We catch up with Brenda Jin, leader of the San Francisco chapter of Girl Develop It — “a nonprofit organization that provides affordable programs for adult women interested in learning web and software development in a judgment-free environment”. Brenda’s own career path highlights the importance of training programs, and why Girl Develop It focuses on women in particular.
Tim Anglade, Executive-in-Residence at Scale Venture Partners: We’re here to talk about something you do outside of work, mostly, I would assume, called Girl Develop It, where you run the San Francisco Chapter. To somebody who doesn’t know anything about the group, how would you describe it?
Brenda Jin, leader of the San Francisco chapter of Girl Develop It: So, Girl Develop It is a nationwide organization. We have over 50 chapters in the country, and we teach adult women how to program. So we give them the technical skills to achieve whatever it is they want in their everyday lives.
Tim: Right. And so that could be anything from you know, web development to mobile to any number of topics, right?
Brenda: Yes. The vast majority of topics are technical, so whether it’s web development or mobile development or things like MySQL, we do teach hands on, technical, and in-person instruction.
Tim: So how did you get involved? I assume you just kinda came in maybe as a student or just interested party, and, like, how do you, you know, start getting involved and eventually running the group?
Brenda: That’s right. I actually did come in as a student. So, in 2013, I was making this really big career change, and I used to be in non-profit administration, in fund raising, and then I thought it would be cool to learn a code, and then completely changed my career and became a software developer. So I actually attended some classes early in 2013 with Girl Develop It to learn very specific skills ‘cause I wanted to learn a little bit more about Java script and a little bit more about jQuery, and I really needed specific questions answered. So I showed up to a class, and it was just this amazing, transformative, and empowering experience. And I took those skills and practiced, and then ended up getting a job.
Tim: And that’s around the time we met, right? It’s like, I remember running a hack-a-thon and you got to win I think. I just couldn’t believe that you had just started this career switch. Like, to me, it was like, why here’s somebody that’s been like, killing it at web development for a while. But it was brand new.
Brenda: Yeah. That’s right. That was like a very fast-paced time in my learning and development.
Tim: Right. So it seems like, you know, you were able to do a lot, right, in just, kind of, three years to go from, you know, setting your mind to it to can now being think like a senior software developer? I think, at Slack, that’s kind of a very interesting transition. Do you feel like that’s a usual path that you see a lot of students taking in the group, or members, I guess? Or is it something that kinda changes from person to person?
Brenda: I think it really depends. So where Girl Develop It really shines is giving people the skills and the confidence to succeed in whatever it is they wanna do. So not everyone takes the same path as me. Some people take Girl Develop It classes to excel at their boot camp. And some people take classes because they really want a great website for their small business. Or they have a project in mind, and they wanna learn some skills to complete the project. And so, whatever it is that people wanna do, what’s exciting to me is that people are just following their dreams and doing what they want to do with the help of technology.
Tim: So how does that look like in practice? Like, how many members? Like, how many classes? How many teachers? Like, give us some details maybe about what your group looks like.
Brenda: So in San Francisco, we teach 40 to 50 workshops, technical workshops, per year. In addition, we offer professional development courses like, sometimes, interview prep, resume feedback; we’ll have some meet the company events with different companies. Last year, we did Benefit Cosmetics. The year before that, we did a meet the company with Yammer. And so through all of these events and programs, we really try to carry out our mission. We have, in San Francisco, over 7000 members. And we’ve been around since 2012. Nationwide, we’ve reached over 75,000 students.
Tim: Nice. So that’s kinda quite nice. Quite a big scale. And so I assuming class size changes quite a bit depending on topic. I assume there are some things that are really popular, but you don’t have, like, one big classroom with 77 people in San Francisco. How does that look, like, to somebody who’s never been, you know, and might wanna join. Like, what experience should they expect?
Brenda: So that’s actually been, as a leader, one of my focuses for 2016. I wanna make sure that when students come in they get a really consistent quality experience. And it’s educational and empowering. So class size will range between 10 to 30 students, and depending on the number of students, we like to get a good teacher and TA to student ratio. So every student gets hands-on, one-on-one time with either a teacher or a TA during the class. And for every 20 to 30 minutes of lecture, we will have a significant exercise for students to practice their skills, and that’s where they get a lotta help from TA’s and teachers.
Tim: Right. So it seems like there’s a lot of thought being put into that. And as somebody who used to teach computer science and did some pretty large classes, probably larger than I should have, you know, it’s interesting, right, to focus on this quality, and making sure people have a good experience. And you do that, like all that for free, right? Like, you’re not charging people to attend those classes? How does that work? I guess, how do you organize these things?
