by Swapnil Bhartiya

How one nonprofit is making tech education open to everyone

Jul 07, 2016
CareersOpen SourceSoftware Development

"Just because you didn't learn when you were ten doesn't mean you can't learn now," says Girl Develop It executive director Corinne Warnshuis.rn

Corinne Warnshuis is the Executive Director of an organization called Girl Develop It that is dedicated to teaching women about web and software development. I sat down with Warnshuis at Red Hat Summit last month to learn more about the organization, its core value that tech education should be open to everyone, and how they’re working to get more women into open source. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Can you tell us about Girl Develop It?

Girl Develop It is a non-profit, national organization that started in New York in 2010. Our mission is to teach adult women, eighteen and up, to code. We offer web and software development classes, and all of our classes are in-person. We’re currently in fifty-four cities across the country.

How do these in-person classes work?

The way that a class works, and the way that a classroom looks, is we have these local chapters, as we call them, in those fifty-four cities. Each class is about 2 to 8 hours, so they are really short. They are accessible to anybody who just wants to learn something quickly, to get their feet wet. It’s great for people with full-time jobs or who are, maybe, stay-at-home moms, or just don’t have a lot of time. It’s also very cheap. Each class is about $10 per class hour, so $25 to $80 is kind of the most you’re going to pay for a Girl Develop It class.

What kind of technologies do you teach?

What you learn in that class is anything from very intro level HTML and CSS, introduction to WordPress, JavaScript, etc. Then we also teach languages like Python and Ruby. We teach about open source source software. We have taught how to get into GitHub…all kinds of tools you could possibly need to learn more about web and software development.

swap corinne

Post interview selfie with Corinne Warnshuis.

What do students do after finishing a course? Do you help them getting work?

We’re not a pipeline organization, necessarily. Our organization is about providing opportunities and providing a comfortable learning environment for women to learn, and what they do after is totally up to them.

There are certainly tons of women who come to our classes because they’re interested in entering the tech field, that’s a big motivation for some people. There are other women who want to build a blog, want to use these skills as a hobby, want to be able to talk to their developer team. There are a bunch of different motivations, and we see women from very diverse backgrounds, from all ages, from recent college graduates to women re-entering the workforce after having kids, to women who are maybe in a non-technical role at a tech company but want to level up their skills and maybe move into a technical role at that company.

Then there are so many women who come to our classes because they have heard that tech jobs are really hot, and being a software developer you can make a lot of money, so for some people it’s about just making a career change and trying to get into that field.

In addition to teaching how to code and introducing technologies, do you do any kind of mentoring or help people find work?

Our classes are the core part of our mission in our program. We also offer professional development classes where we talk about how to build your portfolio site, how to ace the technical interview, how to negotiate a raise. We have all these professional development classes that are, again, in person.

We also have panel discussions. There will be 6 women developers on the stage talking about what their life is like at Slack, Google or Apple. We give them exposure to, not only contacts at those companies, but also to real world knowledge of what it’s like to be in one of those roles, and if that’s something they want to pursue. Again, that in-person thing. It makes really, really strong communities that are really intended to support women on their journeys, whatever they may be.

Can men take your classes?

Yes. Our overarching goal is to include people who’ve been left out of technology education, and, for the most part, that’s women, so that’s why we focus on women. We find it appropriate to address that dearth of women who have not had that education, by targeting our programming towards women saying that we’re for women and also inverting the kind of dominant ratio of having a bunch of men in the space and one woman. We try to make the classroom a really welcoming environment by inverting the ratio and making it all women or mostly women. But we have plenty of teachers and mentors who are men; we call them male allies. That’s just a starting point.

Can you talk about the origin and foundation of the organization?

Our co-founders are two women from New York named Vanessa Hurst and Sara Chipps. They started it because they were both software developers, and they had a lot of friends who said, “Oh, I could never do what you do, it’s too difficult,” or “It’s like magic.” It seemed like this mystified thing of building software. They were like, “No, you actually could do it, and we want to help you do it,” so they got together with a few other folks and said, “If we can just make an impact on a few people’s lives, people that we know, see more women in our offices and our companies, that would be really great,” so what they did was they put together the very first class back in 2010, and it sold out overnight.

