Girl Develop It Co-Founder Provides Keys To The Coding Kingdom

Vanessa Hurst, co-founder Girl Develop It
Not many female role models existed three years ago when Vanessa Hurst and Sara Chipps founded Girl Develop It, which aims to empower women by giving them a safe place to learn about technology.

"We wanted to make a place where it was OK to ask questions," Hurst recalls. "Low cost classes, really accessible and no judgment."

Girl Develop It started as a Meetup group operating from a downtown Manhattan co-working space. Today it's in 16 cities and more than 5,000 women have gone through classes in HTML, Javascript, PHP, Python and more.

The majority of early students were women who worked in technology in some capacity, but didn't know how to code. They worked in marketing, product management or were people who worked with engineers and wanted to know what really goes on in the back end so they could have a better working relationship.

There was also a strong cohort of entrepreneurs and those aspiring to be. People who had an idea for a tech product but didn't know how to get it built. Students came from the founders' networks -– drawing women in their 20s and 30s.

"Both Sara and I were software developers and really love to code," says Hurst, who is now the founder of a company called Code Montage. Chipps is CTO at LevoLeague, which offers career advice for young women. "We'd gone through education systems and jobs where we were one of the only women. We bonded a lot over similar experiences of being afraid to ask questions."

Now a legal nonprofit, Girl Develop It attracts women well into their 60s who are either embarking on a new career or simply curious.

What have you learned about yourself from doing this?

"I've heard the adage 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. In fact it's the only thing that ever has.' It's hard to internalize how true it is until you try something and realize how much it can help people."

What happens when a woman completes a course?

"The most common thing is just a significant shift in the confidence of the women who come through the course. Confidence to learn new things and make things happen. A lot of them because of this confidence got a job that made them happier whether it involved technology or not.

How do you see the male/female ratio evolving in the industry?

"It's still a lot of guys. I think there's been a small improvement in how easy it is to get into the field. Definitely we've made a small dent. Probably the biggest benefit we've been seeing is just the awareness of the lack of diversity in tech and an underrepresentation of minorities. There's a lot more awareness that this is a problem and that it's hurting the economy.

"It's a cultural problem and it's something that needs addressing. We're just in the beginning of addressing those issues. The lack of women in technology is not something that's ok and it's not something that is the natural way of things. It's a bug. It's one that the technology industry needs to fix."

Hurst's latest baby is the 10-month-old Code Montage, a company dedicated to empowering people who code to make an impact on the world. One of its core values is tech inclusion and encouraging women and minorities to advance in their coding careers.

Both Hurst's parents have engineering degrees, but are not practicing in the field. It wasn't until she took a required computer programming course in college at the University of Virginia that she realized this was even a job. She switched her major from biomedical engineering to computer science when she realized she was good at it and would be able to graduate in four years instead of needing more study.

"It was a combination of inspiration and laziness," she quips.

Hurst's first job out of college was at Capital IQ, a financial data company where her title was database engineer. "Databases were really the reason I loved programming. I was fascinated by the information we could get access to by using a computer."

What she most loved about Capital IQ was its learning culture. It was a flexible place where you could be challenged according to your ability. In fact, the need to always be learning is one thing that attracts her to technology.

Hurst shifted gears when she realized she wanted to work with open source technologies that were affordable and accessible to nonprofits as opposed to proprietary platforms.

Hurst's is a two start-up marriage. Her husband Nathan is also a developer for good, working as head of engineering at a startup called Kinsa, which is creating a real-time map of human health using consumer mobile products. The two are each other's silent co-founders and they talk tech a lot.

AP Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo
Who do you admire?

Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo!

"I've heard her give technical talks and I admire her for her data-driven decision making. She is analytical to her core. It helps she's a woman and blonde and it makes me a little more comfortable. I really respect the type of leader she is."

Jacqueline Nogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture capital fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty.

"They're a fund dedicated to patient capital. They're focused on changing the world by building enterprises around treating the poor with dignity and trying to create markets in places where typical venture capital won't go."

John Allspaw, SVP of technical operations at Etsy. Hurst followed him on Twitter, then wangled an invitation to be at the same table as him at an event. She tweeted beforehand that she'd read one of his books. It gave them a common ground when they met in person.

"He's a normal, really relatable guy who has a family. And he talks about his family. He's a whole person and that's really important to me."


She loves reading, particularly non-fiction and young adult novels.

"I like to analyze the way worlds are constructed inside of novels. The information available to us impacts what we can do. Novels are great examples of worlds that have been constructed. The people in them understand the world based on information they've been given. We all think we live a truth rather than that we each live a perspective that is an aspect of the real world."

Vanessa Hurst
AOL Jobs caught up with Hurst on the phone while she was attending the Grace Hopper Celebration in Minneapolis, which started in 1994 as the first conference for technical women.

It's her second year at the event. Last year there were 3500 delegates and this year 4800.

"Coming to Grace Hopper is filling up my gas tank to get me through the rest of the year. It's heartening to realize not only are you not alone, but some of the most amazing innovations in technology are coming from women."

Growing up in a military family (her dad was a Marine) gave Hurst the tools to take on a technology career.

"I'm very grateful something I had to do over and over again was make friends and learn how to prove myself and establish I was smart and capable in totally new environments," she says. "I think that significantly impacted my ability to go into a field like computing without much of a support group. Because I grew up in the military, my sense of self was always strong. I always cared more of what my family thought of me than my peer group.

"I think for me learning to program computers, learning to code is without a doubt the single most valuable thing I've ever learned. It changed the way I think about the world and how I get things done. I encourage everyone, especially women, to find a way to get comfortable with the uncomfortable so you are on a trajectory to always be learning and always improving."

Oh, and she's only 26.

More: Girl Develop It Success Stories

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