In her spare time, Beverley Newing, the Spring/Summer Intern at Code First: Girls volunteers with Three Rings CIC, a tech start-up and volunteer management system.
She recently interviewed Ruth Varley, the Managing Director of Three Rings, to ask her a few questions about the huge role she played in the creation of this system, and what she does now.
"Hi Ruth, so who are you and what do you do?"
R: My name is Ruth Trevor-Allen. While I was still a student I became the Managing Director of Three Rings (there were only two of us in those days so the title didn’t mean much but we had to put someone down on the form when we created the company!). Three Rings is run by volunteers, including myself, so I have a day job as well, working for Oxford Brookes University as a Solutions Architect responsible for a team of developers and analysts working on a range of strategic projects.
B: Tell us a bit about Three Rings - what is it and who uses it?
R: Three Rings is an online volunteer management system for charities and voluntary organisations. It’s entirely web-based and includes a rota management system, news and events, comms by email or SMS, and a secure filestore. We work with nearly 300 non-profit organisations, supporting almost 25,000 volunteers. Our clients include everyone from household-name charities like the Samaritans, Macmillan and Childline, to small student helplines.
B: What was the inspiration for it?
R: It came out of our own experience as volunteers, specifically at Aberystwyth Nightline, our student helpline. Back when the first version of Three Rings was written, they were still using pens and paper to organise their volunteering. Dan, who wrote the original incarnation of Three Rings single-handed, was studying computing and wanted to put the whole thing online to save time and effort. It was a very forward-thinking idea in 2002!
B: Who develops Three Rings, and what programming languages does it involve?
R: The original version of Three Rings was written in PHP, with a flat-file based storage system. In 2006 we rebuilt from the ground up in what was then a cutting-edge technology, Ruby on Rails. Three Rings is still written in Ruby, and still uses the Rails web framework. We also use various other technologies, including jQuery, Coffee, and SASS.
Dan, the original author of Three Rings, heads up our development team as Technical Lead. In addition to him, we have a team of seven volunteer developers, myself included - so far there hasn't been a single update that didn't include something I'd written even if some of them were finished at very much the last minute (and on one occasion, while I was in the early stages of labour!).
B: I know that you were one of the founders of Three Rings– could you tell us a bit more about your role in it's growth and development?
R: Shortly after I joined, we made contact with our first Samaritans region, which lead to the first ever paying Three Rings clients and the heady day when we no longer had to pay the server bill out of our own pockets! In those early days, I worked hard to put the company on a more professional footing. This included introducing a rota for tech support and a target response time of 24 hours, a huge amount of work on improving the testing of the system, and expanding it from its very focused early design to something more flexible.
For my Masters year, I had to choose a topic for a dissertation project which was expected to take up a large portion of my time. Rather than try and cram Three Rings work around another substantial project, I chose “Three Rings: Streamlining Administration for Samaritans”. I can remember sketching out a significant piece of design which we still use today (treating organisations as a tree, so one org can be the parent of another - important for Samaritans who are organised into regions, some of which have their own accounts with us) on the back of a program at a conference.
B: What advice would you offer to women who are looking to start a career in tech, or who want to create their own start-up?
R: It’s an open secret in the tech world that we all depend on research to answer most of our problems. I fix things by myself quite often, but only after I’ve trawled the Web to see if anyone else already found the answer! Don’t be ashamed of looking for help, we all do it.
If you’re planning on building something new, start with a very clear idea of the problem you’re trying to solve and what it is about your solution that’s special. I love the Lean Startup methodology (http://theleanstartup.com/), getting early and continuous feedback from your intended users is just about the best way I know of checking that you’re building something useful and that you’re building it right.
There are more men than women working in this area, it’s true, but I’ve never encountered prejudice or discrimination, either against myself or others. The tech world of today is a fascinating and vibrant place full of wonderful opportunities, and the only thing you need to join us is ability and passion.
B: Thanks for your time, it's been great to hear more about Three Rings!
Code First: Girls