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