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January 5, 2011 / TechFemme

Vanessa Hurst, Destroying the Female Programmer Stereotype

Vanessa Hurst, Co-Founder, GirlDevelopIt

Vanessa Hurst (Co-Founder, GirlDevelopIt & Data Fiend, PaperlessPost) is someone I would have liked to know when I was taking my introductory programming classes while getting my Electrical Engineering degree.  I’m certain I would’ve stuck with programming.   I’m ashamed to say that at the time, I considered programming boring and for awkward, anti-social people who wanted to work on a computer but not solve any real problems.  I was wrong.  So very wrong.  But there was no one to show me otherwise.  Vanessa’s incredibly insightful take on programming:  The inherently exciting thing about programming is that you’re getting rid of things that are boring.  Besides being a significant contributor at, Paperless Post, a startup in NYC, Vanessa has also taken the problem of the lack of women programmers into her own hands.  Along with Sara Chipps, she founded GirlDevelopIt, an organization that teaches women how to create (program) their visions on the web in a supportive, comfortable environment.  They currently offer beginning courses in HTML, Javascript, Databases, Ruby on Rails – some of the building blocks for making awesome websites.

TechFemme: How did you get into a career in Technology?

Vanessa Hurst: I worked on computers with my father, handing him parts while he was building computers.  I didn’t think I’d do anything with computers as a career. I always thought I’d be a teacher or in medicine.  At UVA, I started in biomedical engineering, thinking I might be a doctor until I took my first computer science course.  I realized I could graduate and have a career, start making a difference, in a short period of time.  It seemed like a logical and secure career – and I enjoyed it.

TF: What’s your specialty in the Tech field?

VH:  I got into the database niche while at UVA through Systems Engineering and since graduating, have found many opportunities with databases.  Most businesses aren’t really using data to the fullest extent.  But they’re becoming really interested in learning through data, taking data points from users and from their behavior and learning from that information.  I was a dedicated database engineer at Capital IQ, which was intellectually challenging and a great job.  I wasn’t really passionate about finance, but there were great people there and it was a really good learning opportunity.

TF: What did you do after Capital IQ?

VH:  I wanted to shift out of finance so I went to The Ladders, where I got into business intelligence. It was a cross between my experience with a lot of data and working with more people and more user-related data. Harvesting that information can have a significant monetary impact on a business, so I think it will be huge very soon. I also found myself volunteering more and more.  I used my tech skills to help out Catchafire, a non-profit that matches skills-based volunteers with non-profits that need their help.  I also discovered the #1 need for non-profits is IT and other tech skills.  It’s a huge void in their organizations, so I started Developers for Good to help developers network and find ways to help.

TF:  How did you get involved with Paperless Post?

VH:  I went to a breakfast called ‘Hot and Bothered: Time To Change the Ratio of Women in Tech’ and met one of the co-founders, Alexa Hirschfeld and we got to know each other.  I don’t usually go to these types of events.  I like coding better than networking, but I love the product and wanted to meet her.  It turned out that they needed someone to help manage their business intelligence and the scaling of their database.  I’m a database and analytics engineer now and it’s a great fit.  I’ve only been at Paperless Post for a few months, but startup time is on a different continuum and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot.

TF:  How did you get involved with GirlDevelopIt?

VH: I met Sara Chipps through a friend and decided that what we really want to do is teach a class to make programming accessible.  We started teaching things we know:  HTML and CSS and core object-oriented principles.  We started in July and just keep doing and getting feedback for future courses.  The main goal of the courses is to teach enough programming to make it accessible to people who’ve never programmed before.

TF:  I wish I was in NYC to take advantage of this incredible offering – what do future growth plans look like for GirlDevelopIt?

VH:  We plan to expand outside of NYC in 2011.  We’re trying to find good teachers and students and since we need highly engaged students, we won’t do online learning until we get better at this.  We’re not really ready for that possible disconnect yet.  We like to incorporate social, in-person interaction when we can.

TF:  You’re obviously very involved in helping solve the lack of Women in Tech.  What’s your take on why the gender gap exists in technology?

VH:   I did a thesis on Women in Computer Science, so I’ve confronted the facts.  There is a gender gap in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) fields and it’s wider in Engineering and even wider in Computer Science.  The gender gap in medicine is almost gone now, but it’s just not happening in computer science.  In 2008, even though 54% of bachelor’s degree earners were women, only 17% of computer science degree earners were women.  Assuming that over time, the gender gap will magically disappear is not going to work.  There are many components to this problem, but a huge element is that young girls need role models.  Encouraging them to program only works as much as there are role models that share their stories and experiences in programming. There are many successful Women in Tech leaders, but the key is for aspiring young people to see them and know that tech is a viable, and wonderful, option.

TF:  How could we get more young girls interested in Technology?

VH:  We need to disengage from stereotypes.  I never did any stereotypical engineer-type things.  I talk a lot.  I don’t really tinker with machines just to see how they work, but if I need to use something I will figure it out. I want to help people, which is why people recommended going into medicine to me.  But isn’t it OK for programmers to be caring too?  You shouldn’t have to be a complete renegade to be a good female programmer.  What you’re doing is important for raising awareness.  Visibility is a huge part of solving the problem – thank you!

There’s no doubt that  Vanessa is successful.  Thankfully, she’s one of the Women in Tech leaders that hasn’t forgotten about the importance of giving back to the community that desperately needs her guidance and inspiration.  I feel privileged to be able to start off the new year with a profile on her.  It’s perfect for launching 2011.  Let’s all resolve to increase awareness, close the gender gap and change the ratio in the wonderful world of Technology.

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5 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. janice / Jan 6 2011 5:00 pm

    Thanks for this interview! I love Paperless Post and am ecstatic to hear about one of the amazing women behind it

  2. AnnMaria / Jan 10 2011 10:00 pm

    It’s more than just role models, though. I have four daughters and have been writing programs for data management and statistical analysis since before they were born. I sent the youngest to the USC science camp for middle school girls, the second youngest to a science magnet. I’ve had all of them, even the 12-year-old, working for me on everything from data entry to reviewing manuscripts. I’ve practiced my presentations in front of them from the time they had to be propped up on the couch with pillows. And I love my work, and they know it. So far, I have a sportswriter, history teacher and professional fighter in mixed martial arts.

    I’ve had a number of young assistants over the years and few have been interested in a career in programming. Their usual response to my suggestions, “It’s too hard and I’m not as smart as you.”

    This drives me crazy!

    Maybe we need to look into similar free workshops offered out in LA. It would at least be one way to perhaps attract people who already have some interest in programming.

  3. fmadvincula / Feb 26 2012 5:20 am

    Reblogged this on Frances Advincula.

Trackbacks

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