Women Teaching Women Technology Part III: Web Start Women

by Jen Lindner

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.

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

The specific motivation for Web Start Women, like any fun idea, came from us scratching an itch we had. Nicole and I were working together on some web start-up ideas, and we realized we were feeling isolated in our pursuits. Nicole mentioned some women friends of hers who were also working on businesses and we decided we should have a regular pow-wow with them so we could share ideas, get energized, learn from each other.

Around the same time, I started coming across some posts on Quora asking “What successful tech companies have had women leaders?” This lead to a bunch of link hopping, and I started really getting into this question – where are all the women doing what I do?

These two events sparked this idea: We can help build this community and provide necessary education and tools. We sidelined our other start-up ideas and started full speed ahead on developing Web Start Women.

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?

That’s an interesting question and I’m not sure we have quite enough data to answer it yet, but here’s a rundown of what we’ve observed so far. One of the things that we love about Web Start Women is that we are drawing a wide range of women. We have had girls as young as 12 learning HTML and CSS alongside women who are retired. Our members have all kinds of backgrounds (e.g., librarians, musicians, sociology graduate students, nurses, elementary school teachers, and of course, web developers of various stripes). Some have never written a line of code in their lives and others have written excited notes about classes they would love to teach for us in their Meetup profiles.

Not surprisingly, we’re seeing a vibrant diversity of interests and goals. In terms of crossover between technology and technology-fueled business, it seems like most, if not all, of the women who are interested in building their tech skills also have some kind of business idea, even if it’s just that they want to have a business! I can only think of a few women who are solely focused on a business idea and aren’t interested in learning to do (at least some of) the technical work themselves.

To get back to the data issue, we should point out that most of the events and classes we’ve done so far have been more tech-oriented more than business-oriented. Starting up, it made the most sense to focus our educational efforts on the material Susan has years of experience with and was already teaching at Penn, which is web development. We have some biz-oriented topics in the works, so we might start seeing a stronger crossover as a result.

What informs your teaching technique choices?

I think our primary goal is to break down any fears that might exist. I had unpleasant experiences in Computer Science courses in college where I always felt behind – as if the rest of the students had read some secret textbook that was assigned before the course began, but I didn’t know about it. We do our best to combat that feeling, encouraging a lot of questions and contact before, during, and after classes.

Aside from what we do at Web Start Women, Nicole is teaching at Harvard and I’m teaching at Penn, so we spend a lot of time talking about pedagogy in general. I look at our courses as a product we build for our students, and we’re constantly trying to build the best product we can. There’s no shortage of places you can learn about web development (textbooks, online tutorials, local groups, school), but we work really hard to provide a quality of instruction and an experience that you can’t always get in those places.

Because the courses I teach at WSW overlap with what I teach at Penn, I get the benefit of constantly fine-tuning the instruction. I had some experiences this past year where schedules lined up such that I would literally be teaching the same lecture to Penn students during the day that I would take to a WSW course that night. It was a great opportunity for me to smooth the edges out on lectures, because if something didn’t work in the afternoon, I could tweak it for the evening.

Aside from all this, we’re basically really big nerds about all these topics, and I think our excitement shows through; I hope that’s energizing for women who take our classes.

Do you see any social/cultural changes in your larger tech community resulting from WSW’s 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.

Is there a strong online component to your program, or forums for questions and technical support?

Right now the online component is limited to the usuals: Facebook, Twitter and email dialogues. However, we’ve got plans in the works to expand on this; we’ve been testing online education platforms and are aiming to build a stronger, more centralized online community. We love the local roots of our groups, but we also want to be a resource to women who are not in metropolitan areas and who feel isolated from the sort of opportunities they provide.

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.

What have you learned from doing this? What advice would you give on grassroots teaching to other groups or individuals who would like to do this themselves?

We began Web Start Women to help empower women and in the process, empowered ourselves. It often feels very meta: we’re growing this project that helps other women grow their own projects. Speaking to other individuals who would like to do this themselves, I guess that’s not really advice so much as it is encouragement: go for it. Women and other minorities are hungry for this stuff, you just have to put it on their radar and they will come. In the process, you get to meet a lot of great new people, learn a lot yourself, and feel warm and fuzzy from the rewards.

Susan BuckNicole Noll

Susan Buck and Nicole Noll, Web Start Women

Women Teaching Women Technology Part III: Web Start Women

Women Teaching Women Technology II: Ladies Learning Code

by Jen Lindner

Heather Payne founded Ladies Learning Code in June 2011 with a single tweet. A graduate of the Richard Ivey School of Business, she built her first WordPress blog while pursuing a graduate degree in International Relations in China.

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 LA 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.

My team at Ladies Learning Code works really hard to run awesome monthly events that people like, but we would all tell you that we’re surprised at how easy it’s been to get the word out about what we’re doing. The only way people find out about Ladies Learning Code is through social media and word of mouth (and lately, though the media). In four months, we’ve assembled a community of almost 1000 people. About 200 of those are developers and other technical folks who want to help out by volunteering at a workshop. The support from Toronto’s tech community has been incredible.

