Lessons learned from a summer at Girls Who Code

20 girls, 7 weeks, 4 teachers, 1 mission.

I spent Summer 2014 teaching at Girls Who Code at Square and wrote this on my plane ride back from San Francisco in August 2014.

When I found out I was going to be a TA at Girls Who Code in San Francisco this summer, I was elated. This was going to be fun — I would meet awesome speakers, go to tons of intern events and enjoy the Silicon Valley life. Best of all, I was going to spend the majority of my time teaching girls to code! So I did some basic prep, went over the teaching guides and curriculum, revised my computer science basics and watched Mean Girls to learn how to effectively deal with American high school girls. I was all set.

At the end of it all, as I take a step back and write this blog post, I realize that there was no way I could truly have prepared myself for what was to come. The last seven weeks posed some of the biggest challenges, most useful lessons and most heartwarming moments I have ever experienced. I had a unique task of being teacher, friend, colleague, role model, sister, confidant, good cop and occasionally bad cop too.

As cliche as this may sound, the girls taught me far more than I could hope to teach them. Some of the key lessons I learned were—

Ask questions — These girls ask ridiculously awesome questions. Truly, you have to see it to believe it. From asking top CEOs how often they shave, to discussing Ashton Kutcher’s worst films with him, from asking about most embarrassing moments to asking about each others’ love lives, I have never seen a more curious, hungry to learn (but also eat) bunch of girls. They asked questions on field trips, in class, at lunch and via email. They asked questions to CEOs, engineer, teachers and each other. They asked more and more of themselves.

Every single day, my class inspired me to make big, bold asks.

Impostor syndrome is very real — these were confident young women, in an all-girl environment, and yet so often we had temporary confidence issues with our students (and sometimes teachers too!). While all of us made big leaps in overcoming it, whether it was creating awesome final projects, emailing speakers we never imagined would reply to us or facing our fears of presenting on stage, we helped each other get through the lingering feeling of ‘I’m not good enough’.

However, I can't help but think we still have a lot of work to do to promote a more welcoming and friendly culture in the world of Computer Science.

Girls Who Code ♥ Square

Company culture is key — Being part of an amazing company like Square helped shape our program. Square was warm, and welcoming and provided every opportunity to learn. We were so so lucky to have Vanessa Slavich and Square host us. Square truly went above and beyond as hosts for us. Whether it was the CEO and CFO taking time out to meet us and attend our graduation or engineers frequently dropping by to help, even those not involved with the program, Square was a cornerstone for our success this summer. Learning to code in an all-girls program at a company where three women lead over half the company was a perfect environment for us to learn by watching.

Creating a sisterhood — This summer was unique for most of us in that there would be no grades, no judgement, (hopefully) no pressure and most unusually, no boys! While we aimed to create a network of friends and potentially coworkers, we somehow found ourselves amidst a nearly cultish sisterhood that formed the foundation of what I know will be lasting relationships. Girls Who Code became a safe place, a fun place and a place to learn with other people who chose to be there.

As a TA, my first task of every day was marking attendance. While in the initial weeks I got to-the-point texts that said ‘I’m going to be late, BART is delayed.’, by week 7 I was getting ‘OMG Freia please don’t hate me be there real soon ily’. As early as week 2, we had girls wanting to stay far beyond TA hours and started having dinner and hanging out beyond our 9–5 routine. The girls didn’t hesitate to tell me to be “bolder, talk louder and be more authoritative!”. Our sisterhood extended far beyond the classroom, with spirit week, after class hangouts and constant social media bonding.

Men can and proved to be crucial cheerleaders to our success — We were lucky to have awesome allies who were as dedicated to our mission as we were. It means the world to us to have people like Jack Dorsey, Rod Begbie and Ashton Kutcher(!) be part of our classroom and larger community.

Lead fearlessly, not flawlessly — By this I mean, it’s okay, and I'd argue — extremely important, to acknowledge and share our flaws as leaders. While the class loved hearing from our diverse range of speakers and visitors, we particularly treasured the ones who admitted how much they struggled, failed and stood back up again in their journeys to get where they are.

A badass lady who led by example was Girls Who Code’s Curriculum director, Ashley Gavin. She not only admits but delightfully shouts from the rooftops that you don’t need to be a Straight A student to be an amazing computer scientist.

Kudos to our absolutely amazing teacher, leader of our teaching team and captain of our ship — Kim Merrill. She lead our little family the best anybody could, whether it was putting on her serious face when necessary, mixing in her wonderfully sarcastic sense of humor or conducting a seminar called ‘Kim’s dumbest moments in CS finally revealed’ , she taught us all that it’s okay to make mistakes, ask questions over and over and fail multiple times.

Pay it forward — whether it’s the incredible network of teachers we have who dedicated their summer to teaching girls to code, the alumni who came back to teach or the girls themselves going on to start clubs and be TAs at those clubs, we're creating a beautiful pattern of paying it forward, something that I hope will help expand our reach quicker than we can on our own.

Here’s a video from one of our girls (who codes), Lucie Rosenfeld that attempts, as well as possible, to capture our best moments.

Apply to be a Girls Who Code Instructor. Change your life while changing lives.

This post is dedicated to —

  • Reshma and Jack, for making this all possible.
  • Vanessa, Rachel & Sara, for building the foundations of this program, being role models and making our lives so much easier.
  • Charlotte, Dana, Dayna, Natalie, Solomon, Kristen and everybody else at Girls Who Code — as Lucie said to Ashley — “thanks for dedicating your life to us!”
  • Sarah Friar, Alyssa Henry, Rod Begbie, Susan Nesbitt, Craig Newmark, Gigi Geoffrion and everyone else who spoke to us and supported us — thanks for being cheerleaders. It means the world to us to know that people like you choose to invest your time and resources in us.
  • All the mentors, engineers, security & kitchen staff at Square — you made this program so unique and special to us and for that we are truly grateful.
  • To my fellow teachers — Kim, Sarah and Angela. I have learned so much from the three of you, and couldn't have asked for a better team to work with.
  • And lastly but most importantly— to my girls. All twenty of you are stars. Whether you're building iOS apps in Swift after all of 2 days of learning it, singing ratchet songs at karaoke outings, practicing martial arts, creating viruses to destroy humanity, arriving late to class, applying to college, building your own websites, travelling the world or just hanging out, laughing and having a good time — remember that you’re now, and always will be — girls who code.