Thrills! Chills! It’s InstallFest!

Last weekend brought the latest RailsBridge workshop to San Francisco (man, these workshops are really gaining momentum–there’s yet another one already scheduled for December 3-4. And, yup, it’s waitlisted). This time I ventured beyond my usual semi-skilled volunteer roles by offering to help workshop participants install the software required for the workshop. At last I felt comfortable enough with the process of getting Rails up and running that I wanted to assist novice programmers with the heinous chore fascinating challenge. Never thought I could do this–and it was thrilling when I did.

“InstallFest” is the happy-face designation we give the Friday night slog before each Rails for Women workshop. All participants must attend so it can be verified they have the appropriate dev environment set up on their laptops for Saturday’s curriculum. I attended InstallFest myself at the very first workshop over two years ago, and I still remember how frustrating it was for me: what are all these commands? Why do I keep getting error messages? And how come we can’t just install Locomotive or InstantRails and get it over with?

"Railsbridge installfest," by Romy Ilano

I’ll take the last question. Workshop attendees, here’s one reason why we don’t want you just pointing and clicking into a working Rails setup: we’re selfish.

Yeah, you might’ve thought all these volunteers watching over your shoulder as you type a lot of gibberish into a console window were selfless angels propelled by righteous sentiment to help you gain entry to the exclusive community of Rails developers. Well, sure, we are, but fundamentally, we’re…

Rails problem vampires.

Didn’t you notice how exciting we found the error messages in your terminal window? How about when we hopped up and down, shouting about malformed Gemfiles? And when two or more of us elbowed each other to peer at that mystifying line of code on your laptop screen–rake aborted (is that legal?), maybe you suspected.

“Hmmm,” you thought. “These people really want to expose me to all the gears, widgets, and thingamajigs that make up Rails, even if those don’t always work.”

My gosh, you saw through it, didn’t you? Your intuition is valid–at InstallFest you were surrounded by people who wanted to know where the installation process breaks down. You couldn’t even see all of us problem vampires–some were watching from afar, via discussion lists. We yearned to see where the instructions confused you and which of those d*mned Ruby gems didn’t load. We can’t make the installation a point-and-click process: there are technical constraints, for one thing, but more importantly, it would deny us that rich diet of error messages we crave and require.

You won’t need to bring a necklace of garlic or a wooden stake to attend InstallFest again. No, perhaps instead you will volunteer, twice, many times. Gradually, painlessly, unnoticeably…you, too, might also become a Rails problem vampire.

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.

The Point of the Rails Outreach for Women Workshops

The past week has seen some discussion on the mailing list for a local Ruby Meetup about this weekend’s Rails Outreach for Women workshop. One message from the workshop organizer, requesting a wireless hotspot accessible to Windows users, prompted a strange but revealing departure from the subject when people responded. Those of us lurking on the list didn’t find out who provided the hotspot, but we did find out what other subscribers think is the point of this workshop.

The point of the Rails Outreach for Women workshops

…is not, despite apparently common belief otherwise:

  • to give participants incredibly detailed information about the Ruby programming language
  • to give participants deep instruction in computer science topics
  • to convince participants of the superiority of open source software
  • to shame users for their reliance on GUI clients
  • to berate the people Sarah Mei wryly terms “operating system minorities” for using something the rest of us find inconvenient.

The point of the Rails for Women workshop is to make a cultural exchange.

It’s like going to a country where you don’t speak the language. You prepare by learning basic phrases which will help you ask directions to the train station, order food from a restaurant menu, and be polite in that country’s etiquette. You don’t start with the pluperfect tense, historical study of that language’s divergence into regional dialects, or intensive scrutiny of the country’s avant-garde poets. Your goal is to enjoy your trip to that country, and, if you do, you might return and gain more facility in its language.

