Learning Resources for Girls (not Women)

Often I am asked for advice about girls in tech. This is largely because I'm so involved in the women in tech movement, but it's also partly because of problems one of the organizations I'm involved in has with branding problems. I'm looking at you, "Girl Develop It!". 

Usually this group is confused for a group that serves "girls", as in, underage female humans, rather than "girls", adult female humans. I'm not exactly one to throw stones, being from Texas. I often use the term myself, even at Hackbright to refer to a group of women who are often older than me. It's the parlance of the area, but it's also enmeshed in the culture to infantilize women. Most chivalry is - but I digress.

I prodded twitter this morning for some advice, because so often I recieve emails from parents asking what to do for their daughters. They face the tough job of encouraging their smart daughters to get involved in technology before the terrible thirteens arrive, and girls start to begin "experimenting" with their identities (disclaimer: I was once a 13 year old girl.) 

Making something part of your identity at a young age is sometimes a recipie for abandoning it later, however starting girls early on the road to being tech-savvy or even ultra-l33t prepares them for a pretty sweet life. Tech skills are in demand, and the only person I have ever known to be more bratty than a supermodel and get away with it is an iOS developer. I'm just saying, there are some aspects of tech work I didn't anticipate when I was 13 that would have appealed to me quite a bit.

With that, here's some resources the twitterverse has come up with.

View the story "Twitterverse Resources for Girls in Tech

  • http://coderdojo.com/
  • https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/hopscotch-coding-for-kids/id617098629?mt=8
  • http://www.ncfirstrobotics.org/programs/jr-first-lego-league/
  • http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/app-camp-for-girls
  • http://scratch.mit.edu/
  • http://www.amazon.com/Game-Programming-Kids-Interactive-Programmers/dp/1937785440
  • http://herideasinmotion.com/
  • http://www.internaldrive.com/

Maybe They Know

It strikes me recently that perhaps some of the people who have been running universities for hundreds of years might know what they're doing.

Christian, David and I have been working on basically reinventing the wheel in terms of what universities do for computer science students. This has been met with tremendous success, but at the near cost of our sanity and capacity to do anything else. We've successfully led 30 people through a computer science education by the hand, which is something universities don't do. 

Universities expect you to handle your own shit. They're as involved in your affairs as you involve yourself in theirs. They don't check up on you when you're quiet. Professors typically don't notice when you don't understand something, and stay into the night drilling you on your data structures. Basically, they expect you to figure out when you need help, and also expect you to force someone to help you. 

Our students are always type-a enough to be able to seek help in class, or for that matter in a workplace. However, they're new to a field that's so deep and frankly, lovecraftian in it's crazy hidden unknowns - they don't know what or when to ask. They don't know who to ask. They start out not even grasping the depth to which they don't understand.

Needless to say, we spend a great deal of time enumerating the order of magnitude of knowledge they're missing. 

The gulf however, drives Christian and I to spend 14 hours a day here. We even have a rule, we're supposed to leave at 6 on alternating days. Neither of us follow that rule with any kind of regularity. Generally only when we're expected to be somewhere. But, on the plus side, our students completely floor our partners on hiring day, and their managers come first review.

Rarely, but it happens, I envy the life of a professor - I wish I could be as aloof and more detached than I am from the success or failure of my students. But, I'm doing something that matters. So many people can't say that. I also suspect that most professors develop that detachment over a great deal of time, and heartache.

Week 10 Roundup

Well I certainly didn't keep up with blogging through the 10-week rollercoaster that is HackBright. I learned, laughed, cried, went through crazy emotional times, and made friends. I also drank a lot of alcohol. 

Week 2 was a blur, mostly lectures in which I trolled Christian to make sure certain points got across well, and to keep him human to our students, rather than some kind of job-bestowing godlike figure. I don't know that I fully succeeded with the second one.  We did a lot of breakout sessions, which I feel like were really helpful. They helped keep each lesson in context so that everyone understood that we may have been doing simple things, but that those things built up to me big deals.

