Amy Gori certainly wasn’t lacking for education – she has a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature – but she had no training in computer coding before taking a course offered by the local chapter of a nonprofit group called Girl Develop It.
Gori, who was an assistant dean at UNC-Chapel Hill before becoming a parent and temporarily dropping out of the workforce, quickly became hooked on coding. She signed up for another Girl Develop It class, then took a more intensive 12-week course offered by a code school in Durham called The Iron Yard. The end result: Today she’s a web developer at Durham startup Adwerx.
“I find it endlessly fascinating,” Gori said. “It feels a little bit like magic when you write a line of code and the website does what you want it to do.”
Girl Develop It is a national organization which, despite its misleading name, is committed to demystifying the world of web and software development for adult women – a group that is sorely under-represented in the technology industry. Just 26 percent of computing jobs nationwide were held by women in 2014, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
The RDU chapter, which goes by GDIRDU for short and is run by volunteers, has quickly grown to nearly 1,800 members since it was formed in late 2012.
Courses typically range between two-hour workshops and up to eight hours of classroom time. Since each class costs $10 per classroom hour, they typically run between $20 and $80 each. Nearly half of that fee goes to the teachers.
“Learning to code is easier than you think,” said Sarah Kahn, a user experience manager at Intel and one of four GDIRDU co-leaders. “If you tried it before and weren’t successful, you probably had a bad teacher.”
Jennifer Houchins, 35, who was recently laid off from her job as a software developer at a local startup, has taken three GDIRDU courses even though she’s experienced in the field.
“Technology is always changing,” said Houchins, who lives in Morrisville. “I find the classes help you keep abreast of emerging technologies.”
“I try to convey to my students that failure is a normal state of programming,” said Sylvia Pellicore, a teacher and GDIRDU co-leader whose day job is at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, where she’s a web accessibility adviser.
“Code doesn’t work most of the time,” she continued. “You write some code. It’s broken. You run bug checks. It’s still broken. You go to somebody next to you and (ask), why is this broken? You fix it. It’s really exciting. And then you break it again.”
The RDU chapter, which to date has attracted seven corporate sponsors that provide financial and other support, also offers free events that aim to create a sense of community and foster professional development.
They include frequent Code + Coffee events – three are on this month’s calendar, one each in Raleigh, Durham and Carrboro – that offer opportunities to network or seek out help on a coding problem. There are also workshops on topics such as Big Data and negotiating a salary.
“Personally, I think they are addressing a really good need,” said Daniel Jebaraj, vice president and head of product development at Syncfusion, a Research Triangle Park producer of software development tools and a GDIRDU sponsor.
Jebaraj, who has two daughters ages 16 and 10, believes that it’s important for technology companies to hire women.
“It’s the right thing to do overall but I think it is also the right business thing to do,” said Jebaraj. “Software development is really about problem solving ... and I think that different people approach these problems from different life experiences. I think that the collection of thoughts and inputs they bring to the table often produces cleaner solutions.”
Girl Develop It has struck a chord nationwide. Founded in New York City in 2010, today the nonprofit has chapters in 52 cities and boasts 62,500 members.
The RDU chapter “is doing a fantastic job,” said Corinne Warnshuis, the national organization’s executive director. “I would say they are one of more active, mid-sized market chapters.”
One key to the organization’s success, said Warnshuis, is that all of its classes are taught by teachers in classrooms rather than online, which can be difficult for some beginners to navigate.
“It’s really focused on creating a comfortable learning environment where there are no stupid questions, where everybody is welcome,” she said. “We welcome beginners who know absolutely nothing about technology and try to get them up to speed and teach them relevant skills.”
There is, as Warnshuis alluded to, a second way that the Girl Develop It name is misleading: Men are also welcome at the organization’s classes and events.
But, said Warnshuis, “we’re focused on women because there is a huge dearth of women in technology.”
Few role models
Nor is there a huge pipeline of women training for tech careers. Just 18 percent of those who received bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences were women in 2013, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
“It’s hard for girls considering a career in technology to envision where they fit in” because there aren’t enough role models, said Marlo Wilcox, director of human resources at Spoonflower, a Durham company that uses digital printing technology to create fabric on demand. Spoonflower is a GDIRDU sponsor.
Wilcox likes that the organization goes beyond teaching technical skills by offering programs for “navigating your way through the job market,” such as the salary negotiation workshop.
“Women haven’t always been so comfortable advocating for themselves, even when they are technically skilled and qualified,” she said. “Those kinds of things are extremely important to know how to do.”
Gori, the former assistant dean who’s now a web developer, said she never envisioned a tech career for herself prior to her Girl Develop It experience. Now she’s one of the local chapter’s co-leaders and a role model for others.
“I didn’t take any computer science classes in college,” she said. “I never even thought about taking a computer science class. I always felt like I was bad at math. I always felt I wasn’t capable of technical things.”
Girl Develop It - RDU Chapter
Mission: Offering affordable tech classes and creating a supportive environment for women interested in, or engaged in, a career in technology. However, men also are welcome.
Affiliation: Part of the national Girl Develop It organization, a nonprofit.
Local members: Nearly 1,800.
Courses: Periodically offers more than a dozen tech courses that cost $10 per classroom hour. Courses typically run between two and eight hours.
Other events: Offers professional development workshops and meetups where members can network and/or seek technical help.