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Ways We Work

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Melissa Sariffodeen

Co-founder of Ladies Learning Code

Melissa is the Co-Executive Director of Ladies Learning Code. She's passionate about creating opportunities for women and youth to become passionate builders - not just consumers - of technology.

Tell me about what you do?

My role in Ladies Learning Code is Co-Executive Director and I was part of the founding team for both Ladies Learning Code and Hacker-You. I’m responsible for the day-to-day operations, it’s a lot of the non-fun stuff, but some really cool stuff too. So there’s managing our chapters, managing our programs, managing our finances, accounting, fundraising is a huge component of what I do as well and that leads into the cool stuff. So the other half of my job is really around strategy and strategic partnerships and figuring out where we need to be as an organization tomorrow, next year, or in 10 years.

I spend a lot of time working with our awesome partners: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Telus, whoever it is. Figuring out what things we can partner on; what are the things we need to be doing; where does this organization fit into this larger eco-system? So I would say half my day is on the phone, on a call, or in a meeting; and then half my day is in Eventbrite, trying to figure out what we need to do to get the next event launched. It’s probably really indicative of how big we are, there’s only three of us full-time so you wear a lot of hats. Myself personally, I really like producing stuff, I like the feeling of getting things done so I feel like I’m always going to be involved in the event execution to some extent since I find that stuff so awesome, but more and more I high-level manage things, which is important too, but not always as gratifying in some ways.

Being a small team and having a number of different responsibilities, how do you go about deciding what and when you’re going to focus your time on something?

I use a lot of tools to keep things organized. I’m a big Basecamp user. Anytime an idea pops in my head, or a thing I want to focus on, I put it in there immediately and I assign it to myself at some arbitrary date. Another thing that we, as an organization do, is Monday morning, first thing, either an email update or occasionally we’ll do a team update where you list what your main objectives or accomplishments were last week, what are the things you need to get done, and what were your roadblocks. Sharing that with everybody, or even just putting that list together every single Sunday night, forces me to think about what I got done relative to what I was saying I was going to get done last week. ‘Cause it’ll constantly change and every day will be different but knowing what that major milestone you’re working towards and constantly having that stuff top of mind is how I’m able to prioritize in addition to all these different tools that I use. Every week, I make this list, and I do that personally and professionally actually. I figure out what I need to accomplish in my personal life this week and what I need to accomplish professionally and then it’s this kind of rebalancing every day to figure out what needs to get done and chunking time in your calendar and doing everything you can to make sure you get to it.

Out of everything you’re doing, what do you find most rewarding?

Producing stuff and seeing the impact is definitely the most rewarding part of things. I talk to a lot of different partners and sponsors and although we’re a small team, people are surprised to know that I go to a lot of the workshops that we run. I work 5 days and I’ll still pop by on a Saturday for a half-day or a full-day, and people wonder why. There’s a couple reasons, but the big one is that workshops is what we do. I am most excited when I see a group of people at a workshop getting pumped about technology. So making myself present at those things is the most gratifying and although I maybe don’t touch it as much as I used to, I still put myself in a spot to do that.

So, let's say I know I have to get through a huge grant proposal. Well, I’ll set up shop next to the workshop so I still get the energy of the workshop, I get excited about why we’re doing this, and then I’ll buckle down next door working on something. So that’s important, and the most rewarding thing is seeing this stuff in action. I find you can so easily distance yourself on the days and the weeks that I don’t get involved with that stuff, you lose sight of what you’re doing and then the moment you’re back in a workshop, it’s like ‘Yeah, this is why we do what we do’. You can see the smiles on people’s faces and those ‘a ha’ moments that are the most rewarding.

On the flipside of that, what do you find right now in your role to be the most challenging?

Oh my goodness… It changes all the time. Today, asking me that, it’s probably fundraising. Not-for-profit and for-profit organizations have the same challenges but it's about figuring out how are we going to keep this ship afloat and what are the ways to do that. Not all money is equal, in my mind, and trying to figure out what are the most important things to work towards and chase after; how do you make your organization more sustainable; how do you do things with less while also compensating everyone fairly for the stuff that you do? How do we do awesome stuff but in the confines of the world that runs on money?

What are some of the tools you use regularly in your role?

I use some new tools and I updated tools along the way but there's also that comfort in the tools that you started out using. For a long time, I was marking emails in my inbox as a To-Do list - that's just what I had learned to do. Now we've sort of moved the organization, and myself personally, into Basecamp. I think that one thing when you have so much to do and so much buried stuff, the one thing I've learned personally, and I guess professionally, is that you don't have the mental capacity to keep all that stuff straight. So I rely heavily on things that remind me I have to do things. So Basecamp, calendar invites - we use Slack as a communication channel. I would say between Basecamp and calendar invites, those are the major, major tools that I'm using. Making sure I use them to their full benefit, so creating a To-Do list isn't enough. I need to have a date and I need to have an alert and it's going to remind me and then I'll put something in there and I'll just kind of erase it from my conscious mind and then I'm reminded in two weeks time that I need to do it.

