Software Designers~The People Behind the Code~(英語)

#43 Computer Science 2.0: Part 2―Vanessa Hurst, Co-Founder, Girl Develop It

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This is the second in a series on alternatives to a formal computer science education.

Like many women, Vanessa Hurst didnt think of software development as an obvious career choice. Hurst is the daughter of a Marine colonel whose family frequently moved as he got reassigned. She kept her bearings wherever they landed by joining the local Girl Scout troop. As Hurst grew up, she thought about careers in the so-called “helping professions,” which for her meant becoming either a teacher of a physician.

But after she enrolled at the University of Virginia with an eye toward bioengineering, a less likely helping profession caught her eye: technology, particularly as it relates to organizing information. I also realized I could graduate in four years rather than going to medical school until I was 30. So there was a little bit of laziness factored in.”

Laziness does not come to mind when you look at Hursts post-graduate life. She moved to New York City to do financial database development for the analytics firm S&P Capital IQ, where she learned how to budget her time and get things done as part of a development team. She later worked on business intelligence projects for the job-finder site TheLadders. A few months later, she met the founders of the online invitation site Paperless Post. “I told them I loved their site, and it turned out they needed help managing data. They were willing to pay me to do this incredibly fun thing, so I said: of course I will do that.”

While in the midst of these job changes, some friends introduced her to fellow technologist Sara Chipps, self-described on her Twitter page as “Just a girl, standing in front of a compiler, asking it to love her.” The two went on to found a community-based educational resource called Girl Develop It, a non-profit dedicated to teaching women how to program, face-to-face, one city meet-up at a time.

Why “Girl Develop It”? Why not “People Develop it”?

Sara and I are very much a part of the strong technical community here in New York City. But in a room full of developers, we were often either the only woman or one of just a few. To be honest, that setting made it was really hard to ask questions, to be comfortable enough with our own experience to show a room full of peers that we may not know something. That was especially true in college because I didnt know how to program when I got there, whereas most other computer science students had been programming for years. They hit the ground running. I wasnt in fact so far behind, but the feeling of having to catch up was exacerbated by the social dynamic of being afraid to stand out. Countering that intimidating feeling is what Girl Develop It is about.

Girl Develop It is focused not on online coursework, but face-to-face instruction. Why that approach?

We believe in online education as well, but we found that we were better able to create the environment we wanted in person much more easily. We started by teaching the classes ourselves. We told our students: nobody is promising youll be perfect. We are not saying that you are going to get the most amazing development job right after this. But here is a place where we are going to talk about computer programming, where you can ask whatever you want to know, and feel comfortable that you are not being judged as you are trying to learn about software.

We began by inviting people we knew. Sara in particular had given a lot of talks about software development, so she knew women interested in technology. We started teaching, we surveyed everyone frequently on how we were doing, and learned much from the feedback. Then we started to hear from people from other cities asking how they could they do the same thing.

Do women in particular learn better person-to-person then in isolation online?

I dont think its gender-specific. There is a lot of research that shows some people really learn fast by talking about what they are studying. Others can retain a lot just by reading or just by hearing a lecture. But we have found that the social dynamic of programming Ive referred to is best addressed by meeting in person and having a room full of women.

It also helps if the person at the front of the room, the authority, isnt a stereotypical programmer. Most of our instructors are women. We also have black instructors, as well as Latino and European instructors. That changes the dynamic. You dont look at the teacher and think: that person knows a lot, but they arent like me, and therefore I cant get it. We also try to get programmers who speak clearly, who break down concepts, who can explain a complex technical concept with a few different simplified analogies. Its hard to find those people. You can be really effective at building software without being able to teach other people how to do it.

Who are your students? Where are they in their careers?

Roughly half are looking to make a career transition. Maybe they have topped out on their career path and want to become or work closely with developers. Others are entrepreneurs who are interested in starting technical businesses or know that they have a big software or Web component to their business. We had one woman, Linda, a great trooper, who was in the classes that Sara and I taught--and we are by far the worst teachers in Girl Develop It. Even so, Linda took all of our classes in the fall of 2010. She learned HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jquery, and Ruby. Sara and I together taught an object-oriented programming and data structures class. She took that. She would drop in on us during our office hours. She would come to our Code and Coffee events. And she went on to build a prototype of her business with Ruby on Rails. She got funding and then built a whole technical team around it.

Girl Develop it one of several new organizations offering developer education without the certification of a college degree. How do you think that will play out?