Week 3, my son came to visit. By that point, our students had formed a bit of a bond with me, so me being not there was not too bad for morale. It was however, really tough on me, because I brought him in to work 3 out of the 5 weekdays he visited on. He enjoyed himself enough, and ingratiated himself with most of the students pretty well. Christian showed him the roof and talked to him about physics, which made him instantly reverent. It was pretty cute. 

Week 4, I was playing catch-up, in terms of energy (9yos are very tiring) and in terms of where everyone was in the program. I also stopped making progress on the project I was working on at this point - students needed too much outside help for me to spend time on it, so I was forced to just kind of back off. In the middle of the week, Donglegate came to a head and got really nasty online. Like many women in SV, I responded emotionally to the threats Adria was getting, especially as she's a friend of mine. Due to complexities and traumatic events in my past, seeing some of the images posted online and the vitriol spewed at her, I was emotionally drained and very upset for some time after. Even now, it's tough to write about. At some point, I'll post in detail on this.

Week 5 was a blur - bringing people up to speed on common web technologies and the idea of markup was a big deal. We explained HTML and how it was like Markdown or Wiki Markup, only with a lot more eccentricities helped them deal with what seemed like an impenetrable world. We covered a slight bit of CSS, and then I got to delve into JavaScript. At this point, my energy from the kid visit and ensuing trauma, plus 18 hour days were beginning to wear on me. The lesson I learned here was that we needed more instructors, and that I cannot take time off during Hackbright, or have visitors. Downtime is going to have to be the only time someone can come to SF to see me. 

During Week 5 we also began preparing for projects. We had to very explicitly state that we're not an accelerator. We're not an incubator. We're not here so that you can develop an amazing product vision and start a company. Our students are here to program and to learn things - you can't do that if you're worried about the marketability of a product. Sure, learning happens better when you're solving a specific problem for yourself - when you listen to a lecture on SQL and can imagine using it to solve the problem of how to get two rows of data to JOIN together, it makes sense. If you talk about JOINS in the abstract, it kind of sounds like a crazy, useless concept. So it's useful to have a project you're excited about - but focusing on becoming a crafts[wo]man means you have to focus on the craft, not the business. They're two separate disciplines, and we're not here to make companies, we're here to make developers.

Week 6 was the official start of projects - students were finishing up the final tutorials that would show them how to use SQLAlchemy. Many wouldn't end up using that kind of thing at all for their projects, but understanding the principles behind an ORM is important, because they're more than likely going to encounter them in the wild. 

One thing I wasn't prepared for was the scope of some of these projects. We had webapps of varying complexity - some that had to keep consistent state between two people, some that used multiple APIs and a lot of data, one even used single value decomposition to intelligently rate movies on millions of rows - dealing with datasets larger than the RAM on your computer is not a simple task. But the next tier of projects, things I've personally never even done (although, this does not mean I won't try), things like database engines that handle concurrency, written in a language we didn't teach, using concepts we didn't teach. Things like compilers, lexical parsers, people writing their own programming languages. 

We had a student who read a paper on someone who found correlations between genes and characteristics that had never been noticed before by doing Natural Language Processing on Pubmed papers. This paper kind of contained some abstract notions on how you might do this, but I watched her tear the paper apart, and put it back together in python. It was amazing. Her twitter is @cadeparade, and she's still for hire as of me writing this (but probably won't be for long.) I also got to learn a bit about Part of Speech Processing - which is incidentally really cool.

I had to mention at least one of them, not to show favoritism, but I feel like what happened wasn't real. Like it was somehow removed from the real world. It was like I was out of the country for 10 weeks, and my friends and family kind of watched this amazing thing occur from my excited tweets and late night rushed updates by phone. But it wasn't. It happened right here, in San Francisco. 

