Welcoming More Women into the Boston Software Scene

August 2012 RailsBridge Workshop Recap

by Daniel Choi, Braulio Carreno, Brendan Kemp, and Rebecca Nesson

On Friday and Saturday, August 17-18, a group of volunteers from the Boston Ruby community ran a free two-day introductory Ruby and Rails workshop for women and their friends. (Women were automatically allowed to apply for a spot, while men were allowed to apply if they knew a woman who was going to attend.) Forty-four beginners, 36 of them women, attended the workshop at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A team of 17 experienced Ruby programmers assisted them through software installation, lectures and exercises. Students who had never written a line of code struggled for the first time with the command line, text editors, Git, the HTTP protocol, irb, and Heroku. By 4:30pm on Saturday, the students were tired from the exertion. But every student left the workshop with all the tools and concepts needed to write and deploy Rails applications.

We also provided everyone three catered meals, free PragProg and O’Reilly e-books, and free drinks and appetizers at the afterparty.

The inspiration for the workshop came on May 21, 2012, when Daniel Choi shared with the Boston Ruby mailing list the 2012 PyCon presentation titled “Diversity in practice: How the Boston Python User Group grew to 1700 people and over 15% women.” In the video, outreach organizers Jessica McKellar and Asheesh Laroia describe how Boston Python increased its female membership from 1% to 15% with a year of outreach workshops and monthly project nights. The Boston Python outreach effort had been inspired in turn by the RailsBridge diversity outreach effort to bring more women into the Ruby comunity in San Francisco. We wanted to try to do the same thing for the Boston Ruby community.

The workshop required a lot of prep work: getting advice, sponsors, venue, and food; putting up a website; putting together the curriculum; recruiting instructors; promoting; managing the waitlist. Hundreds of emails flurried back and forth. We met challenges, setbacks, and near-disasters. We had to learn how to navigate Harvard Law School’s administration to reserve rooms, set up wireless access, and arrange catering. One potential sponsor we were hoping to get had us submit a written proposal but then after a week of consideration declined; another pulled out for budgetary reasons. We almost failed to realize that the room we originally reserved for the 6.5-hour Saturday session lacked power outlets!

Since one of the goals of the workshop was to show that there were capable, friendly women programmers in the Boston Ruby community, we felt that a woman should be the head instructor, and that the teaching staff should be predominantly female. We were worried that we wouldn’t meet this goal. But as word spread that we were organizing a RailsBridge workshop, enough extremely capable women volunteers stepped forward to make up the majority of our teaching staff. It felt a little bit like the movie Field of Dreams.

The 44 students we admitted into the workshop came from a variety of backgrounds. Besides software developers, we had librarians, a former baker, a landscape designer, an architect, a chemistry researcher, a microbiologist, a state government employee, event planners, MBAs, and several web and graphic designers. A good percentage of the attendees had some exposure to HTML/CSS and several had experience in PHP, Java, C and Python. Two of our students had worked as developers for mainframe computers, writing PL/I and IBM assembler. One student had been a professional C programmer 20 years ago, taken time off to raise children, and wanted to come back to programming, through Ruby.

Based on our exit survey and direct feedback, the students found the workshop a well-organized, well-paced, effective, accessible, fun, friendly, and inspiring introduction to web application development with Ruby and Rails. Here are some of the results we got in our exit survey, which had about a 70% response rate. First, the overall rating distribution:

And here is a sampling of the general feedback:

I have to say also that the general atmosphere of friendly cooperation was incredibly impressive. It made me feel much more comfortable with joining the [Boston Ruby] community.
All the leaders & TAs were so nice and approachable. I'm always intimidated by these events and I felt very welcome.
The people were AWESOME. The instructors were incredibly nice and I met some really, really cool people.
The instructors and teaching assistants absolutely MADE this workshop. I have done similar tasks using online tutorials. But the volunteer folks were so knowledgeable and so helpful; it really made all the difference.
[I liked] the friendly and welcoming vibe of the group members and their clear love for Ruby. I knew nothing coming in and loved that by the end I had a working app and a basic clear grasp of how to get there.
I loved that there were so many teaching assistants and also that so much care was taken to make sure nobody fell behind in the exercises. The food was great as well! Kudos to the organizers and volunteers for a job well-done.
I really enjoyed it! Thanks so much... I can tell a ton of hard work went into it.
The workshop was run very efficiently. It provided an excellent mixture of hands-on learning with lectures on the underlying concepts.
I loved the set-up of the class. The amount of material in each mini-lecture was just enough, and I loved that we were actually allowed to code a bit and learn from mistakes. The TAs I spoke with were all excellent and seemed very eager to help. Great job guys :-)
Not intimidating or overwhelming, very inspiring and makes me fall in love with CS and programming all over again.
It was perfect.

Given all the things that could have gone wrong, we were more than a little surprised at how well the workshop went! But looking back, these seem to have been the key factors behind our success:

  1. Vibe. Our beginners felt comfortable, welcomed, and attended to. For this we credit the warm, friendly, and approachable teaching staff that we recruited.

