Why there’s always a waiting list for the RailsBridge outreach workshops

Seemingly moments after the announcement on Meetup–maybe it’s really as long as three hours–about the latest RailsBridge outreach workshop, there’s a waiting list of women really, really interested in attending, but just a hair too late in registering. Why are these workshops such hot tickets? After all, they’re just a few austere hours spent hunched over laptops learning the rudiments of programming with Rails–the instructors are volunteers from the local Ruby community, the venue is a generous sponsor’s office, and the participants don’t even pay tuition. What’s the draw?

  • Women want to get behind keyboards. There are many women-only tech industry events. However, most of these are mixer/networking occasions, not hands-on programming fiestas. They’re great for meeting people in potentially useful categories–ever notice how many recruiters are female?–but less beneficial if the question you’re mulling is better answered pair-programming with a Terminal window open.

The RailsBridge workshops offer women events that are “less talk, more rock”: each attendee uses her own laptop to create her own Rails application. People do bond over the several, often frustrating, moments of the workshop’s evening-and-a-day, so the networking component is present as well.

RailsBridge at Pivotal Labs. Photo by railsbridge

  • Attendees know they won’t get bullied, no matter their level of expertise. Each workshop announcement notes that total newcomers to the Rails framework–and to programming in general–are welcome. The tone of the workshop’s announcement makes it clear that attendees may ask questions, or even admit to confusion, without being shamed or mocked or otherwise treated as low-status.

Sudo make me a sandwich
photo by king-edward

One benefit of the all- or nearly all-woman format is avoiding that chest-beating, alpha geek braggadocio some men feel strangely compelled to perform at technical gatherings. It’s a behavior that bewilders women–is this true aggression, or bluffing?–and usually serves to shut us out while we try to figure out an appropriate response. The RailsBridge workshops are delightfully free of this nonsense.

  • The event’s time commitments are obvious and reasonable. Here in the Bay Area we have many opportunities for group programming–there’s a Hack Night, a Hack Day, a Hackathon, a CodeFest, always, somewhere. But some of these events don’t seem to have set hours, or if they do, they’re demanding a big chunk of a weekday night. Since most women, even the childfree, work a “second shift” maintaining our households, we’re not really free after our paying jobs to go to events with ambiguous starting and ending times. And if we’re trying to rise early the next day to get kids to school and/or ourselves to a morning workout, weeknights are out of the question. The RailsBridge workshops always have the format of a Friday evening devoted to installing the required software, followed by Saturday’s workshop. Though participants may forsake some weekend revelry, it’s less burdensome to the average woman’s schedule.

  • The event has a defined agenda. It’s nice to see programming events promoted as “newbie-friendly,” or “all levels welcome”–but they’re still intimidating to attend when you’re a novice, don’t consider yourself a “hacker,” and you have no personal project to “show off” as “disruptive” or whatever adolescent adjective is being overused this month. The RailsBridge attendees feel encouraged because they know in advance how the workshop proceeds and what everybody will be doing. They don’t have to arrive with anything besides their laptops.

The next San Francisco RailsBridge Outreach Workshop for Women is October 21-22, 2011. And, yes, there is a waiting list.