The science and art behind running a successful and growing coding Meetup

An Interview with Emma Grasmeder, Former Women Who Code DC Python Lead and Director of Education

Emma Grasmeder snaps a selfie at a Women Who Code DC event.

How did you first get involved in programming?

I had an on-and-off-again relationship with programming. I did some really basic programming in sixth and seventh grade with my father, who is a programmer. But, at the time, I didn’t enjoy it; I couldn’t see how it would be useful. I started learning about robotics throughout high school and I discovered that I really enjoyed working on hardware and software at the same time. I often found myself managing the robotics project and helping to coordinate the hardware and software teams. I was basically a systems integrator and I got some exposure to how algorithms works and some basic programming structures, but it didn’t feel like much.

My team was programming in C and Java, but I couldn’t even do “Hello World” by myself so I got discouraged and stopped learning to program all together. Over time, programming fell off my radar. I earned my bachelors degree in religious studies. Then, on a whim, I moved to Austria to be an au pair.

Honestly, I was really happy in Austria, it was like a fairy tale. Eventually, I found myself scribbling calculus in my notebooks and re-teaching myself how to do integrals. That’s when I thought, “why am I doing this on a Saturday afternoon in this fairytale-like place?” I realized that perhaps I need to do mathy things in my day-to-day life. Idyllic rural life was not my happily ever after.

How did you learn?

When I returned to Virginia, someone who knew me when I had worked on the robotics team offered me a job. I had never done any Python programming or object-oriented programming before, but this employer trusted me to learn it. He took a chance on me.

I worked as a research assistant in his lab and then applied for the PHD position working under him. I really strongly believe that if you just give someone who is interested in learning the resources to learn, then they can do it. While I do think coding schools are great, I don’t think learning to program requires code schools. I think it requires mentors and a little bit of trust and faith in the student. I was lucky enough to have someone who believed in me and sponsored me. In graduate school, I studied economics and I spent another 20 to 30 hours every week learning software development. With my new skills, I was able to smoothly transition into a data science career after I failed out of school.

Have you ever had to face hardship?

One particular day stands out when I failed out of my graduate program, left my job and started living full time as a woman in the same 24 hours. I was at square zero emotionally and I didn’t know what to do next. I spent a long time feeling like I wouldn’t be allowed at Women Who Code DC meetings as a transsexual woman. I was suffering from impostor syndrome, facing a lot of discomfort in my abilities and my status as a woman. I had been to other Meetups in the area but I didn’t feel like I was getting enough out of them — primarily because nobody wanted to help me with minor problems. I started attending Women Who Code DC Meetups because of how open the group advertised itself to be and that it was explicitly trans friendly. At my first event, I quickly realized that everyone was really awesome. Most attendees were brand new and had no idea what was going on, just like me. I felt like whether I knew more or less than the other people, we all desired to be on the same page and that was conducive for everybody’s learning. Instantly, my worries vanished. I realized early on how special this community is and sought to get more involved. Within a few months, I started the Python education team.

How and why did you take on more at Women Who Code DC?

I celebrated my one year Women Who Code DC a month ago. After my first few months in the group, I was planning on how to make a consistent Python event happen. As is often the pathway to success in computer science, I had a need that I wanted filled and had the tools to address it. I like organizing events and I was looking for long term involvement.

To start a programming group at Women Who Code DC, you just need four leads, a location and two weeks of notice before the first Meetup.

Honestly, the barrier to starting a Meetup group within Women Who Code DC is so low. You commit to a month scheduling the Meetups, making sure there is a location, picking a topic for each event and making sure people will be there. You can be the person who does all of these things or you can delegate tasks. There will always be volunteers within the group who want to pitch in. In fact, some of our event leads don’t even program themselves!
 We have publicly available information about becoming a lead on a GitHub repository.

So what makes a successful lead at Women Who Code DC?

To get Python started, I posted the request for more volunteers in Slack and two people came forward. Other people spread the word and our additional leads just came to us. Now, however, I’ve become a bit more methodical about outreach. Every person I talk to at any Meetup is a prospective lead, but I do look for a couple of key characteristics: their ability to commit and their willingness.

Someone’s style of teaching or programming philosophy isn’t what makes a strong lead — in fact I really think it’s a benefit to the program to have conflicting opinions. We try to run Python through consensus rather than one decider.

At first I tried to have a rule that I wouldn’t approach someone to be a lead until they had shown up and actively participated for three of four weeks. But, I quickly realized that sometimes it only takes one event for someone to stand out and some of our best leads are people I approached on day one. Inviting someone to be a leader is also a great way to keep them engaged and help them stay on their path to being a software developer.

