Women helping women get into tech

Sara Chipps on IT education and how women are navigating the tech world.

Past efforts at getting women involved in the computer industry have generally focused on high school and college students, but Sara Chipps (@SaraJChipps) is taking a different approach. Girl Develop IT, an educational effort she helped start, is introducing women of all ages to programming. Chipps recently spoke with me about the project and the pressures women face in the computer and open source communities.

How did you get involved with computers?

Sara Chipps: I’ve been doing development for about 10 years now and web development for about five years. I fell in love with it when I was in high school. I took a C++ class taught by a great woman my senior year, and then I went to Penn State and majored in computer science. When I was done with school, I started out as a DBA. I got a great chance to work with a group of guys who mentored me in web development, and that’s where I am today.

Do women in tech feel pressure to either be “one of the guys” or to go to an opposite “Barbie” extreme?

SC: I think it’s a dynamic that’s evolving, and I’m hoping that we can reach a middle ground. The reason for the whole Barbie push is that to be accepted in this field a lot of women feel the pressure to kind of, for lack of a better term, become a little more masculine. Or they feel the need to separate themselves from who they are as a gender in order to get respect from other people in the field. As a response to that, there’s been a push in the other direction; that’s what you’ve seen recently. It has a lot to do with getting the message out there that being a nerd on the inside doesn’t mean you have to be a nerd on the outside.

Are women encouraged to take on non-development roles at tech companies?

SC: Sometimes I get feedback from women that they’ve been encouraged not to go into development, or they’ve been told they’d be a better fit in management. That’s all arbitrary data because it’s only based on things I hear.

I’m hesitant to say, definitively, that women are being discouraged from development. In my career as a developer, I’ve gotten support from people who want to see more women in the field. These people have gone out of their way to make sure I succeed.

Why has traditional computer science education failed women? Why is Girl Develop IT different?

Girl Develop ITSC: I can only relate to what my own experience has been and what I’ve heard from women I’ve spoken to. But it was really scary for me asking questions in a room of 50 guys. I felt like I was representing my whole gender.

All the guys I’ve worked with or ever learned with have been really great. Sometimes insecurities — or being in the minority — makes you feel if you call attention to yourself, you might do something embarrassing.

With Girl Develop IT, we wanted to create an environment where women weren’t afraid to ask stupid questions. We also wanted to make programming a lot more accessible for them. And now, we actually have two guys in our classes. We think this is a great industry, and we want as many people to get educated about it as possible. We’re just more geared toward women.

How did Girl Develop IT come together?

SC: A whole bunch of us met about six months ago, all seeing the same problem and wanting to be part of the solution. There are a lot of groups that get around a table and talk for a while. What we wanted was for people to actually teach women to ship software.

We treat classes like a lab. Women bring their laptops and by the end of the class they’ve produced something they can take home and view online. We want to give them something concrete that they’ve made.

We offer four series, and we’re adding a fifth: the first one is HTML/CSS; the second is JavaScript and jQuery; the third is data structures and databases with MongoDB; the fourth is Ruby on Rails; and the fifth class will be advanced Google Analytics for predictive analysis on your web space.

We limit the classes to 30 people. We’ve had a lot of pressure to grow this, but we’re focusing on getting it done right and being able to mentor other groups that want to do the same thing. However, we did recently expand to Australia with Pamela Fox, who is on the Google Wave team. There are now Girl Develop IT classes being sponsored by Google over there.

Is there misogyny in the open source community?

SC: It isn’t misogyny as much as it’s an alpha male environment. That sounds like a synonym, but I don’t believe it is. In open source, there’s a lot of people who believe very passionately about what they do. Those people have passionate debates.

It’s not a delicate environment for delicate individuals, either male or female. I think the reason why many women have been steered away from this environment is because of things being so spirited and people being so passionate. It can be a scary place for anyone, regardless of gender.

What I had to do was get to the point where I realized not everyone in that space knows what they’re talking about. They’re wrong sometimes, just like I’m wrong sometimes. I had to get the confidence to argue with them and when I felt like I had a good point I had stick to it and get in there.

It’s like looking into a coliseum with a bunch of men yelling at each other and knowing that you have to walk in the middle and yell back. It’s a scary prospect. But once you have confidence in your knowledge and understand that they may be acting like they know it all, but they probably don’t, it becomes not a friendlier place but a more comfortable place.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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