beanz Magazine

An Interview with Nicky Ringland

Nicky is a Linguistics major who learned coding skills to further her research. She's also finished a PhD, won a few big awards, and co-founded Grok Learning.

By the time you read this, Australian Nicky Ringland will have added a well-earned PhD to her list of many achievements. She is a Linguistics major who learned coding skills to further her research. I met Nicky while walking around the summer 2015 ISTE convention floor in Philadelphia. She and her friends had a busy booth for their online programming school, Grok Learning. I asked Nicky about how she got to where she is today, what she thinks about programming, how it fits into her professional life, and what she thinks about women in programming. And cricket, which is like baseball but, as Nicky points out, much less about luck and more about
consistency and persistence. Both of which happen to be key programming skills.

How did you get involved in computing?

Nicky: I’ve always liked computers, but didn’t really get involved in computing until I had finished my undergraduate university degree. Armed with an Arts Languages degree majoring in Linguistics, I decided I wanted to fix automatic translation programs like Google Translate and BabelFish. All I needed to do was learn this pesky programming thing, or so I thought! One (almost complete) PhD later, and it turns out that machine translation, and natural language processing in general, is actually quite difficult!

What do you like about computing?

Nicky: I really enjoy being able to solve problems with code, whatever those problems may be. Whether it’s writing a script to rename a bunch of photos automatically, writing a ‘shared shopping list’ app or an annotation tool that I can use in my research, having the ability to solve problems that affect me is really rewarding. I feel like a bit of a superhero when I can create a tool that solves a problem.

I also find a lot of programming is a bit like problem solving. I’ve always loved logic puzzles, and writing code is a little bit similar. You think about a problem; try to figure out the best way to approach it; simplify it down, abstract away certain features. There’s a lot of creativity that goes into crafting a beautiful, simple solution to complex problems.

How did the Grok Learning booth at ISTE come about?

Nicky: As a company, we’re based in Sydney, Australia, and are really involved in the Australian education community. All four founders run lots of outreach activities for the University of Sydney, including the National Computer Science School, and various workshops for ICTENSW, our local computing teachers association. This all means we’ve got our ear to the ground in terms of Australian education, which is incredibly valuable. Coming to ISTE was a way of talking to educators from all across the US and beyond, and really getting a feel for whether they were facing the same challenges that educators are at home. We found the answer to that question to be a resounding ‘Yes’ — that delivering engaging experiences with computer science is both really quite challenging in a classroom setting, but also incredibly important in encouraging students to pursue further study in a computing related field.

It was also wonderful to receive an ISTE “Making IT Happen” award and get to know a few people from the global community! Australia is a little out of the way, so that was a great opportunity.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities and barriers to kids in general and girls in particular learning about computing?

Nicky: The biggest barrier to getting students excited about computing is ensuring they have fun and engaging, authentic experiences with computer science. It’s hard to be excited about computing when all you’ve experienced is making Powerpoint presentations, or excel spreadsheets. But it’s a very different story whenyou’ve written your very own game from scratch, or created a “Fakespeare”chatterbot that makes up Fake Shakespeare quotes, or when you’ve written a program to solve sudokus, or simulate a Zombie apocalypse, or write music! We need to make sure that every student realises that computing is more than just word processing, and that learning to code is a really important (and lucrative!) skill, whether you want to uncover the mysteries of the universe, solve global warming, or cure cancer!

As for opportunities, they really are limitless. Want to work in finance? They need a lot of software engineers! Music or film industry? Absolutely. From medical science to marine biology to robotics and beyond, every industry is becoming more and more impacted by technology. And these are just jobs that already exist! Entrepreneurship is an amazing opportunity: to write the next killer app or become the next Zuckerberg, all you need is a computer.
Another thing worth noting is how lucrative a career in computing can be. In an Australian 2014 study, ‘Computer Science’ topped the list of graduate students who are in demand. In both the big names of technology, Google, Facebook and Apple, and small startups, top CS grads and engineers are treated like rock stars. From free food to massages, ski-trips and gifts of mobile phones — not to mention stock options — the perks of being a software engineer are lavish.

But without knowing that these important, exciting, lucrative career options even exist, it’s no wonder that students, disproportionately girls and minorities, opt-out of what is a truly amazing field.

How did Grok Learning happen?

Nicky: Grok came about because of years of outreach activities. The four of us, two academics from the University of Sydney and two PhD students, had been running workshops, teacher training programs, online competitions, and other activities for several years. Teachers and students loved our programs; they just wanted more of them! So we took the plunge, two of us put our PhDs on (temporary) hold, and founded Grok, with the goal of providing high quality computer science resources that are fun, exciting, and classroom-ready. Our resources had to accessible to as many students as possible: inner city, rural, students from non-English speaking backgrounds, students who didn’t have their own computers. There are a lot of technical hurdles to allowing students to write code on machine — phones, iPads, borrowed laptops, or computers in the local library, but solving technical challenges are part of what we do!

