On Saturday, we shared the news about Etsy providing ten lucky programmer women five thousand dollars to attend Hacker School. Today, we have the whole story direct from the source. I interviewed Marc Hedlund from Etsy and Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock from Hacker School to get more details about the grants, the partnership between Etsy and Hacker School, and why Etsy wants more women in technology.
First, a little bit of background. Etsy is of course the Internet giant of handmade goods, a marketplace which we all know and love. Hacker School is a small project-oriented school where programmers can become better programmer in a safe non-judgmental environment.
Hacker School works in three month sessions, each hosted from various locations in New York. For the session of summer 2012, Etsy offered to host forty students for Hacker School, double the number of students in this current batch. Not only that, but Etsy also offered to contribute ten $5,000 grants to women who were accepted in Hacker School. While Hacker School is technically free, the grant money can be used to finance the students’ expenses while attending Hacker School in the Etsy headquarters in New York.
Hacker School was founded by Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, David Albert, and Sonali Sridhar. They saw some holes in the Computer Science education system and wanted a community where programmers could focus on developing their skills in a workshop/apprenticeship environment. When I asked Nick about what they thought the shortcomings were in Computer Science education, he replied:
“Traditional CS programs are good at helping people become good computer scientists, but they’re generally not good at helping people become better programmers. Understanding CS is a part of being a good programmer, but it’s only a part.
We think programming is a craft, and like any other craft, the way to become great is to do it a lot. That’s why Hacker School is project-based, and everyone codes on day one.
Another problem with traditional CS programs is that not everyone enrolled in them actually likes programming or even wants to be there. That’s not the case at Hacker School. Because there is no certification or grading, the only reason to come to Hacker School is to become a better programmer.”
During the application period for the last batch, Hacker School received 130 applications. They didn’t ask the applicants to specify their gender so Nick doesn’t have the exact numbers, however he estimated that the number of women applicants was definitively below 10%, and probably under 5%.
What does Hacker School look for in an applicant? “We look for people who love programming and want to become better hackers in the best sense of the word,” said Nick. “Beyond that, we look for curiosity, passion, raw intelligence and a desire to build things.” And that is a group of people I’d want to be a part of. Oh, to be young and free again, I’d jump on the occasion to participate in this program!
Marc Hedlund is the VP of Engineering at Etsy. He was enthusiastic about Etsy’s partnership with Hacker School because of Hacker School’s approach to education. “We liked the approach they took to training people, and the emphasis on a supportive and collaborative environment. I also really liked the founders personally, and thought that what they are trying to build is admirable. Finally, it seemed like a great way to work on the issue of women in engineering, which was and is one of my major efforts at Etsy.”
As such, Etsy chose to stay uninvolved in Hacker School’s existing admission process. “We felt that Hacker School should continue running the program the way they have been — especially since we decided to work with them based on the way they were already running things.” Etsy will be providing space for the forty students in their spacious headquarters. “As we’ve expanded, we’ve taken on large areas in our building so we can continue growing. We’re planning to use two of those areas […] which we’ve acquired but not yet filled.”
I asked Marc if he ever felt a tug or disjoint managing a predominantly male group of programmers to design a website popular with a mostly female audience. “I try to build as much empathy in product development teams with the people using the product as I can; the predominantly female user base of Etsy suggests that having a heavily male development team isn’t the best approach for that. […] That tug and pull is present in every product team I’ve ever worked on — ones with strong female representation and ones without. But, I certainly think that many of the men on the team at Etsy use the site very differently than women do, and that having more women on the team will make our decision making stronger.”
As for why Marc wants to see more women in his programming team, he responds: “Well, there are lots of reasons. One of the more recent ones is that I have a three-year old daughter who I love and adore, and I want her to have every opportunity when she is older.”
Applications for Hacker School are open until May 7th, 2012. They may continue to accept applications beyond that date if they still have places available. There is a checkbox on the application to also apply for the grant. The grants will be distributed as first-accepted, first-granted, based on a statement of need.