Chances are, 11-year-old programmer Mari Machaidze is growing up in a pretty different world than you and me. It might even be a better world, ingrained with the idea that programming is just another skill to be mastered through persistence — with or without a Y chromosome.
If you were to tell Mari that girls don’t look like engineers, women can’t code as well as men, or women aren’t as competitive as men, she’d raise a skeptical eyebrow.
Mari can instinctively point to not one, but two sisters who would prove you wrong. Eighteen-year-old Elene Machaidze and her sixteen-year-old sister, Ani, routinely participate in coding competitions where they outperform thousands of men. Their home is decorated with medals from prestigious programming tournaments, like the International Olympiads in Informatics (IOI).
The three sisters live in Georgia, a European country with a population equal to just 11% of the state of California. They’ve gained quite a bit of local fame for coding circles around their opponents. They’re born into a household that’s worked hard to fabricate a more equal world, with supportive parents, teachers and mentors who instilled confidence in them at an early age.
Thanks to her eldest sister, Elene, who first lit up the path to programming, Mari and Ani have a strong, successful role model and mentor to guide them through the male-dominated field.
We sat down with Elene to learn more about their story and how they achieved so much at such a young age.
So how long have you all been coding?
Mari just started learning programming last year. Ani has been coding for four or five years now, and I started coding when I was in sixth grade. I joined a programming club called Mzuiri. I just graduated from Komarovi school, which focuses on math, physics and computer science. Ani is going there now, and Mari will go there next year.
What drew you all to coding?
Our parents actually went to Komarovi school too. My dad is a programmer, and he works at a bank as a security analyst. We were exposed to math and computer science at a very early age, and we all love coding and participating in contests just for fun. I do want to major in computer science, and eventually work as a programmer like my dad.
How many programming contests have you competed in? And how many medals have you won?
I’ve participated in tons of contests and olympiads. But the most significant ones were:
There were more too. I’ve won 2 bronze medals at IOI, 1 bronze at CEOI, 2 silvers at IZhO. Mari, Ani and I competed in HackerRank Women’s Cup as a team last year, and we ranked third place! Some companies that sponsored the event even sent us a letter after the contest, but I had to tell them that we’re too young right now to work for them.
I might call them when I’m a student or graduated. I’m applying to colleges. I took a gap year after high school, and I was actually teaching programming to 7th to 9th graders. I often point my students to HackerRank challenges to learn how to code. It’s a great tool to supplement learning in a very hands-on way. I love how the problems are arranged on the platform. I’ve been using it for years, back when it was first called Interview Street.
Wow, that’s incredible. You’re getting job opportunities before college! And even 11-year-old Mari joined the contest?
Yeah, Women’s Cup was one of her first contests.
We all worked together as a team. I did most of the coding, but Mari and Ani helped me think through the problems.
It was a lot of fun, and we were really surprised we won 3rd place. It was an awesome feeling.
How many programming languages do you know? What is your specialty?
It’s funny, I actually started coding in Pascal in 6th grade. It’s such a useless language today, but that’s how I started. Then, I learned C++ and I’ve been coding in C++ ever since. More recently, I’ve been learning Python as well.
Do you ever feel like you’re treated differently in forums, discussions or by men in general? Do you feel like you have to prove yourself more so?
Some boys definitely think that they’re better than me just because I’m a girl. I might have felt bad about that years ago, but I don’t feel that way today. I’ve participated in many olympiads and competitions.
And even though there are many more boys than girls, I was one of the first few girls on the Georgian team in IOI and I was the second Georgian girl to win a medal.
The boys don’t say anything anymore. Generally, women are strong and I think more women should code.
Yes, we agree. And how do your sisters feel being one of the few female programmers? What advice do you give other girls who want to be great at solving coding challenges like you?
For coding challenges, like the upcoming Women’s CodeSprint, remember that if you get stuck, try to think outside of the box. I like to remember the 9 dots puzzle because it’s a great example of thinking differently.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, the 9 dot puzzle requires you to connect 9 dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines that pass through each of the 9 dots without lifting your pen. Most people think to connect the boundaries, which makes the puzzle seemingly impossible. The only way you can solve this is by drawing the lines outside of the square. Hence, thinking outside of the box.
Anyone can code well if they work hard and are willing to open their minds to solving problems differently.
As for my sisters, if a guy says girls can’t code as well as guys, then my sisters just say “well, my sister wins competitions.” Anytime anyone says you can’t code, it’s all the more reason to roll up your sleeves and work hard. Remember, if you work hard, you can achieve anything and prove them all wrong.
Want to practice and show off your coding skills like Elene?
Join thousands of women worldwide to participate in Women’s CodeSprint April 22nd, 2016.