Learn IT, Girl! – Helping 118 Women to Learn a Programming Language

The Learn IT, Girl! team received dozens of thanks from the mentors and scholars
The Learn IT, Girl! team received dozens of thanks from the mentors and scholars

Nowadays, we live in a world where a young woman learning programming is no longer a novelty. For women such as these and many others, a program called Learn IT, Girl! was created, with the sole purpose of teaching programming to young women by pairing them with mentors over a 10 weeks period (Nov 2014 – Feb 2015).

Learn IT, Girl! was founded by a group of young women who were rewarded with the Google Anita Borg Scholarship in 2014. The first run of the program was an astonishing success, having received 138 mentors applications and 212 scholars applications, without any kind of paid promotion. It just goes to show that projects that bring real value to people don’t need marketing budgets.

After talking with Silvia Stegaru, one of the founders of the program, I’ve come to realize how difficult it was not only to select the mentors and scholars, but also pair them depending on their chosen programming language, the mentor’s skills, but also timezone. After all, how can you transform a bunch of more or less subjective answers from an application form into a very objective system of points and decide who gets in and who doesn’t? I had the opportunity to take a look at their selection process and I must say I was impressed with their professionalism. Not surprisingly, motivation was the number one selection criteria for both scholars and mentors, with reliability, leadership skills, teaching abilities and knowledge also on the list. The taught programming languages and projects were diverse, including HTML, CSS, PHP, Ruby, Java, JavaScript, Objective-C, C++, C#, ASP.NET and Python.

I had the opportunity to be one of the mentors of the program and it was a learning experience for me as well. First of all, I realized that understanding JavaScript today is much more difficult than it was 5 years ago. I have been a web developer for almost 10 years, so it’s easy for me to forget that what we nowadays call “JavaScript programming” is a giant leap from what it used to be a few years back. Angular, Backbone, NodeJS, Meteor, Express, Handlebars, Ember, NPM, Bower… where to even begin? To make things worse, JavaScript is no longer used just on the client-side, it’s also used for server-side programming, game development, desktop and mobile applications and many others.

For me, the transition from “let’s write an onclick method” to using platforms like NodeJS or Meteor happened naturally over a period of a few years, giving me the time to learn and adapt. Even so, there are so many frameworks and platforms out there, countless libraries and utilities, that it has become quite an impossible task to master them all. You have to know where to look and what to look for and I’m sure it’s the same if you want to learn Java, C++ or Python.

My scholar, Agnieszka, was a real trooper. She followed her goal and didn’t give up even though she already had a full-time job. I know it wasn’t easy – but she succeeded in developing a small Backbone project and is now moving forward and taking on other JavaScript platforms like NodeJS and Meteor. I’m sure she will make a wonderful mentor for the next Learn IT, Girl! batch. After all, mentoring is not the same as going to school. Mentors are there not only to teach, but guide you, encourage you, help you prioritize and focus when you’re starting to lose your compass.

The only sorrowful thought I have about the program is that some girls did drop out. It saddens me to see they have wasted a wonderful opportunity, which will not be there for them next year. I see many similarities between this program and a business accelerator – as it becomes known and its value grows, it will receive a lot more applications and it will be a lot more difficult to get in. For sure, I’ll apply to be a mentor next year as well!