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Falling in love with programming: Django Girls inspires women to join the tech world






I came across a Facebook post the other day of a room full of women learning to code, and thought how great it was that we were getting another boot camp. Programming (or coding) has been a hot topic for a few years now, with new coding boot camps springing up across the country. Grand Rapid itself is getting its very own boot camp this spring when Grand Circus-Detroit finishes its expansion to the west side of the state; its first class is set to launch in late March.

I looked further into the post only to realize that it was not a coding bootcamp, but something just as exciting. After some Facebook investigating, I found out it was a coding tutorial that went into the weekend. The group responsible for this weekend coding blitz was Django Girls. They are an international non-profit organization that helps people of all backgrounds to learn how to to code using Django (an open-source framework written in the programming language Python).

If you’ve tuned out already, don’t worry: that is about as heady as the coding talk will get here.

So, I reach out to Django Girls and ask if they have time to meet and chat more about their story. We decide to meet at every downtown freelancer’s office, a coffee shop with strong brews and wifi. I’m welcomed by three of the organizers: Rachell Calhoun, Josh Yuhas and Jace Browning. They are three of a total of five total organizers for Django Girls: Grand Rapids.

Calhoun starts off with the history of Django Girls. “It started in 2014 during a Django conference in Berlin by two Polish women, Ola Sitarska and Ola Sendecka,” she explains. Calhoun comes from a recent nine-year stint in Korea, where she was a member of the local Django Girls chapter. She says their mission, like their website, is simple and to the point:
 
  • Inspire women to fall in love with programming.
  • Support and mentor those that want to continue their programming after the workshop.
  • Build a revolving community: students become mentors.
  • Help increase the presence of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in the tech field.
  • Create a safe, non-threatening environment in the local tech communities.

The rest of the group chimes in about how their approach to every participant is to treat them as if they don’t know anything about computers -- down to where to find the startup bar, so that this way no one feels left behind. You can move as fast or as slow as you want without feeling pressured. Django Girls are not here to run code alongside a room of people, rather they are here to help guide them every step of the way.

Their first event in Grand Rapids was hosted at the beginning of February, and it filled up. They like to keep the ratio to about one volunteer to every two participants. The coding workshop is structured around a tutorial for building a blog. I ask, why a blog? Can’t anyone go to a free website to get their own pre-made blog website? Yuhas chimes in, saying, “It touches all the pieces of code you need to learn. It’s not about just building a piece of software, but about learning the basics of the language as well. A blog covers a lot of what a beginner will need to know to move on to bigger projects.”  

The event starts on a Friday, lasting three hours to get everyone set up. You only need a laptop and enthusiasm to join, and the team will provide the rest of the software needed. The team of volunteers and instructors spend the time making sure all software is installed and that you are ready for the next day.

Saturday is a full work day, an eight-hour marathon, not a sprint, to the end of the tutorial. As a local chapter of Django Girls, the team has access to tutorials and resources they can use to host these workshops. During the day, they make sure to give the participants food breaks, resting periods and plenty of encouragement in the form of hand-clappers. Every participant is given one to celebrate finishing a section.

What’s next for the Django Girls team? Where do inspired new programmers go after they attend their first event? The team tells me that the international Django Girls organization has plenty of more tutorials and resources to offer. Calhoun herself was part of many tutorials while teaching in Korea. The team is always there to support weekend coding projects through a Slack channel or coffee meetups. The plan is to have more events and tutorials as interest grows.

Yuhas tells me that “Django Girls is perfect for Grand Rapids since it already has Bitcamp in the ecosystem. Django Girls wants to help underrepresented women in the community, because if you look at any of the agencies in the city, women may represent one or two of a total of 70-plus employees. There’s something wrong with that; there’s a lot of talent being lost there.”

In furthering their mission, the Django Girls team are very aware that they need effective marketing and strategic partnership to ensure thorough community outreach. They are already looking to collaborate with other events organizations to further enhance outreach for underrepresented women in the West Michigan area.

Calhoun mentions in closing that she was an English teacher before learning to code, and that she never paid for a formal coding education. She now helps lead the Django Girls team and is herself employed in the tech sector, making a living on what she taught herself to do.

The Django Girls team would like to invite you to stay tuned to their website to join their next coding tutorial event. Come for the coding, but stay for the clappers.

Photos courtesy of Stoneburner Media

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
 
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