AI can also be used for prediction, so it can look at previous patterns and predict what might happen next.
Are there things we use in our everyday lives that use AI?
Yes – if you go on YouTube or Netflix and it recommends other things you might like, it’s very often using AI to look for patterns in the type of videos you've been watching, so it can suggest some that are similar. And voice assistants like Alexa and Siri use a type of AI called Natural Language Processing to figure out not just the words your voice is saying, but what you actually want. We call that ‘intent’.
And what’s the AI project you’re working on? We’re using AI with audio files, to train the software to identify whether a sound is one of 25 sounds the AI knows about; such as a dog’s bark or a cough. It’s a fun project for us for now, but we aim to work with a partner to bring that kind of AI into healthcare.
For example, it could listen to someone’s heartbeat and detect when it has become abnormal, and alert a doctor that the person needs attention. It could also listen to the noises a piece of medical equipment makes, and detect if something is going wrong. Then it can be fixed before it breaks down.
What do you love about your work?
I love the fact that our software can make a big difference. Some of the projects we've worked on at Bluefruit have literally saved lives. It feels very good to know you’re doing something worthwhile.
Some of the projects we've worked on at Bluefruit have literally saved lives. It feels very good to know you’re doing something worthwhile.
I also enjoy making things. I love doing crafts at home, and I enjoy crafting software at work. It can be very creative and there are always new problems to try and solve. Making things can give you a buzz when you see them working.
Bluefruit is a really friendly place to work. The people here are pretty cool. They’re passionate about tech but we also do a lot of social things. We have a pool table and a Nintendo Switch in the office, so people are quite often gaming at lunchtime. You can move between roles and projects, too, which helps keep things interesting.
Did you always want to work in software development?
I always hoped I would. My dad was an IT teacher, so I learned a lot from watching him. He used to write computer games for us to play when we were in primary school, and he taught me to code when I was 13. That was important because they didn’t teach coding in school like they do now, and there weren’t any after-school coding clubs. So the first time I really got to study computing was at college.
What advice would you give to girls who might like to work in software development one day?
Firstly, we need you! AI is a perfect example of where software needs diverse development teams. If the team isn’t diverse, AI models can end up with gender bias and other biases coded in.
If the development team isn’t diverse, AI models can end up with gender bias and other biases coded in.
Secondly, if you try coding and you find you like it, keep practising and enjoying it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes– it’s how we all learn. When you try new things, you learn skills and find talents that you didn’t imagine you had.
How can parents and carers encourage girls to explore their passion for coding?
Make the most of the opportunity to enrol them in computer clubs (after school) or tech jams like the one run by Software Cornwall. We’re lucky to have so many here, and the mentors who attend are happy to help. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about coding yourself – the girls always have fun picking activities to try.
Start coding and develop your skills with these fantastic online resources:
Start coding with Scratch You only need a computer and an internet connection to code with Scratch. Go to scratch.mit. edu and click ‘Start Creating’ – you’ll soon be coding your own games, animations and digital art.
Build an app with MIT App Inventor
Build your first app in just 30 minutes – all you need is a computer, an internet
connection, and access to a smartphone or tablet. Just go to appinventor.mit.edu and click on ‘Get Started’.
Experiment with electronics using micro:bit
If you have access to a micro:bit computer, you can start experimenting with coding for electronics. The micro:bit has LEDs and sensors that you can use to create animations, night lights, temperature sensors and more. Go to microbit.org and click on ‘Get Started’.