Learning to be a developer

The other week I voluntarily cancelled my weekend plans to spend my Friday night and Saturday channelling my ‘inner geek’ by taking my first foray into the scary world of computer programming. I had signed up to go to a ‘Rails Girls London’ workshop, a free event organised by Rails Girls, a tech community born out of Finland in 2010, which has now evolved into global, non-profit volunteer groups, that run events all around the world, from Chengdu, China to Sydney, Australia to Houston, Texas to Bratislava, Slovakia.

Recently I have been reading a lot about the under-representation of women in the ever growing tech industry and how companies are screaming out for more females to join their forces. More and more tech companies are specifically seeking out women to offer complementary skills, creativity and a different angle and perspective to the world of tech, as well as more balance in the workplace. As a result there has been a major drive, often backed by tech firms (both big and small) to get more women involved in technology. Rails Girls is just one of many initiatives, with a specific mission to arm women around the world with tools and a community to understand technology and build their ideas. Through their free workshops, designed to teach girls (and women) of all experience levels to sketch, prototype, do some basic programming and build and launch an app in a day, they are trying to make technology more accessible.

So with absolutely no experience of programming (and frankly no idea of even how the web works) I headed over to some offices in central London to find out what ‘coding’ really meant and to generally get involved. The programme for Friday night was pretty gentle and consisted mainly of getting ourselves set up with the right software etc., eating burritos and mingling. There were about 30 attendees and about half that number of coaches selflessly giving up their weekends to teach us. After swapping stories I discovered that the crowd was hugely diverse both in terms of background and programming experience. Attendees ranged from complete beginners and those working outside of tech (including marketing, TV, scientists, writers and students just to name a few) to those with some experience of coding, often in another language, or working within the broad tech space e.g. bloggers, web designers, programmers etc. Some were just simply curious and wanting to find out more, whereas others were actively looking for help to develop and bring their individual ideas and projects to life.

After being eased in on Friday, Saturday was a different ball game. Arriving at 9am I was soon paired up with a fellow beginner and a designated coach and off we went working our way through a set of exercises that introduced me to Ruby (a programming language popular amongst Silicon Valley and London start-ups e.g. Twitter) and Ruby on Rails (the framework that enables websites to be built using Ruby code). By lunch time I had managed to muddle my way through and even build and launch my own app, a very basic website that enabled a user to upload various images into pretty circles. My fellow girl coder, a designer in her other life, managed to create a rather splendid Catapp, putting mine to shame. A quick break for lunch and some sugar before an afternoon session filled with lightening talks from various coaches and more playing around. By the time it got to 5.30pm my head was filled and starting to hurt. Thankfully it was the end of the day and after the group shared their thoughts and achievements from the day (one girl had managed to integrate her app with a Twitter API!!) we went to the pub to celebrate and give ourselves a pat on the back.

Although I certainly won’t be calling myself a developer anytime soon it was kind of cool to be able to say I made my own website, which I guess is exactly the purpose of these workshops. Get excited, get involved, start playing and start learning. By creating an open, friendly and nurturing community, Rail Girls succeeds in fostering an inclusive and participatory environment. I was amazed by how open, creative, collaborative and willing to share people were, which got me thinking about the wider impact this is having on global culture.

All around the world, more and more people are looking for new, different and more ways to express themselves and develop their individual passions and interests. They seek genuine inspiration that sparks their creativity. They desire skills, knowledge and influence through collaboration with genuine experts. Today’s participatory culture means that people yearn to be part of a likeminded community. They want to get their hands dirty through tinkering, playing, experimenting and making stuff. And what’s more they want it all for free.