WEEKEND EDITION

Etsy Offers Women Scholarships to Hacker School

| May 2, 2012 4:00 AM

Sonali Sridhar explains fluid grid system during a Hacker School "class." Photo by @daniellesucher and @workmajj

A stereotype of a hacker is that he played with Legos as a kid, has trouble sustaining eye contact during conversation, and may or may not rely on microwave burritos for his primary sustenance.  Hackers may have gained infamy for busting open proprietary computer codes, but they are usually people who are paid to solve complex programming and coding problems, fix bugs and design systems quickly and thoroughly, and, they are usually men.

Two Brooklyn-based entities are joining forces to add diversity to the stereotype pool by encouraging women to become “hackers,” or computer engineers and designers. Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods,  is offering ten $5,000 scholarships for women to attend Hacker School. Though Hacker School does not charge tuition, students attend full-time for three months. The scholarships will offset the cost of living in New York City since many students put a hold on their freelance work or take a leave of absence from jobs in order to participate.

The young history of Hacker School

The Hacker School ran its first “batch” of students in 2011 and is the brainchild between collaborating hackers Sonali Sridhar, David Albert and Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock. “Our primary goal is to build a very nurturing environment for people to grow intellectually,” Sridhar said. “We want that to be innate to learning.”

The term “hackers” is a little misleading to those who imagine the shifty-eyed guy with no social skills that can unravel the CIA’s deepest codes. “Hacking is a very positive term among programmers,” Sridhar said. “A hacker in a programming world is a person who can pick up anything and put it together and make it work. It’s valuable to be considered a hacker because then you’re a fast thinker.”

Sridhar, a native of India, graduated from New York University with an MPS in Interactive Design and got work as a digital designer at a company with 12 engineer developers, including Bergson-Shilcock. They saw a need for designers and engineers to develop their interests and programming knowledge outside of meet-ups, and joined with Albert to found the Hacker School as a three-month sabbatical. Sridhar asked her alma mater NYU for use of a conference room, and the first batch of six hackers graduated in late summer 2011.

For its fall session, the school doubled the number of its students and moved to a Spotify conference room in the Google building on West 15th Street, where it graduated 12 students. The third, most recent session met in a room of the Huffington Post and saw 20 students graduate on May 1, 2012. The transient nature of the school works for the founders, who like the idea of introducing people to the city and offering them the chance to explore it.

Only two women have finished Hacker School thus far. Etsy, which will house the fourth batch this summer,  hopes that half of the session’s expected 40 students will be women.

Engineers at Etsy work in teams based on project ideas in these workspaces. Photo by Sarah Berson

Must diversify: female engineers wanted

Marc Hedlund, VP of engineering for Etsy, first became interested in the Hacker School in January 2012. In his efforts to hire good engineers for Etsy, he had been following Hackruiter, the engineer recruitment website run by Albert and Bergson-Shilcock. Hedlund, a self-taught programmer, has sought to increasing the number of women in engineering both at Etsy and at his previous jobs. “I was learning from books, and the reason I’m in the industry is because someone gave me a chance.”

Since last fall, Hedlund has tripled the number of Etsy’s female engineers to 11 out of 100. “It’s a good increase, but it’s still not very high,” he said.

Etsy itself is women-oriented: a majority of its shoppers and sellers are female. Hedlund wants the scholarship program to not just benefit the 10 selected recipients, but also to change people’s idea of women in engineering.  “As much unity as we can create between users and people who design the products is better,” Hedlund said. “What I wanted to do was make an invitation to women specifically who might be in the position I was in 20 years ago. If we could give these women a chance, we could get some fantastic programmers.” The invitation became a scholarship, and Etsy offered to host the next batch of Hacker students.

The future Hacker School "classroom," yet to be outfitted with Etsy-issue furniture, knitted decorations, and probably a few owls. Photo by Sarah Berson

At Etsy’s offices within a large brick building in DUMBO, hackers will have access not only to a conference room, but to common spaces scattered throughout three floors. The main office is an open-floor plan, and everything you’d expect of the artsy company. There are paper lampshades in bright colors, lounge areas full of throw pillows and the exposed air ducts are decorated with crocheted covers. Every new employee (there are about 300 in New York City) receives a lab coat, an Etsy-purchased desk (or one made in the woodshop), and $100 to purchase items from the website to decorate their workspace. Engineers, like Hacker School graduates, work in groups based on projects, such as in teams responsible for “store fronts” or wedding items. Hedlund hopes to increase the number of female engineers on these teams.

That the scholarship is extended only to women has raised some criticism. Hedlund says the engineering field is 95 percent white males in their 20s and 30s, and that the field can be expanded to increase diversity. “We’re not trying to solve every problem with this one [scholarship] program,” he said. “We are focusing on this one population that we feel is critically important to Etsy, representative of our market, and we have a great partnership with Hacker School.”

Women in the field

Hacker School is not a traditional school. “We don’t have a curriculum,” Sridhar said. “We have a philosophy that everyone comes from a different background. This is your chance to learn ‘C:’ and how the bits and parts work.”

Sridhar comes from advertising, and was tired of spending too much time in Photoshop and then handing off her projects to developers to build. She enjoyed rapid prototyping, but she needed design skills to make her own. Similarly, people who attend Hacker School are often lawyers, philosophy majors, and come from language backgrounds denoted by Ruby and Javascript, two software writing programs. They arrive with different learning needs, and work collaboratively to teach each other how to write code, fix bugs and design programs.

Hacker students often work in pairs or teams to write programs and fix bugs. Every Monday, the school goes out for dinner so they can socialize outside these small groups. Photo by @daniellesucher and @workmajj

On May 1, Danielle Sucher became the second female to graduate Hacker School, during which she worked on an accidental Limerick finder. She wrote a program that allows users to input text, then it will search for unintended Limericks. A graduate of New York University’s School of Law, she began writing code last November and applied to the spring program after hearing about a friend’s experience there. While she waited for the next batch to start, Sucher taught herself Ruby. Though she was nervous about being the only woman in a group of men, she was pleasantly surprised that “none of them were jerks.” Instead, she said that most of them were “really encouraging and helpful, and they talked like [she] knew what they were talking about.”

As Sucher ventured further into the world of computer design and engineering, she found the “systemic sexism” of the industry to be a problem for women interested in the field. At meet-ups and recruitment events, no T-shirts were in women’s sizes, and she was often mistaken for a recruiter despite her name tag that labeled her an engineer. These “road blocks” were overcome at Hacker School, where Sucher found a “good learning environment where people are safe to ask questions.”

Sridhar has also enjoyed being a part of the world of Hacker School. “Engineers are probably the most honest people I’ve ever worked with,” she said. After spending time in the advertising and business world, she was excited by the energy of the engineer community. “I forget that I’m a woman,” she said. “I just want to be considered an engineer, not a woman as an exotic thing.”

Both Sridhar and Hedlund are optimistic about the scholarship’s effects in generating interest in women applicants. At publication time, 550 women had applied for the summer 2012 batch, compared to seven applicants this past spring. “I’d like to hire all the grads if they’re good,” Hedlund said. “What [the Hacker School is] doing is a really great program.”

Applications should be submitted by May 7 for the Summer 2012 batch, which runs from June 4- August 25.

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.


 

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