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3 years in, free CoderGirl program connects women with technology – and opportunities

Jennifer Franklin at a CoderGirl meeting Dec. 2016
Launch Code

Last winter, Kimberly Vaughn and DeAnna Tipton both found themselves needing a career change.

Vaughn, 41, said she was “tattered and worn” of the industry she was in and was struggling as a single mother. Tipton, 25, was simply fed up with her job.

Although neither had a technology background, they both decided to attend the CoderGirl meet-up group at LaunchCode, a nonprofit that offers free training courses in coding at 4811 Delmar Blvd. in the Central West End.

“My life has completely been transformed,” Tipton said.

The CoderGirl meetup group launched in 2014 and has since seen about 500 women walk through the door. In January, the weekly meetup will evolve into a more structured year-long coding program for women – that’s still free.

“Coding is a way to communicate with computers,” said Crystal Martin, the program director for CoderGirl. “It’s a problem-solving discipline. It requires people to enjoy being wrong.”

Martin said there are different types of coding languages – some that help build software or databases for information and others that design things. CoderGirl tries to help the participants assess their natural interests and find the language or coding track that would best fit their personalities.

Tipton became enamored with the coding language that’s known as data science after a CoderGirl mentor guided her toward that coding track. Upon researching data science, she came across opportunities to use data science for social justice.

“All the bones in my body are social-justice bones,” Tipton said. “I’ve never looked back.”

Tipton took a six-month course through LaunchCode, while also attending the weekly Wednesday CoderGirl meetings to further her progress. Now she has a new job at Purina, and she and her mentor are competing in a competition to use data science to forecast crime in Portland, Oregon, as a way to improve public safety.

“One thing I love most about CoderGirl is the welcoming environment,” Tipton said. “It wasn’t one type at CoderGirl. There are women from every profession and age group. It’s for any woman or girl.”

When Vaughn joined CoderGirl, common Microsoft software was the extent of her technology knowledge. She started attending CoderGirl meetups last December and then decided to take a LaunchCode course.

By April, she was working as a contractor, an opportunity that she found through the LaunchCode program. In September, the Federal Reserve Bank hired her on as a project governance coordinator, where she uses her coding knowledge to work on projects with engineers in the treasury technology division.

“It has been a fast-moving 12 months, and it’s been an awesome ride,” Vaughn said. “I was recently at LaunchCode and I saw the individual who placed me. I broke down. Being there is like home to me.”

Vaughn said the greatest thing that CoderGirl brought her was confidence.

“Historically, a lot of us have been intimidated by the IT professions or we overestimate things, thinking it’s something that we can’t do,” she said. “I want more women to know that it can be done. I did that with two kids and working fulltime.”

Bonding and boosting confidence

CoderGirl brings in speakers to talk about the intimidation women often feel in technology fields, Martin said.

“As women, we all know what imposter syndrome feels like in many fields and situations we are in,” Martin said.

However, the women in the group are constantly pushing and supporting each other, Martin said. That sense of camaraderie is also beneficial for veterans in the field, said Jessica du Maine, a CoderGirl mentor and a longtime electronic design engineer.

“Being a woman in tech for all my life, it’s very helpful to have women that are going through the same things you are going through and be a support,” said du Maine, who works at BJC HealthCare.

As a former professor at St. Louis Community College, du Maine said she’s always aimed to recruit more women into the tech field because that perspective is often absent when designing things that people use every day.

“I’m grateful that they decided to do this in the St. Louis area,” du Maine said. “I feel like we are ground zero in this new civil rights movement, and it’s very important to provide this resource. Once you are entered in this career, you have leverage. You have room to be able to make a difference in your community.”

Martin joined CoderGirl without any tech experience, and she too fell in love with the supportive environment. In 2015, LaunchCode hired her on as a community educator and she took on the role of running the weekly meetup group.

Four months ago, she was promoted to director and was given the charge of “pushing it to the next level.”

After hearing feedback from mentors and participants, they made the decision to make CoderGirl less transient and more focused on one group of women, in order to ensure that the participants were reaching their goals, Martin said.

“I wanted to have an environment where I knew every one of the girls’ names and their kids’ names and what their career goals were,” Martin said. “I used to be a teacher. Adults and kids, they all need the same things to be learners and to reach the goals.”

From the feedback, they learned that it takes about eight to 12 months for a person with no coding background to become proficient. Hence, the program will include two six-month-long segments, where they meet 6-8 p.m. on Wednesdays.

The program’s application process opened on Dec. 5, and they already have about 600 applications. On the application, there are 15 questions, and applicants have 90 minutes to complete them.

“We are looking for your ability to problem-solve,” Martin said. “It’s an inquiry into the skills that you actually have. Are you a logical thinker? Are you able to read a problem and choose the best answer from your logic? It’s fake math.”

There is also a motivation and goals survey. She said they are aiming to get people who want to use tech learning as a way to advance not only themselves but also the community. Although the program is not targeted at minority women, Martin said she has a personal interest in involving women of color.

“In my mind, when I think about women of color being participants, it’s not only going to impact their lives,” Martin said. “They are going to be the ones to inform and teach our community about coding being an opportunity because they have done it themselves. I want to cultivate that.”

Overall, she believes the CoderGirl end goal goes beyond just creating job opportunities and career readiness.

“This is a mission,” Martin said. “This is transforming the St. Louis community through the power of tech knowledge.”

For more information about the program and application, visit https://www.launchcode.org/coder_girl.

Rebecca Rivas is a reporter with The St. Louis American where this story was originally published.