Traveling to teach coding, chapter 1.
Rails Girls Istanbul 2018
It was the end of November when a couple of my friends and I found ourselves on a ferry in Istanbul. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was low, but there was still a warm light surrounding us as we made our way from Europe to Asia. A large group of seagulls was there too, escorting us quite faithfully as we went. I remember feeling a mix of calmness and anticipation.
During the next two days, we were set to run a coding workshop (mainly for women, including some who moved from neighbouring Syria, some Turkish, some from far out locations like Australia, Pakistan or Uzbekistan) in this amazing city, a center of the world. It was like nothing we had ever done before.
How did a group of Polish software developers end up on a boat in Istanbul, about to organize and mentor at a coding workshop? Did we manage to pull it off? Here comes the whole story.
Every year in late spring, we run a Rails Girls coding workshop in our hometown of Kraków. Just in case you have not heard about Rails Girls events before: they happen all around the world, and their aim is to give an introduction to coding and web development to women with no prior experience and give them some inspiration to keep on learning.
Personally, I can relate to the participants in many ways. Three years ago I suddenly lost my job and decided to treat it as an opportunity and learn Ruby on Rails, hoping to start a career as a developer. I was lucky to get some encouragement and support from people in the community. There is nothing like the feeling you get when someone offers their time and attention to teach you something new while asking for nothing in return. It is so precious, especially when you happen to be in not the easiest place in your life.
With that memory in my head, I tried to help out with local coding workshops — first as a mentor, and a year later also as an organizer. Every year we get some amazing participants, and some very uplifting success stories as well.
Looking at me when I first started out, and at many of our participants in Kraków, it was visible how we got empowered with the support of the Ruby community. But at the same time, we were in a relatively good situation. There are different coding workshops happening in Kraków on a regular basis. There are some amazing female developers that can be an inspiration for beginners. As much as we had to overcome obstacles on our path, there are various hardships that people around the world encounter every day that we never had to face (such as having to flee military conflicts).
I knew that I wanted to keep teaching and gain more experience in organizing workshops. I was also curious to help running them in other places in the world, to build connections with aspiring developers there and learn their stories. Where would be the right place to start? The number of options on how and where to do that, counting in pros and cons related to each one was overwhelming.
Finding a connection
One day during the coffee break, I started to read about different organizations around the world that aim at teaching people coding. I came across a few interesting initiatives, both commercial classes and free courses or boot camps, some online, and some taking place in actual universities, companies or co-working locations. Among those, there was Re:Coded.
Let me introduce them to you briefly. Re:Coded is an NGO with the goal of teaching young people, especially from areas affected by conflict, about coding and technology. With that, they are not only giving them a new skill. They are inspiring their students to dream big in life, get ready to reach for fulfilling and well-paid jobs, and become tech leaders of tomorrow. Re:Coded is growing, and currently has offices in Turkey, Iraq, and Yemen.
When I looked through their website, I felt over the moon. I did not even anticipate right there and then that we would end up collaborating later down the line. I was just happy that they exist, and do such great work.
Then, another lucky coincidence — one of their offices was located in Istanbul! I was planning to go there anyway to visit my friend Serap. I wrote them a message saying that I think they are amazing and would love to visit and have a chat. The answer came fast — Marcello, co-founder of Re:Coded, reached out to me with an email full of positive energy and invited me to drop by one of their classes.
Amazing meeting in the city on two continents
A couple of weeks later, I was in Istanbul. On a sunny Sunday morning, I headed to visit Re:Coded. When I entered the classroom, I felt a wave of Rails Girls-like energy. Everyone seemed so excited about coding and learning!
Throughout the class, I had a chance to talk with some of the participants. Many of them came to Istanbul from Syria; some were Turkish. I will always remember some life stories I’ve heard from them, and ideas for future projects that I was truly impressed with. I also had a chat with founders Marcello and Ali. They shared more about the amazing programs they were running at the time in Iraq and Turkey. I got to know they are able to accept only a couple percent of applicants to their boot camps in Istanbul, and they would be happy to organize more events and build connections with local companies.
