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Encouraging a weirder web

Another Saturday morning in the library. I watched the young girls working on their project, and began to wonder: what makes me want to mentor them? Why would I invest my weekends in their future? What is it that I’m trying to change?

Well, I’m a female front-end developer, with a background in humanities, and I’m partial to a little strangeness. There aren’t that many like me in tech, though I wish there were. This train of thought led me to consider the primary reasons why I want to give my spare time to these girls, and what I believe are the benefits to both mentee and mentor.

Reason 01 Geographical responsibility

Last April, my husband and I moved from Seattle to Walla Walla, a tiny Washington wine town. Soon after arriving I looked up the closest Girls Who Code club and discovered that close, in this case, meant 150 miles away. Knowing this, I could not in good conscience be a professional developer working remotely in Walla Walla and not start a club.

Girls Who Code was founded to close the gender gap in tech, reaching 90,000 girls in grades 6-12 across the United States. The movement offers a chance to learn computer science skills and boost confidence in safe and supportive spaces. Crucially, it presents technology and engineering as places for them. Before starting the club, I had no teaching experience—no experience of working with kids at all—but I had to do it. No question.

It was imperative for me to start the club because when I was a young girl, I had no such opportunity to learn code. Sure, I was messing with tiny code snippets on my Xanga and MySpace, but I didn’t recognize it as HTML. I had no idea what it was, or how to find out more about it, and needed a mentor to step in and encourage me. “Bri, you seem to enjoy putting these break tags throughout your profile, so let’s code up our own MySpace profiles and really snaz things up!” Alas, that never happened, so I continued to lean on my little break tags until Facebook came along and made direct code editing a thing of the past. Goodbye, personality on the web; you were great while you lasted.

Reason 02 Encourage weirdness

Instead of learning more about web development, I took a pathway into the arts and humanities. I have a background in art history and thoroughly enjoy the social and cultural anthropology of history, which brings me to my second reason for wanting to mentor: encouraging people to create weird stuff for the web.

When I first learned HTML and CSS I was blown away that I could make things; that code could be both tedious and creative. It wasn’t strictly math-based, and you didn’t have to learn calculus to realize your project. That might be obvious to a developer, but it’s news to an outsider; eye-opening to an art kid.

The librarians had talked about outreach, spreading awareness of the club. One of them suggested I approach the math and science teachers, but their students are already predisposed to a possible career in computer science and engineering, and very likely to encounter code. That’s not the case for those studying art or humanities. As a student, I was never taught that computers could make art, or that we could be creative with code. Never. That’s still largely the case, so most kids are oblivious.

Are there so few of us with an arts and humanities background in the industry? Well, yes. Let’s consider the 2018 Stack Overflow Developer Survey. Around 64% of respondents graduated with a computer science degree, whereas only 2% had a humanities degree, and just 1.4% fine art. So, we are a tiny 3.4%! It’s also important to note that less than 7% of the entire survey identified as female.

Since there aren’t many women with an art or humanities background in the industry, it’s become an important goal of mine to get these kids interested in coding. I believe once a person who likes to make things realizes the potential of programming, that can be motivation enough to persevere and overcome the typical hurdles to make their ideas a reality.

Web development is a vast subject, always in flux, and it can be hard for developers to feel like they’re caught up. What keeps me going and eager to learn more is the fact that I can use code to be creative; that my projects can become my art. Utilizing JavaScript animation libraries such as GSAP, SVG, and DOM manipulation have reignited my passion for web development, helping me make strange things. I’ve benefited from tools like Codepen and Glitch. I’ve joined the Animation at Work, and Creative Coding Slack groups, where creative coders join forces and support each other. With tools like these and a sense of community, we can work together to make the web a better, weirder place!

Reason 03 Teach to learn

Bedrich, our wise Director of Engineering, once told me that you don’t know something well until you can teach it, and this brings me to my third reason for wanting to mentor. Those words struck a chord with me as I gained an understanding of how and why we build the way we do at Fictive Kin. If you can teach web development to 12-18-year-olds, you can certainly teach it to adults, project managers, and clients.

At Fictive Kin, we follow the Dreyfus model of skill level attainment, which states that you become an expert through teaching and experience. Well, what better way to become an expert in web development than by sharing what I’ve learned with cool, weirdo girls?

Mentoring makes me better at my job. When faced with a problem, many developers might find a quick solution and keep going on their merry way, soon forgetting what they did, or failing to explore the depths of that solution. Mentoring asks me to understand those patches and quick fixes and fully grasp the possibilities so that I might share that knowledge with others.

Conclusion Rats, walruses, and blobfish

During our club sessions, I sometimes show the girls my side projects, and occasionally some Fictive Kin work. I also teach them how code can be playful, and they love that. Sometimes, while they should be working on their project—a VR game set in a haunted candy factory—they’ll ask very specific HTML or CSS questions, and I’ll answer by fiddling with the browser’s web inspector; demonstrating ways to replace images, change background colors, or edit text.

Haunted cotton candy, named Leonard, in video game created by Lauren with processing.js in Khan academy

Later that morning we put some of this into practice. We visit Britney Spears’s site and replace the glossy pictures of her with images of rats, walruses, blobfish, and other strange things these kids find on the web (without any guidance or direction from me). The girls have a good time: messing around in this way is fun, aids learning, and encourages weirdness. Each of us gets excited about what we can do with code, and just how much fun web development can be.

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