Do you remember the time before the internet? I do, barely. Do you remember before cell phones? When you bought the first iPhone? I do, barely. But it’s there in my mind, the undercurrent that this was not a thing, and then we made it, and then it was a thing. Now we consume, for the majority of our day, from this thing. We continue to make this thing, and in return, it makes us.
I have long been interested in learning the backend of this thing, whatever it is. My friends have been early employees at Google and Facebook and etc. etc., but I’ve always felt a bit off to the sidelines. This is the norm, with women making up 15-30% of programming roles on a good day.
So when I saw a week-long Python course at the women’s Hackbright Academy in San Francisco, I signed myself up, without fully thinking about it. I thought, it’s a week, if it sucks, how bad can that be?
My thinking and lifelong suspicions were:
1) To pull back the curtain
My career as an editor and content strategist has put me in and around tech stuff for a long time. But I never knew the inside, beyond some WordPress and HTML finagling to make dinosaurs rain on my MySpace page (which gave us so much more freedom than Facebook, a place to personalize the look of our online profiles, imagine). I have worked, exclusively, with male tech dudes. Not a single woman in sight.
So, why did I never get in and splash around this programming pool if I was curious? I liked video games as a kid, grew up playing Asteroids on an early Apple computer, and had the first clamshell Apple laptop (in teal) of anyone I knew. I was into this. But my education was not. My high school, yuppie though it was, did not encourage a girl to have an interest in computers. I was forced to take typing, even after I tested out of it (the quick brown fox the quick brown fox the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog), all the way through senior year. I’m not that old. There were resources available. What happened here?
As an adult, I tried online schools. But I hit walls. Big, frustrating, insurmountable walls. My guy friends, I should note here, are extremely supportive. But it’s exactly like learning to ask for the bathroom in a language when the people around you can crack jokes in it. You need a learning plan, a hand to hold, and a supportive group of bumblers to screw up as you do. And key to this, you need a way to identify with the community, to imagine yourself into this foreign world.
This was my way in:
2) There’s a programming language named for Monty Python
The obscure Python references in the Code Academy lessons finally pushed me into opening a new browser window and searching for what was going on. The coding question that led me into the search rabbit hole was this one:
Set bool_one equal to the result of 2**3 == 108 % 100 or ‘Cleese’ == ‘King Arthur’
Probably, such references are confusing if you are younger, English is your second language, or you weren’t fortunate enough to be raised by Monty Python fans. For me, it worked. How bad can it ever be to learn in an environment where they name things for a beloved group of British goofball comedians? Python is also open source, which means the tutorials and learning materials are largely free. A good place to start is Python’s own wiki.
The Monty Python references, nested in another language I didn’t understand, were just like hearing the rare word I knew when I was learning Spanish.
It goes like this: There are sentences of gibberish and then something you know and,”oh?” your ears perk up. “Oh?” is a way in. It’s not the whole language. There will be months, years, of not getting it. But there it is, a door, and your brain clings to its frame.
Then, there was this artsy angle:
3) Python has a cute, vaguely aztec logo
One of my favorite museums is the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The Python logo would look right at home carved in stone there, with some additional fangs.
Still, I faltered, because:
4) I was secretly convinced there would be math
Women and math come up in the same sentences as women and computer sciences, so I felt like a traitor admitting this, but: I don’t like math.
Don’t get me wrong, I can handle everyone’s restaurant bill divisions with tips. But I don’t like it, and the 12 page math problems in inorganic chemistry nearly ruined my college years. So, just in case there was math sneaking into the course, I decided I would be able to handle it for the week and only the week.
The truth is:
5) I actually studied poetry
I went to summer conferences and workshops for poetry, I attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop summer session. Poetry! I love it. I had the privilege to study it. Liberal arts, heyo!
But when I kept seeing comparisons between poetry and coding, including the WordPress slogan “code is poetry,” I thought, haha, nah, you guys can’t mean that. But it kept somewhere bubbling away in the back of my head.
There’s lots to read about this. My personal favorite is this Quora post “How is writing code like writing poetry” where several people answer in…poems. This bit from Free Code Camp’s Medium blog also enticed me:
Software is poetry. It’s the expression of ideas in the most elegant form a programmer can devise. Like a writer who chews the texture of words, rolls them against the tongue, seeks out the just-right way to tell each part of their tale, a programmer creatively employs structure and syntax of language to address problems, to arrange the sequence in which they are solved, assemble them into a story.
So, was this a thing I was actually going to enjoy? Uh, you guys like Yeats? Or was this academy just appealing to my female pocketbook?
It sounds like:
6) Summer camp and those intensive fitness bootcamps combined, for the ladies
The school mascot is a unicorn, the bathrooms are full of inspirational notes written by other students, and we got t-shirts. It was friendly. Why be serious?
We studied 10-6 and my brain hurt at the end of each day. I made friends, and someone created a Slack group which we now use to share resources and chat. One of my lab buddies took a screenshot of our code and sent it to me later, calling it elegant. Another woman composed a rap with all our vocabulary words and sent it to the group. It was fun, it was silly, it was seriously intense, and it was enough to keep me going. In the weeks since, we continue to support each other.
The strongest reason:
7) I had a sneaking suspicion that I might like this thing
A programmer friend told me before the course that I would be surprised to learn that computers are dumb. He was right, though not because it’s a shock that computers follow instructions (for now?), but because it shines a light on how people are creative and that is valued here.
Do I think I’m a special unicorn after a week, who will understand this as well as someone that started at 18 and does it all night and all weekend? No, but now I’ve got a (ruby slippered) foot in the game. Women are needed here. We do ourselves and society no favors by being hugely imbalanced in this field, making the lights and noise, and we owe it to ourselves to understand more.
The creative angle is something that would have enticed me into learning more about coding a long time ago. As it turns out, Python is very similar to writing. There is a respect for whitespace, by golly! But it was never presented to me that way, and so I always thought of it as being behind that curtain. The simple switch of thinking, from scary machine to creative field, made all the difference.
- Python Wiki: Specifically, the beginner resources for non-resources, including sites for K-12 teachers
- Free Code Camp: Learn, help non-profits
- Code Academy: Free and pay courses with Monty Python jokes
- PyLadies: Python + Ladies, community meetups
- Women Who Code: Community meetups
- Girl Develop It: I read this as “girllllll develop it”
- Hackbright Academy: Coding academy for women in SF
- Interested in getting your daughters and nieces into coding? Here is a list of programming resources for young women and girls.