Learning to code, week 0: deciding to take the plunge

We Create Here was an initiative within the Gazette Company to develop evolving narratives and authentic conversations throughout Iowa's Creative Corridor. read more

This summer, Sarah is getting outside of her comfort zone by taking Dev/Iowa, a nine-week course in web development fundamentals. We'll be blogging along the way, highlighting the local tech community, and probably asking for help. 

I’d like to consider myself an advocate for women in technology. I’ve written thousands of words on the topic, focusing both locally and on the dismal national statistics. I’ve been going to Iowa Tech Chicks meetings since they launched more than two years ago. At other startup and tech events, I’ve learned to be comfortable if I’m the only woman in the room. I’ve educated myself enough to know all the tired tropes and stereotypes, recognize microagressions, and speak and write confidently about the broad strokes of technology even when I don’t know all the details.

Yet, I still feel oddly nervous about advancing my own technology skills.

So, this summer, I’m taking Dev/Iowa’s Summer Series, a nine-week program devoted to teaching the fundamentals. It’s a step outside my comfort zone.

I’ll be blogging along the way, and likely asking for help.

Why the fear?

I live and breathe a culture of empowerment. Entrepreneurship is all about seeing a problem and believing that you can make a difference, with whatever imperfect set of skills, resources and constraints you have at your disposal. I’ve carved out a space for myself inside this culture, hearing it preached hundreds of times, including at events I’ve helped organize.

I also consider myself relatively competent in all things Internet. I’ve spent my young career in digital media, and if nothing else I’m a bona fide millennial.

So I didn’t anticipate feeling nervous over little pixels on a screen, stuff like tags, objects and functions.

But I am, deeply nervous. Why?

Is it because I didn’t play computer games growing up?

A lifetime of being gently steered toward the arts and social sciences?

A lack of exposure and role models? (I went to an engineering college, and honest to goodness didn’t really know what programming meant until I started writing about tech. Computer Science just wasn’t even on my radar.)

Is it good old fashioned sexism?

All these reasons we hear about why women don’t go into tech, I was sad to discover, were in fact shaping my thinking about what I am capable of.

What is Dev/Iowa?

Since taking over as Dev/Iowa coordinator in October 2014, Zach Sanderson (who’s also a friend to We Create Here) has promised a community-driven approach. The Summer Series is more mentor- and project-based than previous versions of the Bootcamp.

This philosophy was especially evident at Dev/Iowa’s first hackathon in March, where all skill levels and all technologies were welcome, with attendees mentoring each other and trying new things together. 

But, there’s still been a lot of chatter (largely on the Slack channel) about what Dev/Iowa is, could be or should be.

Some believe it should be strictly about preparing students for entry-level jobs. A lack of technical talent is frequently cited as a major hurdle for our region by both startups and established businesses.

Others say nine weeks isn’t nearly enough time to be ready for a developer gig, and even a year would just be scratching the surface. (I don’t know why this view was surprising to me – other professions are no different. But a lot of places that want to sell classes tell a story of ‘learn to code and get ready to make it rain.’)

Steve Davis, co-founder of Bio::Neos and this summer’s Dev/Iowa instructor, wrote this: “our goal is not ‘learn to code and make $$$’ but more ‘learn to code because it is relevant, fun, and helps you build things.’”

And this was the thinking, both from Davis and Sanderson, which ultimately won me over. I’m not planning a major career change (fear not, loyal readers!), but I see that code is everywhere and I want to have at least a basic understanding of it. I want to be able to have more intelligent, nuanced conversations with the tech professionals who are active in the Corridor. I want to be able to enhance the news stories you care about with maps and graphs and cool things that move on the page.

So stay tuned. I’ll keep you updated on my progress this summer, especially when we progress to the ‘doing a project’ part of the series.

Supplemental reading of the week: What is Code? A 38,000 word answer took over the June 11 edition of Businessweek.

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