Desi McAdam and Sarah Allen

  • Sarah Allen and Desi McAdam are working to help teach Rails and Ruby development through their Railsbridge Womens Outreach workshops. We chat about how they got started, how far the initiative has spread around the globe, and how local communities can contribute and run their own workshop.

  • Hi, I'm Mike with UGtastic here again at SCNA. I'm sitting down with Sarah Allen and Desi McAdam. They created the Rails Bridge Workshop. I'll let you describe what exactly is the RailsBridge Workshop. Rails Bridge Is a broad organization that was started by a number of Rails developers who really wanted to create the kind of community that they wanted to be a part of.

    Sarah Mei and myself started, as the Rails Bridge project, is the RailsBridge open workshops. Specifically in San Francisco, we used the open workshop formula to create outreach workshops to women, and the idea is, we're using open source practices to apply to event organization and outreach projects.

    So what we call recipes or cookbook for creating the event as well as the curricula are all open source and freely available for anybody to use for anything. And Desi has happen to be traveling all over the world and has created instances of these workshops wherever she's been as well as dozens or many other volenteers have done that all over the country and the world.

    What's the format? What does, you said it's an open source. I'm sure there's some evolution. What is the current format of it? So the core format is a friday night, saturday event where on friday, all of the installation occurs. So you have volunteers who come and help people get their machines set up.

    Because that is often the most difficult part for beginners, and it really has nothing to do with the, you know, with writing code or doing. Yeah, it can be a wall the particular technology yeah I mean particularly Rails is so many collections of open source packages and it's particularly hard on ... You know and it's different for each machine you're on.

    Once you've got Ruby on Rails installed, it's easy. And then it's different for the different technologies. And in fact, there's now a front-end work shop that doesn't have a evening install fest because everyone has a browser. But for the Rails workshop that is a really important step. And then Saturday, is everybody follows the same curriculum, and you have at least two groups.

    One is for people who've never written code before and the other is for you know whatever degree. Maybe they're already in Java but they've used Rails. Exactly sometimes we'll find that people who are System Admins are faster learning Rails than experienced programmers who maybe have done desktop applications, but aren't very familiar with a command line, so your level of experience as a coder doesn't necessarily correlate to how fast you'll learn the very first steps of Rails.

    So you might have predisposed towards, oh this is how we do it on the desktop, whereas somebody who's had maybe some scripting experience doesn't have maybe as rigorous... a mindset of, oh yeah, it has to be this way. Yeah, because you'll have different learning curves for people who've done web apps so they understand HTTP, versus people who've done C++ Where they understand object-oriented programming versus people who have done a lot of command live stuff so they are very facile with the scripting aspects of it.

    We try to group people into like-minded experience but mostly it depending on the size of the workshop the grouping is flexible. Depending on the venue the size of the number of volunteers or teachers you have and sometimes it's just everybody's in a room and we figure it out. Yeah. And Desi, you wanna say something.

    Yeah, I was just gonna say in addition to that I typically - I try to group people based on very broad generalizations of, I've programmed before, I've never programmed before I've done some Rails, but I need some more help with more advanced concepts, and then split the people apart and try to get the TA's that match sort of those comfort levels of teaching.

    And you've said you've gone all over the world. And done these all over. I'm just curious, how you like it. I mean literally when you say world what do you mean? So I've done quite a few in the United States and I've done one in Singapore. I just helped out with one in Chille. And I can't remember [xx].

    But it's really easy to once you've seen one run and you have a desire to do them its really not very difficult if you, you know, pain the mailing list everybody will tell you what the latest, you know, we just ran one last weekend and this is what we ran it - we've already done pool requests, update the documentation, etc. etc. etc. Everybody's super helpful. And there's some really nice side effects that come from that. A lot of people who don't really know anything about the workshops, go to our instructions for how to install Rails, because, you know, a new version of this or that comes out and the installing instructions changed but now because there are work shops happening several times a month, in lots of different places; those are updated by the volunteers and their different volenteers every time so it isn't as much work. Also a documentation onto itself not just a script for how to do these classes. also hey I just need to set up rails how do I do that?

    Yeah there's a lot of different things that come out of it and educational resources and set up resources and different things. That is a pretty unique side affect of their community. I do want to ask about the social aspect. Where... I understand, the legend is that Sarah Allen and Sarah Hague were at a conference and they didn't see a lot of other women, you realized you were the only two women in hundreds of people and you wanted to create something that would help bring..Yeah so the stats are there we were at a conference where there were 200 people and six woman. So that's three percent which is reflective of..or two percent. Well in any case, it's around the number of women in opensource, which is much, much smaller than the number of women in the corporate world doing programming and I came more from companies which were less involved with Open Source where I felt that they were not - not very many women but there were more women than I saw in the Ruby community and I've been meaning to learn Ruby for three years before I had started learning Ruby in 2008, and so I thought, and I still believe its true, that there are more women programmers in the Bay Area than there are Ruby programmers.

