Aaron Quint offers a refreshing shift to the broader issue of how to diversify the Ruby community:

Let’s actually make this happen. How can we get more women in software development? How can we bring more women into the Ruby community? I don’t have the answer and honestly, I’m not a fantastic teacher or community organizer. However, I’m a pretty decent developer and as a freelancer I’m making some decent money so that I can give some of that money to people who are much better teachers and community organizers. With that said, I’ve started a pledgie and put $500 dollars in it. After 1 month, I’m going to donate any money I’ve collected there to a charity to support either teaching Ruby/development in schools, or supporting women in development.

I donated $50 to the fund.  While Aaron’s efforts are focused on outreach to women and teaching Ruby in schools, it’s also noteworthy that the community is very white and young, with black and Hispanic engineers most notably under-represented.  Aaron titled his post “the ghetto of the mind” referencing a music video with stark lyrics. Listening to the lyrics brought home the reality that any discomfort I may feel about being one of the few women at a geek event can’t really be compared to how I would feel growing up in a ghetto. The imbalance in the Ruby community seems like an eminently more solvable problem than gang violence, drug addiction and the scarcity of options for young people growing up in America’s ghettos.

So what can we do?

As a woman, I feel most able to address the issue of the lack of women in the community.  I also think that Ruby is an awesome language that anyone would have fun learning, and Rails is a neat framework which is handy to know how to use even if your main gig in some other language.  It’s just plain useful to use a scripting language that is really object-oriented and has a wacky, enthusiastic community with a million extensions and libraries openly and conveniently published on github.  It’s also handy to be able to whip up a basic web app in five minutes for prototyping or experimenting with ideas.  Ruby and Rails have a bit of a cool techie buzz now, but the community is still small.  I would guess that there are more women who write code than there are Ruby programmers (in the world, in the U.S, and certainly in the SF Bay Area).  I think that if we had monthly events, specifically targeted at women, and were able to effectively spread the word, then we could make it so the SF Ruby events has a more balanced audience and that at next year’s Golden Gate Ruby Conference, half the audience and speakers could be women. I’m not saying every person who attended a workshop or meetup would fall in love with Ruby, but some of them would.  It would bring in all sorts of new energy to the community drawing from all different areas of tech.

Sarah Mei and I are organizing an outreach workshop in June to teach Ruby and Rails.  Bosco So, organizer of the SF Ruby Meetup, hooked us up with Orange Labs who will host the event and sponsor lunch. DevChix lent us server space for a wiki.  We’re planning a Friday night setup + Saturday workshop.  We’re thinking that registration will be open to women and to any man who also brings a woman who wants to learn Ruby. I figure any guy who wants to come must know at least one woman who might be interested, and then we can have both men and women involved in the outreach effort.  We’ll be needing folks to help “TA” of any gender — send me an email if you are interested in volunteering.  More info to come.

I also love the idea of teaching Ruby in schools.  Independently, I was thinking of how cool it would be to teach Ruby to kids.  I was so inspired by Greg Borenstein’s talk about physical computing with Rails Aduino Development (RAD) that I’ve ordered a Dorkboard and see if I can create a lab that will be accessible to a group of fifth graders.  I figured that they are almost as old as I was when I started programming, so it might be just right. I was shocked, yet somehow unsurprised, that computer electives in SF Middle Schools don’t include programming (at least not any of the schools we visited).  12-14 years old is an ideal time to get kids into coding and it’s right around the time that girls lose interest. I was thinking of volunteering to teach a bit of programming to augment the totally lame computer classes that my kid is destined to encounter in the next few years.  Meanwhile, if anyone has ideas for good first Ruby projects for fifth graders, please comment!

So, those are the baby steps, here’s the bold idea….

What if 6-8th graders could be shown how cool programming is and be empowered to do it? Raise enough money to offer a 4-8 week programming workshop to every public school in San Francisco that could augment the Math curriculum (or wherever the school wants to include it). Offer it serially until all of the kids have the chance to take it (maybe not all schools would be interested, but most probably would if it was free to them).  What if by the time these kids finished middle school and started going to local Ruby events there were 50-50 women-men in attendance? That would be bold.

Click here to lend your support to: For the future Ruby Community and make a donation at www.pledgie.com !

In the late 90s, Anita Borg set a goal of “50/50 by 2010” with women representing half the graduating engineers and scientists.  Sadly Anita died in 2003.  While one year is too short a time to meet her ambitous goal for college students, I believe it is enough time to make a significant change in the Ruby community.  I also agree with Aaron that even small steps can make a huge difference.  But if we wanted to do something bold, it could be dramatic.  By reaching out to every kid in one city, we could bring representative local diversity to the community, and along with that lots of new enthusiasm, ideas and code.