Another big challenge has been getting our name recognised beyond Australia. We’re quite well-known in the CS education community here in Australia and New Zealand, as a result of the outreach activities we’ve run for a decade, but that reputation, and the trust our Australian teachers have in us, is quite difficult to instill in teachers who aren’t familiar with our work. Something seems to be working, though, and we’ve got more and more schools from the UK, US and even as far away as Oman signing up to use our resources.

How did the Grok team happen? How did you find people?

Nicky: The four of us had already been working together for several years on both academic and outreach pursuits, so we were already quite good friends. We’re a great mix of strengths and skills: all with technical and education background and experience.

We’re also are all quite stubborn, somewhat perfectionists, and truly passionate about CS outreach. That mix serves us well. We’re not willing to compromise on the quality of our resources, and we’re all more than willing to put in the hard yards and learn new skills (e.g. accounting and finance) necessary to run a successful startup. Plus, of course, we’re all keen to live, breathe, eat and sleep computer science education!

Our first few employees have had the same qualities: software engineers who are passionate about computer science education, driven perfectionists who we are very lucky to happen to also call our friends.

What is special about Grok Learning?

Nicky: I would sum up our strengths to be threefold: our passion, our technical dominance and our pedagogical background. Whenever you meet any member of the team, it’s impossible to miss how much we really do think that programming and computer science is really worth teaching, and worth teaching well. We really want to make our resources useful for teachers and students, so we’re constantly innovating from a technology standpoint, tweaking things from an education point of view, and, perhaps most importantly, we actively seek out feedback and act on it. We work with teachers to make sure our resources are working well for them, and we use our own resources teaching school aged students to code, so we get a good feel for what works well and what we can improve on.

As for where we’ll be in a year, or three years, the sky’s the limit! We’re working with primary schools, middle and high schools and even a few different universities in Australia. We’ve got big plans for maths curriculum-aligned resources (because demonstrating practical uses for mathematical concepts taught in schools is worth doing!) and bigger “project” style courses where students learn to make stand-alone, real-world, useful projects. We really want students to move from consuming technology to creating it, and solving problems with code is a great way to start!

Do you have a life beyond Grok?

Nicky: At the moment, all of my spare time (and then some!) is spent writing up my PhD. When I’m not doing that, I help run the Girls’ Programming Network, run various workshops at teacher professional development sessions, give talks at local geek events, compete in hackathons, and hack on my own projects. I’m also a fan of board-games (Race for the Galaxy, Dominion and Agricola are three of my favourites) and also partial to the odd computer game.

As far as cricket goes, I was co-captain of my school’s cricket team, several years ago. My cricket coach was actually also my computer teacher, so perhaps there’s some link there! I wouldn’t say I was necessarily very good at it, though. I would prefer to go skiing any day.

How would you explain cricket to Americans?

Nicky: Cricket isn’t about high-risk action. It’s not a “cross your fingers and hope you’re lucky” kind of sport. It’s more an “in it for the long run” style of sport, where dedication and consistency of play is critical. There’s a lot of teamwork, as well. And oranges at half-time. Very important, that. For me, backyard cricket and beach cricket are excellent variants. Remember the house rules, though: if you hit it over the fence into the neighbour’s yard, it’s 6 runs and you’re out!

Another fun sport is Australian Rules Football (think: rugby mixed with high-jump). Failing that, there’s always the beach, and — if the weather’s not so good, there’s always coding to be done!

A couple quick questions: Where did you grow up?

Nicky: I’m from Sydney, born and bred. I grew up in the city, though my parents have since moved to a small farm just north of Sydney. I’ve now become a key provider of farm eggs and fresh vegetables for my friends!

Biggest moment in your life, so far?

Nicky: I’d like to think this is yet to come! I’m really proud of a lot of things I’ve accomplished, especially the ones I’ve found hardest. I have a feeling handing in my PhD will be right up there.

And what’s your favorite programming language?

Nicky: I really like Python. It’s quick and easy to throw a script together, and I’ve written everything from websites to games to face recognition systems in it. In fact, a lot of my PhD code is in Python. Plus, from a teaching perspective, I love its simplicity: students can understand what every single word means, and I don’t have to say “ignore this ‘static void main’ bit here for now; it’s magic.” There’s no magic, and no pesky semicolons!

Learn More

Nicky Ringland

http://it.usyd.edu.au/~nicky

Grok Learning

https://groklearning.com/

National Computer Science School (Australia)

http://ncss.edu.au/

ICTE NSW (Australia)

http://ictensw.org.au/

Girl’s Programming Network (GPN)

https://sites.google.com/site/girlsprogrammingnetwork/

Race for the Galaxy (Board Game)

http://riograndegames.com/games.html?id=240
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_for_the_Galaxy

Dominion (Board Game)

http://riograndegames.com/Game/278-Dominion
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_(card_game)

Agricola (Board Game)

https://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/31260/agricola
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricola_(board_game)

Free Short Hour of Code Tutorials (Grok Learning)

https://groklearning.com/hoc/

Cricket Guide for Americans

http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2015/03/cricket_world_cup_2015_how_do_you_play_cricket_a_guide_for_americans.html

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