Whats wonderful about software development is that your work can speak for itself. Thats especially true now with code-sharing platforms like GitHub and Bitbucket that allow you to really prove what youre capable of. You can show that you built a website and get a job as a developer. I realize thats a non-corporate view of the business world, but at least in the startup community, were really big on people just proving that they can do the job at the lowest rungs of the profession, then looking for more opportunities from there. And I think thats really great: it keeps the focus on whats really meaningful rather than on the meta-layer of academia that can sometimes get in the way.

When I say you dont necessarily need a computer science degree, Im aware that Im speaking from a position of privilege of having one. If someone questions my capabilities, Ive always got my own degree to fall back on. But as a member of technology teams who has done recruiting and hiring, I personally am looking not for a degree, but for somebody who has gotten things done. I think the criteria for hiring is changing. The lower barriers to entry mean that younger people with drive and a focused vision have more ability to pursue their dreams. The technology and hosting services are cheap. Its never been easier to get yourself out there.

The other idea is that not every technical problem requires advanced algorithms or an in-depth understanding of computer science. I say this as someone who is grateful for having studied both of those things and who likes really interesting technical problems. But I work with a lot of non-profits and their technical problems are just not that complex. The person they need to bridge the gap simply knows how to deploy existing technology in a custom environment.

Does that mean that for many would-be developers, JavaScript should be the entry point?

I do think of JavaScript as a gateway programming language. It gets front-end developers to at least dabble in back-end development and learn more about data. Thats the area where you usually see more requirements for a college degree. Ruby and Python are also both good learning languages because they are dynamically typed, and so are much less verbose. They take less coding to make something work. But what they dont show you are the implied instructions that take place under the surface. Its nice not to write out everything explicitly. But its good to know what youre doing.

So are you advocating people study C?

A lot of the things I work on dont need the efficiencies that come from coding at that level. But I really value that I used C for six months. The experience made me cognizant of data structures and optimization in every high-level program that I write.

In the United States, women with science and technical skills are going into medicine and biology, while largely avoiding the huge opportunities in software development. Why?

The underrepresentation of women, and of minorities too, in computer science is an intricate issue. One of the biggest factors for success is overcoming some myths: that computer programming is something that only anti-social people do, that men are better at it because they are better at math. So one of the fundamental things Girl Develop It does is to encourage women who are curious about technology to become more technology-literate. To think of themselves as potential makers of technology. And in time, to become, themselves, role models for the next generation of girls who are at the point where I was: thinking that if they want to help people, the only thing they can do is be a teacher or a doctor.

I wonder if a computer science college degree remains more important in other countries. For employment, that certification is still a requirement.

I think thats absolutely true. You can always listen to the loud, enthusiastic New York tech scene and start to think that degrees dont matter. But even here in the U.S., for most company human resource departments, a degree still makes the hiring decision easier. The reason that requirement is being relaxed is that theres such a huge skills gap. There are so many businesses and organizations that have plans that could benefit from technology. But they cant find the technical talent to make it happen. So they have to adjust what they are looking for. Its not a matter of lowering those standards, but reevaluating where those standards came from.

In addition to co-founding Girl Develop it, you’ve also started another organization: Developers for Good.

Its matches non-profit organizations who badly need programming talent with programmers who want to volunteer their skills. They may want to find social-impact jobs or contribute their talents to humanitarian open source projects. These opportunities also bridge the gap for people coming from community education programs like ours, who still need more experience before they become hirable. Volunteering can give them that experience.

You’ve really thought this through.

Its all part of my grand scheme.


Bart Eisenberg

Bart Eisenberg's articles on the trends and technologies of the American computer industry have appeared in Gijutsu-Hyoron publications since the late 1980s. He has covered and consulted for both startups and the major corporations that make up the Silicon Valley. A native of Los Angeles and a self-confessed gadget freak, he lives with his wife Susan in Marin County, north of San Francisco. When not there, he can sometimes be found hiking with a GPS in the Sierra, traveling in India, driving his Toyota subcompact down the California coast, or on the streets of New York and Tokyo.


1980年代後半より,『Software Design』や『Web Site Expert』などの雑誌に,アメリカのコンピュータ業界のトレンドと技術に関するレポートを執筆しています。シリコンバレーで,スタートアップ企業から大企業まで幅広い分野でコンサルタントを務めました。

ロサンゼルス生まれで,自称ガジェットフリークです.現在,妻のSusanとともに,サンフランシスコ北部のMarin County在住。また,SierraのGPSを携えてハイキングしたり,インドを旅したり,カリフォルニア海岸をドライブしたり,NYや東京の街中を歩いたりしています。