Tonight, some of them got offers, which were beyond anything I expected whatsoever. I have no doubt that every single one of them is employable, and would contribute a lot to the organization they end up at. Plus, I have 26 new best friends. 

In 4 weeks, I have to start all over again.

Week One

Week one down! 

It was all very exciting. I got up in front of 26 adult women, and explained that they might have trouble with logic when Aunt Flo comes around. Gutsy, but someone needs to talk about this stuff. 

I was pretty sure that I'd only connect with about half the class, and the other half would hate me. Turns out, I haven't met anyone in the class I wouldn't be friends with. Everyone seems interesting, with varied backgrounds and responses to the material.

One of the most difficult things I've found is the pairing. It takes the burden off of the instructors by forcing students who otherwise wouldn't know where to start to talk out their thoughts. It also makes for a VERY loud classroom, which can be stressful for some of our more introverted students. The other challenge is that it turns out that women like to talk to one another. A lot. While this is a boon for engagement in the material, and for productivity, it's a bit distracting and it's a constant roar of "Ohhhh I get it" and "What? Why won't this work?!". Still though, it seems to knit the class together.

I seem to have a pretty good rapport with Christian - he knocks on Javascript (which is secretly fine) and I knock on Python (Tuples are stupid), which the class enjoys. We've deliberately chosen skeptical, intelligent women who wouldn't take everything we said to be the word from on high, so the back-and-forth is nice. 

All in all, I am exhausted. But I haven't been so excited for Monday in awhile. 

Ask Questions

I've been teaching programming for Girl Develop It now for about 3 months. I've been loving it, because I'm secretly a teacher deep down underneath my programmer shell. If programming is my ethnicity, teaching is my calling.

 The unexpected benefit of teaching has been to help my own confidence when coming to a part of the country so steeped in engineering talent that you feel you're the only one who might have to ask a question now and again. I've realized the tricky bit about asking questions, however. It takes an enormous amount of confidence. 

Admitting that you don't know something, or don't quite understand it is really difficult. You feel that it calls into question things you DO understand. The problem with this, and something you have to remember when asking whether or not you understand something, is what the baseline for "understanding" actually is. "Understanding" means different things to people in different stages of their careers. Depth is a very relative thing(xkcd link) - something that's deep to you isn't deep to someone who's entire life revolves around a narrow slice of your profession.

Last year, Simon Collison wrote a piece called Maturity and the Weight of Learning. In it, he discusses a number of topics- namely, culling and surrendering, and the immature view of tools. Many young developers start with a host of very powerful tools, and so learn web development (and other forms of development) with a "top down" perspective. These tools make you feel powerful, and they abstract away the need to understand how they work - but they are built by human beings, with faults, and break down around the edges. Leaning on them in the beginning is fine - but as you get out towards the edges of the Kingdom of CRUD, you start to notice a need for you to get to your feet in shifting sands. It is here that most developers grow their wings- or turn back and toil in the overcrowded kingdom.

Simon's piece talks about the responsibility we have as craftsman, to learn, to ask, to be ashamed we used a tool without understanding how it worked. This is hard, but it is doable. It is part of accepting the mantle of craftsman - this title is not free. The prescription is to admit your own limits - knowing where they are is the first step to breaking them.

A final note - I assure you, those who have taken upon themselves the title of craftsman, and who are considered so by their peers will never look down on you for trying to learn. Ridiculing someone for not knowing a thing is the biggest indicator of personal insecurity. 

Knowledge is Relative

As a mentor, I spend a lot of time calming people down. This is I suppose my mother hen approach to mentorship, but it seems to work for the subset of people who I take on. I wrote a letter to someone who feels recently like she's failed because she doesn't have a firm grounding on the basics of what she's trying to learn. She doesn't see the progress she's made, or the ground she's gained- she only sees what she doesn't yet understand. I've written this letter to many people in the past, and I suspect I'll write it many times in the future. Here is what I usually say, more or less, with the identifying bits left out.