The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

When Lena Morita and Tutti Quintella first met in the summer of 2018, they had no idea that their passion for technology—and software development in particular—would put them on a path to self-discovery and global leadership.

And yet, via their roles as directors at Women Who Code (WWCode), that’s exactly what is happening. WWCode is an international non-profit organization with a mission to empower women in tech fields.

“Being out there and being visible has allowed me to meet so many amazing people in the community who are similarly engaged and motivated,” Morita told The ACCJ Journal. “Knowing that there are people who are working hard to give back to the community has worked miracles for my daily motivation.”

Quintella agrees. “I didn’t know how much I would learn by doing all this. To be honest, when I joined, I was so naive about diversity. I didn’t know how important it was. I just thought, ‘Cool. This is a group I can relate to.’ But then I learned so much along the way.’”

As volunteer leaders at the Tokyo chapter of WWCode, the challenge for Morita and Quintella is stark: How do you inspire and elevate women in technology fields so that they can reach the stars? And how do you keep them there?

“What we say as Women Who Code—the international group—is that it’s not just a pipeline problem,” Morita explained. “It’s not that we just want to increase the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)fields, but we also want to retain them.”

One thing that Morita and Quintella have noticed is that women are leaving the tech world at alarmingly high rates.

“So even if we pump out more computer science graduates, it’s not like we automatically fix the gender imbalances in the industry,” she continued. “The industry as a whole needs to fix this problem so that we can thrive and succeed in this world.”

WWCode Tokyo has four directors, each of whom has to com­mit five to 10 hours a week to the organization. A key part of a director’s role is to ensure that the chapter is active and engaged with the community. This involves a variety of tasks, such as streamlining organizational structure, identifying milestones, as well as planning and organizing meetings and events. On-boarding and mentoring new members is also important.

“What I’m trying to do right now is to mentor volunteers so that they have the autonomy to run their own events,” Quintella explained. “We want to train enough of them so that they want such positions of leadership.”

Inspiring and empowering women is a foundational principle for the organization. Why is this important?

“A lot of times, people don’t even know that positions such as tech lead, tech specialist, or chief technology officer exist, or that they should put themselves forward for them,” Quintella said. “That’s our main focus: to inspire women to excel in careers in technology.”

Morita shares the view. “You can’t imagine what you can’t see. If you can’t see very accomplished women engineers or leaders, it’s really hard—even subconsciously—to imagine yourself going into those roles.”

For Morita and Quintella, fighting off the “subconscious limiter” that keeps women from challenging for leadership roles in STEM fields has been a near-daily battle.

“It takes a conscious effort to seek out role models for what you can be,” Morita confessed.

Born and raised in Tokyo, Morita attended the American School in Japan for junior high school and the Christian Academy in Japan for high school.

Having made the decision not to attend college, she spent most of her twenties as a self-taught, freelance designer in the print industry. But, even then, she studied programming—over a seven-year period—as a hobby.

When the opportunity came to transition into tech, she did so in a digital design agency in Tokyo, where she worked as a designer and software developer.

Today, she works as a JavaScript engineer at Automattic Inc., an internet company known for developing platforms such as WordPress, the free, open-source content management system that has come to power much of the web.

Why did Morita decide to volunteer at WWCode, given that she had a lot on her plate in her day job?

“Although I was 32 years old and still a junior developer, when I decided to volunteer, I was at an age where you start to become more conscious about societal issues,” she explained. “I realized that I’d lived through my twenties just thinking about myself and not really doing anything for communities. So, I wanted to take on more.”

Quintella has become a mentor for aspiring programmers.

Quintella was born near São Paolo State, Brazil, to a family with a background in natural sciences, the study of the physical world. Her dad is a statistician who studied engineering and physics. Her mom is a physician.

So, it made sense that she would seek out a career in a tech­­nical or medical field.

As is turned out, Quintella was a fan of Japanese animation when in high school and was able to download a number of programs that were not then readily available in Brazil.

When friends asked her to share links to the content, she did so on a blog. But soon the blog couldn’t handle demand, so she created a dedicated website. To learn how, she self-studied web development in her free time after school.

It was that early success with creating a website that helped her choose a course of study in college. She graduated with a degree in computer engineering from the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas in São Paolo State.

After graduation, Quintella worked for a startup based in her hometown that was developing online and app-based software for off-site project management. A year later, she transitioned to tech giant Samsung Group, where she developed apps for the company’s android smartphones.

She then spent almost three years with e-learning startup Quipper, which was based in London. Today, she is a soft­ware engineer and technical program manager at Japanese e-commerce unicorn Mercari.

She is nostalgic about her first days at WWCode. “At that time, the study session at WWCode Tokyo had about 10 people; and the chapter only had two directors. But I thought, ‘This is amazing. You have these free events and with a foundation of encouraging women in tech—both in order to stay and advance their careers in the field.’”

Morita welcomes attendees at WWCode Tokyo

Morita has been with WWCode Tokyo for a year and Quintella has been there for nine months. How has the chapter evolved during that time?

Initially, it was fairly decentralized, with individual members free to organize events as they pleased. And events were held irregularly. “But I thought that we could be more powerful if we shared our resources and worked together,” Quintella said.

As a result of greater centralization of resources, member-to-member engagement has improved and the organization is growing rapidly.

Members now share ideas and manage projects using platforms such as Notion, an app and wiki for note-taking, data collection, and collaboration.

Via the platform, new members can find resources and guides to leadership, how to run an event, and how to define target audiences.

What’s more, the number—and variety—of events has increased from one per month to about three. These include study sessions, talk nights, hands-on workshops, and events for novice public speakers.

Recently, the sharing of resources happens not only at the local-chapter level, but also between WWCode’s headquarters and other chapters around the world.

Indeed, WWCode Tokyo is working with chapters in the region to organize the first Asia-wide conference, namely, “WWCode CONNECT, Asia.” The event will take place in Singapore.

Other areas of improvement are in branding and outreach to the Japanese community. “Sometimes it’s way harder to reach Japanese-speaking rather than non-Japanese speaking audiences,” Quintella admits.

Since its founding five years ago, WWCode Tokyo has grown from a few volunteers and members to more than 10 volunteers and 1,300 members. Around the world, the organization has more than 180,000 members in more than 20 countries.

Morita and Quintella attended the WWCode CONNECT 2019 Conference in San Francisco on April 13.

In April, Morita and Quintella were in San Francisco, where they were among thousands of attendees at the two-day WWCode CONNECT 2019 conference and leadership summit.

Last year, after Morita attended the San Francisco conference for the first time, she returned with this takeaway: “It prepared me to take on more professional leadership roles. Now that I’m in a mid-sized company, those roles will come up. And when they do, I’ll feel pretty ready.”

Quintella, who spoke at the WWCode CONNECT summit this year, feels the same way. About the impact her expe­rience at WWCode has already had on her own life, she said: “The opportunities that it has given for my career—even as a volunteer—have been amazing. And that’s not something that you usually think about when you’re volunteering. By giving your time, you get so much more back.”

Ultimately, for Morita and Quintella, the greatest satisfaction comes from giving back to the community, and inspiring and elevating a new generation of women to pursue careers in tech-related fields.

At a recent workshop in Tokyo, a shy Japanese attendee walked up to Quintella and said: “I just want to say that I saw your presentation at the last event, and so I came to this workshop. My goal is to be like you.”

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.