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How I Learned to Code, Quit My Job, and Changed the World

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Rails Girl and world traveler Bettina Shzu-Juraschek discusses how learning to code helped her gain the confidence to travel extensively and create digital products to change the world.
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The primary prerequisite for becoming good at learning new skills is being confident that you can do it. This sounds much easier than it is.

One does not have equal confidence in all things. For a long time I have been confident that I can find anyone interesting and that I can get around in foreign countries without speaking thelanguage.

But I never thought that I would find coding fun. Nor was I confident enough to travel without money in the bank or to be unemployed by choice. I was not confident that I could do that without certain safety nets in place. That all changed when I learned how to code.

I never thought would code. Or that I would find it fun. But being able to command a computer is powerful stuff. When you know its language, you can ask the computer to do something for you. When I email these days, I’m in awe of all that has come to pass for this ubiquitous computer task to seem so easy.

I never thought about it before; I assumed there were smart people somewhere over there making the Internets. But now that I could command the computer, I stopped taking such things for granted. Because it could be ME someday creating something that people use and take for granted.

How I Learned to Code

Last year at a picnic a friend told me about a Rails Girls workshop, where women with no coding experience whatsoever are coached to make a website in one day.

Up to that point I was interested in everything digital except programming. I was doing online marketing, social media, and mobile apps. I had even developed mobile apps, doing everything but the coding for it. It wasn’t that I lacked resources to learn how to code. I had seen tutorials online, and I knew lots of coders. I even used HTML on an almost daily basis at my job. In short, I did not ever consider learning how to code, but this lady friend who also had no technical background inspired me to check it out.

I remember visiting the Rails Girls website for the first time. It was not the usual super-functional website I usually associate with hackers. I don’t remember the website design exactly, but knowing how it looks now, it probably was red and had hearts and ruby gemstones all over it. The friendly design drew me in. Funny enough, I was also sold on the fact that the workshop was only for one day. It was an easy, low-commitment way to check something out.

Now that I’ve been to a few hacker meetups, I’m grateful for the environment at my first Rails Girls workshop. No one made fun of my Windows OS, which no real developer would use. Tons of women were there to learn, coach and speak, which is rare in the tech world. In fact, I even put my foot in my mouth by asking the two very nice guys sitting next to me what they were doing there. Little did I know, they were to be my coaches for the day.

At the workshop the hours flew by fast. I had to be content with understanding 60-80% of the explanations. I realized that I was not going to learn everything about coding, not even about Ruby, in one day. At the end of the day, we had a working app. It was not easy,but I never felt dumb. My coaches made me feel smart even though I had an endless stream of questions.

More than just smart, I felt euphoric that we had accomplished something. I wanted to continue; I was hooked on creating a little piece of something on the Internet. To this end I organized a learning group with other lady learners from that first Rails Girls workshop to code a web application that would create a collage of randomly colored squares from text input. We met every Monday to learn Ruby by coding this app that eventually came to be known as text-to-squares—not terribly original, but very descriptive.

Looking back now I’m amazed that our coaches never laughed out loud at our mistakes or assumptions, as other coders I meet outside of Rails Girls would do to me later (and completely understandably, too). We learned quickly, because one of the learners already had some programming experience. She asked good questions that would have never occurred to me. She speeded up our learning. The most important lesson I learned is that it’s ok to not have all the answers because you can find almost all the answers by searching the Internet..  

Coding with Rails Girls gave me the confidence to tackle the technical. Before I would have asked someone to code for me, assuming the coding would be too difficult. But now instead of asking my web developer friend to redesign my website, I am learning JavaScript and CSS by myself with only occasional help from coaches. There is freedom in knowing that I can code anything I like, with enough time and enough help from stronger coders. 

How I Quit My Job to Travel the World

A dream I have had for a long time is to travel the world for an extended amount of time. I always told myself that when I had a million dollars in the bank, I would do it.

Around the same time I started to code, I realized that the number of a million is one I had just made up. I didn’t need a million dollars to travel. Having a million dollars was an excuse to cover my lack of confidence to quit my good, steady job in order to travel.

