2013-06-06

Empowering A New Generation Of Tech-Savvy Women By Teaching Them To Code

Skillcrush is trying to democratize the world of programing by helping women (and a few men) learn HTML, CSS, and Ruby on Rails—and showing them just how creative coding can be.

You’ve probably had that feeling once or twice: that sooner or later, you’re going to need to learn to code. As a writer or editor or anyone whose job depends on the Internet, it can be frustrating—if not downright scary—to ponder how much you rely on something you don’t understand. It was for Adda Birnir.

"I was working on a magazine in 2008, and they were laying off dozens of people on the editorial side and giving people raises in the tech department," says Birnir. "There was such a stark contrast in terms of opportunity and job security."

While working on another media job, Birnir was one of dozens editorial layoffs during a round of cuts to the business; only one member of the tech team lost his job. That’s when she committed to gaining some tech-fluency. Her new skill set helped her find work as a content producer for digital ad campaigns. But even as she found success and security, she was dismayed by the disconnect between tech teams and other departments.

"It was always like no one was speaking the same language," she says of the experiences that inspired her to launch Skillcrush, a community-drive online course that teaches women how to code, with the help of co-founder Kate McGee. "We had this experience going into the world of tech and finding it creative and inspiring and fun, but none of that seems to be apparent to people outside of the tech industry."

They launched Skillcrush as a way to empower young creative types—especially women—by giving them the toolkits to build their own websites, learning to code and discovering the collaborative joy of web development. Focusing on women, who tend to be underrepresented in the tech world, was partly design (though Skillcrush is not exclusively for women and routinely has men enrolled in its classes). And Birnir says they looked at successful in-person women-centered tutorials like Rails Bridge for inspiration. The goal was translating those courses’ successes to an online version; the crux was making it accessible, friendly, and truly interactive. And a first rate aesthetic, while less important, certainly wouldn’t hurt.

"A lot of folks come to us after, say, buying a book and trying to learn to code but finding it hard to translate those skills to use," says Birnir. "That’s what inspired us to give them a very concrete example of how to put everything to use. You learn something and you immediately apply it to your project."

Here’s how it works: The truly uninitiated can sign up for Skillcrush’s Email Bootcamp, which delivers users a daily newsletter with simple lessons on the vernacular of the Internet. This is basic (but essential) stuff, like the difference between HTML and CSS, or a concise explanation of what co-workers mean by frontend versus backend. But the main class is a $125 three-week course called Skillcrush 101: Build Your Own Portfolio. Beginning with an introduction to what goes into a good portfolio, users learn HTML and CSS through videos, cheat sheets, and interactive exercises. They also learn how to purchase a domain and how to launch a website. When all’s said and done, the student has built her own website. The beauty of Skillcrush is how it turns a world that outsiders view as either walled off or indecipherable, into simple, relatable language. For instance, in the following video, see how they distinguish between mark-up languages (CSS, HTML) and programming languages:

As they’ve grown, they’ve discovered that students have stayed in touch with each other, and the idea of building a community—which Birnir initially feared might just be lip service on their part—has come to fruition.

"Being able to translate your idea into a concrete reality, even a rough version of it, is really life-changing," says Birnir. "People really benefit from having these technical skills. Regardless of the industry, we can all benefit from these skill sets."

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