Emma Grasmeder presents at a Women Who Code DC event in December 2015.

What can make a lead struggle in their role?

When a lead disappears. We need to talk to you regularly and that means being active on Slack in between events.

A couple of people approached me about wanting to be involved as a lead but the events were rarely convenient for them. We rely on our leads and communication is key. I don’t expect everyone to stick around — and I fully support people saying that they’ve had other obligations come up and they can no longer work as a lead, but I just need to know when that’s the case.

I think it’s also really important that our leads be open-minded and welcoming to all women from all walks of life. Our organization actively tries to build sub-communities for people and we want everyone to feel welcomed at events. My dream is to have events that are wheelchair and metro accessible, where we have a Spanish translator, and childcare provider all available. If we’re doing that, then we’re likely to have reached many of my personal goals for the organization.

How would you like to see the Python group grow?

I would like to see participants working on shared projects. If we did that, people would manage them with pull requests on Github and take on additional project roles and then, all of a sudden, these projects turn into real side projects rather than coding exercises. For example, one project would be to be to pull all the names of the RSVPs from Meetup and look at who is active on Slack to build a method of determining how much food we should buy for Meetups. Or, we could work with APIs and simple machine learning algorithms or a Women Who Code DC Twitter bot that spits out quotes. We’re not short on ideas. Working on ideas is way more important than the ideas being excellent.

I think working collectively on a project will empower women to have things to list on their resume and add additional meaning to our group.

I’d also love to create a monthly series both on cybersecurity and data science within the Python group, too. It’s a sub-interest for a few folks and I think we could be doing more to serve them as an organization.

You’ve expanded your role beyond a Python lead. Tell us more about your new role.

I’m no longer a Python group lead. I’m now also the director of education and I focus on how we make curricula more sustainable, get more leads, and develop more technical events. I was presented with a job description for the position and I realized that I had already started working on many of these pieces unofficially. I thought, “Wow, I’m already doing all of these things and I feel like I’m getting the results out of them, I already feel successful in this role.”

I very strongly believe that if you want a job you should just start doing it in whatever capacity you can. Just pretend you have the job and someone will notice that you’re doing it and will want to pay you for it. People want to pay you to do work so you’ll do it for them and not for someone else.

Being offered the director position was validation of the work I was doing and that it’s an important role for the organization.

What are you goals as director of education for Women Who Code DC?

Several.

  • See my leads more.
  • Have regular meetings more often and I want to celebrate the efforts of our leads more. I want to have a recognition or awards ceremony. I think it can be too thankless of a job and I want to add more thanks to it.
  • Showcase a pipeline on our website and improve orientation.
  • Expand where we advertise. Right now, we only advertise on Meetup. When we have the capacity to accommodate a broader demographic, we should be posting signs on telephone poles and in libraries for people who are not necessarily as tech savvy.
  • Present more discussions for the group about opportunities for general integration. We’ve been facing inward and I think it’s important that men know there are women in tech and there are thousands of us.
  • Expand the organization’s use of Git.
  • Empower more people to give presentations. Impostor syndrome is real and this should be a safe space so I want people to use our events to build their confidence by doing 20 minute talks on something technical. We’ve started this effort, but I would like to streamline outreach.
  • Crash other Meetups and let the D.C. area know about how great our group is!

What would be your advice to someone who has not shown up to an event yet?

Just come already — stop putting it off. First of all, you’re in the same boat as so many other people. If you’re at square one or returning after a long break; it doesn’t matter where you are — our organization embraces everyone who participates in our events. My experience with Women Who Code DC has been truly uplifting. It’s a community of people who have helped me through difficult times and made me feel capable when lost that confidence.

I believe that everyone who shows up will find someone they’d like to see again. They just need to make the effort to show up and talk to at least one other person. There’s no wrong way to participate in our events. Our hack nights are designed so that you just show up and either have your own project to work on or other members will recommend some projects to contribute to or tutorials to try. There’s literally no way to do it wrong and the structure removes a lot of the pressure for you to act a certain way.

Participate with us in any way. There’s no expectation, and still a lot of space for excellence. We can’t wait to meet you.

For questions or to connect with Emma directly, message her on Twitter at @emma_gras.

Women Who Code is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers by creating a global, connected community of women in technology. The organization tripled in 2013 and has grown to be one of the largest communities of women engineers in the world.

We are dedicated to providing an empowering experience for everyone who participates in or supports our community, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, ability, physical appearance, body size, race, ethnicity, age, religion, or socioeconomic status.