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