Before we said goodbye, we agreed it would be great to try and run another Rails Girls workshop in Istanbul together. Our hope was to reach out to women in Istanbul interested in tech and coding, and give a chance to some Re:Coded students to join, and have everyone build connections and get excited about making things. There it was, the dream becoming one step closer!
Fears and scary thoughts
I flew back to Kraków full of motivation and energy, but I was also anticipating a long way ahead to make the event happen.
There were a couple of scary points I kept going over in my head. I was thinking: it is risky to jump into organizing an event in another country. You do not have the support network of local companies and developers built yet. You may unwittingly offend someone’s culture or beliefs as you don’t know enough about it. If you fail, you will end up letting everyone involved down.
More than anything else, I struggled with the thought that this is not an ideal plan or way to help.
In the end, I opted to rebel against my fears and my need for a perfect plan. I was confident we can start off with doing something maybe not ideal, but still really valuable. I thought, even if we manage to help and inspire one person, that would be amazing, and on the way, we could also gain experience to prepare similar events better in the future.
Sharing the idea and growing RG Istanbul team
The decision was made and with that, there came an important moment: announcing the event out loud to other people. It was scary, firstly because speaking in public is always somewhat daunting for me. Even more significantly, sharing the information about the event made it real in a sense — I could no longer back down, hide and pretend I have never had the idea in the first place.
The best part was the support I received after I shared my plans with others. There were people that joined the organization team on both Istanbul and Kraków side. If you want to learn some more about the superheroes that helped to create the event, I added more information about them at the end of the story.
It was a very special collaboration. The majority of us were busy working on projects at the time. There was also outside of work life going on for us, and with many events from small to major happening in the team: weddings, travel, welcoming babies, health issues, changing jobs, and others. So we made all the preparations aside from eight or so work hours and life duties. I remember late evenings after long days and very many coffees when we would still motivate ourselves to tackle another urgent thing on our to-do list.
At times, our communication was not perfect, there were some emotions or stress, and a couple of misunderstandings happened. That was understandable. Aside from busy schedules, we had to account for the fact it was our first project together. We came from different places and backgrounds, and a big chunk of our collaboration was happening remotely. Ultimately, we all took a big leap of faith towards each other and managed not to give up on our goal. We were able to resolve any tensions and move past the obstacles.
We learned a lot about very many things, such as fundraising, contacting companies to gain their support, sharing knowledge inside the team, reaching out to find mentors, promoting on social media, and many more. I am sure this knowledge will come in handy next time around. For me personally, the hardest exercise was learning how to delegate some tasks to others, and how to determine what efforts are crucial and what would be nice to have but not the first thing to invest our time in.
An amazing moment happened once we opened the applications. We got a couple on that very first day. It felt amazing! From then on, we knew there are real people out there, excited to take part in the workshop. That made all the hours put in and all our efforts feel worthwhile.
The Rails Girls weekend
Our workshop came true and happened on 23–24th of November 2018 in Istanbul. Here are some numbers:
- Attendees: 30
- Mentors: 16
- Lightning talk speakers: 3
- Volunteers: 3
- Amazing companies supporting the event: 2
- Pizzas: 23
- Cups of coffee: too many to count
Because we received more applications than we had spots available, we selected the ones that have shown the most motivation. According to the Rails Girls tradition, we gave the priority to female and non-binary applicants (keeping in mind those groups are underrepresented in IT). With that, we still offered some places to male applicants that we believed could benefit a lot from attending.
Two days were packed with coding, coffee, and amazing people learning and exchanging their ideas. We divided our participants into small groups that could closely collaborate with their mentors. Each mentor’s goal was to help their mentees to setup everything needed to code on their laptops, introduce them to the basics of coding in Ruby, and help them create a simple Ruby on Rails application. Even more importantly, they were there to answer all the questions, encourage attendees to keep learning and show them that coding and building apps can be really fun!
