WEB Advent 2012 / The Gift of Sharing What You Know

The first time I saw a line of code was probably mid-2009. I had just graduated from university with a business degree, and it occurred to me that I should have a personal web site. At the time, I don’t think I had a single friend who knew how to build web sites, but that didn’t matter, because I moved to China in 2009, and a friend with HTML and CSS skills probably wouldn’t have helped much, anyway. Like a lot of people do when they’re first learning about how the Web works, I found my way around using Google and brute force. After a few months, and countless hours of research and hacking (in the truest sense of the word), I launched my first web site. Knowing that I’d done it all myself with only Google as a tool felt amazing.

The most surprising thing was how much I enjoyed myself. I loved figuring out every piece of that first project. It was frustrating at times, of course. But, most days, I could spend hours and hours researching things and making tweaks to the site. Soon, I started thinking about my next one, and about what I should learn next.

Fast forward a few years. Now, I get to watch beginners experience the joy of web making or programming all the time. My personal experience with learning how to code, plus a healthy dose of inspiration from PyLadies in Los Angeles, lead to the founding of Ladies Learning Code, a not-for-profit organization that runs workshops for women (and men) who want to learn beginner-friendly computer programming and other technical skills in a social and collaborative way. We now have chapters in Vancouver and Ottawa, a permanent 1,100+ square foot workshop space in downtown Toronto, and a thriving girls’ program, called Girls Learning Code. Over 2,500 women, men, and girls have participated in a Ladies Learning Code or Girls Learning Code workshop since we started in August 2011. In Toronto alone, over 400 individual developers and designers have volunteered their time to help beginners at Ladies Learning Code workshops. That number might be the most staggering of all. We’re constantly amazed by the support we’ve received from the tech communities in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa, as well as in other cities where we don’t have chapters yet. The fact that so many amazing developers and designers are willing to volunteer their time to help beginners get started with developing technical skills still blows me away.

What I’ve learned through Ladies Learning Code is that there is a huge group of people in our society who are ready to become creators — not just consumers — of technology and the Web. They want to build web sites, they want to prototype app ideas, they want to design and print things in 3D, they want to understand how computers and the Web work, and they want to be able to better use technology to improve their personal and professional lives. Not all of these people are comfortable venturing into the space on their own, though. It’s intimidating, and when you start, you don’t know what you don’t know. If we can get this group of people to the point where they have the knowledge and confidence to begin exploring the world of making — well, it would be a big deal. Because they want that. They want to know what all of you know.

So, enjoy the holidays and take some well-deserved time off. But, when you get back to work in January, I want to encourage all of you — every single person who has some sort of technical knowledge — to share it with someone else. It means a lot to the people you help (believe me!), and if you’re anything like the group of developers and designers I work with in Toronto, you’ll have a lot of fun, too.

Here are some ideas for those of you who are interested in sharing what you know:

  • Do a quick search for a group like Ladies Learning Code or Girls Learning Code in your area. If you can’t find one, email me at heather [at] ladieslearningcode.com. I might be able to point you in the right direction. Ladies Learning Code will also be expanding to new cities in 2013, so if you think your community would be a good fit, let me know!
  • Check out CoderDojo and Dojo Directory to see if they have a group in your area. If they don’t, why not start one?
  • Reach out to your local elementary or high school and see if they have a computer-related after-school program that you can help out with. If they don’t have one, maybe you can partner with a teacher to make it reality.
  • Boy Scout and Girl Guide Leaders are always looking for fun activities and experiences for their groups to try. Maybe you could meet at the local library and take them through an introductory HTML and CSS lesson. Need slides? Try Jon Buckley and Kate Hudson’s slides from an event we ran together in September.
  • If you’d like to start small, try hosting a “Kitchen Table” event (a term coined by Mozilla earlier this year). They’ve published a great how-to.
  • Speaking of Mozilla, have you tested out Thimble or Popcorn yet? These are great tools for teaching kids about the Web.

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