From Indian towns to the global stage, meet two women iOS developers who are ruling App Store
"If you want to do it, you learn and grow by doing it." That is the motto of Sivareena Sarika, the brain behind incredibly popular PregBuddy app. You can say that apart from being an ace developer, she is also someone who has been able to smash through the glass ceiling that is the male-dominated developer industry, and has been able to rewrite the rules that govern what women developers and programmers can do or not do, particularly in India.
"You learn and grow by doing it." Shilpa Bhat, a vice president at 99Games, doesn't describe her journey with these words. But her journey is no less impressive than the one made by any other successful developer, man or woman, something that she has demonstrated with apps, including Star Chef, her team has created.
There are countless popular apps on both iOS App Store and the Google Play Store. But most of these have been created by men, or developers that are part of the companies founded by men. Yet in a world dominated by frat boys, there are a handful of women developers who are writing their own stories, breaking stereotypes and creating their own rules. And in the process, they are creating apps that only a woman, with her sensibilities, her intuition, with her unique insight into the life that half of this world's population lives, can create.
PregBuddy and Star Chef are such apps. No, this is not because they are about topics that some would associate with women, but because these are the kind of apps that require a sort finesse, a bit of empathy and a take that only women can bring to the table because of their experiences.
Then there is the simple fact: Women are simply better at some of the crucial skills. "Some of the natural traits of women - being good at multi-tasking, innate compassion, and intuition does help," Shilpa tells the India Today Tech. To this adds Maya, who works with Sivareena, "I feel women bring in empathy to the product. They draw more from their experiences, emotions while building solutions which leads to innovative products."
A problem has a solution
Sivareena, who holds a graduate degree from IIT Kharagpur, was working with Furlenco when her eldest cousin went through a miscarriage. It was a period of emotional trauma for her entire family. "I wanted to help her in some way. I looked around and I saw that were surrounded by technology but that technology was on no help to my cousin at such crucial period," says Sivareena.
In a bid to help her cousin and other expecting mothers in the country, Sarika started connecting with mothers and expecting mothers over a WhatsApp group. She asked questions, she listened to them and after four months of conversations, Sivareena, along with her team, started working on the development of an app that would cater to the unique requirements of new and expecting mothers.
Soon after, the PregBuddy app was launched. Sivareena describes it as an "emotional reassurance peer-to-peer platform" that can help mothers connect with one another and lean on each other for support, and more importantly valuable advice. The app gained popularity and within a year, over 30,000 people across the world were using it.
For, Shilpa, who holds a degree from Manipal University, the beginning was different. She was already working with Robosoft, a software development company based in the town of Udupi in Karnataka, as a game developer when the company decided to expand its operations in 2008 and setup 99Games to develop games, specially for the iOS. "With my interest and experience in game development, I naturally transitioned to 99Games as Senior Project Manager to develop our IP games," Bhat told the India Today Tech.
"After a year of brief hustle with puzzle games, we quickly realized this wasn't our path to compete in the global industry," says Shilpa. Something different was needed. Shilpa says that this "led to the conceptualization of our first hit cooking simulation title: Star Chef."
"Being a cooking enthusiast myself, I thoroughly enjoyed leading production of this game," she says. With her inputs, drive and managerial skills being key factors behind the success of Star Chef, Shilpa's role at the company grew.
Challenges in a world of men
For Sivareena, who following her year-and-a-half long stint with Furlenco was venturing into the entrepreneurial territory, things were not just different but far more challenging. Sivareena was "out of her comfort zone". Apart from finding the right mix of people "who would help us out with the entire product and the business and sales part of it", Sivareena and her team also faced challenges while going to the market.
"When we went to market with the product, because this product was built for women, or in other words for a niche, men never understood it. So whenever we used to do a product testing, even with our friends, we saw a lot of resistance from men for this product. We were hoping to add some features for expecting dads but men wouldn't even sign up to test them. That was kind of a big shock to us," she says.
Of late, it has changed a bit. Apple has started offering some special help to women developers. after seeing that female entrepreneurs "face challenges obtaining funding, training and support in the VC landscape - receiving $1.9 billion in funding in 2017 compared to $83.1 billion for men" Apple has started a program to encourage women developers. "Despite obstacles, women-owned businesses are growing more than two times faster than the US national average, with women-led tech startups delivering a 35 per cent higher return on investment than tech startups led by men," Apple said last year while it announced Entrepreneur Camp.
"Apple is committed to helping more women assume leadership roles across the tech sector and beyond," said Tim Cook, Apple's CEO. "We're proud to help cultivate female leadership in the app development community with the new Apple Entrepreneur Camp, and we're inspired both by the incredible work that's already happening, and what's sure to come."
But it goes without saying that it is the hard work and perseverance of women that finally bring them rewards. PregBuddy has been awarded by Commerce and Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu and Akshay Kumar, whereas apps developed by 99Games have been recognised by NASSCOM, IAMAI and FICCI among others. Star Chef has been downloaded 20 million times globally and PregBuddy has become the first maternal health app globally that allows an expecting mother to log her vitals and symptoms right from her Apple Watch and talk to Siri.
Miles to go
Shilpa and Sivareena are two successful developers. But the industry is dominated by "tech bros". The metal and glass offices in Silicon Valley, or for that matter in Gurugram and Bengaluru, are full of men, young and old alike who dominate the IT industry. This despite the fact that there are areas where the whole world of apps, or rather the world personal technology, can do more with the insight that only women can bring. We have heard in the last few months that "tech has turned toxic." We have heard of problems with privacy in the world of apps and tech. We have heard trolls are running amok on websites like Facebook and Twitter, all because these are the services design by people who probably don't understand the sense and sensibilities of the world outside Silicon Valley.
May be women developers can help. Both Sivareena and Shilpa believe that women do have a creative edge over men in the industry. Yet, both acknowledge that there are fewer women at leadership positions in the tech and programming industry. Bhat blames the "social pressures and cultural reasons" for this trend. Maya says that it is message -- by men for the men -- is at fault.
"There are few women leaders in the IT industry, and even fewer in game development... It can be largely credited to social pressures and cultural reasons. I have seen some very talented women succumbing to social or family pressures and not making it to leadership roles," says Bhat.
"Advertisers decided to market the computer and subsequent computer games to a male audience in the 1980s. This resulted in a generation of girls being told technology is for boys," explains Maya.
The two female leaders, Shilpa and Sivareena, also believe that while Indian women developers do have it more difficult than others in the industry. But times are changing, they believe.
"While the women tech graduate ratio is healthy in India, there is low awareness among women regarding a career in gaming compared to the West. And once they enter the industry, be it tech or gaming in particular, women in India generally face challenges that are unique to Indian women," says Bhat.
Sivareena talks of perception that needs to change. "Women are perceived less independent in India as compared to West. Hence the perception that women in technology will find it harder to maintain a work-life balance. But with the trend shifting, I see a lot more adaptability in offices," she says.
It is also imperative for women to push forward. As they march forward in life, aiming to be the best, the women developers have one piece of advice to share with budding women developers - if you want to do, do it.
"If programming or game development is your passion, go for it, pour your heart and soul into it. Your life will thrive and become a fun and satisfying journey. For talented, passionate and committed women, any industry is inclusive and gaming is no exception," says Bhat.
"I would urge them to not shy away from choosing technology as their field because someone said it's not for them. If you want to do it, you learn and grow by doing it," says Sivareena.