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The Tech Teacher
Code Scouts is overturning the male-dominated programming world
Michelle Rowley knows all too well how one ill-placed string of code can cripple an entire piece of software. Then again, a single mention in the local newspaper was all it took to kick-start the biggest project of her life.
A May 2012 Willamette Week story about the lack of women in the Portland, Ore., tech scene referenced Rowley's plan to hold a Python programming workshop for new female programmers. More than 100 would-be coders expressed interest. It was the impetus Rowley needed to launch Code Scouts, a nonprofit with the potential to change the makeup of the software industry.
Computer-related employment is growing rapidly, but gender diversity is woefully behind other industries. Although women made up 51 percent of 2012's professional work force, they accounted for only a quarter of computer-industry staffing. Women make up 34 percent of web developers, 23 percent of programmers, 20 percent of software developers and 15 percent of information-security analysts. Perhaps most shocking, only 1.5 percent of open-source code--the backbone of the web--is programmed by women.
So she started hosting coding workshops for women, which caught the attention of Rick Turoczy, co-founder and general manager of the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). Turoczy encouraged Rowley to turn her workshops into a business, but she was adamant that her operation be nonprofit, helping underserved people like single mothers, who can afford neither the time nor the money to attend months-long software-development boot camps. Incubators like PIE generally fund for-profit startups in exchange for equity and a taste of future revenue. "But we also are very much of the mind that PIE is an experiment," Turoczy says. "Given her focus on trying to create more development talent for the Portland startup community, it seemed like a perfect fit, so we took it on."Rowley learned to code through friends and self-teaching, and once she got work as a programmer, she entered a primarily male work environment. She was often asked to represent the female perspective. "That is a weird dynamic--being the only woman in the room--and they are all staring at you because they have to," she says. "I thought, I wonder how the dynamics would change if we could get more women involved."
In July 2012, PIE granted Rowley $18,000 to launch Code Scouts. Armed with a shoestring budget and an army of volunteers, the startup has pulled together a welcoming and accessible learning community for women, with 110 students (and a waiting list) and 30 mentors. Students work through projects such as building simple software like web scrapers and chat bots; they are also paired with mentors who evaluate completed projects and advise on career paths. Some even receive professional experience by interning with partner companies.
As Code Scouts wraps up its first year, word has spread. Rowley has heard from potential supporters in San Francisco, Austin, New York, London and other cities, and is hopeful that Code Scouts will open more chapters soon.
"We are not going to just stay in Portland--this is going worldwide for sure," says Rowley, who is building a kit for future Code Scout programs. "I just need some people in other cities that want to step up and make it happen."
--John Patrick Pullen