In September 2018, on the company’s 8th birthday, Rabid became Ackama - this was to reflect that fact that we work on large digital ecosystems, and given that nature is the largest ecosystem in the world we wanted a name that came from nature. Ackama, or Makamaka, is a small bushy tree with white flowers and red seeds. It’s found on the coast from Whangarei north.
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Rails Girls is a global community that aims to up skill women in technology through free weekend introductory workshops in Ruby on Rails programming. All the events are volunteer run, and I had the honour of helping organise the third Rails Girls event in Wellington. The Rails Girls website has a page of guides that provide tasters for implementing basic website functionality with Rails, such as adding authentication and uploading images, and also has a guide to help you run a workshop.
The drive behind these events is one that is very close to my heart. There is a severe lack of women in IT. I’ve been in a predominantly male environment for most of my career. There was only one other girl in my year of Mechatronics engineering at Canterbury. At my first job, I was one of 3 women in the engineering team of 60. Where I work now actually has the same number of female and male developers, and that is pretty exceptional and great. A lot of companies want to hire more women, but there aren’t a lot of them around with the technical background for it.
We all know that the tech industry doesn’t have great gender diversity. Some of us are actively wanting to do something about that fact. Enter running a Rails Girls weekend! There are so many reasons why you should get involved in one! You get to meet other awesome, passionate and talented women! You get to teach new people Rails and inspire them! You get to feel affirmed about your abilities as a developer! You get to eat yum food and wear a sweet t-shirt! And in my case, you get to periodically bang a gong!
My introduction to the Rails Girls community was in Christchurch, back in 2013. This event was organised by Rebekah Wilson, and was the first Rails Girls event in New Zealand. It was held in the seaside suburb of New Brighton at the local school, and had coaches from Christchurch and around New Zealand.
The content and structure for this event was taken directly from the Rails Girls guide - we had an Installfest on Friday evening, and spent Saturday following a guide to make a sample app that gets deployed to Heroku. I found the technical content pretty overwhelming, as the breadth of knowledge required to make a simple website is huge, and a lot of that knowledge has nothing to with Ruby, or Rails.
Coming from an embedded C background, I was used to things like static typing, precompilation and header files, and I didn’t understand or appreciate the Rails magic that was happening under the hood. The guides are fairly good instructions for getting something up and running, but I found myself being really frustrated by the lack of explanation behind how things worked. This gave me nothing to go on when something didn’t work, and I didn’t know much about how a lot of the building blocks worked - gems, databases, the structure of a rails app etc.
I can’t say I felt like I learnt a lot that weekend, but it was excellent to meet the wonderful people in the Christchurch Ruby community. Until that weekend I didn’t even realise that you could have a community based around a programming language. I was surprised to hear they would regularly meet up (at a Meetup!) and talk about new and exciting things that they had learned about Ruby, and Rails. The embedded C world where I worked was old, mostly closed source and had a noticeable lack of new ideas entering the scene. The Ruby community on the other hand is thriving, active, growing and welcoming, and the most valuable thing I got out of attending the Rails Girls weekend was an exposure to this.
My second interaction with Rails Girls came less than a month after I moved to Wellington. I met Merrin Macleod (Rails Girls organiser, holder of great opinions, one of my favourite humans) and she convinced me to coach at Rails Girls, despite me only having approximately two weeks worth of Rails experience.
After the first Rails Girls Wellington, they scrapped the Friday/Saturday format recommended in the guides in favour of a whole weekend event. They encouraged attendees to install Ruby, Rails, Git and a text editor at home before hand, so that there was more time for learning. A lot of effort was made to make the weekend more engaging and worthwhile for the attendees, by breaking up the day with speakers and interactive group activities that were created for the event. I felt like the additional content made efforts to address a lot of the gaps I saw in the Rails Girls event in Christchurch, as for a lot of the attendees this would be the first time they had done any sort of programming, and there is a lot more to it than just syntax.
Also, having t-shirts for the coaches, bunting, catering, coffee and swag bags made attending the event feel really special and worthwhile. It’s so great that this warm, positive and supporting environment could be the first exposure to the tech industry for the women that attended, and I had a really great time coaching.
The third Rails Girls Wellington was held on May 16 - 17 at Enspiral Dev Academy. The talented team that I worked with consisted of Kelly, Rachel Collingridge (Powershop dev, saxophonist) and Jess Ducey (3months project manager, connoisseur of cheese and beer). We pooled together our skills, connections and resources to ensure we could maintain the high calibre of Rails Girls events in Wellington. We managed to increase our attendance capacity to 60 people, had 13 amazing women coaching and/or speaking, and 5 lovely men that coached and/or spoke.
Enspiral Dev Academy were extremely accommodating and gracious in letting Rails Girls have free rein over their spacious and well equipped facilities. I’m not sure if they knew what they were getting into, letting 60 excited attendees cohabit the space with their 3 cohorts of students, one of which were doing their final projects.
I was extremely thankful for the 20% time that we get at Rabid during this period, as it meant that I could get all the organising done while still managing to keep up with all my other commitments and get enough sleep! The crew this year built on a lot of new content that Merrin and Kelly pioneered that isn’t included in the Rails Girls guides, and some of my favourite moments from the weekend are discussed below.
