Sarah Allen is Creating Women Programmers, One Free Ruby on Rails Workshop at a Time
Sarah Allen, (Co-Founder and CTO, Mightyverse, Owner, Blazing Cloud) has accomplished more in her tech career than entire teams of programmers do in their lifetimes. And she’s nowhere near done. She is currently a co-founder of Mightyverse, an online and mobile app video translator that lets you hear (rather than just read) how something is said. She also runs leads a tech consulting group, Blazing Cloud. Yes, her impressive tech resume and numerous speaking engagements and awards are more than enough to merit a TechFemme profile, but it’s one of her current ventures that seems the most significant for Women in Tech. Through RailsBridge.org, a friendly and inclusive Ruby on Rails community, she, along with Sarah Mei, teaches free weekend Ruby on Rails programming workshops for women and their friends, aimed at introducing more women to programming, as well as to the Ruby on Rails programming community. Thankfully, it’s working. Through this workshop, Sarah is reaching out to women who are interested in technology and bringing them into an incredibly supportive tech community.
TechFemme: How did you get into computers?
Sarah Allen: When I was a kid, my mom was laid off as a public school teacher and decided that computers were the next big thing so she decided to sell them. She was actually one of the first women to be an official apple retailer.
TF: I was introduced to computers in a similar way. My mother was laid off from her real estate job when I was a kid and made a similar observation. She took a programming course and then spent the next 35 years of her career in network programming. At what age did you you start programming?
SA: When I was 12 years old, my mother bought an Apple II computer and it arrived on a day when I was home from school. I opened it up and it came with a BASIC programming manual. So I taught myself BASIC from that manual. After that, my mom would bring home applications and ask me to learn them and then teach them to her. Eventually, I helped develop a curriculum to teach computers to other teachers.
TF: What kind of programming did you do as a 12 year old?
SA: I wrote programs and games in BASIC. I also learned a little Pascal. I thought it was fun – like a toy.
TF: Did you always know, since then, that you wanted to have a career in technology?
SA: Not at all. As a teenager, I saw myself working for a non-profit, solving world issues, not sitting behind a computer. I went to Brown University to study linguistics. I was mostly interested in communications and spoken languages but I double majored in Visual Arts and Computer Science. But I still didn’t think I’d be doing programming as a career.
TF: What did you do after Brown?
SA: I worked at a multimedia publishing company that some friends started. It was eventually bought by Adobe, after we developed After Effects. I gained some respect there for what I could do with computers. At one point, someone told me they didn’t realize that computers were capable of doing the things that I was making them do. But I thought it was obvious. That was when I started going down the path of being a software developer.
TF: How did you become a co-founder on Mightyverse?
SA: A mutual friend introduced me to Glen Janssens and Paul Lundahl who came up with the idea. It suited me perfectly because I’m a programmer with a strong linguistics background. So I was definitely intrigued by the project but didn’t want to co-found a company with people I just met so we started with an initial small project together. I not only love the idea of Mightyverse, but work well with the team, and believe there is a compelling business model, so I agreed to join as co-founder and CTO.
TF: How did you get involved with teaching programming to kids?
SA: I volunteered to teach programming to my son’s 4th/5th grade class a few years ago. I believe all kids should learn to program, for the same reasons we teach them about photosynthesis and chemistry. We don’t expect all of them to become scientists, but they should know how the world works. Today software is a very real part of our world embedded in our phones and even our cars. The school didn’t offer programming classes, so I created a pilot program and ensured that at least one class got a chance to learn. Around that same time, RailsBridge was founded and I volunteered to lead the TeachingKids project .
TF: What has the RailsBridge TeachingKids project been doing recently?
SA: At the last Ruby conference, we created a kids track, inspired by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH). We hosted the activities for kids at the conference. We taught them things like processing to make graphics , soldering and programming simple web games using a new game development language that I’m working on, called Pie.
TF: And you also teach Ruby on Rails programming to women. Tell me about that program.
SA: The goal is to get more women involved in the Ruby programming community. Sarah and I teach a weekend workshop for women, or for men who bring a female +1 to take the workshop as well. There are two options – one for those who have programmed before and one for those that are completely new to programming. It’s a Friday – Saturday workshop and by the end of the day on Saturday, everyone has built a web application using Ruby on Rails.
TF: This is a phenomenal initiative to introduce Ruby on Rails to women and get them started learning it, but how does this get them involved in the community?
SA: They’re not going to learn everything in one day. So the community is there to help them develop and grow as programmers. Ruby is a good place to start programming because you can do a lot when you only know a little.
TF: It’s widely known that the Ruby community is supportive – what makes it special in that way?
SA: It’s incredibly supportive – not all technologies have a community, especially one that’s so helpful. I think it’s because Ruby is open-source so the community is used to giving back. In a good way, people feel somewhat obligated to give back. And many members of the Ruby community are successful so the money is there to give back. It’s also a young, progressive community. Guys are tired of being seen as part of the problem (the lack of women in programming) and some of them want to do something about it.
TF: Why do you think there are so few women in programming?
SA: Most people don’t realize how fun it is because of the media stereotypes of what programmers do and what programmers are like. But most of the first programmers were women. One example is the ENIAC, which was one of the first computers built to support the war effort. The hardware was built by two men, but it was programmed by women. Programming was considered a support role at this time, so they weren’t widely recognized until later.
TF: What advice would you give girls and/or women trying to get into computers and technology?
SA: The main thing is to discover what you really want to do. Embrace your passion. From there, seek out role models – of any gender.
I believe that software should be fun. Software should enable someone to do something meaningful that they couldn’t do otherwise.
I agree with her. This is the only way that women, en masse, are going to get into programming. We don’t want to code just for the sake of coding (although that’s cool too). We want to learn to code in order to do something with it, build something we want to see in the world and contribute in ways we couldn’t without programming. Sarah Allen is helping us get there.