Rights x Tech Report Back | Doing the Work: Building Inclusive Tech Ecosystems

Sabrina Hersi Issa
Nov 13 · 10 min read

Highlights & Excerpts from a Fireside Chat with Hear Me Code founder, Shannon Turner

Introduction by Rights x Tech organizer Sabrina Hersi Issa

A few years ago I was at the TED conference (not because I am someone who goes to TED but because I was supporting someone giving their TED Talk) and randomly struck up a conversation in line with a producer from NPR’s TEDRadio Hour team who lit up when I provided the specific-yet-vague answer I give whenever someone asks “So what do you do?”

“I work in tech.”

Turns out, she was also a student of Hear Me Code and what she said in our conversation standing in that endless line at TED stays with me to this day:

“I feel like I’m learning through Hear Me Code more of what we need in the world: how to take risks, how to make mistakes and how to see ourselves as experts in a culture that makes a lot of us feel invisible.”

It is hard to have a conversation about technology without mentioning growth and scale. But far too often, when we talk about scaling technology it is about servers, user growth and market share and not about ethics, accountability and intentional leadership.

We are living through precarious times where we must build moral leadership into our ecosystems with as much explicit intention as we build tech stacks.

We are all coming to this work from different paths and journeys. One of the reasons we are featuring Hear Me Code is because the majority of talent shaping the future of technology will come from nontraditional non-computer science backgrounds. So we are taking time to learn how we can take some of the magic from the Hear Me Code community into the tech ecosystems we are shaping now.

Below are highlights & excerpts from that fireside chat with Hear Me Code founder, Shannon Turner

“You’re a self-taught developer. How did you first get in tech?”

When I think about first getting into tech I really go back to my grandma because she would play video games all the time. I would watch her play video games and draw pictures of them and take them to her and say, “Wouldn’t this be cool if this was part of the game?” And she always said, “Oh, you have to get good at computers if you want to do that.” That always stuck in my mind how she had always been very encouraging and pointing me toward this field along the way. It was really helpful.

And when I became “self-taught”, it wasn’t just one specific moment, there were so many different points along the way. I had built like a website. You know Pokemon Go was really cool in 2016 and a lot of people were playing it. It was not as cool in 1999 when I made a Pokemon fan webpage because I was feeling into it. The funny thing is that was the first Web site that I had ever built and I was so into it that I was willing to learn in my own free time how to do this thing. No one sat me down and said, you know, this is gonna be really helpful for your career and this is gonna be so valuable to you. It was fun to me. And I think to find a way to make that learning process fun is what’s important if you’re going to learn it young.”

“You were apart of the DC tech scene before you started Hear Me Code and you found it… lacking.

What was your initial experience in the DC tech ecosystem like?”

When I was starting out here in D.C. the number one thing that folks said to me when I wanted to learn more about coding and get a job in tech was to go tech events.

But the thing that kept happening at these tech events were people would keep talking down to me. Nobody took me seriously. I got so many nasty comments. And I was just like, you know what? This is really frustrating to me. And so I made it a point to only talk to the other women at these events, which was really easy because there were about three of us.

And that was when I realized that we all had this shared experience of being talked down to and not being taken seriously. Plenty of nasty comments. And having been self-taught, I thought “You know what? This isn’t working for me.” This might work for someone else but it’s not working for me.

Why don’t we all have our own space start our own group where we can all learn and grow together?”

“Hear Me Code scaled from 4 women around a kitchen table to more than 1,000 women in less than a year just as a side project and with you as the only instructor.

What was it like to realize you were not the only woman in tech feeling alone?”

“I think the moment where things started to feel less alone for me was when I wasn’t the only teacher anymore. I went to folks, like some of those featured in the video who had been there from the beginning and said, “Hey, you’ve been a part of this. You’ve been a teaching assistant. Can you be a teacher next time?”

“And that was purely done out of self-interest. Because I was like, you know, I’m teaching three classes a month. It’s a lot. It’s on the weekends. It’s all for free. And people are showing up, but it’s grueling. It’s a lot of work. And you wanted to keep this up. It would be really amazing if we could get more folks doing this just because it is more sustainable that way. If I get sick, I don’t want to have to cancel class. And so when other people did step into that role, it was incredible because that is when I stopped feeling less alone. That was when I was realized, “Oh, you know what? I think we really do have something here.”

Hear Me Code students become teaching assistants after Lesson One. How do you model learning and failing in public for your instructors?

“I think one of the most important things is that from the jump we talk about turning mistakes into teachable moments. So I certainly tried to model this when I was teaching as well. When you make a mistake, don’t try to hide it. Instead we train instructors to say, “Oh look. Here’s what I did. That’s a mistake. Here’s how to fix it. Here’s why it’s wrong.” And just saying that, especially when teaching coding, helps people understand that you are going a thousand mistakes and you can narrate of what that looks like to identify and then fix it them.”

How did you approach building culture for your teams of teachers and students?

