Women Who Code: Rails Girls

If you take a broad look at the software development community, you’ll find female developers scarce. Studies and polls average that approximately only 10%  are women programmers. That percentage also happens to be represented in my own workplace. If you’re wondering why the ratio is so low, the answer isn’t discrimination. Instead, I’d speculate that most women (especially young women) generally aren’t exposed to software development or encouraged to seek it as a career.

Rails Girls (http://railsgirls.com) is a community that focuses on changing that perspective and aspires to make software development more approachable to women. Originated in Finland, it has successfully spread worldwide with ambitions to reach out to women. They’ve expressed a goal to “give tools and a community for women to understand technology and to build their ideas.”

To do this, they’ve developed a workshop that exposes prototyping, development concepts, and hands-on coding. Using Ruby on Rails - hence the name “Rails Girls”- workshop attendees have the opportunity to build a common and familiar form of software technology: a website.

Last month, Houston's Rails Girls division (http://railsgirls.com/houston), organized by Amanda Shih, held a workshop for 60 women. My coworker, Anuradha Ramprakash (who also happens to be the only other female developer here at ChaiOne aside from myself) had the opportunity to participate as a coach. I couldn’t attend because I was busy being a soccer mom the day of the event, but Anuradha was happy to share some interesting details:

The number of participants for each workshop is capped at 60, and that number is often quickly reached soon after registration opens for each event. At last month’s local workshop, a wide variety of women in various age groups attended. In fact, one pair of attendees were a mother and daughter who have been curious about coding for some time and decided to finally give it a try together. Most of the women who attended have never coded before. In fact, most of their professions were far from software development. Many mentioned that they knew men or have boyfriends that code, so they were interested to see what it's all about and find out if they could do it, too.

The night before the event, participants are encouraged to attend an orientation get-together to meet the coaches, set up their software environment, and prepare for the day ahead. Participants may use Windows or Mac computers so it is important that they have the proper software and tools for their operating systems in advance of the crash course to come.

The day of the event, coaches abstract the concept of software development by performing a skit about ordering a pie. What kind of pie do you want? How do you make the pie? How do you deliver the pie? etc. All of these ideas are acted out by the coaches and then further explained on how they’re relative to frameworks, APIs, software objects, and code algorithms.

Then, the Ruby programming language is explained along with introducing the Rails framework to develop their website project. The rest of the day is spent taking steps toward building their pie ordering website. Time blocks are used iteratively to review a concept, explain the code behind it, allow participants to implement features with code, and then introduce the next step.

After the workshop, the participants are proud of their working website. Anuradha has kept in contact with some of the attendees and was happy to hear that their interest continued beyond the workshop. Surely, future events will be just as productive and successful. However, Amanda has made note of the many women who are turned away after the attendance cap is met. In order for the workshop to be successful, a coach-to-participant ratio is important, but the number of coaches provided does not adequately meet the interest. So if you’d like to volunteer as a coach in a future event, please contact your local Rails Girls group. They’ve done a great job to grow and feed the interest in software development with women in our communities and you'd be doing a great deed.

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