13 thoughts on “baby steps and bold moves

  1. I’m a Chicana (ahem, Hispanic female), and I know that I have to work 10 times harder than every other developer. It’s hard to work on things when you feel like you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. And honestly, I would love to see more radical Chican@s in open source development.

  2. I’m really glad that I was able to do something to get something started on this front. Whether or not *everyone* agrees I think getting more women involved in the current community and more kids involved in the future community is a great goal.

    I also think the idea of volunteer workshops is great, and I think a lot of our fellow Rubyists wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon teaching or mentoring.

    Also, Id like some help and guidance from everyone on where to direct the money that gets collected. There have been a couple of ideas/suggestions already, but I’m looking for everyone’s ideas.

    Maybe its worthwhile to set up a dedicated mailing list for this cause? I dont want to overdo it, but I also think it would be neat to have a way to spread the word about events or get group feedback on initiatives like this little fund.

    On another note – It’s interesting you took the music video so litteraly. I think my intention was to play against this whole ‘Rails is a Ghetto’ meme and hoped that people got the whole ‘if you want to break free you need to change your mindset first’.

  3. It wasn’t so much that I took the music video literally, but rather took the opportunity to clearly illustrate that the diversity issue goes beyond gender imbalance, and , with the hub-bub in the blog-o-sphere and twitterverse, I thought it a good way to put the whole thing in perspective.

    I think the Anita Borg foundation could be a great resource. They may even have some on-going projects that would fit. I also love the idea of a fund to help women speakers travel to events. It would be cool to have a mailing list for folks who donate to the fund, then we could all decide how to focus efforts.

  4. I’m both flattered and thrilled that you found my Ruby Arduino project inspiring on the learning programming front. I definitely think that being able to write a program that actually causes something to blink or move in the real world is thrilling and motivating in a whole different way than what happens on the screen, especially for people who are more hands-on thinkers than your typical programmer. One of my big motivations for writing RAD is to make learning physical computing as easy for beginners as it can possibly be. Arduino is a great project from an educational standpoint and it’s taken this stuff from the deeply technical to the human, but I think the beauty and elegance of Ruby can take it even further. For beginners, all the “program junk” (type declarations, curly braces, etc) can be a pretty big obstacle when they’re just trying to concentrate on the basics.

    Anyway, if I can help in anyway with your attempts to learn or teach Arduino please don’t hesitate to contact me. In addition to myself, I’ve got access to a very vibrant community around this stuff up in Portland (including the creator of the Dorkboard) that has put on a ton of great educational events and could definitely help with educational materials.

  5. Big Bold Steps, But Baby Steps…

    Is Ruby jumping the gun?

    Consider the brightest most select group of students I can imagine learn programing at Stanford and many other top universities by starting with Karel the Robot. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LoKDDRlfZc

    Karel – “By initially limiting the student’s language repertoire to easily grasped imperative commands whose actions are visually displayed, the Karel approach quickly introduces students to such concepts as procedures and the major control structures.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karel_(programming_language)

    As proof, at last years SV Codecamp http://www.siliconvalley-codecamp.com/ wI volunteered at GAE session http://tinyurl.com/csj49v and due to huge demand, later at a Bebo day for teen kids run by SVWebBuilder.org. But in both cases, those kids who already had programing experience excelled, those without were left behind.

    Bottom line, find a simple Ruby project designed for teaching programming, or use Karel to reach new programmers.

    However accomplished
    Props @ All

    I will back for TA ops

  6. Perhaps a summer program might be a good way to start? It seems like it might be easier to set up, and would select from a wider potential pool (district versus school). Might be more affordable too. I may be available as a volunteer/organizer and/or fundraiser, as I have no plans for a real job this summer, only a vague desire to go West and meet cool people.

  7. Well, it’s a little more sophisticated than that, but still vague. I’d like to spend significant time volunteering at FreeGeek centers when I return to the WC (specifically Oly, PTown, and SeaTac but hopfully CA as well) this summer. (Please forgive the repost, but what I had submitted previously sounded stupidly naive.)

    I’m sending the donate box around. Has the mailing list started yet?

  8. FreeGeek sounds like an awesome program. Wish there was one in SF. It would be a great place to hold summer classes. It may be a little late to do something this summer unless we latch on the an existing program… although it may be worth looking around for one. Great ideas!


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