Swag bags! This years bags were hand screen printed by Claire Harris (artist, big Lindsay Lohan fan, ex Wellington Zinefest committee member) with the assistance of Serena Chen (designer, HVNGRY editor, hardcore RG fangirl) and contained goodies from Catalyst IT, YouDo, Powershop and Takahe.
Merrin gave a whimsical explanation of how to use Git, using Harry Potter and magic as a metaphor to explain committing, pulling, branching and merging. She also got the whole room to learn how to say Git commands in New Zealand Sign Language, where the sign for ‘git’ was the sign for ‘idiot’.
This really set the scene for the GitHub challenge for the weekend. The GitHub challenge is a non intimidating way to get everyone comfortable with using basic Git commands, and contributing to open source projects. The idea is to make a GitHub repo with content that everyone could feel comfortable contributing to. Last year’s challenge was an animal party gif thread, and this years was a collaborative Harry Potter fanfiction! This years challenge was led by Genevieve Parkes (Enspiral Craftworks dev, EDA grad, has really nice hair), who merged everyone’s pull requests and rewarded contributors with GitHub stickers. One pull request added in some slash romance between Ronbledore (popular fan theory that Ron is a time travelling Dumbledore) and Sirius Black, and subsequently tests were added to ensure that content would keep to the code of conduct.
The Robot Game was played, which involved small groups each directing a robot (a coach). The groups were given a list of methods that were implemented by the robot, such as step and turn. From that, groups had to write instructions for the robot to navigate through a maze, and collect the cupcake reward at the centre. The robots were instructed to take the instructions as literally as possible, as this is an exercise to get you thinking about how specific you have to be when you are writing code. Basic programming concepts were introduced such as pulling out groups of instructions into a method, and looping over instructions that were repeated.
Day two we completely deviated from the Rails Girls material had two streams running to go deeper into front-end development (HTML, CSS) or Ruby. The content for these streams were written by Jevon Wright (Rabid and Powershop dev, LGBT advocate, learner of Akido), Eoin Kelly (Rabid dev, incredible well of knowledge, delightful Irish accent) and Roger Nisbett (Powershop dev, new father). It was good to be able to have a more tutorial style day, where the coaches could go really in depth into concepts and spend more time explaining how things worked.
The front-end stream used bootstrap as the base for the styles. Attendees were shown the developer console, and how to edit styles on any web page. They then went wild on their favourite websites, changing all the typefaces to Comic Sans and making backgrounds lovely shades of poo brown. After that excitement had died down, we created a basic page with a few buttons. Functionality was then added, by having the buttons go to links or show puppy gifs! The content that Eoin created for the stream is available here.
The Ruby stream went deep into programming concepts. Attendants started with basic math functions such as calculating the number of seconds since they were born, and then got into a much harder project of creating a terminal based hang man game.
Food Envy was our caterer for the weekend and it is hands down the best food that I’ve ever had at an event. Stand out items were the secret recipe brownies and amazing pumpkin and feta mini rolls. They went over and beyond with the quality and selection and made separate meals for people with dietary restrictions. We had scheduled about 45 minutes for lunch but after 20 minutes everyone had gobbled up all the delicious food and had gone back to their computers to learn more Ruby! It’s so worth all the time and effort organising an event to see how much the attendants get out of it.
Nick Johnstone (Powershop dev, EDA grad, skateboarder) gave an awesome demo of Sonic Pi, an open source music library. He showed us how it worked in the GUI, and talked through his mad 3am developer buzz where he stayed up and wrote a command line application to use sonic-pi in the terminal. This was subsequently packaged up as a Ruby gem and released into the open source world, where he got feedback from people all over the world, including the person who developed Sonic Pi.
I just want to say five words: Taylor Swift Zumba dance break! It was Sunday afternoon. Energy levels were waning. Something needed to be done to recharge everyone. Nothing says party like dancing to “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. Lots of people got into it and had a great time. An excellent video captured the magic. Some people hid in the bathroom. Ah well, haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…
Rails Girls Wellington is planning another event this year for school aged girls, so if you or someone you know want to attend or coach at this you should follow our twitter or like our facebook page to keep updated. If you have attended a previous event and want to keep learning, there is a Rails n00bs meetup to get involved in. If you want to come to Rails Girls, watch this space next year!
If you aren’t based in Wellington, there have been events on in Auckland and Christchurch. These communities aren’t as active as the Wellington one, but there is no reason why you can’t get involved and start making cool things happen! The Rails Girls guides are a good place to start, but I would recommend working through them yourself before the event, as they were written a few years ago and some of the information is outdated, especially for windows computers. Feel free to borrow, expand and reconfigure any of the things that we have done, and we are just a tweet away if you need any help.
This year’s Rails Girls exceeded all of my expectations. I got out a lot more than I put in. I got to use my outside voice inside without being told off. We had an after party. We had an after after party! We had an euphoric balcony dance and celebrated being women, fighting to get to where we are now, and being able to support and empower the women around us. We laughed in the face of anyone who’s ever doubted a woman’s ability to code. We can do this, and we are having a much more fun time doing it than you.