They also chose to focus on adult women because, one, there were already great programs for children, and it makes a lot of sense to include that in the current education system. They wanted women who had missed the opportunity in college, in high school, or whenever, to have that opportunity now and to say it’s never too late to learn. Just because you didn’t learn when you were ten doesn’t mean you can’t learn now. That’s another stereotype that Girl Develop It really tries to reject is that you can’t learn tech as adults. You can. We know that because we have sixty-seven thousand members across the country who are doing it.

When and why did you decide to join the organization?

I decided to join when I graduated from college. I moved to Philadelphia to pursue a career in journalism, actually. I started working at the WHYY station, which is like the PBS station in Philly.

I heard about this thing called Girl Develop It that was coming to Philly. They had started in New York and they were branching out to Philly, so I took the very first class. I have a background in sociology and I was really interested and inspired by the social justice, social change movements that I learned about in school. Being involved in the community was something that was really important and exciting to me.

I found that I really enjoyed learning with a bunch of other women. When I looked around the room, there was so many diverse women from all these different backgrounds coming together to learn this thing and support one another. I got so inspired by the women in the community that I wanted help this organization. I started offering space at the radio station that I worked at so they could use our classroom space for free and let me take the classes.

From there I started organizing the local chapter, and then I started leading it about a year and a half later. By then the organization grew from fifteen chapters to about thirty-six within the span of a year. It just blew up. The founders had moved on to found other companies, and the Board reached out and said, “What you’re doing in Philly has been incredibly successful. It’s the most successful chapter in the country,” so they presented me with this opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up. That was two years ago this week.

You are here at the Red Hat Summit, what has open source got to do with Girl Develop It?

First of all, we’re pretty engaged in open source. Our website is open source. It’s open for commits and forks, and people to contribute to it. All of our curriculum is online and open source; it’s free to use.

It’s pretty fundamental to our beliefs that education should be for everyone, and tech education specifically, should be for everyone. Our core value is that it should be open to everyone.

Our students started coming to us asking about open source and how they can get involved. People were also saying, “Hey, I’m applying for jobs, and every job is asking to see the projects that I worked on. They’re asking to see my GitHub profile. What is that and how do I get involved with that? I know how to code now, but what is this thing that I’m missing?” So we taught Intro to Git & GitHub classes. We also started a mentorship program that would not only teach these classes and give opportunities to learn more about it, but do a really deep dive program that would allow women who wanted that one-on-one mentorship to contribute to an open source project given that opportunity.

It’s a three-month long program, it’s one-on-one with a mentor and a mentee. We did about ten the first year and about twelve the second year. We’re going to do it again. Many contributed to the OpenStreetMap. Some created their own projects, or worked on some other social-good, civic projects that were local to their cities. A couple of the mentees worked with their mentors on a project that was an offshoot of an open source project called Unlock Philly, it was all about accessibility.

So they are actually affecting the real world and solving real world problems?

Exactly, and that’s what really fired them up, because a lot of people in our community are not computer science graduates. They have a different expertise, which is really exciting because we’ve got these history majors, public policy majors, politics majors, we’ve got all of this wealth of knowledge, and then we’re teaching them to code, we’re teaching them to contribute to open source. Now they are building these amazing projects that are really newsworthy. They are getting attention in their local cities. They’re changing lives because they’re allowing access.

How was the experience delivering a talk at the Red Hat Summit?

Honestly, everyone’s been so nice. It’s a huge opportunity for us to speak to this crowd because they’re passionate people. They are passionate about contributing, they’re passionate about community. It’s a great opportunity to get the message out about the work that we’re doing and finding people. It’s mostly men here, so finding a new audience for us to get them involved and participating, and get onboard with what we’re doing, trying to get more women into open source.