Barrier Breaker: Erica Peterson Cracks the Code for Moms Entering Tech
A Pittsburgh mother of two creates a virtual community to support and empower moms looking to join (or re-enter) the tech industry.
When a mother decides to re-enter the workforce after spending some time away, the transition can be challenging. It can be even more daunting if that mom wants to enter a new field—especially tech. Not only does she have to learn new skills, but she also has to do it while caring for her children and facing potential judgment from her peers for having taken time off to raise a family.
"Many women who are re-entering the workforce after having children are worried about being judged. They feel like imposters when they're walking into that first interview," says Erica Peterson, founder and CEO of Moms Can: Code.
But Peterson is working to change that. The Pittsburgh-based mother of two started Moms Can: Code in 2017 as a program that does more than just help moms learn to code—she wanted to also foster opportunities for mothers interested in finding coding-based jobs. By offering one-on-one support, Peterson aims to empower a community of moms as they seek to enter (or return to) the tech industry.
Modern Software Factory Hub: What led you to start Moms Can: Code?
Erica Peterson: The idea came from my first business, Science Tots, which is a non-profit organization that I founded in 2015. Science Tots promotes parent involvement in early STEM education. While I was teaching parents how to do science experiments with their small children, I quickly realized they didn't know much about STEM themselves, so I started teaching them. But whenever we talked about coding, everyone would just shut down.
I knew I couldn't be the only mom interested in coding, so I posted an idea about establishing a mothers' coding community to Facebook. The response was overwhelming. There were so many mothers out there frustrated with the lack of resources, especially in rural communities, so I bought a domain and set it up. Soon after that, I was hosting meetups with other moms, and learning more about what mothers' needs and challenges are, especially in the workplace.
MSF Hub: What are some of the challenges that are specific to moms in the workplace?
EP: They don't want to say that they've taken time off to stay at home with their children because they're afraid they'll be looked down upon. And then there's the question of who to ask for a recent reference when they haven't been at work for the past few years.
Many women—and men—in their 20s or 30s want to have children. So, first and foremost, companies need to establish that mindset and understand that some of their employees are going have kids and take parental leave—and that's okay.
— Erica Peterson, founder and CEO, Moms Can: Code
MSF Hub: What about once they've started working again?
EP: One of the reasons I started my own businesses after having children was that I didn't want to have to ask someone for permission to leave early if my son had an ear infection.
My educational background is in molecular biology. Before starting Science Tots and Moms Can: Code, I worked as a cancer researcher in a lab, which is a very scheduled environment with experiments and meetings—much like tech. When someone is absent, it messes up the flow of things and I knew that it would negatively impact not only my work, but also the lab's work. And this is a concern for mothers that stretches across all industries. It's normal for kids to get sick, and mothers don't want to ask to leave early or take time off when they've already exhausted their paid leave.
MSF Hub: What can companies do to support moms in the workplace?
EP: Many women—and men—in their 20s or 30s want to have children. So, first and foremost, companies need to establish that mindset and understand that some of their employees are going have kids and take parental leave—and that's okay.
Beyond that, I'm a strong proponent of flexible working hours and the ability to work remotely. All of our contractors at Moms Can: Code are remote, so I know that it's possible to get things done well if you have the right communication channels.
MSF Hub: How does Moms Can: Code specifically support mothers interested in the tech industry?
EP: Our focus is on empowering moms to walk into a room and say, “I'm learning how to code." We do that by helping them to connect with like-minded moms who share similar frustrations, namely juggling motherhood while learning a new skill. We also give them access to resources that they wouldn't otherwise have, such as scholarships and online coding courses, which are taught by our own members. And we help moms network with women in the tech industry by providing them with free passes to conferences.
But even with free passes, we know that finding childcare can be difficult, so we also host virtual summits. Our first was in April. We had 180 registrants and more than 35 speakers, both women and men, from different tech companies. It was all done live so the moms could network and chat with each other as well as with the speakers.
As a company, we try really hard to listen to our members and learn what they need. Moms Can: Code has grown from, and been shaped by, the wants and needs of our community.