04/02/12 | Uncategorized

Interviews With Women Teaching Women Coding

Talking with Girl Develop It, Ladies Learning Code, Web Start Women and Startlucks.
By Jennifer Lindner (Organizer, RailsBridge & Freelance Open Source Developer)

There’s a rapidly growing movement of women teaching women technology skills: all over the Americas, self-starting organizations are running hands-on classes to huge success. Girl Develop It, Ladies Learning Code and Web Start Women are all great examples of startup-savvy applied to gender in technology.

Here are some excerpts from a series of interviews with each of these organizations. Although in very different locations, all report similar experiences with breaking down fears about technology, building confidence, support from their local technology community, and the success of hands-on teaching techniques.

Girl Develop It

Founded in 2010 in New York by Sara Chipps and Vanessa Hurst, Girl Develop It has expanded to Austin, Columbus and Philadelphia – and even beyond the States to Ottawa, Canada and Sydney, Australia.

Which of Girl Develop It’s (GDI) teaching techniques do you think work best?

Our emphasis on making the space non-intimidating. Just by saying that over and over, it encourages questions students may otherwise be afraid to voice.

What informs GDI’s choices in curriculum – is marketability or ease of learning or merits of the technologies themselves?

Our main aim is to encourage women to program, so our curriculum is mostly based around laying the proper foundation to support future learning. We are very open with our students and have an ongoing dialog about their needs. We want our classes to empower students and equip them to face technological challenges in their careers and lives.

What advice would you give on teaching to others who would like to do this themselves?

The first issue you have to address is never about the language. Not “What is a variable?” or “What does a for loop do?” The first issue you have to address is making sure each person in the room believes that they are capable of learning everything you are about to tell them. From your curriculum, to your slides, to your attitude – create a class that builds confidence at every step.

Ladies Learning Code

Heather Payne founded Ladies Learning Code in June 2011 with a single tweet.

What motivated you to start this, and how difficult or easy was it to get off the ground?

I started Ladies Learning Code by accident. I was eager to learn some programming skills, and after attending the first-ever PyLadies workshop while I was in Los Angeles on business, I tried to find a similar group in Toronto upon my return home. I was surprised when I didn’t find anything, so I wrote a blog post about how Toronto needs a group for women who want to learn beginner-friendly programming skills and tweeted it out. I started receiving emails, and 85 people ended up signing up for the first event. I was blown away.

Do you see a strong crossover in women who want to learn technology and women who want to start their own technology-fueled businesses, or are those more likely to be different camps?

We’re finding that there are a lot of reasons why women (and men) want to attend Ladies Learning Code workshops. For many of them, it’s curiosity. In general, our participants are super tech-savvy, and they want to learn more about the technologies they use every day. Some people definitely attend because they want to have a startup one day (or next week!), but some attend just because they want to be better at their job. Some are looking to upgrade their skills and add something new to their resume. And there is definitely a number of people who come because they work with developers, and they want to be able to do a better job communicating with them.

As for our teaching technique choices, the key, I think, is our 4:1 student-to-instructor ratio. Four participants sit at a table with a developer and they work together throughout the day. It’s more fun, because it gives everyone a chance to get to know each other. It makes for a better learning experience for the participants too, because the developer can offer challenges to participants who are catching on quickly, and offer more help to those who need it.

What advice would you give on teaching to others who would like to do this themselves?

The biggest piece of advice I would give to someone who wants to start a group like Ladies Learning Code in their city is to think community first. By bringing together a group of like-minded people and asking them what an organization for women who want to learn to code should look like (and even giving them markers and big pads of paper and having them breakout into groups and tackle different pieces of the puzzle), we got a better sense of what to build, but also brought together a group of people who cared about it and wanted to see it come to fruition.

Web Start Women

Nicole Noll is a College Fellow at Harvard who teaches Attitudes & Advertising, and Susan Buck is a lecturer on Web Design at University of Pennsylvania – and together they founded Web Start Women, teaching coding and helping incubate technology startups for women.

Do you see any social/cultural changes in your larger tech community resulting from Web Start Women’s (WSW) work? Is it any more comfortable for women, and/or for men (or not)? Is there a more visible presence of women?

The tech community we’re most connected to is Philly, so this answer speaks to the tech community there. We have absolutely seen positive developments in the time since we started Web Start Women. Though we’d love to chalk it up to the work we’ve done, being a scientist, I have to point out that these are correlational data from which we can’t infer causation. WSW has really been our introduction to Philly’s tech community–Susan is a recent transplant to the area and I was wrapped up in academia.

From our perspective, it seems like the energy behind women-focused tech groups hit critical mass early this year and just took off. WSW is a part of that wave and (we like to believe) a force for positive change. In addition to Web Start Women, Philly now has a very active Girl Geek Dinners chapter, a women’s Python group, and several other organizations that are focused on getting women into the tech field.

From talking with people who’ve been in the community for years, we’ve learned that there’s been sustained effort toward growing all areas of tech (by/for both women and men). What we think is really cool about Philly is that the explosion of women’s tech groups seems to be coinciding with a major growth spurt in the tech community overall.

This is a fabulous opportunity for Philadelphia as a city to develop as a tech hub that is very female-friendly, because women are getting in on the ground floor. Rather than fighting an uphill battle like they have to in SF or NYC, Philly’s technical women will be able to scale as the community grows.

[Note: ‘Startlucks‘ are a monthly bring-your-own lunch to hang out and talk with other women in the process of starting their own businesses.]

How long have you been doing the Startlucks – can you tell us about them? Are they a big part of how women you teach stay in touch with you and each other?

Our very first event was a Startluck and we consider them to be a keystone of everything we do; they’re an opportunity for new members to get a sense of what we’re about, and it’s a place where existing members can come and check in with everyone. At some Startlucks, it’s just a relaxed conversation talking about who we are, what we do and what we’re working on. Other times, someone asks a thought-provoking question and we end up having a big group brainstorming session. At our last Startluck, the topic of web accessibility came up and it sparked a great flow of questions and ideas.

We think of Startlucks as a place to come and get recharged about the work you’re doing. These events always leave us with a touch of that feeling you get after a conference in your field; new ideas are seeded, any isolation is broken, and you’re fueled up to create stuff.

And isn’t that what it’s all about? Making things happen. 🙂

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Jennifer Lindner is an open source developer and technical editor with more than ten years of experience in web and web application development. A lead organizer of the Gotham Ruby Conference from 2007 to 2010, she produced New York City’s first RailsBridge workshop in 2010 and is an active RailsBridge organizer. Follow her on Twitter at @jenlindner.
Photo credit: Angie Chang via Flickr



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