I recently had a chance to catch up with Susan Buck and Nicole Noll, founders of the Women’s Coding Collective, who shared the story of how the WCC came into existence and why. Immersed full-time in academia (Susan teaches computer science and Nicole – social psychology), the two women came together to teach collaborative web development courses, first in Philadelphia and then in the Boston community. And it all happened organically! Read the interview below to find out how.
How did the Women’s Coding Collective come into existence?
Nicole: In Philadelphia, Susan and I were working on an app and running into the frustrations you have when you are trying to start something. We thought, we know other people who are working on projects, let’s have a dinner party and get advice. And everybody was really excited about it, but then life happened and they cancelled on us and we were like, “well we clearly need more friends.” (laughs) So we started a Meetup, met a bunch of new people, and in talking to them about their ideas and what they wanted to do, it became pretty clear that a sticking point for a lot of people was technical ability.
They had ideas for business platforms or services – but no matter what it was – they needed some sort of web presence and didn’t know where to start with that, either building it themselves or even just talking to someone who could build it for them. Since that is what Susan did, teaching web development classes at the University of Pennsylvania, we realized we could just start offering classes.
Susan: We started really simple. We found a dance studio in South Philadelphia which was basically a big open room but it had a table, chairs, Internet and a blank white wall to project onto. We started out having meetups with other women who were doing something entrepreneurial that also intersected with web and tech. The idea was to get together regularly so we could check in with this group and have a bit of accountability. But then we started to have the class aspect and people would come just to pick up the skills.
Then we both had life circumstances that brought us up here, in Boston. And then we said, “Let’s try this in a different city.” It became a lot more structured and finding a home at the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) was a big move up for us.
You considered branching out through little pods across the country but decided to do it online instead. What is your online class structure?
Susan: We felt particular about how our content was being delivered, the environment, the vibe and everything, so we decided to branch online because it allowed us to scale and still have a lot of control over the content in a way that we couldn’t do through little pods across the country.
The class structure is a mixture of content you read but also screencasts showing you what to do. There is also a community space where you can interact with the other women you are taking the class with.
Generally with massively open online classes (MOOCs), there is a huge drop-off rate between the students who sign up vs. the students who actually complete the class. To combat that we try to capture that small class feeling as much as possible. It’d be very easy for us to just open up our content on the subscription, but we structured our online classes as two-week courses so when you sign up, you are with a cohort of other women. It adds peer pressure, in a good way, to keep you on track.
Why women only? What do you think a women-centric organization contributes that is different from other types of coding meetups?
Nicole: I feel really strongly about my educational experience at a women’s college and a part of what was motivating us was to contribute to addressing the gender gap in tech. The combination of having that as a goal and my own educational background just made focusing on women make sense.
The analogy that we like to use is a greenhouse. One of the common arguments against women spaces or minority spaces is that it isn’t like the real world. But there is something to be said for having an environment that is somewhat artificial but can prepare you. Speaking from personal experience going to other kinds of meetups, the atmosphere seems much more competitive and we are trying to foster one that is cooperative and supportive.
Susan: There is just a different vibe and we are really interested in that. A lot of research shows that the ratio of men to women or boys to girls in a classroom impacts who is speaking up and who is raising their hand. To get and retain people in the tech industry, which can be a bit of a cold place for women and minorities, you want to create spaces where women aren’t also combating with that feeling of otherness and impostor syndrome.
A testament to this is that with pretty good frequency we hear from men who say they want to come to our classes because they always feel intimidated at other tech events and feel like our classes would be nicer and gentler. When people say that this isn’t the real world, we respond that there are plenty of opportunities to interact with the real world. You know, our events are only a couple of nights a month.
What are some highlights from teaching at the WCC?
Susan: My favorite was when we had a class with a teenager and a woman in her 60s. Just seeing that age range was awesome. Or when we have a mom who takes the classes with her daughter; that’s really cool.
Nicole: For me, it’s in our HTML class when the women make a file, move it to the browser, and gasp. They are so excited! You use all these sites every day of your life and now you can start to understand how they are actually created.
Susan: And when it works! When you have a student who tells you that she took your classes, started putting them on her resume, and got an interview or that taking the class gave her the courage to take another class. Those stories are fun.
What are some things that women can do to to learn faster and grow professionally?
Susan: I always encourage people to find their tribe. If you don’t have your tribe inside the workspace, find it outside of it so at the end of the day you can go to a place where you can be reminded that you are not the only one. I look back at my experience of going through computer science in college and struggling really hard because I was one of only two women in the class and feeling like it was me, that I was just not getting it. In retrospect, if I had found more people who were in a similar situation, it would have been a much gentler route. For a lot of young girls and women in the industry that is a breaking point and they break off, and that’s it.
Nicole: The universities that are being able to report that they have equalized the gender ratio in their intro CS classes are the ones where they have realized that some people already have experience, so they made an actual intro computer science class and a I-have-coded-before intro class. I think Stanford restructured theirs and Harvey Mudd has something similar.
Also, don’t be afraid to try something and fail. The research on perfection tends to show that women are a lot more concerned about that than men. The reality is that if you are succeeding in everything you are trying, you are really not risking much, you aren’t pushing yourself. Especially with code, it’s OK because you can just undo it. It’s not like carpentry where it’s like, “oops, cut that board, now I need a new one.”
Susan: That is a mindset that you get with programming – if it’s not going to work the first time, that’s normal; if it works the first time, I’m kind of surprised. So getting comfortable with that feeling is important.
If you weren’t doing what you currently do, what else would you do?
Susan: I’d want to know how to work with wood, to be able to make stuff, and have a workshop. If I fail, I may look for the Ctrl Z on my circular saw.
Nicole: Hmm, I don’t know.
Susan: Oh, you know you would be a park ranger!
Nicole: (laughs) I really like being outdoors. I’d just be so happy and I’d have fun introducing other people to that because it has elements of teaching.
About the author: SGO Ambassador Maggie Georgieva is a Product Manager at HubSpot focused on facilitating existing user flows and creating simple and prescriptive paths for navigation. In the past two years, Maggie worked to evolve HubSpot’s segmentation and automation tools to increase retention and usability. Prior to joining the Product team, Maggie was a member of HubSpot’s Marketing team where she produced some of the most downloaded marketing ebooks and some of the most attended marketing webinars. Check out Maggie’s website