The stated goal of the Rails for Women workshop to increase gender diversity in the Ruby community by helping women learn Rails. By the end of the workshop, however, what’s happened is a lot more positive and enduring than fifty or sixty people inspecting http://localhost:3000 on their laptops.

image © okhiroyuki

Instead, there’s an exciting, contagious mood of self-confidence in the participants and volunteers. People might not remember how to generate a scaffold the next day, but they will remember that they did it once before–so it can’t be that hard, can it?

Anybody who believes the tech industry is egalitarian should spend time working in it as a non-programmer. Only a few moments on the job as an admin, HR person, marketing person, or designer will quickly reveal how the people in these roles are consigned to the lowest castes in tech companies, while programmers are encouraged to swagger like feudal lords.

Many of the participants in the Rails for Women workshops identify themselves as this sort of tech-but-not-techie, in that they’ve been around the artifacts of programming culture, but not able to make sense of them. Once in the workshop, they handle things like–the command line! Version control! Databases! Maybe at the end of the day they don’t have every concept mastered, but they do have a greater self-regard that is moving to observe. They might go on to volunteer at the next workshop, or even attend a Ruby Meetup. They feel entitled to learn more.

The cultural exchange isn’t one way. As the participants work through the workshop curriculum, they discover where the Rails Way isn’t clear. Install Night is especially revealing: every volunteer helping gets exposed to at least one error message he or she’s never seen before, at least one bewildering installation problem for which no amount of Googling can provide solutions, and at least one nonsensical incompatibility nobody bothered documenting.

The Rails community gains from these frustrations. It gains when a workshop participant points out the inadequacy of a tutorial, README, or wiki page. It gains when installing an upgrade or gem becomes simple. Consider how friendly Rails could be for a programming novice: there’s so little futzing and configuration to do (once past the install hurdle) before you get to see something display in the browser. Why not make the Rails community as accessible?

The San Francisco Rails Outreach for Women Workshops are organized through the SF Ruby Meetup.

Random thoughts about the Rails Outreach workshop

part of the RailsBridge Open Workshops Project

It’s the Monday I didn’t expect to see, the Monday after the latest Rails for Women workshop. Two months ago I agreed to step up my volunteer commitment to these workshops. Instead of my usual lurking at the registration table, or lunchtime KP duty, this workshop saw me promoted to Assistant Organizer. Suddenly I became acquainted with the million little tasks that the Sarahs (Allen and Mei) and super-volunteer Ilén Zazueta-Hall had taken on so graciously before. It was like planning a big church wedding, or Thanksgiving dinner for fifty–and praise be that the remarkable Amy Chen was the event’s other organizer. Thanks to her and all the wonderful people who said “Yes!” to volunteering for this event, I am upright, even verbal today, and not reduced to Jell-o from all the pressure.

I spent Install Night and Workshop Day scooting around the workshop space, so my impressions of the event are scattered and incoherent:

* Little touches such as the bicycle racks sponsor Pivotal Labs provides inside its offices, as well as its location near several mass transit stops, said much about how positively different this workshop would be.

* If you’re organizing something like this, do whatever you can in advance, because inevitably something else will become more urgent at showtime. You can’t wing it for an event with this many people and projectors.

* Speaking of projectors, I regretted not having a volunteer dedicated just to A/V. There was too much last-minute scrambling for adapters, though our gracious hosts at Pivotal Labs had what seemed like the world’s most complete inventory of them. You know how I said something would come up right at the last minute? Count on the projectors to provide that drama.

* At the beginning of the workshop, I mentioned how thrilled I was that so many of the participants had little or no programming experience. I am totally sincere about that–of all the good things this workshop brings about, what I’m most proud of is that we offered an event which was friendly to newcomers. Wouldn’t it be great to see something like this for JavaScript or Django?

* I loved having the company of Mary, Sharon, and Michael as the workshop was underway. I never got to the gibbering-to-myself stage of frenzy because they handled so many things. It was kinda spooky how many things just got done–magically, invisibly.

* Everybody who cleaned up at the end has raised the standard for all other events at Pivotal Labs. By 5PM the place sparkled. I hope the Pivots liked it this morning.

What was your experience of the Rails Outreach Workshop?