Now was as perfect a time as any. Even though I didn’t have a million dollars, I had enough money to travel. I had a list of specific places I longed to see. Berlin’s bitter winter would be replaced by tropical weather and the austral summer. Most importantly, having advanced as much as I could at my job, I was ready to leave.

Although I was nervous about leaving my comfortable job, I was confident that I would be able to endure the job hunt when I came back. Part of that confidence came from seeing how easy coding was to learn when I was motivated. I was sure that I could do anything. And if I didn’t know how, I could research it.

So, from September 2013 to April 2013, I fulfilled my dream of extended travel, visiting India, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and China. Instead of working or coding, I chose to experience my travels to the fullest and be open to the surprises travel brings. In India I studied yoga, stayed in an ashram, and met what people called a living guru. In Indonesia I looked into the eyes of a wild baby orangutan and snorkeled with stingless jellyfish that were straight out of a cartoon. In Australia I baked in over 40 degree Celsius heat in the middle of the Red Center and felt so very small and young looking at the ancient huge rock now known as Uluru. In New Zealand I spent a magical sunset with a pod of playful baby seals and many other sunsets peering at penguins waddling ashore to their nests. In China I climbed the mythical Yellow Mountain, inspiration for so many classical Chinese paintings and poems, as a respite from Shanghai, which reminded me of midtown Manhattan, where I once lived.

I gave in to the rhythms of life in every place I was. Just like in learning how to code, I asked for help when I needed it, confident in people's kindness. I hitchhiked with new friends if I couldn't find a public bus leaving on my schedule. I relished cheap vegetarian street food found by following the crowds. From the people I met, I picked up some Tamil, the main language of South India, and Indonesian.

When I came back from my travels, the Monday Rails Girls learning group had given themselves a name: the Ruby Monsters, which is a mash-up of the two words “Monday Sisters,” taking the first part of the word “Monday” and the second part of the word “Sisters.”. They had started coding a new project called SpeakerInnen, a web application to connect event organizers and female speakers.

How to Change the World

Tech conference organizers recognize that if they were to have only male speakers at their events, that would not represent how diverse their audience and community are. Nonetheless, many of them say that only men submit talk proposals, so they end up with a 100% male group of speakers.

Conference organizers who have more female speakers at their events get know more women and are in a position to personally encourage more women to submit proposals. With more proposals organizers can also find the best speakers.

SpeakerInnen is a web application through which conference organizers can connect to female speakers. The “Innen” part of the name is the German noun ending that indicates plural feminine case. So the name of the project means “many female speakers.”

One person I know has questioned why women need something just for them. Can’t women just learn how to code like men? Isn’t it replicating sexist practices by putting women into a special program? Isn’t that suggesting women can’t program as well men?

Rails Girls uses the same resources on the Internet as anyone else to teach coding, so women can learn to code “like men.” It’s the environment that’s different; here, there is no question if you can do it. The coaches are confident in you, and the other learners see you as a true peer.

In the same way SpeakerInnen is not about inviting speakers simply for their gender, but a way to encourage more women to submit proposals to conferences and gain confidence as speakers. The vision is that one day SpeakerInnen could facilitate a mentor network for women to speak better and more often. The people I code with and learn from for this project are really amazing and supportive. And it would be awesome to create that kind of community for women speakers.

In a perfect world there would be no need for Rails Girls or SpeakerInnen. But the reality is that there is a need. I’ve met women who would be more interested in speaking if they had a supportive atmosphere to develop their speaking skills, just like Rails Girls provides a safe atmosphere to learn coding for me and many other women.

In contrast to other tech communities, no one in the Rails Girls community has ever talked down to me or made any assumptions about me because of my gender. This isn’t to say that other tech communities are sexist, but that the people who choose to be part of the Rails Girls community choose consciously to work against sexist attitudes.

Even if SpeakerInnen ends as a huge failure, I am taking action toward solving a problem I judge important. That first experience at Rails Girls has led me down a path where I can pursue my dreams with confidence, and I am confident that I can listen to our users deeply enough to solve their problem with SpeakerInnen.

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