People ask me a lot - how do you manage all of this stuff and even before I did Ladies Learning Code full-time, I actually worked two jobs. I had Ladies Learning Code and I worked full-time and I had a part-time job, so I was doing a lot of stuff and the only way that I kept it straight was because of that and this idea that writing it somewhere, whatever tool you use, frees up that mental space so that you can do the stuff you need to and know that you're not going to miss it. I use Evernote as well for To-Dos occasionally. But I find just going that extra step and having the ability, whatever tool you're using, to notify yourself of stuff and have that constant reminder is the most important thing. I find you can get too busy some days even to just look at your to-do list. You need to be re-notified that you need to do that basically.

So what does a typical day look like for you, if there is one?

There is no typical day, it really depends. Usually first thing I do is check emails, just to see where things are at. And I'm fortunate in some ways that I can sleep in if I want or I can wake up early if I want to. But usually I start my day like 7-ish, 7:15, 7:30-ish. So I'll get up, check my emails, then I'll go have breakfast, shower, and then get out. Everyday's different. A couple of days a week I'll work from home, when I need to produce and get through stuff. Other days I'll be in meetings, kind of jumping around meeting sponsors or partners. A lot of calls because there's a remote team across the country so I would say half my day is on the phone or Google Hangouts. Then I'll end the day with some sort of event or program - an after-school program or a workshop.

Weekends have workshops so I might not work a Tuesday but instead I'll work a Saturday. I try as much as possible to balance, so I teach yoga a couple days a week, I do cross-fit, try to see people as much as possible. I'll also try to integrate my personal life into my work, if that makes sense. A lot of friends have become work friends, or vice versa. So you grab drinks and you're also chatting about your projects. I take phones calls while I'm walking or I do sweat-dates with my friends so I can go to the gym while also catching up, trying to multi-task all that stuff and fit it into a day. That's the cool thing, I have the ability to really structure my days the way that I want to.

How do you stay on top of email? How do you manage all that communication?

Email is actually my preferred mode of communication. I find that I can do a lot more and I can get a lot more done when I'm emailing. I'm really quick now on my phone. My rule for email is respond quickly always. So I get an email and if I know I can respond to it or answer it within a couple of hours, I'll do it right away. And I'm usually really quick at responding. If I know that I'll need a day or more, I almost always will email and say 'Hey, I'm acknowledging I got this and you're gonna get a response from me at this time.'

For me - and this is partly my role - I put a lot of pressure on myself to be accessible to our chapter community. I think if we were to talk in the traditional business sense, they are my customer, our team across the country running programs. So I want to make sure I respond quickly to them. I don't want that to be a hiccup. If they're on their computer working right now, I want to give them a response so they can close the loop right now. I try to respond in real time, as quickly as I can and if I can't, then I acknowledge that I'm going to get to it later, keep that email in red, and then follow up on that. I find email is actually easy for me to keep on top of. It's when there's big projects that come out of those emails that I need to chunk off and figure out how I'm going to do that. But I always appreciate when people get back to me quickly on emails because it's largely something that you're waiting on. So whether someone gives me an answer or just tells me they're gonna get to it. Then I can know that I'm gonna get some response at a certain time and I can relieve that from my mind and know that 'Hey I'm gonna get to that on Wednesday so now I'm gonna move to the next task on my list' instead of getting hung up on that thing in the present, just sort of passing beyond it.

What would be the greatest career advice that you've ever received or that you would give?

Interesting ... greatest career advice. I think, a couple things, obviously, I talked about a bit before - be you. There was a lot of pressure on me when I came out of school to do what everyone else was doing and to follow a more traditional path and to stay at a job for a year or more because that's what people expect, and don't jump around careers, and that's B.S. Again, I think there's merits to all that stuff but if you're not learning or if you're not putting yourself in a position to grow in that role, there's absolutely no point to be there. People aren't going to care. Just be you, find what you're good at and you're compelling at. And if that's not in that role then someone else is gonna value that, and I think that's true in any industry, so I would say that's a big one.

The other big piece of advice is try things, do stuff, get going on things. I think there's a tendency for people to want to wait to start until things are perfect. And that's in so many parts of life. Personally, professionally, whatever it is. So many people want to wait. I don't want to go to the gym or I don't want to start cross-fit until I'm stronger or I don't want to run a 5K until I can run a 3K. No, just run it! There's an interesting book I read recently, it's called "A Talent Code" and it's about how people acquire this information and get really good at stuff. The premise of the book is this idea that the more you stumble through things, the more and quicker you learn them. I learned that because I've done it but the more you try and get started with stuff, the better you're going to get, quicker. You're just going figure out how you do it. I think that's the biggest piece of advice in general: just start; just start with what you have, where you have, when you have it and don't worry about the rest of it, or the perceptions, just do stuff.

Why do you do what you do and what makes it worth it for you, and what motivates you to keep doing it?

