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Enable minority group members to learn programming in a safe and collaborative environment with codebar

Enable minority group members to learn programming in a safe and collaborative environment with codebar

Karen Wilson
Website Planet spoke to Kimberley Cook, director of codebar, about how the charity is trying to bring diversity to the tech world. 

Please give us some information about your professional background.

Sure, I am a software developer, I went to university in Bournemouth to study Interactive Media Production. The course was for people who weren’t sure what they wanted to do but had an interest in building stuff for the internet. We did web development, game development, and app development. From that, I learned that I really like building websites and apps. I had an eye for design but whenever I tried to design something, it looked like a 12-year-old has done it so I went into the development side of things and became a software developer. I moved to London straight after university working for a development agency. In my first few months of being in London when I found out about codebar.

Are you the one who decided it looked like a 12-year-old design or did a colleague point that out to you? 

Me, me! I always had an idea of what I wanted but it was putting it into practice and having the skills to make it look good. It’s like anything, if you enjoy it, you’ll put more time in and the better you get. It was just the side of stuff that I just didn’t enjoy. So, I didn’t put much time in. Whereas I enjoyed development, so I put more time into that. Thankfully I believe in collaboration, and I am very okay with saying where my skills are, and where my skills are not, and designing things is definitely not one of my skills.

What sparked the idea for codebar, and how has it evolved so far?

codebar started in October 2013 and it came about because we were frustrated with the lack of diversity in tech. We were looking at our own tech teams, and we were seeing that they were not diverse.

When we looked at what was around London at the time, we could see that there was nothing to help people get into tech. The two main ways to be a developer were through a degree or self-taught, and that is really why codebar came about. We never intended it to grow the way we did. We didn’t come up with this idea of chapters, what happened is someone started coming to our workshops from Brighton up to London. She asked if she could start a codebar in Brighton

That sparked this idea of well-developing things further and creating this thing called chapters which are essentially workshops in a city. Before you know it, nine years later, you’ve started 36 chapters around the world and helped over 13,500 people to code.

I think it’s a real testament that people are wanting to actively do something to improve diversity in the tech industry. We have never gone somewhere and started a chapter ourselves. They have all started because someone heard what we do and approached us to start a chapter. From there we help them to get off the ground and we support them in getting the word out there. That is how it has grown.  It is kind of magical in that way- we don’t have a big marketing team or a big PR team behind us. It has all just grown through word of mouth and people wanting to make a change in tech which I think is incredible.

When you speak about the lack of diversity, what did it look like? And what change are you aiming for? 

It took me six years to work with a woman for the first time as a developer and there were no Black people on my team, it was all just straight white men. Sometimes when people speak to me about codebar they ask if I hate straight white men. That is not the case at all, in fact, without them, we would not be able to run codebar at all. They are our coaches and a huge part of codebar community.

However, you need diverse teams to be producing better software, because people using the internet aren’t all just straight white men. That is why codebar came into being.

We knew that something needed to happen. When we looked, there was nothing that said, I want to learn to code, I want to get into tech. When you sign up for our workshops you can sign up as a complete beginner and we will talk to you to see what it is that you’re interested in and why you want to learn to code. From there we will help the person to break into tech.

How do you ensure that all the chapters align with the change that you would like to see? 

Great question. The first thing I always do is I jump onto a zoom call with someone and just chat with them and see how they heard about us and why they want to start a codebar chapter. That is an important question because people are volunteering their time and if they are not doing it because they are passionate about improving diversity in tech, then it’s just not going to work. It is a simple question, but you’d be surprised what answers you can get.

So, I typically just talk to them for half an hour and get to know them and a bit about their background. From there we will go away, and we will set up the chapter, but it does have to align with codebar. We are a charity, and therefore, we are trying to solve a problem. If you want to start a codebar, you must agree to that. All organizers sign a codebar agreement that aligns with our values and what we are trying to do.

There are also our eligibility criteria for people wanting to be a codebar student. Our eligibility criteria are women, non-binary, LGBTQA, and ethnic minorities.

How do you respond to someone who asks whether they are eligible to attend? 

Normally if someone emails us, and they’re always very polite and say that they have read the eligibility criteria but are a bit unsure I’ll ask them: Have you been discriminated at work? Would you feel bad taking that spot from someone else? If they say that they would feel bad attending codebar, then they probably shouldn’t attend.

The final thing I say is, that I’m not here to say whether you deserve access to these workshops or not as a minority member, so I’m going to leave it down to you to make this decision, and I’m going to trust that you make the best decision in this situation. 99.9% of the time, people are great and honest. People understand what we’re doing and the problem that we’re trying to solve.

If a person responds by saying that they do not think they are eligible I will always thank them for their honesty and provide them with other resources where they can learn to code for free.

How has codebar been impacted by the covid pandemic? 

Prior to the pandemic, all our workshops were in person and so you had to be in one of our locations to attend codebar as either a student or a coach. However, the best thing I think, that’s come out of the pandemic for us is virtual workshops. Anyone can now get access to our workshops, you don’t necessarily have to just be in London, Norwich, Berlin etc. If you are in a small little city down in Cornwall or Frankfurt, you can now attend these workshops. We are starting to go back to in-person, but we’ve realized the huge value of virtual and so we’re going to be doing both going forward. Some chapters are rotating each week, for one week, they will be in person, and the next week, they’ll be virtual because we have realized the huge amount of value in running virtual events.

Also, with virtual events, if we run them on Zoom, we can record them and put them up on our YouTube, which is something we have never done before. We’ve now got this huge back catalog of talks, workshops, and panels that you can just watch back, which is another silver lining to the last two years.

