Hackbright: Women Can Code
Some people are born hackers. They’re drawn to computers, take up coding as soon as they learn to read, and they never stop programming, learning, and developing their skills. I work with some of these people at Evernote. You probably do, too. Maybe you are one.
Geeks and natural coders make up the hacker elite, and create many of the apps and services that we use. But you don’t have to be born a geek to become a coder. That’s good, because there aren’t nearly enough developers now, judging by the job boards in Silicon Valley.
That also makes an opportunity. There is money in creating engineers.
There are several organizations that teach the people who neglected to be prodigies or CS majors programming. One of the most interesting is The Hackbright Academy, which runs 10-week programming courses exclusively for women.
I met Hackbright’s Angie Chang at a Girl Geek dinner she organized that we hosted here at Evernote. So far, she told me, she’s graduated all 28 women that have entered her program, and 90% of them are now employed as software engineers.
“Our goal is to pivot peoples’ careers,” Chang told me. But pivoting women into coding jobs is different from teaching men.
It’s different for girls
I talked with Sara Gottlieb, one of the Hackbright graduates and now a front-end engineer at Survey Monkey. She told me that her psychology degree was “not helping” in the job market. And while she saw the opportunity for technical talent in the Bay Area, she feared, as many people do, that without a lifetime of experience as a geek, she’d never learn enough to get a job in tech.
Gottlieb told me that her college education reinforced the myth of the natural hacker. Even in Intro to Computer Science at her school, University of Vermont, she says, “Nobody was really starting from zero.”
But she found Hackbright, learned Python in the first five weeks, and then the remainder of the term on a personal project. Landing a job was easy, as Survey Monkey reps came to the demo day at the end of the session.
“There’s still a lot for me to learn,” she says. But she’s doing it now from inside a company.
Another Hackbright grad, Nicole Zuckerman, came from background that would appear to be the most nurturing possible for a budding geek. She told me she “grew up with the sound of a modem in my ears.” She took AP calculus and physics. Her parents encouraged her to pursue the sciences.
But, she says, “I don’t think they could conceptualize this [programming] as an option for me.”
She said the message to girls is different. They’re taught to focus on the intrinsics more than on the things they build. “Girls are raised not to screw up. If you don’t make it, it seems more destructive for girls than boys.”
Zuckerman ended up with a job in publishing, and was moving up the management ladder. But she wanted, she told me, “to feel like I was contributing.” She left her job for a Hackbright session.
She codes at Eventbrite now, which gives her the direct job satisfaction she was seeking. “Like, today, I made a thing happen,” she says.
Before Hackbright, she had only taken a few online tutorials in programming. It remained daunting, “I had heard programmers had to start as kids,” she told me. But Hackbright sounded promising, so she thought she’d give it a shot.
At the end of her session, she says, “There were 20-plus companies listening to 16 grads present.” Good odds for an entry-level developer.
We might be in a jobs bubble for developers. But it’s still a skill worth learning, since if you can’t get a job as a programmer, you can always go entrepreneurial and create your own. I’d like to see more Hackbrights, for groups that might learn differently from the way programming is traditionally taught: Women, inner-city kids, older people, journalists (ahem), you name it. There’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of people who would like to do it.
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