    We also made it one of the main goals of Friday night to lighten the mood and allow people to socialize. Before kicking off the Friday night installfest, we had all the teaching assistants and then the representatives of the sponsors—over 20 people in total—line up in front of the classroom and introduce themselves one by one. Inevitably there were funny self-introductions that made the room erupt in laughter: the ice was broken in short order. Then came an unhurried installfest where teaching assistants and students had plenty of opportunities to meet and chat.

    At the end of lunch hour on Saturday, Jessica McKellar also made a guest appearance to give the students a great pep talk. It was a good way to remind everyone of the larger purpose of the event: that together we were making the software world better through diversity and inclusiveness.

  2. Advisors. We would have been lost without the guidance we got from seasoned outreach organizers from both Boston Python and RailsBridge San Francisco. Jessica McKellar and Asheesh Laroia, directors of OpenHatch and veterans of diversity outreach from the Boston Python community, offered constant encouragement and gave us our basic game plan. Mary Jenn of RailsBridge San Francisco guided us through the treasure trove of RailsBridge workshop resources and other tactical points through many emails and phone conversations.

  3. Curriculum. Organizing the event itself was a lot of work; so it helped a lot that we didn’t have to write the whole curriculum from scratch. We took the superb and well-vetted RailsBridge curriculum and focused on adding just a few of our own twists to it. Thanks primarily to the coding efforts of Brendan Kemp, we embedded the RailsBridge curriculum into our own custom Sinatra web application, updated the RailsBridge styling a bit with Twitter Bootstrap, and deployed it with Heroku (who were also one of our sponsors). We also added extra credit sections and mini-lectures, which we will mention again below.

  4. Student-Teacher Ratio. We had one teaching assistant for every 3.8 students. This was just enough to keep most of the teaching staff busy helping students as they encountered obstacles.

  5. Pacing. By adding extra credit sections to the curriculum and by having our teaching assistants scurry around to help every student who got stuck, we prevented quicker students from becoming bored and slower ones from being overwhelmed. We managed to keep everyone on roughly the same page throughout the day.

  6. Variety. We injected a bit of variety into the traditional RailsBridge curriculum with our own home-grown innovation: mini-lectures. Rebecca Nesson, our head instructor, kicked off the Saturday session with a general overview of web application development. Then we split up the hands-on RailsBridge curriculum thematically into five parts, and prefaced each part with a mini-lecture that gave students a friendly overview of the part of the curriculum they were about to tackle.

    This broke up the Saturday curriculum nicely and added a good dose of variety and entertainment. Each of our six lecturers brought their own style, wit, and humor to the class.

  7. Afterparty. When the curriculum was completed, more than half of our workshop attendees came to the afterparty at Cambridge Common, where we relaxed and got to know one other better as people. It helped that we had a generous amount of sponsor money earmarked for drinks and appetizers. The afterparty gave everyone a chance to learn fascinating things about each other's backgrounds and aspirations, the attendees a chance to thank the teachers and organizers personally, and the staff a chance to kick back with some high-fives, hugs, and well-deserved drinks! It was a lovely way to end the workshop.

Despite the hard work all this involved, the workshop team absolutely loved the experience. It was a wonderful way to use our hard-earned programming skills to empower people and do something good for the world. Programming doesn't always have to be a solitary experience. Sometimes it can be a shared joy.

We want to extend our thanks to our awesome volunteer teaching staff: Aimee Barciauskas, Amy Newell, Andrew Kuklewicz, Anita Patel, Braulio Carreno, Brendan Kemp, Daniel Choi, Dan Pickett, Elizabeth Kallman, Justin Clark, Kathryn Bennett, Liana Leahy, Lindsay Ucci, Michael Durrant, Rebecca Frankel, Rebecca Nesson, Shana Golden, Shivani Bhargava, and Valentine Rogers. Rebecca Nesson, Andrew Kuklewicz, and Chris Rhoden at PRX crafted our version of the RailsBridge curriculum. (You can read Rebecca's post about PRX's contribution on the PRX blog.) Rebecca Nesson, Anita Patel, Andrew Kuklewicz, Justin Clark, Liana Leahy, and Amy Newell wrote and delivered the mini-lectures.

We also thank our incredible sponsors for supporting our mission and making this workshop possible: O'Reilly, The Pragmatic Bookshelf, The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Public Radio Exchange (PRX), thoughtbot, Vermonster, WegoWise, Annkissam, LaunchAcademy, OfficeDrop, RBM Technologies, Heroku, Solano Labs and Michael Breen.

We would also like to thank Carli Spina and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society for helping us get such a fabulous venue and arrange first-class food service for the workshop. Carli also wrote up her own recap of the workshop, which she attended as a student.

Please follow us on Twitter: @RailsBridgeBos. To email us directly, please contact railsbridgeboston@gmail.com.

We're looking forward to growing and running more workshops. Please get in touch with us if you want to attend or help.

Photos contributed by Rebecca Frankel and Braulio Carreno