We sat down with Amanda McCusker of Ladies Learning Code to talk about her path to becoming a maker, her current role empowering youth in Toronto, and her plans for the future! Let’s dive in!

Hi Amanda! Let’s talk about you.

I would describe myself as a maker mostly because I just really like making things. I like making food, sewing, and building websites. I think I may even enjoy the process of learning how to make something more than the end result. I think it’s the empowerment of acquiring new skills and learning something new that draws me in.

When I first went to university out of high school I was taking Gender and Cultural Studies. I was writing papers and the thought of putting that much effort into something that no on else is ever going to see wasn’t working out so well. I decided to leave and went into carpentry. I love furniture, especially the design aspect of it. Unfortunately, I got really sick with mono, and had to leave carpentry school; but the following year I went into OCAD for Material Art and Design with a specialization in fiber.

The summer before carpentry school I had bought myself a sewing machine and decided I was finally going to learn how to sew. I taught myself throughout the summer and made bags for people, sewed pillows – that kind of stuff. I learned how much I truly love fabric and that’s what brought me into going into textiles at OCAD.

What about your experiences at OCAD developed your current making process?

Going in to university I had this foundation of thoughts and ideas, but being challenged to find new mediums to express them in was the best part of being at OCAD. For me I think that’s what it is to be a maker, having an idea and then finding a way to express it outside of your typical medium.

I see you went to Designskolen Kolding in Denmark – tell me more about that experience.

One of the biggest impacts for me as a maker or designer was going abroad for exchange and learning a different way of recording process and the importance of doing so. It wasn’t until I was away that I realized that how you work through your idea, record your samplings and subsequently catalogue everything you’re doing is the most important thing about your creative process.

My experience abroad also really drove me in a different direction for my thesis; I ended up working mostly in plastics. Plastic is such a strange material given that it’s a petroleum product but has so many of the qualities of other materials. Liquid acrylic can make anything look precious or kept in a forever state, which I found really interesting.

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My thesis was cast acrylic with embedded cheesecloth. I dyed hundreds of samples in different materials; I tried dying wood shavings, hemps and silks but settled on cotton cheesecloth because it was the most open of all the fabrics. I was trying to create a new expression of a colour tool that would be for 3D designers, that would mimic the experience of colour and play with light and shadow so there would still be that tension and depth of the colour.

Did you always consider yourself a maker?

Oh my gosh no! But when I look back I realize that when I was as a kid, I would take boxes and create dollhouses with them. In grade one I used to love to cut up felt and make characters and tell stories. I went through a huge puppet-making phase around the third grade. That said, as I got older, telling stories through making just wasn’t as encouraged and I started to moderate myself.

I was never a pure artist in a classical sense but I guess I have always been a maker; I just dropped it out of my life for a long time. Food’s always been really important to me; baking and cooking have always been my biggest making release. I keep a really well stocked cupboard of spices.

You’ve been working as the Youth Program Coordinator at Ladies Learning Code. How has this summer been so far?

It’s been pretty awesome. I started in mid-April and I’ve been able to learn the process of how we teach and engage youth. We’re a learning environment, not a school and that’s a really important distinction because we want kids to feel really empowered and passionate about making stuff.

The mandate of the organization is to help kids become creators and makers of technology, not just consumers. What’s cool about my job is that it requires me to tap into a ton of different skillsets at the same time. I went back to school a year ago after working as a rug designer in order to acquire skills in front-end development, 3D modeling and motion graphics. Now, with LLC, I get to make websites and teach kids how to make websites, which is the coolest! When kids walk away after learning how to make something on the Internet, they develop such a sense of self-confidence and are excited to go home and do more. We use open source software and a lot of it is browser based, so they can continue to learn even after the program ends.

What’s your favourite moment with Kids Learning Code been so far?

Last week we had an entrepreneurship camp with Girls Learning Code and it really blew my mind. There were 8 teams of 5; all girls, 8-13 and they all came up with their own company. The week was made up of different workshops including: building revenue models, building a marketing plan, strategizing how your product will benefit the world. It was so amazing to watch them go through the program and, at the end, to see a 9 year old talking about their plan for revenue and confidently speaking about business skills was so inspiring.

I love what LLC is doing to support women, of all ages, who are interested in getting involved in the tech world. I don’t necessarily think every woman needs to become a programmer, but there are so many opportunities for women in tech and getting these young girls excited to be the CEO’s or co-founders of their own startup is pretty amazing.

What does your process look like when approach a new project?

I do a lot of thinking before I start a new project. I actually read this article at OCAD about the difference between someone who is a procrastinator versus an incubator. It said that a lot of creative people incubate ideas, it just seems like they’re procrastinating because to the outside world it doesn’t appear like they are physically doing anything. I feel like that’s me.

I tend to write out thoughts more than I sketch them. Then I start to work out what materials I want to use and I love going to hardware stores or fabric stores for inspiration and to see what’s out there as a possibility.

What projects are you thinking about for the future?

Currently, the biggest thing I have on my mind is using CSS and HTML to create things on the web in more of a drawing context. In addition to my courses during my postgrad I was really focused on learning to draw with CSS and HTML. I’m interested in developing with animations in JavaScript and jQuery and making dynamic sites that are accessible to people who don’t necessarily make things on the web but have a passion for other forms, namely textiles.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Just that I am so grateful to work with such a wonderful team of people. There are just six of us and we’re all women, which is pretty great! I work in a company where everyone trusts each other and that is really hard to find.

I think it’s really important for women to remember that other women are just as awesome as they are. Its not just women in tech, women in design, and creative practices need to remember to respect and help each other. There’s still so much work to be done on gender equality for both sexes but I can’t stress how important it is in my experience that women be kind to other women.

Learn more about Amanda through her website or give her a follow on Twitter and find out more about Ladies Learning Code initiatives.

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