Brenda: Well, one of the things I love about Girl Develop It is that, it’s a 100 percent women’s empowerment movement. So we actually don’t ask the teachers to do things for free. Teachers get paid and students pay a very competitive price to attend workshops.
Tim: Ah, yeah.
Brenda: So we have some of the best content in the area, in my opinion. It’s all open source, so you can get it on-line. But then we offer this instruction and this help on top of it, and students will pay nine to 14 dollars per hour of instruction,
Brenda: which I think is the best price
Tim: Right. that you’re gonna find in San Francisco. And then they come in and they get this, like, amazing experience.
Brenda: No, yeah, you’re right. I was twisting in my mind between, like, the teacher doing that for free versus the student. And so that’s kind of really nice compared to what I’ve seen in other boot camps where, yeah, you pay kinda a lot of money for the promise of a degree, and then, maybe the quality doesn’t work so much because it’s a for profit type of venture. And so I think in general, I think people have a much better experience. It’s true, those groups like Girl Develop It, that actually focus on, on getting the results rather than getting your money, all right?
Tim: Yeah, and I think that what really differentiates us from certain other for profit organizations is that student success, in my mind, is somebody who feels empowered to pursue their dreams. That’s really different from measuring a specific type of student success. So while many of our students go to boot camps, boot camps probably measure their success more along the lines of job placement, or maybe career advancement in certain companies. What I care about is that the students feel like they have everything that they need to accomplish their dreams.
Brenda: Right. So why do you feel it’s important, and maybe the answer is very obvious, but why do you feel it’s so important to have this, as you said, as like a woman empowerment kind of movement? You know, versus all the other options that are out there to learn and kind of become a developer or to become a better developer? Why do you feel it’s so important to have that mission and that role?
Tim: Well, we are open to all genders. But I specifically think that women’s empowerment is a huge issue. A lot of the computer science initiatives that we see are specifically targeted at girls. And something that I believe very firmly, and I think it’s actually a value across the tech industry is that it is never too late to learn. And you could learn skills at any age. And it just takes like some resources to help get you there, and sometimes a community and encouragement. And so it’s especially important to me because I didn’t take a computer science major for an undergrad, and I think there were a lot of barriers in my mind for, you know, the stories I had and the narrative I had in my mind about why computer science wasn’t right for me. And had I not had this opportunity as an adult, if it weren’t true that I couldn’t learn as an adult, I wouldn’t have the chance to have this career that I love and I find very fulfilling. And I’m so glad that it’s actually never too late to learn and I hope other people feel empowered by that as well.
Brenda: Yeah, so what are some of the things that maybe, concretely, you try to do to serve that audience well, right? You know, I assume that maybe the make up of the class is something that kinda helps make other, you know, women kinda welcome in joining. Are there other things you feel have been particularly successful in helping, kind of tailors this more specifically towards women?
Tim: We have a lot of women in leadership and women teaching. And I feel like that is really critical to the students feeling empowered because I like to get all kinds of people TAing and teaching, so that when the students come in, they don’t just, they don’t have just like one person that they might relate to. They have a couple of TA’s and teachers where they’re thinking like, “Oh. That person does something cool.” Or they have a related interest in me, or they’re doing something that I want to do. And then, for me, that’s like a real light bulb moment when I’m like oh, I can relate to this teacher. So I love to have that kind of classroom structure. Another thing that we do is we’re constantly tuning our materials. So we get feedback after every class. How was the pace? How were the materials? What can we do to improve? And with our open source curriculum, we get a lot of updates to it regularly. And, in fact, a lot of students end up contributing.
Tim: Later on. Another thing that’s really cool is to watch students become TA’s and then teachers, and then continue just giving back because they felt the mission and the impact of the organization, and they’re able to then, kind of like, give back to the community.
Brenda: Right. So create that feedback loop where kind of students help you improve this for the students and, you know, also can it become kinda organizers. So what are some of the other ways people can help? You know, I’m sure they can join a course, you know, and what else do you need to kinda keep this kinda program running?
Tim: Check us out on the internet, www.girldevelopit.com. And the best way for people to help, especially in San Francisco, is to make a donation. www.girldevelopit.com/donate Especially if you’re thinking about your taxes at the end of the year. Please pick an organization that empowers women.
Brenda: Cool. Thank you so much.
Tim: Thank you!