How I Got Hooked on a Career in Coding
My brother taught me HTML after I quit my job at a bakery. Now, I’m working to bring tech skills to a new generation.
Flatiron School recently announced the #KodeWithKarlie scholarship, a partnership with Karlie Kloss designed to inspire young women from around the country to learn to code. Both Flatiron School and Karlie are deeply rooted in bridging the gender gap in technology. A huge part of that effort means inspiring young women to identify as creators of technology, not just consumers of it. After working with Karlie, hearing her story, and seeing her grow as a developer in her own right, I decided to reflect on my own unlikely path to code.
I’m the girl who grew up playing sports, baking cookies with my mom, putting on costumes while dancing to Britney Spears, and writing my parents poems for their birthdays. 15 years later… I still do all those things. But I now tell people, “I’m a developer.”
In school, you get bucketed. You’re good at the arts, or math/sciences. I always assumed I fit into the former: I played the violin for 10 years, loved reading and writing, and I played sports. In college, my university required one math class; I took it first semester freshman year. I spent my time on the lacrosse field, in the newsroom editing articles for our student-run newspaper, and buried in Shakespeare anthologies.
In 2011 I graduated from The University of The South with a degree in English Literature (minor in French literature). After graduation, I packed my bags for Charleston, SC, psyched about the opportunity to intern for a local magazine. My path into the editorial world was set. And I was ready for it.
Unfortunately, that three month unpaid internship experience was as far as I ever got. To me, the editorial world was not as collaborative an environment as I imagined. I felt competitive with every editor and freelance writer I met. This was heightened when I moved to NYC one year later. Of the 75 editorial jobs for which I applied in my first month in the city, I got two interviews. And job offers? None. I felt like my dream job as an editor at Vogue was light years beyond my reach.
I spent the next few months doing research. What was I good at? What could I be good at given the opportunity? What mattered to me in a job? I knew that I liked creative work, where I had something to show at the end of the day. Above all, I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference in the lives of others. I wanted to help people.So naturally, of all the possibilities in the world, I landed on “pastry chef.”
I love to bake. After hours of baking, you have a final product. It’s definitely creative. Have you ever wondered how much care and craftsmanship goes into a good apple tart? It’s a work of art. And boy do pastries make people happy. That “ooohhh” when someone takes that first bite of an ooey-gooey brownie — happiness is the only word to describe that moment. I got a job at a bakery, and was prepared to not look back.
Except for one little thing, working in a bakery was also nothing like I imagined. It meant working crazy early in the morning, or crazy late at night. It’s physical work, and involved mass amounts of butter and bags of flour constantly going into industrial sized mixers. Regardless of quality, when it’s a business, it’s about making enough to make a profit.
I barely lasted three months at the bakery. Pastry school was completely out of the question. At this point, I’d ruled out two things I was incredibly passionate about as potential career paths.
People always tell you “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” But the things I loved in life, I hated in work. So what did that even mean for me?
Enter my much older and wiser brother, Nat, who at the age of 6 knew that he wanted to work in technology, who loved his work, and who wanted his little sister to love hers just as much. Who spent family vacations solving mathematical proofs on airplane rides, took apart the toaster oven, and programmed his computer to dump a bucket of water on his head as his morning alarm. While I’d always envied his clarity about his mission in life, we were as different as night and day. There was no way I would be interested in programming.
But my brother came to me at the exact moment when I needed his help the most. He urged me to learn basic HTML and CSS, and even sat with me for a few late hours teaching me the basics himself. I was instantly floored. There is no way to not see programming as creative when you’re putting text and images on a page, and adding fonts and colors. I had my light bulb moment: programming isn’t mathy or nerdy. It involves art and color, and human understanding, and problem solving. I started dedicating roughly 3–4 hours a day to learning HTML and CSS.
A month into my self-driven coding education, I learned about The Flatiron School, in New York City, which runs intensive programs to teach adults web and mobile development. They taught Ruby. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I was sold. I enrolled in the Flatiron School’s three-month web development course in the winter of 2013.
During those three months at Flatiron School, every expectation I had around what programming is, and who can do it, was blown to bits.
I met artists, musicians, writers, ex-lawyers and bankers. Flatiron taught me that anyone, regardless of interest, gender, age, or ethnicity, can and should learn to code. That it’s not about being one type of person. Programming is about problem-solving, it’s about creating, it’s about loving.
After graduating from the Flatiron School in April 2013, I took a job as a Software Engineer at Time Inc., a print media company that publishes magazines like InStyle, People, and Time. I had entered the world of publishing, just like I had originally intended, but from a different angle. I was an engineer. A girl with an interest in fashion and sports and writing had “engineer” in her job title.
