AYA YAFF: PROGRAMMER AND ENTREPRENEUR, GERMANY
Aya wanted to understand how technology worked and develop her own apps instead of just using them, so she taught herself to code in grammar school. Today the 22-year-old is one of Germany’s most famous programmers and manages her own consulting firm.
While other girls were plastering their walls with boybands, Aya had posters of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg up in her room. “Their stories inspired me,” she says. Most of the stars of the Silicon Valley are men, and Aya didn’t have a female role model until Marissa Mayer entered the scene. One of the most powerful women in the world, first as a Google vice president and later as head of Yahoo, the smart computer scientist was nothing like your typical geek. “She was everything I wanted to be. I don’t identify with the nerdy, socially awkward programmer kid; I want to keep my femininity,” Aya says.
She was two years old when her parents fled to Germany from Iraq. In Nuremberg her father supported the family as a taxi driver, but technology was his passion. He brought new gadgets home for his daughter and repaired friends’ computers as Aya watched and learned.
When she was 16, Aya wanted to create an app that would let her sleep in a bit, an app that could go through class schedules and flag any cancellations. She taught herself to code with the help of online platforms like Code.org, TeamTreehouse and CodeAcademy and founded a coding club. A co-working space gave the young women a place to meet, and teachers and experts worked with them on the programming. “I realised that all I had to do was ask someone to get the help I needed.” Together with a group of young people, she created her first big open-source project “Tradity”, an online stock market game where students could practice trading stocks in real time to learn how the stock market really worked. Since its release, more than 13,000 young Germans have tried out their stock broker skills.
Despite all her experience, as a young woman Aya had to prove herself time and time again at hackathons and conferences. “At first I felt a bit uncomfortable because everyone just assumed I had no skills – until I told them about my projects,” she says. “At some point I realised it was an advantage: I never had to queue for the WC and could apply on diversity tickets.”
Aya is convinced that women can achieve a lot in tech, and she would like to see quotas to raise women’s visibility in the sector. “Women are often modest and don’t really talk about what they can do.” Now that she is such a public figure, she experiences less self-doubt, almost as if she has been given the ‘male’ stamp of approval.
She doesn’t code as much since founding the CoDesign Factory, a consulting firm that sends teams of scientists, influencers, programmers and other experts out to help companies develop digital projects. She wants to continue to serve as a role model for young women though too, and mentors groups of girls working on tech projects: “They are the role models of tomorrow.”
“Start your own project and try to find other women to work with you. Take advantage of everything offered to you.”
This article has originally been published as part of the publication "Women in Tech: Inspiration, no fairytales" by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). You can download the publication or order a print edition of the book on the #eSkills4Girls website.