Wendy Devolder, Founder SkillsMatter, on Driving Software Innovation
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Wendy Devolder is an entrepreneur and a passionate advocate for technological innovation. She founded Skills Matter, a company that trains software developers, in 2003. Her vision was to create “the go-to space for software professionals in Europe” and to drive software innovation by bringing smart and creative people together in an environment that encourages conversation, collaboration and ideas. Nine years on, Wendy’s team runs thousands of talks, meet-ups, conferences and ‘hackathons’ and has nurtured the growth of an ever-expanding community of tens of thousands enterprise software developers.
A leading light among the growing number of young and female tech entrepreneurs in the UK, Wendy also sits on the Tech City advisory board, chaired by the Prime Minister's Office at No. 10 Downing Street. The advisory board provides "strategic direction" for the government's efforts to support the start-up community in East London. Tech City is headed up by Joanna Shields, Facebook’s former head of Europe, who says she aims to make London “the number one location for tech in the world”. Wendy names Shields as one of her inspirations for driving the Tech City initiative forward with unrivalled energy and insight.
Wendy has come a long way from her childhood in Holland where her dream was to be a sailor and where she was first bitten by the entrepreneurial bug when setting up a second hand record and rare vinyl shop at the age of seventeen.
We spoke to Wendy about why tech is such a wonderful field for women; about her first commercial venture aged seven; and how the volcano in Iceland proved to be a blessing in disguise!
TNW: What is it that makes Skills Matter stand out from the crowd:
WD: I think what makes us different is that we are truly passionate about what we do, highly social and open, and proud to challenge and learn. Our reputation owes a great deal to our network of the most brilliant minds in our industry: real experts and technology innovators who come to Skills Matter every day to share their ideas, best practices and technologies with our community.
TNW: With a small team of 20, how big is the community you’re managing to reach?
WD: Skills Matter now produces some 2,000 events annually and last year we had no less than 65,000 visits to our venue! I'm quite proud of that, especially if you keep in mind that our team was only 14 strong last year. We also produced the equivalent of 200 days worth of SkillsCast video's last year. These are recordings (film, code and slides) of all the talks we hold here at Skills Matter and these reach a global audience of around 250,000 people! Early last year we started publishing a quarterly magazine. Also since early last year, we took our events, services and offer global with an office in New York. Our aim is to support several million software developers in two to three year’s time.
TNW: What’s been the biggest challenge in making Skills Matter a success?
WD: Apart from the basic challenges like cash flow and lack of support from our bank, other challenges have perhaps been more specific to what we do – for example the volcano erupting in Iceland! We had planned to run three large courses that week as well as a conference, and many of the experts who we were flying in could not make it due to the disruption to flights. This had a big impact on our income and our ability to pay salaries…but then even this turned into a good thing because we were contacted by several members of our community who informed us that a group of the world's top agile experts were stranded in London.
We organised an “unconference” with just one day’s notice. It became a really great event with some 200 participants!
TNW: You're working in the male-dominated world of technology. Does that ever hold you back or intimidate you?
WD: Not at all! Most of the men in the software developer world are smart and creative guys who are really fun to work with as a woman.
TNW: What advice would you give to women wanting to succeed in the tech world?
WD: To young women, I would say study programming, maths and physics, or at least really explore these topics yourself before dismissing these as 'not for you'. IT and Tech are a great world to work in for women as well as men. You'll likely work with broadminded, intelligent and highly creative people.
The Tech world is extremely social and supportive of one another. It is often suited to flexible hours and part time jobs too - and it is mostly well paid. What more can you wish for?
TNW: Who or what is your greatest inspiration?
WD: Outside Skills Matter, my greatest inspirations have always been my mother and uncle, both very entrepreneurial, creative and fearless in exploring their ideas and encouraging me to be the same.
My mother helped me to be fearless and showed me that failure is just an opportunity to learn.
She was always keen to explore stuff with me...we used to spend hours copying hundreds of lines of Basic code on my Commodore 64 (from books and magazines) and figuring out our bugs as we went along. From a very young age she explained to me that if I were keen to have things, it would be in my reach to get these as long as I came up with a plan to get there. So I have never felt controlled by life. I always felt I can change my circumstances if I want to.
TNW: Is Skills Matter the first business you set up?
WD: My first ever 'commercial venture' was when I was seven: I started a tiny photocopied magazine and I sold copies of this to people in our village. When I was 14 and 15, I earned quite a bit by selling summaries of books to the other pupils and when I was 17, I started a second-hand record and rare vinyl shop (OM Records). Then when I was 19 I co-founded a small internet agency with the idealistic view to, on the one hand earn some money whilst at the same time trying to achieve the lofty goal of helping promote democracy in the world by offering our web development services for free to charities and political groups. I guess nowadays you would call it a social enterprise. Again my mum supported me by providing me seed capital (all the money she had been saving for me since I was born) so I could buy my own PC and pursue my dreams. It was only 1993 and as it turned out, too early to start a business like this. But it was during this time that my interest and passion for technology and innovation was ignited.
TNW: You're Dutch and living in the UK with a Greek husband...which nationality do you most identify with?
WD: I am definitely culturally and emotionally entirely connected to Britain and to London in particular. I feel at home here.
I am proud of this country and the amazing talent, ideas and skills we've got here in the UK.
I believe we can still do so much better though and am keen to contribute as much as I can through the work we do at Skills Matter, by supporting some great charities here in the UK that help young kids get involved in programming and entrepreneurship, and by being on the Tech City East Advisory board. For me, as long as London will have me, I belong here and I felt so on the very first day I arrived here. The only moment I'd rather be Dutch than English is during the Football World Cup!
By Anja Kueppers-McKinnon
Anja Kueppers-McKinnon is a freelance radio and print journalist who lives and works in London. Born in Australia to German parents, Anja grew up in the UK and started her career as a PR and communications executive in London, but soon found herself on an aeroplane back to the country of her birth. After completing an MA in Journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, Anja moved to Germany where she worked as a presenter, producer and reporter for DW Radio, Germany’s international broadcaster. Her next move took her to Washington D.C., where she took on the role of Communications Officer for Climate and Energy Policy at the Germany Embassy. Now back at home in London, Anja is making sure that her two-year-old daughter is learning to love travel as much as her mum does.
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