I was the developer who could explain my technical problem to the non-technical members of my team. I was the developer who took a personal interest in the apps we were building. I was in fact our target audience, allowing me to provide unique insight into the product. My passion for writing enhanced my performance in my job. Because I loved magazines and writing, I loved building products for them.
In March of 2014, I left Time Inc. to return to The Flatiron School to launch Flatiron Pre-College Academy, a program dedicated to educating high school students in web development.
Since our launch in June 2014, Flatiron Pre-College courses have been about 50% female and 30% scholarship students.
We are firmly rooted in the goal of providing programming education to as many students as possible with as diverse backgrounds as possible.
We believe that programming is a tool to enhance the things you’re already passionate about. It’s become the new basis of literacy. People from every industry, whether it’s fashion, advertising, marketing, agriculture, sports, or public policy (and the list goes on) are impacted by technology.
It has been an incredible opportunity to mentor these young women coming through our programs — women who aren’t totally sure programming is for them, but who signed up because they’re curious — and see them fall in love with this skill.
It’s incredibly important for young women to learn to code. No girl should grow up thinking it’s “not for them.” I grew up thinking that I wasn’t smart enough to learn to code. I wrote it off the minute I was moved into the advanced reading group in 1st grade. I don’t want any of my students to grow up thinking they’re not capable of something.
Before I met Karlie, I had read about her in Vogue, bought her “kookies” at Milk Bar, and was one of her 2.2 million Instagram followers. The most amazing thing about programming is how your own life experiences shape the products you build. Just like all our other students, we connect programming to their passions. With Karlie, we built a drone kookie delivery system, using an open source Ruby library to power a drone and map a route around Flatiron’s campus. She composed a Taylor Swift song with code, and even built a playful “What did they last wear” app that scrapes fashion blogs for recent celebrity photos.
The fact that Karlie has dedicated her free time to learning to code has inspired young women all over the world. We are thrilled to partner with Karlie to provide the Kode with Karlie scholarship to 20 young women. Our hope is to spread the message that anyone can and should learn to code. We want students that had no idea coding was for them, students that have goals and ambitions that can be enhanced through learning this skill. We want to empower the next generation with what becomes possible when they learn how to code.
Zoe grew up thinking she wanted to be a doctor. For fun, she started making quilts as gifts for friends and family. Because of the positive response she got from her quilts, she decided she wanted to donate her quilts to children’s hospitals. When Zoe was 10, she went through the steps to get approved by children’s hospitals. When she was 12, she incorporated her quilt business (under her mother’s name because she was too young). Zoe came to Flatiron in the summer of 2014 with the hopes of learning to code to build a website for her company. I didn’t learn about Zoe’s reason for enrolling in our Pre-College program until the last few days of class, because she was having so much fun programming that she forgot why she’d enrolled in the first place. After spending a year at Flatiron, Zoe’s eyes were opened to the possibilities of engineering. She will be attending John’s Hopkins University in the fall to study biomedical engineering.
Emma has loved soccer since she was old enough to run and kick a ball. She plays competitively year round, and is a member of the New York State Olympic Development Soccer team. Emma, a sophomore in NYC, enrolled in Flatiron’s course because she was curious about programming. She liked math in school, and assumed it was something she would be good at. Emma’s class at Flatiron coincided with the World Cup games. Because of her busy schedule, she couldn’t watch and keep up with all the games, so instead of even bothering, she built an app that texted herself the scores of the world cup games in real time. Fall of junior year of high school is the college soccer-recruiting season, making this summer the most valuable time for Emma to be attending soccer-recruiting camps. Emma selectively scheduled her soccer obligations this summer to maximize her time at Flatiron. Now when she’s touring colleges, she asks about their computer science programs.
Maya enrolled in Flatiron Pre-College Intro to Software Engineering course summer before her freshman year of college. In her own words:
“It is because of the course I took at Flatiron this past summer that I am now currently working toward a Computer Science Major at Pomona College. Your class showed me that being a developer lets me exercise both my creativity and coding skills, which is something I want to be doing for the rest of my life.”
Ariela took Flatiron’s Intro to Software Engineering course and was hired as a teaching assistant based on her performance in class in the summer before her freshman year at Barnard. In her own words:
“I have continued coding, now as the lead coder for the Spectator Publishing Company, and taking a compsci class (which I’m enjoying thoroughly). I can’t thank Flatiron enough for teaching me soooo much, specifically you, for taking me under your wing and empowering me to do this kind of work. As the only girl on the coding team, I know I could never be as confident as I am if it wasn’t for the experience of both taking and then working as a TA at Flatiron.”
Victoria Friedman is a pre-college instructor at Flatiron School in New York City. You can find her on Medium and Twitter @VicFriedman.