What informs your choices in curriculum – is marketability or ease of learning or merits of the technologies themselves? What informs your teaching technique choices?

So far, we’ve covered JavaScript, HTML & CSS, Ruby and WordPress – and all of those workshops have sold out in less than a day. (Actually, the WordPress workshop sold out in three minutes!) We select the topics based on who steps up to lead a workshop and what people are asking for. We also like our workshops to be hands-on, so we consider which languages or topics will make it possible for our participants to feel as though they’ve completed something by the end of the day.

As for our teaching technique choices, we’re still iterating (although, what we’ve done so far seems to be working really well). 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 we’re finding is that our volunteer developers have as much fun as our participants!

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.

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

I think it’s too soon to tell. There’s no doubt that Toronto’s tech community has been incredibly supportive of Ladies Learning Code, which is a great first step, but since we’ve only been around for five months, we’ll have to wait and see if our efforts result in a tangible difference. Of course, I’m a big believer in the power of communities, and ours is definitely a strong & passionate one. I believe that what we’re doing in Toronto is going to make a difference here. Especially as we diversify our offerings and target different demographics, especially girls.

Is there a strong online component to your program, or forums for questions and technical support? Do the women you train stay in touch with you and each other? What have you learned while doing this? What advice would you give on teaching to other groups or individuals who would like to do this themselves?

At the moment, there is no online component to Ladies Learning Code (other than the informal community on Twitter and Facebook). It’s something we’re thinking about. Many of the women who attend Ladies Learning Code workshops stay in touch. We have quite a few women who have attended two or more workshops, and we are all starting to recognize each other at tech events in the city, which is fun. Since our community is made up of people who are generally very social media-savvy, many of them connect on Twitter before, during or after events, and stay in touch that way. It’s another area that we might look to improve in the future.

The biggest thing we’ve learned while getting Ladies Learning Code off the ground is how much is possible, as long as you have a community that supports you. It’s been really exciting to build Ladies Learning Code over the past few months, but none of it would be possible without Toronto’s super supportive tech community. We’re so grateful to our community partner, The Centre for Social Innovation, for helping make our workshops accessible by providing us with amazing spaces to use for our workshops, and to the companies who have supported us, and of course to the developers who are giving up their Saturdays to help us inspire and empower more women to become builders – not just consumers – of technology and the web.

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. Don’t think about the workshops you’re going to run, or about building a website, or getting a Twitter handle or a Facebook Page. We did all of that weeks after our first event – a brainstorming session. 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.

Heather Payne, Founder
Heather Payne, Founder
Women Teaching Women Technology II: Ladies Learning Code

Women Teaching Women Technology: Three Trailblazing Organizations

by Jen Lindner

It’s a moment of historical paradox in gender and technology: On the one hand, the number of women entering STEM higher education programs and fields is dropping. And the sexism women face in STEM professions is well-documented, as is the result: 52% leave because of hostile macho culture. But on the other hand, the innovative and enormously successful CS program at Harvey Mudd College is a shining example of gender balance. And 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. Coinciding with a rising tide of newcomer-welcoming efforts, there’s no question that enthusiasm for women doing web technology is growing.

Maybe we here at RailsBridge are incurable optimists, but we see the rise of women teaching women to code as a pony worth betting on. Girl Develop It, Ladies Learning Code and Web Start Women are all great examples of start up savvy applied to gender in tech. This is the first in a series of interviews with each of these organizations. Watch for these recurring themes: breaking down fears about technology, building confidence, support from their local technology community, the success of hands-on teaching techniques, and changing relations between women and men.

Girl Develop It

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

Alexis Goldstein and Izzy Johnston are both experienced software engineers and GDI instructors.

Which of GDI’s 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.

The first and most important factor is student interest. 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.

All of my classes blend teaching the theory via an interactive lecture and allowing students to play with the code in class as part of a lab. Besides teaching students how to learn languages, we also want them to leave every class with the feeling that they have built something that they can be proud of.

Are GDI classes comfortable for women, and/or for men (or not)?

Alexis: I do think it is a very comfortable experience for the women in the class. I also teach classes that are mostly men, and I find that the women who’ve taken classes with me both in and outside GDI tend to prefer the GDI class. One of my favorite by-products is watching the men (who are normally the minority in a GDI class) adjust to being in a predominantly female environment. I do think it’s a unique experience for many of them, and I suspect it does inform their behavior.

Do you see any social/cultural changes in your larger technology community resulting from GDI’s work?

Izzy: I have had multiple students come back to me months after taking my course to tell me that they were able to get a new job or that they received a promotion because of the class they had with me. But we want our students to reap more than just financial rewards. We want people who might be uncomfortable with the traditional world of computer science to learn they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them with the knowledge and the confidence that they have gained.

And I have seen more women attend hackathons, go to NY tech meetups, and generally participate in the tech scene. There is nothing more rewarding as an instructor to see than a student gain confidence and be able to insert her/himself into a conversation that they felt they couldn’t be a part of before.

