Anyone Can Learn to Program: 9 Questions with Pála Ögn Stefánsdóttir

Published: May 29, 2024

Updated: May 29, 2024

How to build your own course, survive it, and be the representation that you wish to see in the world.

Note from the Interviewers

As a researcher, I make a constant effort to be aware of my biases. With that in mind, I can confidently say that every day we make great things happen at Gangverk, and it’s only possible because of the people who do the work, and the ways that they continuously expand their knowledge.

This interview with Pála Ögn Stefánsdóttir is our first attempt at trying to capture one of these curious stories, as it has always been my belief that everything you do feeds into your own toolkit. Pála taught her first university course in Spain this past autumn, and I loved learning about how she did it. It’s a good reminder that all brains work differently, there’s always a way to learn, and if given the chance- your experiences can always help someone else.

-Taylor van Biljon

Who are you and what do you do?

“I'm Pála Ögn and I work at Gangverk as a software developer. I have been working at Gangverk for the past 3 years. The first 2 years I was working for our client Sotheby's and currently, I’m working in a team that works for our client Play Airlines.”

Do you have a specialty, area of expertise, or favorite programming language?

“I have a degree in Computer Science. Today I work as a front-end developer and I mainly work with Typescript and React.”

Pála Ögn Stefánsdóttir

You taught a course at Harbour.Space University Barcelona this November. How did it happen?

“I was just having a normal work day at the start of October when my coworker came and asked me if I would be interested in going to Barcelona for three weeks at the start of November, to teach the course Programming Interactivity II at Harbour.Space University.

The weekend before I had just ripped down a wall in my apartment and was going into big renovations that I had planned to do for some time. But I decided to put it on hold and take the project on to go to Barcelona to teach.

Initially when I said yes, I thought that I was going to be teaching existing material. But then I went for a meeting with Svetlana Velikanova (co-founder and CEO of Harbour.Space). 

Svetlana asked me, “What do you want to teach?” 

That was a hard question but at the same time it also gave me a lot of freedom. I could teach what I had passion for teaching, which was super fun.”

Harbour.Space University

Ok, you’ve got a topic. How did you get started?

“Yeah well, that was what I needed to figure out.

So the last course, three weeks prior, I got the theme from that. The goal of my course was to continue that course and to prepare students so that they were prepared for the next courses while teaching the topic of Programming Interactivity.

I didn’t know a lot about where my students stood before I started teaching and in the end I got quite a mixed group with different specialties. I got students that were studying Interactive Design and students from Computer Science. It was actually quite tricky.”

I went back and thought, “Okay, when I was in university what did I want to learn? What were the courses that helped me to come to that place?” 

I remember that often small things could complicate the basics for me. At the start, basic programming is hard to grasp once you also add a bowtie and gift wrapping on top of it (additional frameworks and libraries). So I wanted to keep us in the basics and just get that solid. 

I decided to take the approach to teach students Programming Interactivity by using just Vanilla Javascript. That means just using javascript, html and css. That way we could focus on just what we wanted to practice, which was basic programming and getting the hang of javascript while creating interactive web applications. 

I decided to make the course quite project based, so for the first 2 weeks I gave the students new projects each day that contained a new topic to learn.

In the final week we combined everything we learned into one project. I gave the students freedom to do their own project but I gave a skeleton by giving certain milestones that needed to exist and then students could bring in their ideas.

The biggest part of that project was also the concept of starting and finishing a project, as that is also something students and professionals have a hard time doing. Starting something, deciding what to do and what time there is to do it in, and then finishing in the timeframe given. 

I gave my students tools to do this, and asked them to plan their time and create a final product. I gave them a frame, but allowed them the freedom to be able to create their ideas. I got students creating pages for actual use cases, they created CV pages, their own webshops, multiplayer drawing applications, games, a recipe randomizer, a menu page for a friend's restaurant, and so on.

I was really amazed by the projects I saw the students from Harbour.Space create, they had such a drive to create!”

Planning a course is one thing, but what was it like to manage that and plan for students from different discipline backgrounds?

“The students were coming from interactive design and the computer science department so that's why some people had no prior knowledge of programming, and some people did have some prior knowledge. It was quite tricky. I wanted to concentrate on teaching the basics to the students who had not done a lot of programming while also wanting all students to feel engaged. 

I tackled this by having project-based courses, where I gave students projects that contained leading steps on how to create the basics, and then I tried to give students ideas on how to iterate and add more to their projects. I also tried to give students the freedom to implement ideas that came to their minds.

It was interesting to see the different groups and how they thought differently, like when we were creating something. There were some projects where I saw students from computer science getting stuck on creating over complicated tasks that blocked the whole project- as they forgot to sit down and plan and prioritize, (first get the MVP up and then add to it.) And at the same time I saw designers sitting down and planning everything first and then getting stuck on how to actually make it happen.”

What surprised you about teaching? 

“I felt like I saw a different dimension of teaching by actually being the teacher. 

I thought it was hard to balance the teaching. I was there to help people learn new things and to support and empower students. So it was hard to balance the path of keeping to my teaching schedule and allowing students to have the freedom to do what they wanted and were interested in. 

I tried to move my schedule around this and to always allow students to learn. My main goal was that they were learning something new.”

After teaching, do you feel like you’ll be able to help or mentor your colleagues better?

“Yeah I definitely learned a lot of patience from this experience. 

I also learned that I don't need to have the answers to everything. That was my biggest worry at the start, what if I get questions I can’t answer? But then I realized I don't have to have all the answers. It's also about being able to point students in the right direction to find their own answers. (And most of the time, you also have the answers if you are teaching the work you do every day.)”

"I think everyone can learn anything they are interested in; we just have different methods of learning."-Pála Ögn Stefánsdóttir

Why did you do it?

“I thought this would be interesting to try. I don’t often say no to new opportunities. I thought it would be a cool opportunity to teach at Harbour.Space University, dust off my Spanish and spend 3 weeks in Barcelona.”

Would you teach again?

“Yes, I think I would. It does take a lot of effort though and I need to give myself time for it. But I did learn a lot from it.

In this course, I realized that I have a passion for teaching people programming. Especially the people who at the start thought they could not learn programming. I enjoyed showing students that they can learn everything they want, we all just learn differently.

I think everyone can learn anything they are interested in; we just have different methods of learning.”

Get in Touch

If you’re interested in learning more about Pála or Gangverk and the incredible thought leaders we have here, feel free to contact us. We'd love to hear from you!



Taylor Garcia van Biljon

UX Researcher



Anna Kristín Hálfdánardóttir


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