“One of the things that we did well was creating a culture where we could learn from one another, where everyone was simultaneously occupying a student and teacher role at the same time. Where it was common to sit down and I’ll come up to you and say, okay, here’s how to set up your computer and here’s how to get everything installed. Then someone comes and sits down next to me and I’d turn to them and say, “Great. Can you show them how to do it?” and walk away. So now this person has just installed a Python for the first time who doesn’t know how to do this, but teaching someone else is also going to solidify that.”

It also helps to get people knowing each other a little bit like introducing each other. And we have a set of guidelines from all of the teaching assistants who have gone through courses and done multiple rounds of being a teaching assistant such as: What are some of the things that you should know as a teaching assistant for the first time? What are some things that are super helpful?

Just being welcoming and also being very upfront with the story about why Hear Me Code exists helped model the type of culture we wanted to foster.

Rights x Tech attendees

On Ethics, Accountability & Tech Leadership

Beyond Hear Me Code, you were the Director of Technology for UltraViolet for several years. The reason I bring up your leadership of the tech team there is because a lot of women in the tech industry became politicized not just from the Kavanaugh hearings but also because of this broader shift we are experiencing in our culture right now. I see many seeking a way to be directed to use their power at large tech companies to shape the world and our culture to be a better place.

What can we do to help shift the status quo away from the world as it is and toward the world as it should be?

I think you have to start with radical imagination to uncover not just we don’t see but to picture what we could have. I am going to mess up this quote but someone smarter than me once said that “The job of artists is to make revolution irresistible.” When we get down to what it takes to create shifts, that is the way forward.

Right after Trump’s election, you did a really cool digital security training, called Security is for Everyone. Why is it important for you to address safety for women who are in technology?

After the 2016 election a lot of people were concerned about being hacked. This is a big deal and people were really paying attention to it. And everywhere I turned I saw these guys telling people to do all of these things that wouldn’t actually help with their security. And if all of these guys are telling well-meaning people these things that are not helpful, then maybe they’re giving more people a false sense of security. So what I wanted to do was focus on the things that actually matter and that are actually helpful to protect yourself.

There are a lot of barriers keeping women and people from marginalized communities out of technology. It was important for you to do that for free and to make it accessible. Why is it important that you are so explicit about accessibility?

I didn’t want to be another thing keeping people out. I know it’s bad enough that you had to have a laptop to be able to join Hear Me Code. There were folks who came and didn’t have a laptop, which was really cool. I was like, “Make friends with someone, go sit down next to someone and just take notes the whole time.” I didn’t want to put others through barriers unnecessarily. This belongs to all of us.

Winding Down Hear Me Code

Hear Me Code winded down in 2019. Why?

I ran Hear Me Code for six years and it was honestly the biggest thing that I’ve ever done with my life. I don’t know what is going to top that, but it was an incredible experience. And so it was a really hard thing for me to say: You know what? I think it’s time. After six years and 3500 people going through the program, I felt like I accomplished a lot. I was super proud. But also the landscape was shifting from when I started teaching. In 2013, there were not a lot of women in tech groups here in D.C. and the ones that were around were fine but I wanted to do something completely different and separate from that. I wanted to do things my way, to be honest with you. And so that was a big part of why I started but in that time, in those six years, so many groups popped up and came into life. Also another big shift is that coding bootcamps became a thing.

When it came down to it, I started thinking, you know, I’m giving folks a really great introduction coding. Many folks are going from my classes to these boot camps, which is OK but the bootcamps are not paying me. They should be. I am not doing this so that I can be a feeder for the bootcamps. I do this to get more folks into tech. I’ve done that. I feel good about it. And I think it’s time to focus my energies elsewhere.

What is next for you and your journey?

See, the thing is, I don’t know.

I think that’s pretty cool.

I’ve been doing this for six years. I’ve been doing this for so long and I can’t really imagine what is next yet. I know I realized about a week ago that this was the first time in about six years that I didn’t have an event that I was planning coming up. The first time in six years. And I was like “This is amazing.” I haven’t quite yet gotten that free time, but I expect that more free time is coming my way.

What wish do you have for your students as they build the future?

I don’t want them to feel alone.

What wish do you have for the people in this room who want to build ethical ecosystems?

One of the things that was really challenging to me when I started all of this was that I had no idea what I was doing at so many points along the way. I did not think I was anybody special, I just showed up and did the thing. And so finding my confidence and coming into my confidence took a long time. But I want people to know you do not have to be anything special to do this. You can create something meaningful at scale too.

Shannon Turner is a full stack developer based in Washington, DC. She created Hear Me Code, offering free, beginner-friendly coding classes for over 3000 women.

Sabrina Hersi Issa is a human rights technologist committed to leveraging innovation as a tool to unlock opportunity and dignity for all. She does this through her work in technology, media and investments.

Sabrina Hersi Issa

Written by

Journalism, human rights & technology. Venture investor | leading @beboldmedia | founder @survivorfund

Rights x Tech

Rights x Tech is a gathering for technologists, activists, product builders, organizers and leaders to discuss emerging issues around ethics, products, power and solutions-building.

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