Please tell us more about how to be a coach at codebar? 

There is no strict commitment to be a coach, simply RSVP to a workshop when you can attend. When you sign up to be a coach at codebar, we ask what it is that you can help our students with and what chapter you would like to subscribe to. Subscribing means you’ll start to receive email invites for that chapter as a coach. When you get the email and you can attend RSVP, if you can’t attend simply delete the email. There is no pressure from us that you must attend X number of workshops.

When students sign up, we ask them what they want help with. They may pick one of our tutorials, or they can fill in the box, and then we pair them together. From there the student and coach will have two hours to work together.

If I wanted to start a chapter in my town, would I need to find coaches myself?  

Mostly yes, but not 100%. I would make announcements through the main codebar channels, I could put something in the newsletter, something on Twitter, Instagram, etc. I can do a certain amount of outreach from my end, but it would be down to the people in Cape Town to do that.  I don’t know the tech industry in Cape Town so it would be up to you to push the workshop and find the students and coaches.

One thing I do always say to someone if they come to me is never start a chapter on your own. The more people you’ve got running it, the more people you’ve got doing outreach and networking.

Another thing that I make clear is that it is your chapter. Yes, it is codebar, and yes, you’re agreeing to follow the rules, but it is also your chapter. I want people to feel empowered by running a chapter. It is an incredibly fun thing to do. You are on the ground in your town, so you can identify conferences, meetups, and potential partnerships. I would not have the ability to do that from where I am sitting.

What support can I expect from codebar when starting/ running a chapter? 

I would do all the admin of setting up the chapter, creating the socials, and giving you access to them. I will help to get these off the ground if someone needs support with this.

Some chapters I do regular calls with, just check in, see how they are, and then once a month, we have a chapter organizing meeting. Typically, in the last week of the month- I tend to change the day and time to allow more people, and there’s a bit of flexibility. These meetings are an opportunity for people to come and ask questions, give suggestions, and chat with other organizers. What I wouldn’t want is for you in Cape Town to feel like you’re on your own running codebar. There are 36 other chapters and 100 other organizers running events. It is a good chance for chapter organizers to ask other chapter organizers questions. If someone asks me a good question, I will bring it to one of these meetings to speak about, because several brains are better than just mine. We make notes for those who are unable to attend the meeting and I send them to the chapter organizers for them to review.

There’s also a private Slack channel for organizers too. So, if you were to start one in Cape Town, there would be a private chapter channel for you and the organizers, and me to chat. There is also a main organizer’s private channel for all 100+  organizers. So again, if you want to ask a question, but you don’t want to wait until the chapter organizer meeting you can drop it in there and all the organizers may respond.

Please provide key tips for someone who is looking to start a chapter. 

One of the big things I say is don’t do it alone. You want a team of people doing it together and don’t have all team members working for the same company because you will likely have the same network of people. Rather try and get a few different organizers from different companies in slightly different networks, because the bigger the network is, the bigger the outreach. I had someone recently ask me if they can bring in an organizer who is not a developer, the person was in marketing.  I told them that it was perfect. It is a massive benefit to have someone on the team whose sole job as an organizer is outreach and marketing. The more diverse your team is, the more successful your chapter will be.

What response do you have for parents who say that they don’t want their children working on computers from a young age? 

I think the world is so tech-heavy, that we can’t avoid it. You know, you’ve got robotic Hoover’s, you’ve got washing machines that have Bluetooth in. All that stuff is built by developers and so it’s not something that we can avoid.

I’ve got seven nieces and nephews and I’ve seen them grow up and I think it’s about limiting it and allowing a good mixture of both. There is lots of amazing stuff on the internet that kids can watch and learn, but I think it’s also important to be outside. I live in the mountains, I moved to the mountains after the first pandemic, and there’s no better feeling than going for a long walk.

So, a mixture of both is important, but the world is only going to get more and more tech. It’s not something we can avoid. Kids are wanting smartphones at younger ages. I remember being told that I wasn’t allowed a smartphone until I was 10, but my niece, who’s six has just been given my sister’s old one. It doesn’t have a SIM card in it, so she just uses it to take photos.

Also,  kids are seeing their parents, on phones, on iPads on laptops. We are working from home and are on a laptop all day, kids are going to want to model that. So, it is important that we are also getting out of the house and doing different things to encourage balance.

What else would you like to share with the audience? 

Seeing we have spoken about coaching quite a lot, I would like to mention that one of the biggest fears that stop a lot of people from coaching is their own imposter syndrome and their own fear that they may not know an answer if someone asks them something. What we say to all coaches is that when they sign up to codebar whether you know the answer to something or not, show the student that you’re working with how you would work it out, because teaching someone those skills is super valuable. As developers, we are always having to Google the answers to stuff. So, the earlier we can teach those skills to students, the more successful they’re going to be.

You don’t even need to tell the student that you don’t have the answer, you just tell them that you are going to work it out together. Working the answer out together is far more valuable to the student than just giving the answer

On the same topic of coaching, the general trajectory of a developer is you may be junior, mid, senior, and then a tech lead. A tech lead isn’t always coding. A huge part of the tech lead’s job is communicating with people, communicating with stakeholders who might not be technical, and also communicating with developers. So, it is all about communication. So, the earlier you start working on those skills for yourself, the quicker you can become that tech lead. If you’ve got two people going for a tech lead role, and one person has been coaching at something like codebar for two years, and one person hasn’t, that person has clearly demonstrated that they’ve got good communication skills when it comes to technical concepts, mentorship, coaching, and those are all things that make a great tech lead.

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