    Really? Therefore, if the 20% of programmers are women. Over 20% are ruby developers? No, it's not. It's actually, we have a bigger opportunity than that. Oh okay. Because Ruby is a small language, so therefore, if we just convert some of the existing to know Ruby, then it would be easy to actually get 50%.

    And in any of the new languages, I think we have a real big opportunity to do that. Because it and a specific community we can change the ratio much easier because it's smaller than just the boiling in the ocean problem. I also heard that start ups its also a boys club culture as well and I did an interview with Jenny a few months ago, and she described it as when the startup happens, it's usually some friends they get together and they start the startup and then they hire people like that from their own network.

    Is that something that you've seen in the startup world, where tends to be male dominated companies. Well statistically tech founders are two to three percent woman and I think that a lot of that is, there is a culture in the United States that is where Men have the networks and men see those kind of oppurtunities as available to them for whatever reason.

    But I do think that the social dynamics of creating situations where women and men and people of all colors and creeds can get together, and learn together, then we forge those networks, where by example, people see that what you happen to look like, the words you use, your background, doesn't dictate that you are more or less capable of doing these technical things, and when somebody walks into a rails bridge workshop they can't tell by looking at somebody whether they're an expert programmer or very successful in their career are unemployed, and all of these things are not correlated with each other and they're not correlated with how we work.

    And so, that is really exciting to me that I hope it will bring that change broadly but in any case we are seeing it as absolutely making those changes in pockets and I think that we need to overcome this problem one person at a time, one mentor at a time.

    Planting seeds all over so we, eventually these communities can Well, I think that we're talking about...changing the ratios is a boiling in the ocean kind of problem. However, since we've proven that this template can be fairly easily reproduced by anyone. I like to think that we can boil the ocean by making every 10th molecule a heater.

    OK. So, but basically planting the seeds with our way you can at least distribute these ideas beyond a small community and ... Yeah and we are seeing this happen in Ruby, JavaScript, Python, Scala So are all of these Rails Bridges...well Rails Bridge is by definition rails oriented. But have you done these for non-... Well Rails Bridge was created the name Rails was a little controversial when were naming it but we felt that it was coming out of Rails Development but the teaching kids project has always taught, has never taught Rails.

    However the Python folks felt like it would alienate their community to call it Rails Bridge so they called it Pie Star because there was already a Pie Bridge something. But now we're creating an umbrella organization a nation that will be able to support all of these different. O.K. so that way you don't have a bias of oh I don't want to do this I don't like rails.

    Do you have a well, I won't make you say the name now, because I'm sure it might change. But it's recognizing the fact that we are software developers. not Rails. I think most of us are doing Rails right now and five years from now we will be doing something else. Yeah 'right now' would be the operative word there. Everything changes. With going into a conferences and have you been seeing since you've started doing this more women at conferences and more diversity?

    I think this is an excellent conference. I've noticed a big difference. Yeah, and I think that part of it is that some women in the community who weren't coming out to events because they felt alienated have started to come out more, and then the new people in the community have connections to people already in the community.

    The other thing that is happen in parallel is a lot of the event organizers have realized that they need to take initiative to change how they ask for speakers to create a diversity among speakers, and if we have more women speakers then it's less alienating to have for women to come to the event.

    They feel like there are role models and mentors for them and it's easier to look at a group of 20 people and if you see yourself represented, then you feel like hey that could be me. Recently I've learned a lot of picture that was very popular in the Obama administration When Obama first took office, he was meeting with some people and there were some children there, I am not exactly sure of the context why they were there, but one of the little boys who was black And he just seperate partly and said.

    He asked this question and I couldn't hear what he said. He said, I just want to know if your hair feels like mine and the photographer got this amazing picture that was very candid, and it was the President leaning down and this little boy touching his head and what was so inspiring about that is that here is this generation now seeing somebody like that in opposition of authority and responsibility.

    Are you saying that seeing women speaking and running these conferences, running these organizations, says to the women. There's people like you doing this.

    Yeah, I think that there is this myth in our industry that there are no women.


    That somehow women are less interested or less capable because as evidenced by there being so few. And I've talked to women who've been the only women in their company, and then they start to say, well that's just the way the industry is, especially if you've been through two jobs like that. But the truth is, number-wise there's tons of amazing technical women in our field.

    And the fact that historically we haven't seen them at conferences is a cultural artifact that is not related to their lack of existence. And so by creating diversity, and I think we don't only have a gender diversity problem but diversity along many angles problem. But I think the more that we create, we find the these people.

    These people who are doing technically amazing work and they've been in the industry for 5, 10, 20 years And we celebrate their success the more that we draw in people. And nobody should say, oh, I can't see nobody that looks like me. I don't belong here. I mean the dream of technology is that it's meritocracy. That it's a great equalizer. And it's just a terrible thing that it's not actually happening. And so that's what we really are trying to change. Anybody who say that women can't code never met or never read about Grace Heimer. It's to me is utterly ridiculous. But I do want to thank you again for sitting down with me and the work you are doing for the Rails Bridge project. Thanks