Sanderson and Code First: Girls - facing my coding fears

When Sanderson Hotel London invited me to a Code First: Girls introduction to coding event (including free cocktails) I decided to see if code still gave me the cold sweats it did at university

Something not many people know about the current business editor of Computer Weekly is that I can programme in Java.

Whenever people ask me about my degree in Computer Science I don’t offer up that much in reply, and those three years of university prompted me to turn my back on the idea of being a coder and become a journalist instead.

When someone reached out to my colleague Cliff to ask if he wanted to attend an evening course on an “Introduction to Coding and the Web” he passed it on to me and I gritted my teeth.

The thought of being back in a learning environment to write code was giving me heart palpitations and flash backs – sitting in a room of mostly men, not understanding what had been explained but also not wanting to ask for help.

I was almost certain I wouldn’t meet the standard of the other women attending the session, that I wouldn’t remember anything from university and that I would be asked to give my degree back after being laughed out of the room.

I’d been told that the class, called “Cocktails and Coding”, was aimed at those who were interested in learning more about “the coding world” but might be too afraid to sign up to an official class.

I don’t think the woman who informed me of this knew that she’d reassured me rather than put me off.

As soon as I walked in I saw a few women with laptops and it suddenly dawned on me I should have brought mine – if we’re going to learn to code, we would need a laptop surely?

At that point it was a good job there were cocktails, because I can imagine I wasn’t the only one whose nerves were getting the better of them – there were lots of other women who had come alone too.

Sanderson provided two free cocktails for each Code First: Girls guests, and although I didn’t have a whole one to myself I tried one and it was GOOD.

Each of the women who had chosen to take part were at a different stage in their coding journey – some had never coded before, others had been using massive online open courses (moocs) to start learning programming languages.

One of the women told me she worked in a technology company where all of the coders were men. She was then quick to tell me that she worked in the marketing department, but that coding intrigued her and she’d signed up for an online coding course as well as the Code First: Girls session to learn more about it.

Her drive for coming to the event was meeting other people who were interested in technology.

Another lady had quit her job and wanted to create her own website – she told me her friends are “petrified” of tech but that “it’s coming” and we should strive to be ahead of the curve rather than be left behind.

One of the other ladies told me: “Just because I am a young girl doesn’t mean I can’t learn to code!”

But unfortunately when I finished university that’s not how I felt.

I made it through my degree but I still don’t consider myself a coder or programmer – when I left university I also couldn’t have told you how to get a job in programming or the credentials you might need to do so.

It was also unclear what other roles you could go in to with the skills I had learnt – all I knew is I never wanted to write another line of Java ever again.

It was negative stereotyping in the industry that put me off of it altogether, and it seemed the male-dominated and competitive environment I had experience during my final year at university was a milder version of what I could expect of an IT career in the “real world”.

That negative view people have of the industry is exactly why events like this exist – the course had been designed by Code First: Girls and hosted by Sanderson Hotel London to create a “safe space” for women to learn more about technology, the digital landscape and coding without feeling like they can’t ask questions.

Aptly we were all led into a meeting room called “The Boardroom” – I doubt many other boardrooms had seen an all-female group.

It wasn’t long before I discovered we didn’t need a laptop at all for the session, instead Code First: Girls CEO Amali de Alwis led a presentation on the structure of the web, why and how it was created, what peer-to-peer networks are and the difference between coders and programmers.

De Alwis claimed coders use languages such as HTML or CSS which define layout and content, whereas programmers usually use a language that give software or hardware instructions  – this particularly interested me and helped me to shed a little light on my university experience.

Many of the girls on my course were shunned by the boys for using HTML as the code for their final year project, and the men would often mutter “it’s not coding” or that HTML was not a “real language”.

De Alwis confirmed there is often “snobbery” around web development, and whether web developers are coders or programmers but that it was just as important, and that she considered it an art as well as a skill.

According to De Alwis, Code First: Girls actually encourages people learning to code to start with web development as it is more accessible, and because you can see most of the code that goes into websites without needing any special tools – this is available to everyone through their browsers.

Throughout the Code First Girls: session, people asked questions without fear of ridicule, and De Alwis made is clear that the growing IT skills gap is a cause for concern in the UK technology industry – we can’t afford to be discounting half of the population in our efforts to close this gap.

“We focus on one thing and that’s getting women into tech and entrepreneurship,” she explained.

“I know it’s always a bit scary and I know that being a developer isn’t for everyone.”

I left the session with a new found ease and a link to the Code First: Girls free online taster materials – I may never want to touch Java again, and programming might not be for me, but I could still be a coder if I wanted to.

Women are still in the minority in the IT industry, but there are people out there who are trying to make the environment better for women in the technology industry and there are safe spaces popping up in which people can ask questions without feeling intimidated.