Running Meet Ups Which Encourage Diversity In Tech

I am sure there will be an official codebar blog post published soon about codebar 2015, but three days ago we had our last codebar Brighton meet up before a break for the holidays. I thought it was about time to throw together a few of my thoughts on what it is like running events which encourage diversity in tech.

codebar run free weekly coding workshops for people under-represented in the tech industry (referred to as the ‘students’). Developers, regardless of how they identify their gender, volunteer each week to mentor students to learn coding skills. More info can be found on the codebar website.

codebar is very close to my heart as without it I don’t think I would have made the career change to the glamorous world of back end web development… Maybe I would have applied for developer roles ‘one day’ but definitely no where near as soon as I did.

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codebar at 68 Middle Street

I originally attended codebar in London where it first opened its doors. I started codebar in Brighton the year after with Tom Ashworth. Tom moved to London for his job at Twitter, so I now co-organise with fabulous ex uni coursemate Dorothy Wingrove and also Ryan Hanna who are a great team. I’ve met countless amazing people through codebar over the last nearly 2.5 years and am really pleased that it has grown to 10 chapters since Despo Pentara started the original codebar in London.

codebar Brighton has been running for 1 year and 7 months now. Tuesday was our 50th workshop this year.

There have been some difficulties encountered. It was definitely a lot more time consuming for us during the first year to get it up and running. I had never run a meet up before so I was figuring it all out for the first time. There is the worry that it will be a failure and then that will reflect badly on you - I was really nervous about that at first. I could at least take comfort in that codebar was working in London and I had the other organisers and support from people so that helped a lot.

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codebar at Cogapp

I remember at a lunch interview-type-thing for my current job, my boss Ali said to me ‘If you ever decide to run a meet up make sure you keep it going by turning up every time, even if no one else does’. I think this is good advice, it is less confusing for people if you are consistent and if no one turns up then you can spend them time working on ways to improve either the event or your marketing of it.

About 2 months in, there was a problem that somewhat surprised me. This was that we were having to send mentors home because not enough students were signing up. This was of course an amazing reflection on the developers of Brighton but very disheartening when you are creating a welcoming environment, there is good quality free pizza and really clever people are willing to share skills for free. It was hard as an under-represented person myself, doubts creep in and you start thinking that things will never change no matter how much time you feel like you are putting in.

In hindsight, I think with any event it is likely it will take a little while to gain momentum. It takes time to spread the word and build up a network of people interested. Going to any new event can be scary for people, especially on your own… especially if you need to sit there with a random person and try and learn something they have never done before and don’t yet quite think they will be able to do.

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codebar at StoryStream

We kept talking to people, spreading the word at other meet ups, emailing around companies in Brighton and dispersed flyers. Doing talks helped as it allows you to spread the word to a larger group and also gave more of a welcoming human touch. Hosting events under Spring Forward Festival and Brighton Digital festival really helped improve our student numbers. I think during these festivals people are more open to going along to something they wouldn’t usually and the festivals are able to spread the word to a lot more people.

Another difficult aspect was the subject of 'diversity in tech'. It makes people uncomfortable to engage in conversations along the lines of homophobia, racism or feminism. I saw an interview on TV recently with Laura Bates who started The Every Day Sexism project. The Every Day Sexism project is a place for people to post about experiences they have had which they felt to be sexist. Thousands of people from around the world shared their stories online. As a result of this, Laura received a large number of rape and death threats from people that were offended that she had dared to call these blatant harassments out as sexist.

Obviously her project is on a much larger scale than work I have been involved with, but it is a bitter pill to swallow knowing that if you stand up for equality you will be putting yourself on the firing line to be harassed online or even verbally or physically abused. Luckily I think my stomach clenching feeling of disgust when I hear these stories is just more motivation to keep going with the mission. Saying this, it is hard to speak up about. I felt quite sad after the last talk I did about diversity. More people than you would think are literally still at a point where they are oblivious to the fact that under-represented people don’t have the same opportunities as them and they feel very entitled.

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codebar at Rakuten Attribution

As a woman who spends a lot of time actively promoting diversity, do I think the tech industry is sexist and a horrible place to have a career?

I think I have been very sheltered so far in the sense that I have worked from home for Happy Bear Software who have very clear values about how people should treat each other, a small team and 0 tolerance for any ill treatment of another member of the company.

At meet ups I have had some bad experiences. Just last week I ended up talking to a guy who seemed to think it was a great idea to tell me what amazing tits his young wife has *why, just why tell me that? *. I’ve been told that women are not logical, only men are, despite girls outperforming boys every year at school in all subjects…

I’ve been told multiple times that ‘I’m too pretty to be a developer’. It isn’t a complement, it just makes me feel that you think I look stupid and will never be taken seriously. I asked a developer if he wanted better opportunities for his young daughter when she grew up and he laughed and said ‘She will probably work in Boots’ and that their company wanted to put up an advert for a woman with massive tits to make them all coffee! He might have been joking but I am not sure…

I’ve had slimy text messages, guys winking at me in a kind of inappropriate way during conversations and more general stuff like people talking down to me or over me making me feel a bit irrelevant.

