Time to Donate: My Experience With Rails Girls


During a lunch discussion over some dumplings, Shufen mentioned that she was going to start a Rails Girls in Dallas. Several of us immediately volunteered. I have an affinity for teaching so this struck me as a great opportunity to do something I love. Additionally, an event like this might help a teenager pick a future. It could motivate a mother to reenter the work force after years of staying home with her children. It might help a small business launch or provide an existing one with a much needed boost. The decision to help was quick and easy.

What is Rails Girls?

Rails Girls was a concept born in Helsinki, Finland and carried out for the first time back in November of 2010. The goal was, and still is, to provide women with an inspiring introduction to programming. There are no age or skill requirements and admission is free. The two day event starts on Friday night with a software install party. Saturday gives a taste of programming via Ruby and provides a peek into the power of Rails. Events are organized independently by local people with guides that help every step of the way. Oh, and because it’s a Rails event, there’s always a FridayHug.

Friday Hug

Good Things Come to Those Who Give

It turns out that I did meet curious teens, mothers going back to work, and aspiring entrepreneurs. Most of my time was spent working with a great mother and daughter pair. The teen’s stepfather was a programmer and this gave them the opportunity to learn more about what he does and to explore it for themselves. I got the chance to practice teaching and share my passion for programming. I knew some of the coaches before hand but I met others that shared my enthusiasm and who I’ve talked with since (one even came out to a hack night that my employer hosts).

Rails Girls Coaches

Rails Girls doesn’t pay coaches or speakers but our event covered breakfast, lunch and a free t-shirt. One sponser paid for our coaches dinner on Friday night. Ryan Bates was kind enough to provide everyone involved in the event with a credit for three months of RailsCasts. Finally, coaches and participants were given a large credit toward registration for the first ever Big Ruby Conf. People are all too happy to support important projects and the individuals helping to make them happen.

Get Out and Give

For me, Rails Girls combined two things I feel strongly about. First, I enjoy working in Ruby and using Rails. Second, I believe a community is strongest when it is diverse. We practice diversity at a technical level. It might be having a keynote by Clojure’s own Rich Hickey at RailsConf 2012 or spending the time to delve into Node.js. However, there’s another type of diversity that we need to address.

We need to look at the individuals that make up the community. The way a person views and interacts with the world is largely derived from past experience. When the members of a group share a significant overlap in experience they are less likely to challenge one another. A quick internet search will show a bevy of research lauding the advantages of diversity. Studies cite improvements in creativity and innovation resulting from the varied perspectives of the participants.

Rails Girls is focused on helping women, but that’s not our only underrepresented group. Consider impoverished individuals who grow up without computers readily available for tinkering. I toured a KIPP school where posters advertised the job opportunities that are available with a good education and the salaries they provide. “Software Developer” was listed on the wall of the math room. Most of those kids have probably never met a software developer. With limited resources and no mentors how many can we expect to see take an interest in development? Consider how many cultural and social groups are underrepresented or non-existent among the ranks of developers.

The industry isn’t perfect but every time I’ve been involved in hiring new people we’ve looked for friendly, hard working, bright people. There are people out there that fit that discription and would be fantastic additions to the community but never got the opportunity. Providing materials, knowledge and mentorship to those who least have it can create immense opportunity.

It doesn’t have to be Rails Girls. It doesn’t have to be related to Ruby. You can work with kids or adults, stay in your neighborhood or mentor in another. What’s important is that you find something you’re comfortable with and go.