Last Friday, July 18th, 28 high school-aged girls arrived at Pivotal’s San Francisco offices for an immersive introduction to Pivotal’s agile software development and data science practices. As part of the Girls Who Codeinitiative, participants were given an opportunity to try out Pivotal’s pair programming approach while receiving guidance and mentorship from a number of Pivotal’s expert developers and data scientists.
The Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, sponsored by Pivotal’s partner GE, is an intensive 7-week course for high school-aged girls. It is an effort to address gender-based inequities within Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and the tech industry. While 74% of female middle school students express interest in STEM, only 0.3% of high school girls choose computer science as their college major. If anything, gender inequity in tech has increased over time, with women representing only 12% of current computer science graduates, down from 37% in 1984. Moreover, while women comprise half of the American workforce, they hold only 25% of available technical or computing jobs. Girls Who Code aims to give participants a firm foundation in computer science through project-based education and insight into how those skills are utilized at real world technology companies.
At Pivotal’s Girls Who Code event, participants were introduced to the role that computer science plays in the company’s agile development practices, as well as its data science initiatives. The Codeathon kicked off with an introduction from Jen Bossin, Business Development Director at GE, and Annika Jimenez, Vice President of Pivotal Data Labs. “What we want to do today,” Jimenez said to the participants, “Is expose you—not just to generic concepts around coding and tech—but what these real careers look like in particular within Pivotal, which has attached a lot to data science and analytics.”
The introduction was followed with a hands-on collaborative coding exercise facilitated by Pivotal Labsdevelopers. The girls were challenged to build an interactive rock, paper, scissors game, as a way of practicing behavior-driven development and pair programming. Pivotal Labs developers scaffolded the activity prior to the event with basic UI features and functionality, so the girls could focus on writing the code that determines the winner of the game, depending on which button each user presses. In the provided state, the code failed testing, so the participants were tasked with making the tests pass, confirming that the game was working as expected.
Sarah Aerni, Ailey Crow, and Rashmi Raghu of Pivotal Data Labs presented an introduction to the exciting and fast-growing data science field. In their presentation, they explained the factors that are driving the influx of Big Data, and the computer science skills that data scientists devote to those massive datasets. They demystified data science through a presentation of Pivotal Data Labs’ involvement in last fall’s Kaiser Code-a-Thon, during which a number of teams competed to develop an asthma population management app that correlated air quality data, medication order history, and hospital admissions for asthma sufferers. The Pivotal Data Labs team concluded with a list of skills that potential data scientists should learn, and pointed to publicly accessible data science tools and raw data repositories the girls can experiment with, such as the U.S. Government’s portal Data.gov.
The Codeathon closed with a frank panel discussion featuring the participating Women of Pivotal, which included Aerni, developers Laura Kogler and Rachel Bobbins, designer Pam Dineva, and Elisabeth Hendrickson, Director of Quality Engineering for Cloud Foundry. The Pivotal women gave more insight into their own educational and professional paths, and identified what they love about their jobs, including working with smart people, travel, pair programming, and opportunities to solve real-world problems that matter. They took questions from the Girls Who Code participants, who asked the panelists what challenges they have faced in the industry because they are women.
Aerni commented on the “boy’s club” mentality that can still be found in tech education and the industry, and emphasized that rather than women needing to change to fit the industry’s paradigm, attitudes and priorities need to change. “You don’t have to assimilate,” said Aerni. “It’s important for you to just be yourselves.” Jimenez followed this up with a closing statement that gave a broader look at the inequities women in tech contend with, and offered her own advice. “The women you see on this stage are pioneers themselves, still to this day,” Jimenez said. “As you begin to enter college and pursue your own interests, you’re going to be pioneers as well. In that spirit, be true to yourself and your uniqueness, it’s that strength and uniqueness that people will really value as you start getting into your careers.”
Thanks to the efforts of organizations such as Girls Who Code, and shifting attitudes and priorities within STEM education and the tech industry, there is a strong push to address tech’s ongoing gender inequities. Hopefully the girls at last Friday’s Codeathon won’t face the same barriers women in tech currently contend with when they enter the tech industry workforce.