Sophie Deen spends her working days dreaming up spy missions and creating fart jokes… Seriously.
She’s the founder of a start-up called Bright Little Labs, based in fashionable East London. They create stories about a nine-year-old hacker called Detective Dot, who works for an imaginary high-tech spy organisation: the Children’s Intelligence Agency. If it sounds like a lot of fun, that’s because it is: the stories feature exploding selfie sticks, micro-pigs on hoverboards, and the kids are the smart ones… But look behind the DIY hacks and undercover ops, and you’ll discover that Sophie’s on an important mission of her own: to get more young girls interested in coding.
The UK was one of the first countries in the world to make it compulsory for children from the age of five to learn how to code. And Sophie wants to show young girls that coding isn’t just a means to programming your own selfie stick; it’s one of the ways in which we’re able to understand the world around us.
The Detective Dot books and activities are aimed at primary school children, but Sophie has lots of advice for older girls too – particularly when it comes to weighing up careers options and feeling confident in your choices. She admits her own career hasn’t exactly followed a conventional route – but that it’s been all the more adventurous for it…
Q. When you were a young girl, did you know what job you wanted to do when you were grown up?
A. I was going to be a lawyer, as that was my parents’ dream. I’m a third-generation East London family, so the fact anybody from my family might go to university and have a professional job was a big deal.
Q. So what happened?
A. I left law to retrain as a psychologist, and while I was re-training, I worked for a technology start-up, which helped countries measure how well the internet worked. We helped lots of governments all over the world: the US, Europe, I even worked in Brazil. That’s when I became interested in technology. It made me think about what it means for these countries and people living in them to have the internet.
I also learnt that the internet isn’t this imaginary thing in the cloud, but it’s made up of physical cables that go under the sea, under buildings or even into the dense Amazon to get into people’s houses!
Q. When did you discover coding?
A. I loved working at the internet company, but I’d always enjoyed working with kids too, and I wanted to do something more education-focused so I moved to Code Club. This is a grassroots voluntary organisation – still going today – which runs coding clubs for kids. My job was to train teachers in the new computer science curriculum.
It was really successful, but I couldn’t sleep at night, as I was still thinking how a lot of the stuff to help kids access computer science was too expensive or off-putting. I noticed that kids were constantly watching cartoons, so I thought surely there’s a way to normalise computer science through a cartoon? It’s like if Eastenders had a coder, that would be a great thing. It would make coding part of our everyday world.
Q. Enter Detective Dot…
A. That’s how I came up with the idea for Detective Dot and the Children’s Intelligence Agency (CIA). I spoke to some friends and the kids I worked with, then I ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for writing the first book.
Q. Have you been interested in science since school?
A. No, it was only as an adult that I discovered science! I went to a good school, but I’d never heard of engineering until I was 23. Now I realise it’s the subject I’d love to have studied. I’m fascinated by how our minds work and I use science to explore my bigger questions about the world, like: why are we here and what are we?
Q. You’ve done so much already in your career, did you always have a plan in mind?
A. No! It’s important for young people making choices to remember that what you choose now doesn’t have to be your career forever; you can change your mind further down the line. It’s the skills you have that are important; and the skills you learn through studying science – of scientific enquiry and being able to investigate something logically and draw conclusions from it – can be applied to any career.
Q. What’s it like working at Bright Little Labs?
A. As a company, it’s important to us that we act responsibly – so we make sure how our books are made, for example, doesn’t harm the environment. We’re a small team and there’s always more work to do than we can manage! But everyone is excited about making something new and doing things differently.
Q. What advice would you have for girls who are interested in maths and science subjects?
A. Do it! Carry on studying them because they’re interesting; they’re no more nor less difficult than any other subjects; any job you want to do will use the analytical skills you develop from maths and science; and finally, because you can do it – don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t!
Q. What opportunities will studying computer science give me?
A. Your job prospects from studying maths, science or computer science are better than for any other subject. Computer scientists are paid more than bankers and there’s a shortage of people skilled in this area, so there are lots of new opportunities. Remember too that every industry will be disrupted by coding, so if you want to work in fashion magazines or insurance, having these technology skills will open the door for you.
Q. You’ve said before that you felt completely incompetent and kept on making mistakes when you were starting out with Detective Dot – why?
A. I’ve always thought that everyone else knows what they’re doing. But the truth is it’s impossible to know what you’re doing when you’re making something new or doing something for the first time. And the process of learning is not doing something right over, and over again… until you figure it out!