It's not even for me about teaching people to code so much as it is giving people this newfound confidence or awareness; this feeling that they can do stuff, and not just have to rely on other people. That independence is super important to me but why I particularly love this role, this organization, or why maybe I left other ones because I didn't like it, is this ability to do so many different things and see things through. I love to be able to say 'Hey, I want to do this project, this obscure thing, for example, a code-truck.' We decided this summer, we're gonna do a code-truck next year, and I will see this through and I have no idea how you would get a code-truck happening, I'm not even sure what truck you'd use but this ability to say 'I wanna do this awesome thing, it's super-purpose mission-driven and I know people will want to do it' and then be able to do all the little parts of it and then see it happen. That's this idea of making. I may not be a developer, I may not code every day, I may not do woodworking, but I make events and experiences for people and that's cool. The ability to make that and give people something that makes them feel empowered is awesome. That's why I do it. It's the best thing ever.

I'm interested to know more about your process from a big idea like a code-truck, to how you go about executing it. What kind of things do you have to do to see something like that happen?

That process gets revived and refined the more times you do it. But, for example, code-truck. Okay we're gonna do this thing and it's like "uhhh, has anybody done this thing?" And then the next step is a tweet 'Hey I wanna do this thing does anyone think this thing is a good idea?' And then I ask people for help. I don't have any shame in emailing and asking for meetings or seeing if people have done something similar, getting people's thoughts. I'd rather talk my idea through with like 10-15 people before doing anything else just to see how they can support. So I did the same thing with the code-truck. I reached out to people who I either thought would be interested or have experience in a similar realm. And by doing that I found out there were so many other similar initiatives, there's an open-source guide on how you create a code-truck! There are partners who want to get involved, there are some trucks that are better than others. I have a cousin who re-fabs trucks. You find out all this stuff that you didn't know about. And then the next step is, let's figure out all these components that are part of it. Put a spreadsheet together, figure out how much it's gonna cost, who's gonna support, and then, you, in my case, put a Basecamp together of all of the different things and then you, as a team, collaborate like, what else do we need to think about. And we mentally, or in person, walk through the process of this experience. So, okay we get into the truck, what is around the truck, what is in it, what does the outside look like, what about inside of it? Okay now we have this truck, where are we going, what do we need to consider? Gas, insurance, people, so we do that kind of thing and just talk through it and then put it on paper and start to figure out what the things cost and who would do them, what is the timing look like, and then using those tools that I talked about, to make it happen. But it's largely conversations, and touching different people who can give you the kinds of resources you need to help. I think the easy thing is getting the money, getting the truck's not hard, finding people to support it's not hard, but going from an idea to paper is hard and I think you need feedback from people to help make that happen.

How do you, especially since you have tight resources to work with being a non-profit. How do you go about deciding, or vetting ideas?

For us, we're pretty flexible, nimble and loose but one of the things we value and do is some overarching goal or purpose and mission. We're kinda always touching base on that and we worked with different organization to come to that. We've had Deloitte Consulting come in and work with us on that and we as a team have done it. It still constantly changes but we have this new goal which is to expose 200,000 Canadian women and girls to code by 2020. So for Laura and I, as the chief decision makers, and alongside with the Board, that's what it encompasses. How many people can we expose, how can we expose more people, and then drilling down on that further, it's our mission to provide these learning experiences in a hands-on beginner-friendly way. So something like code-truck, does it expose a lot of people? Is it hands-on beginner-friendly? Is it accessible? Is it geared towards our demographic? We start to use that as a tool. We kinda kept that both kinda large because if you don't set really big lofty goals, you're never gonna get close to them. And then we have a few other value statements and strategic planning items that we'll use to vet the stuff against.

There's more quantified measures too. When I look at the code-truck, how much it's gonna cost, how many people we're gonna expose, I do a rough calculation of what does this cost per person and what are some of the other things we do cost per person. So when we think about it that way, it’s never a limiting factor but let’s say if the code-truck was going to cost 200 bucks a person and our workshops cost 3 - maybe we could do more workshops and expose people that way. And then there's other factors - there's this really cool marketing thing, could some of that budget come out of it? Can we get a partner on board and what are they gonna value and what's the return for them. So thinking about all that stuff as well. The main focus is, is this gonna do what we set out as an organization to do the best way, and the most economical way that we have in all the other options that we have? And are we excited about it, that's another really big thing, like do I tell people about it before I'm allowed to? Then if I do, what am I gonna do, right? Do I get excited about it? Is our core team across the country gonna get pumped about this? If so, then yeah let's do this. And if you talk to people and they get pumped about it, that's also another indication that you're on the right track with something.

Who would you want to see featured on Ways We Work?

I just chatted with an individual recently, her name is Meredith Powell and she's from The Next Big Thing and her and I connected - she actually gave me really valuable advice and was super generous with her time. She has a really interesting background and just from that conversation sounds like she does a ton of stuff. The Next Big Thing's a partnership with Ryan Holmes of Hootsuite. It should be interesting. I'd love to get a bigger insight into how she's made all this stuff possible and just the sheer variety of things that she's doing as well would be interesting to get an undercover look into what she's up to.