Learn To Code At HackStar Academy

May 24, 2012

grace (Pic: Grace Hopper: Pioneering computer scientist, 105 pounds of ballsy woman)

My first month at TokBox I told a friend how I was struggling to get people to build stuff with the API when I couldn’t do it myself. She handwaved: that’s not your job. You’re not an engineer; spend time doing what you were hired for, not waste time trying to be more technical.

I don’t think this point of view is entirely wrongheaded. I did end up learning to do things piece-meal - making simple demos and sales tools, building a downtime SMS notification prototype, trying to debug customers’ code - but sometimes it occurred to me that the time I spent doing stuff like that at my glacial pace (vs begging a dev for 15 minutes of help) could have been better spent calling customers. Or when demos failed or when I answered questions badly that it would have been better for me to leave that to people who knew what they were doing. But I kept dabbling, mostly for fun and a change of pace.

That’s basically how David and Christian found me 6 weeks ago - a dabbler. I had read Dive Into Python and Learn Rails by Example cover to cover at some point and whoop-assed all the exercises. Turns out that doesn’t mean much; I couldn’t build things, or truly grasp how to get from for loops to web apps. With Rails, it was a piece of cake to get apps up and running, but I still didn’t really get how it all worked under the covers and couldn’t confidently build my own thing outside of the Example.

So I was stoked to beta test David and Christian’s plans for Hackstar Academy. I didn’t have ten 10-hour-day weeks to devote to it, but was incredibly grateful to them for working with the nights and weekends I could spare. A few things worked really, really well -

If I didn’t take away as much as I could, it was mostly related to my cheating, i.e. stealing a couple of hours here and there doesn’t really add up to the immersive experience HackStar Academy will offer. In any case, six weeks later and probably only about 12 hours total of real time, I now have a pet project I’m pretty proud of. Can’t call myself a developer, but I’m confident about being able to prototype another idea if I wanted to - at least I’d know where to start and what to Google for if I get stuck.

The tech community has been abuzz about learning to code for awhile now; while I doubt anyone thinks it’s a bad thing in principle, there’ve been mumblings around the dangers of “anyone can code” rhetoric and what kind of “developers” actually come out of programs like this. I think it’s like anything else - not everyone is a chef, but anyone can cook. It’s naive to expect that people coming out of HackStar Academy (or Codecademy, or Dev Bootcamp) will be able to go toe-to-toe with seasoned engineers out the gate. But I believe they’ll have the tools to get started on a path in engineering, or build proof of concepts without looking for a technical co-founder, or simply be better at their non-technical tech job (like mine) by being technical anyway. That kind of the empowerment is awesome.

The dave-to-girl ratio isn’t something that keeps me up at night. But that some women feel held back because of it is something I hope we as an industry can address, not by launching a thousand outraged op-eds, but by empowering women with confidence. A few months ago, I made a hack at Music Hack Day and presented it from localhost. I didn’t push it live because I was too pained to have anyone look at how ugly the code was, when the other 200 people were making things like Kinect beatboxes and soundwave mustaches. Music Hack Day is the most inviting, least judgmental community of hackers, and being a dude wouldn’t have made me feel differently. But I wish I had then what I’ve gotten out of my time with David and Christian: a little more skill and a lot more confidence. That’s what I’d wish for any woman who feels outnumbered or outmatched.

I’m impressed by David and Christian’s vision of empowering women to pursue their passions and am excited to be involved in HackStar Academy. I can’t wait to see the results in ten weeks, and will be keeping an eye out for hires for my team at TokBox.