At just 15-years-old, Lili Názer can already be described as a veteran developer, having created several smartphone applications and games. Originally wanting to be a doctor, she found her calling in programming, and is now mentoring other girls that are interested in IT, during occasions such as Microsoft's DigiGirlz events.
The purpose of the DigiGirlz initiative is to introduce young girls to the world of programming and software development, while inspiring them to pursue their passion for technology. This is particularly crucial, given that research has shown that young girls in Europe tend to disengage from science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects by the age of 15, due to numerous factors such as the lack of role models in these fields.
We were fortunate enough to chat to Lili before the DigiGirlz event kicked off, to see what inspires her, drives her forward, and what her future will hold.
When did your interest in programming begin?
It happened accidentally. A few years ago, I couldn't register for any summer camps for numerous reasons. Then, at the beginning of summer, most camps were already full up, so the only one I could still go to was a robotics camp. Before that I hadn't even heard about such a thing, so that was the first time I came into contact with programming.
It looks like you enjoyed it!
Yes I did. After it was over, I looked for similar opportunities, so in 2016 I attended the first session of the coding training Skoolprogram, where I met my current mentor. At that time I had been preparing for a completely different career, and wanted to be a surgeon or medical researcher. Then I started to get interested in languages, and I thought I wanted to work as an interpreter. Programming opened my eyes. I realised that through it, I could become involved in practically any industry or profession. This opened up a whole range of new fields and opportunities for me.
What were some of your first creations?
I developed my first simple game when I was 11, and then I wrote my first application for the UPC Future Makers competition, about two years ago. That's the Daily Take Me application, a family organiser that helps you plan your schedule, where family members can see where they have to go and when - who is picking up the children from school and other similar things.
Studies show that girls of your age are generally not in STEM careers, perhaps because they feel, or are told, it's not the right choice. Have you come across these attitudes at all?
I have, but luckily people didn't try to talk me out of it. On the other hand, it was precisely in connection with the Daily Take Me app that media articles kept referring to me as some kind of 'wonder girl' who develops apps. But I don't really identify with that, because there's nothing so special about it. My little sister collects erasers, and I develop apps - that's all there is to it. There's nothing about it that would make it unsuitable for girls.
There is a misconception about programming though: many people think that it's only something for maths geniuses. This just isn't true. Of course, there are parts where you need maths, but it's really just another kind of language, so if you are creative with languages and have a sensitivity for them, programming won't be a problem either. I go to special maths classes at school, but now I am also planning to specialise in languages. It needs a lot of organising, but I like it when I have a lot to do. The only problem is that we don't have enough IT classes.
What programming languages do you work with?
You said you are competitive. Have entered competitions?
Yes, I won the Future Makers competition in my age group in Hungary, and qualified to the international finals in Dublin. After that I developed an app called Granny's Pills, a virtual medicine box which I submitted to the Technovation competition for girls. I got to the semifinals, but I wasn't able to reach the finals in America unfortunately, but that didn't discourage me. I'm in a team that's competing this year too, and we are now putting the finishing touches to SmilingTooth, the app we're submitting there. Two years later I was actually asked to be a jury member in the Future Makers contest, and it was very interesting to see things from the other side.
Tell us a little about these two apps.
Granny's Pill helps if grandma or grandpa forgets to take their medicine. You can set the types and number of medicines you have to take, and the app sends a reminder, which also includes a photo of the medicine, so you can avoid accidentally taking the wrong tablet. You can also set the contact information of a family member who receives a message too, even if they have taken their medicine and forgotten about it. SmilingTooth is an application that helps small children brush their teeth in a playful way.
There's a pattern in the functionality of these apps. Was this a conscious thing?
Yes, absolutely. I usually look for solutions to community or social problems. I have a soft spot for aiding the elderly and solving the problems that affect them, but I also feel that it's important to take action against food waste. We even deal with subjects like selective waste collection and climate change, because these will be my generation's problems entirely. We will be living in it.
SmilingTooth is still under development, but Granny's Pills is already available. What happened to this app in the end?
Thanks to a Microsoft project last summer, I took part in a week-long event in Athens where everything was about artificial intelligence. There were 100 girls there, from 10 countries. During the day we went to lectures and workshops, but we also had time to network and make friends. It was a great experience. There was a challenge on the last day - we had to program things such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition software and a chat robot. We all then became Microsoft Artificial Intelligence Ambassadors.
What does that entail?
For starters, I talked about my experiences at DigiGirlz in April, and also helped the participants. I have also mentored Technical University students at Prezi.
You're mentoring technical university students?
Yes, they were a bit surprised, but they were open too, they asked lots of questions, even about things that I hadn't done yet, but we solved problems together. I have even been shadowing at Prezi, which lets me observe the specialists there at work.
Artificial intelligence is a very active field. Would you like to work with it in future?
Yes, it is really interesting. I've read a lot about it, and I've even listened to several podcasts. I think we are only scratching the surface of the possibilities that lie within artificial intelligence, but this is what makes so exciting. It is a constantly developing field, so I may be doing something that does not even exist yet today. I also want to keep on developing apps, and I think mixed reality is also very interesting. However, I find AI extremely exciting, mainly because a few years ago we didn't even know that it would exist, and it is now opening doors to things that are completely astounding. For example, I heard about an AI in a podcast that collects information from brain cells.
Have you received offers from IT companies?
I've had a couple of offers. For example, people from Oracle Young Talent contacted as a result of an article in NLCafé, saying they would support me, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them. I was also once able to meet the Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, when he was visiting Hungary.
What was that like?
An event was organised for the Skool participants at the Technical University. We were developing a small game, and he simply walked in and sat down next to me. I was able to talk to him, but I was still shy! I told him about the Daily Take Me app, which really caught his attention. He is an amazingly charismatic person.
Would you like to work for Microsoft?
Of course, if things go that way, but I am not there yet! I would like to try myself out in companies here in Hungary, and I hope I'll be able to gain experience abroad too. It would be really good to attend more workshops and events so that I can develop more.
How much time do you spend in front of the computer?
It depends on what time I get home. I am an official competitor in the UTE fencing division where I compete with the foil. This means several hours of practice a day. I owe my coach Gábor Kreiss a lot for his supportive attitude, and he accepts that programming is also a part of my life. It is difficult for people in competitive sports to get balance their lives. After training, I usually spend one or two hours coding every day, and all of my other activities take about four hours. This includes studying, and we have to write and submit a lot of things online.
What advice would you give to girls who are interested in the STEM subjects, but have possibly come up against negative stereotypes and rejections?
I know many girls who, if they are told something is 'not for them', would make it theirs just to prove people wrong. The point is that you should believe in yourself, believe that you are capable, irrespective of gender, and you shouldn't let other people's opinion have a negative effect on it. But it is important to hear the positive messages, which the incubator programs can help a lot with, just like Skool, company events, and DigiGirlz too. I also think that balance is very important. I don't stay in my room all the time - I try to make sure that my everyday life is balanced.
Tags: Girls in STEM