We made sure to take some breaks from all the learning when everyone could grab a drink, eat some cookies or a slice of pizza, and get to know one another. We also had three lightning talks. More technical ones were about the basics of the Ruby language, an overview of different elements of web apps (with the Bentobox exercise). We also had a very special talk about the importance of personal branding and creating a digital marketing strategy.
Not everything was perfect, but all the elements we have planned came together, and in many ways, the workshop was truly an amazing experience for us! Most meaningful was positive feedback from the attendees we have heard during the event, and after. Many connections were built among organizers, mentors, volunteers, and participants during that November weekend. We hope those will remain and may result in some other amazing collaborations in the future.
All of a sudden, it was all over…
…and now, only one question remains: where should we go next? :)
Big thanks to everyone that have helped me in this adventure:
Marcello Bonatto and Alexandra Clare from Re:Coded were on board from the very beginning and their positive attitude was essential for making the event real. They took care of some major organizing duties, such as finding a venue, catering logistics, gadgets for the event, fundraising, looking for speakers, promoting our workshop and supervising our volunteers.
Paul Klipp was a big supporter of the event and one of the sponsors of Kraków’s mentors travel to Istanbul. He gave me some courage and great advice in the most difficult time of first event related decisions.
Arek Kita and Alex Sumiński, developers at Lunar Logic, were both co-organisers of the event. They took care of a broad range of duties such as finding funding, selecting applications, communication with mentors. To make things even more impressive, they also taught as mentors themselves during the event.
Julia Jacobs and Marek Ciupak are also our fellow developers from Lunar Logic and experienced Rails Girls mentors. They took the time to travel to Istanbul and share their knowledge about Ruby on Rails at the workshop. They were the best support throughout all our adventures.
Serap Ekici is my friend and Istanbul local. She was a co-organiser of the event, mainly taking charge of our social media and making sure we can reach out to as many people as we can, and allow them to learn about the event. She also helped a lot with English-Turkish translations.
Ender Ahmet Yurt, a software developer from Istanbul, helped to organize the event and reach out to his colleagues and friends to join us as mentors. He also took part in looking for companies that could support us and speakers. More so, he gave a lightning talk and run Bentobox exercise during the event.
We had two more lightning talk speakers: Göksemin Gökalp Özdemir and Uğur Özyılmazel.
Göksemin gave an important and thought-provoking talk about building personal branding and digital marketing strategy. It is a subject she is an expert in, having worked for multiple international and local brands, as well as having experience as an advisor to hundreds of startups.
Uğur delivered his talk that was an introduction to Ruby language.
Mentors from Turkey: Tayfun Öziş Erikan, Fadime Özhan, Eyüp Atiş, Okan Binli, Murat Baştaş, Eşref Viduşlu, Muhammed Dilmaç, Anıl İyidoğan, Oğulcan Girginç, and Akif Kumlu all did an amazing work at the workshop, sharing their knowledge and encouraging aspiring software developers.
Volunteers Büşra Çelik, Ecem Çisem Tunca, and Yusef Issa Basha helped out with a long list of tasks such as printing stickers and certificates, welcoming attendees, and supervising coffee and catering during the event.
Gosia Nowak did an outstanding job with designs for the event, which made our social media pages look beautiful, and we have cool stickers to hand out to the participants.
We had some amazing people support us through our fundraising campaign. Also, many awesome Lunar Logic team members chipped in, helping to send a group of mentors from Kraków to Istanbul. Some (like Ika Graboń, Marta Panuszewska, Mateusz Luterek, Riccardo Odone, and Basia Madej) helped during our preparations as well.
My sister Basia Hoffmann supported us by sending emails to the companies in Turkey with the information about the event, asking if they can attend or support us. She also gave me a lot of encouragement all the way through.
Last but not least, it is important to mention the amazing companies that decided to help us organize the event: Lab2023 and YeniHayat; and Kolektif House Levent that shared their beautiful space with us.