She Codes Brighton is another meet up that I co-organise, it is a social meet up for female developers. Sadly to say pretty much everyone I have spoken to at She Codes has had a negative experience, some in every single place they have worked. It’s easier for me to comment on diversity in terms of sexism because it is what I have personally experienced but clearly problems occur for all minorities.

It is even more difficult for people in those groups because the subjects are somehow more ‘taboo’ so despite seeing a lot of women’s scholarships for conferences, I rarely hear about extra support for other minorities. These scholarships should really be open to anyone under-represented. I was shocked that in 2014 Google only had 2% black employees! Much less than the number of female employees.

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codebar at Madgex

So comes the most difficult part of the whole situation which is the question of what happens if you encourage under-represented people into an industry and they have a terrible time?

This did actually happen to us when a really talented codebar student got a job that they were excited by but ended up quickly leaving (on to better things may I add) due to it being a horrible environment, the comments being thrown around by their developers displayed pretty shocking behaviour.

On a positive note. What if there were no groups for under-represented people and all this stuff happened? What if I couldn’t offload and seek advice about any negative experiences to my boss or people at codebar and She Codes?

Some people argue that it is ‘sexist against men’ to have groups for women and that feminism should be called ‘everyoneism’. To me it seems simple. Some groups are already clearly leaps and bounds ahead of others. Just look at who run the majority of countries, who make up most of the legendary rockstars, who are the vast majority of fortune 500 CEOs and CTOs and who own most of the world’s properties. If we give all groups equal attention then things won’t be equal because quite frankly straight white men are already leaps and bounds ahead. The only way to have a better chance of equality is to give extra help to the under-represented groups. That is why we need groups that encourage diversity.

To me ‘Feminism’ means believing that there should be equal rights for men and women. Of course it is not that simple and not everyone identifies with a specific gender but simply put, that is what I have always felt the word meant. Hopefully one day we can have ‘everyoneism’ because we won’t need to place the extra support and emphasis on a gender minority as there won’t be one, but we still have a long way to go.

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codebar at Tilt

Despite the negative parts, which I do feel are important to talk about. I would say on the whole, as the answer to my previous question to myself regarding sexism in the tech industry, is that yes it is there, but my experience as a vast majority has been very positive. I have loved working as a developer, the day to day work isn’t easy but it's creative and interesting and intellectually stimulating. In the grand scheme of things it is rare that I will have a negative experience regarding sexism and if I do then I will try and sort it out and move on. There are good and bad people in all walks of life and we can only do our best to change their bias’.

Every week at codebar developers give up their time to teach skills to under-represented people. I have been overwhelmed with support from local companies. Some students have got developer jobs, partly down to support from codebar though ultimately due to them putting in a load of work. This means that already, actively the tech industry is becoming more diverse. Even if a student isn’t aiming to work as a developer, the fact they have walked through the door and worked towards learning a new skill is an achievement because that in itself isn’t easy.

Local events and conferences in Brighton noticeably seem more diverse which I feel is partly due to groups such as codebar, She Says Brighton, Ladies that UX and Make Play Code.

Despite all the negativity, I don’t think there are many other industries where people make the effort to go of their way to support each other. When I started job hunting I was touched by the emails and messages and support that I had from people. Even with so much support I felt completely overwhelmed so without support I can see how it would be easier to give up.

Since deciding to learn web development I have met countless amazing, supportive and interesting developers in Brighton and beyond and yes, most of them have been straight white men. There is a perception that people that encourage diversity will be automatically defensive or will bluntly speaking 'hate these men', but this really isn't the case. I'm constantly fascinated by people I meet and believe everyone should be treated with respect, unless they have proven otherwise.

To rip off a quote from Sheryl Sandberg: ‘In technology it is our job to look forward and to solve problems’. Technology heavily underlies business, communication and everything that drives our economy. If we have more under-represented people in the field of computing then over time then they will have potential to be leaders in all of the fields that it carries.

The more under-represented people that hold positions of influence in society, the more the wage gap will close and we will be treated with more respect. In positions of greater influence we can ensure that there is less violence against us world wide.

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codebar at Wired Sussex

I feel really proud of all the students have achieved this year. As I mentioned earlier, we had our end of year codebar session this week and Siri one of the students did a talk about the portfolio she has built up over the last year and spoke about how she will be starting a job soon at a great agency in Brighton called The Unit. It was a really positive end to the year and each week codebar fills me with a lot of hope.

In the new year I will be leaving the comfort of my lovely job working from home to start a new challenge. I’ve received a lot of help, encouragement and advice in terms of running the meet ups, doing talks to spread the word and just in general at work over the last 2 years which has made a lot of difference and has really built my confidence up both inside and outside the job.

I’m feeling positive about the next few years and am hoping that in 5 years time being in a minority group and a developer will seem completely normal. I was asked a while a go which female senior Ruby developers I looked up to and I could only name about 3 that I had actually met in person. I genuinely think if these groups continue then we will have a much better chance of someone starting out in 5 years time having a wider range to choose from. Same goes for all under-represented groups. Be the change you want to see in the world as they say...

Thanks to everyone that has been part of codebar Brighton and She Codes. It takes a village to make a difference and we will continue to do just that.

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codebar at Brandwatch