Do the women you train stay in touch with you and each other?

Alexis: Some of them do send me their websites and projects after the class, which I always enjoy seeing. It’s wonderful to see their end product and what they’re able to do with the skills they learn.

Izzy: Many of my students email me today with a variety of questions. We also have a growing community of people on Twitter who support one another well after the courses they have taken.

What have you learned while doing this? What advice would you give on teaching to other groups or individuals who would like to do this themselves?

Izzy: I’ve learned that the most important gift you can give a student is not knowledge of a specific language but knowledge that they are capable of learning a language. I would advise anyone who wants to be involved in instruction that 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.

Alexis Goldstein
Izzy Johnston

More about the instructors: Alexis had conducted training sessions during her seven years as software developer on Wall Street, though most of them were via phone conferences. Teaching in a formal setting was new to her, though something she’d always wanted to do. Izzy has over seven years of instructional experience in software development and has been coding for twelve, and is also obtaining her Master’s at Pratt in Information and Library Science.

Women Teaching Women Technology: Three Trailblazing Organizations

Hungry Academy: get paid to learn Ruby/Rails

Programs where people can get paid to learn the craft of software development have started to become a trend. Like many great inventions, such as holography and test-driven development (TDD), it was independently “invented” by different people in different places. The idea of a software development apprenticeship where you learn on the job on the path to being hired has been an on-going, practical experiment by many companies. At Blazing Cloud, we’ve run four sessions of a cross-training program, Dave Hoover wrote Apprenticeship Patterns based on his own experience, and Code Academy, which is not affiliated with a specific company, just wrapped up its first session.

Now, LivingSocial is teaming up with JumpstartLab to offer a new program in Washington, D.C. that they call “Hungry Academy.” With just a week left for people to apply, I took time out today to interview Jeff Casimir from JumpstartLab who will be leading the training.

What’s Hungry Academy all about?
It’s a five-month, full-time, paid training program put together by JumpstartLab and LivingSocial. 24 attendees will be selected for the program and will divide time between classroom instruction, team project work, and open source / community contributions. Instruction will be led by Jeff Casimir and Matt Yoho from JumpstartLab.

We’ll focus on Ruby, Rails, and related technologies. And while some participants will have CS backgrounds, we expect others to have no programming experience whatsoever. You bring the passion and drive, we’ll help you develop the skills.

It starts in March and applications are being accepted until January 9th.

You say that people don’t need any programming experience to apply, how will you balance teaching people who have programming experience in other technologies with students who have never coded before?
From my background teaching middle school and high school, I’m accustomed to pushing people of drastically different abilities. Good teaching is individualized, so it doesn’t matter that people have varied skill-sets. As long as you plan for it, pushing people at their own “right pace” is possible.

What happens after the program?
If you successfully complete the program you’ll join the engineering team at LivingSocial as a full-time developer.

And what happens if they are unsuccessful?
We can’t guarantee jobs, but if you fail then I fail. LivingSocial would love to hire everyone from the program if they can prove their mettle. I promise that anyone who comes with the right attitude and works hard will be ready at the end.

Is it remote or on-site? Do I have to stay in DC?
All attendees need to be on-site daily at the office in DC. If you complete the program and join the team, there are likely opportunities in DC, Seattle, and maybe Boulder, Portland, and Austin.

Why “Hungry Academy”? Are people allowed to eat?
It’s a little weird, admittedly, but LivingSocial came out of a company named “Hungry Machine”. “Live Hungry” is still one of the core values — it means constantly striving to do better. We’re focusing on people who are passionate about their work, want to learn and grow, and can be awesome team members — that’s being Hungry.

How does someone apply?
All of the info is at hungryacademy.com. Please be sure to read the instructions in the job description.

In the application it says that a video is required. What do you think about research that indicates that people screening job applications with a photo of the applicant are biased toward white men?
Yeah, I decided that the application should be a video. Words on a page are just too easy to fake and too boring to read. Under the premise of hiring non-programmers, we’re basically taking people who, on paper, are not qualified. There’s little you can do on a resume to say “I am hungry and ready to kick butt,” it’s just a boring list of what you’ve done and which schools you owe money to. In the video we can see the evidence of your passion and hear it in your voice.

We don’t have an idea of what developers should “look like.” If anything, my concern is that we’ll be biased against those who fit the stereotype of developers. Both LivingSocial and JumpstartLab believe strongly in diversity because, at the core, both companies rely on creative ideas. Creativity is cultivated best when there are many inputs allowed to mix together, not one dominating profile.

In the end, we love people in all their genders, shapes, sizes, colors, creeds, and preferences. If you do too, then you’ll fit in here.

What’s the deadline again?
Applications are due Monday 1/9 and the program starts in March.

What if I have more questions?
Email me at contact@jumpstartlab.com and I’ll get back to you ASAP.

Hungry Academy: get paid to learn Ruby/Rails