The August Ruby on Rails Outreach Workshop for Women was great success with 50 people attending including a few men who reached out to a woman to bring them along or came as a guest. We had a record turnout of over 20 volunteers, which made a huge difference to the workshop running smoothly. Sarah Mei and I still led the charge, but it was easier to be more organized with lead volunteer Ilen Zazueta-Hall on the team. SlideShare again lent their offices for our teacher prep meeting. With the help of our amazing sponsors, Pivotal Labs, Engine Yard and Heroku, along with some last minute additional food by the awesome Triptych Restaurant, we were in a comfortable workspace with plenty of food and drink for the important in-between and after times when people can connect with each other and ask questions informally.
I believe that establishing an environment of abundance is key to creating a successful learning experience and springboard for future exploration. Certain individuals in our society come from a background where they have abundant resources and connections. They know that if they get stuck, they can call someone; if they need something, they can get it; if they fall, someone will be there to catch them or at least help them get back up. Women (and under-represented minorities and some white men) aren’t typically in that situation, particularly in tech. I believe that having to struggle for access to resources and support is a key factor that leads to our taking fewer risks, innovating less, founding fewer tech companies and leaving (or never entering) the field.
In both workshops so far, we have been able to create an environment where a group can, for at last a day and a half, have every advantage and full access to resources. Several women approached me at the end of the event to say that they found the environment very conducive to learning, more so than other events they had attended or in learning on their own. Research in learning suggests some reasons why. When people are anxious, they retain less of what they learn. People learn more effectively in social situations, and the best learning happens when you can learn by playing.
There are a number of aspects to the workshop, both planned and unplanned, that I believe led to a comfortable, playful environment that was particularly conducive to learning:
- Large number of volunteers who were experienced Rails engineers made it so the time between having a question and having it answered was short. Teachers did not need to pause in a lecture to help someone who was struggling with a technical detail.
- Diverse and enthusiastic teachers. While several of the teachers had lots of experience, many had rarely, if ever, taught a group before. There were also last minute recruits who had little time to prepare. However all were enthusiastic Rubyists, eager to share their know-how. I believe it was clear to the attendees that the teachers and organizers were pushing themselves by putting on the event. We were taking risks, and I would guess it made it easier for the attendees to take risks also.
- Several volunteers to focus on the logistics. Ilen kept things running smoothly. Diana Stanley and Melanie Archer helped with registrations and dozens of planned and unplanned details. Peter Mei and Ikuko Kobayashi took care of the kids.
- For the Friday evening install fest, we were better prepared for potential network bottlenecks. Attendees started the downloads and installs at home. For those who still needed softare, Sean Becket from Pivotal prepared a bunch of DVDs.
- Diversity of participants. When socializing, there was no stark division between experienced Rails engineers and learners. Volunteers ranged from working Rails engineers to out-of-work coders, struggling entrepreneurs and alumnae of the previous workshop. Learners ranged from successful business women and designers who had never been exposed to programming to out-of-work coders, struggling entrepreneurs and working engineers with experience in a different language. I expect that many people made connections that they can draw upon after the workshop in their work and I hope they also made friends. I know I did.
- Plentiful food and drink. It may seem trivial, but I think that taking care of basic needs enables people to focus on other pursuits. Having really good food for lunch provided a rich atmosphere, making people feel special.
- Expectations. We set clear expectations on Saturday morning. We did not expect everyone to become Ruby on Rails engineers after the workshop, although we hope some of them will. It was our goal that everyone would build and deploy a web application by the end of the day. By setting a clear goal and providing all of the support needed to meet that goal, I think we set up a positive challenge and feeling of anticipation.
- Presents. Thanks to generous sponsors, everyone at the workshop received presents. More stuff to make them feel special. The basic tools are all free and open source, but the freebies were additional tools that would help them continue learning, be productive and connect with others after the conference:
If you participated in the workshop, either as a volunteer or participant, I’d be interested in what worked for you. Even if you didn’t participate, but have ideas for us, I’m all ears.