The Code Makers

Programmers are in high demand. Two Viennese are helping more women to close the digital gap.

It’s going on 18:30, but the windows of the co-working space in the 3rd district are already brightly lit. It is still winter, so the sun goes down quite early.

As you pass, you can peek inside the wide-open rooms. They are sparely furnished: Next to the large sofas, there are a few tall, leafy plants with pots set directly on the gray floors. People face each other across desks that are pushed together, fingers dancing over computer keyboards.

In one area sits a group of women in front of their laptops, the intense concentration radiating excitement. In front of them stand Barbara Ondrisek and Eva Lettner, the founders of the nonprofit Women and Code that teaches programming skills to women. For free.

Lettner greets the group. “Today we are going to do some new things with [the programming language] JavaScript….” This is not a course, more what they call a study group. “We are not teaching you,” Lettner says. “You will be teaching yourselves.”

Lettner and Ondrisek come well prepared, with a few step-by-step instructions at different difficulty levels, similar to online modules, that allow each participant to explore JavaScript at their own pace, often in small study groups. Lettner and Ondrisek encourage them to first try things on their own first and google the solution, then ask the other women in the room for advice before going to their two teachers for help. Then, of course, Lettner and Ondrisek are there to provide backup if necessary.

On entering, everyone gets a name tag. “In this business, it is very important to be well connected,” reminds Lettner. “So please… talk to each other.” Some of the women exchange shy smiles. Most of them are strangers to each other. “Are you here for the first time?” one of the participants opens a conversation. The other shakes her head. “I’ve been coming here for about three months,” she says. “You’ll love it!” she gushes and tells about a yearlong scholarship that had been announced. She applied and “just before Christmas, they confirmed that they would take me!” For some, this is where opportunity begins.

A few chairs down, two women are shaking hands. “Nice to meet you. What do you do ‘in real life’?” One works for a mobile phone provider. The other owns a bookstore. “I have absolutely no previous knowledge in coding,” one confesses. “I don’t either,” shrugs the other. Here, there’s no shame. They both open their laptops, type in the link projected on the wall and click on the first online module. A word document opens with clear instructions. “Alright,” mumbles the first, “let’s do this…”

learning coding in Vienna
Barbara Ondrisek and Eva Lettner are the two founders of “Women and Code,” a nonprofit organization in Vienna that aims to get more women into the tech industry. Photo: Women and Code

TEACHING ONE ANOTHER

Lettner and Ondrisek met about five years ago at a programming event. Why were there so few women? It was frustrating. Then last summer, sitting in a café, they decided to do something about it. The idea for Women and Code was born. But not in the traditional way or top-down training, but a mixture of coaching and self-help.

“We wanted people to interact with each other, to teach one another,” Lettner says. When the details were set, they created a Facebook page and a domain and started to send out emails through their other networks. The response was immediate. They set up a nonprofit Verein (association) and started to look for sponsors. The first study group met on September 18, 2018.

But Women and Code is not just about tech. “Our goal is to empower women,” states Lettner, seeing it as an important extension to other feminist networks they work with. “We want them to dare to step into the technology industry to acquire some totally new skills that are not as hard as some might think.”

Ondrisek agrees: “We want to break down clichés and demystify the lie that a programmer has to spend years studying at university.”

“Ahh!” one of the women screams all of a sudden. Then she grins. “I did it! This is so cool!” She made a pop-up window, Lesson One – for many a first experience of success. “Because the browser did something they told it to do!” says Lettner. “It’s not magic, it’s a skill, like carpentry or playing the piano. You just have to repeat it over and over again and practice a lot.” And finally: “Don’t copy/paste. Ever!” (she laughs)

NOT JUST A BOY’S CLUB

Women and Code is taught in English – good news for internationals, for two reasons: First, all programming languages use English terms. And second, classes in English can include people from other countries whose English is often stronger than their German. On that day, the class includes Lee from Taiwan, Soraya from Iran and Matya from Serbia. Others were from Bulgaria. Egypt. Czechia. Russia. And of course, Austria.

Twenty-year-old Jasmin Haller responded to a Facebook ad. “Normally, classes are so expensive,” says Haller. At Women and Code, she pays the standard €9 (as seat reservation), but can ask for it back at the end of the lesson. Most women donate the money to support Women and Code events – and the pizza and drinks for active participants.

Haller went to a Viennese Realgymnasium (science high school) – with a focus on social issues, gender and environmental studies – where they did a lot of projects on women and the sciences. The girls were encouraged to consider careers in science and technology, and visited the Technical University Vienna (TU). “Maybe I will do my own website at some point,” says Haller, a writer who has been considering creating a blog. “Programming looks so difficult. It’s impressive when people know how to do it.” Part of the problem is, “it has always been a ‘boy’s thing,’” she says as she tugs her hair behind her ears. “Girls are supposed to do something in art, music or the social sciences.”

Aya Elghanam, (23) and Omnea Ahmed (23) are both students, one studying mass media & communications and the other business administration. They have been friends for years and together decided to join Women and Code, where they could have a group of people to train with. “Chatting with a bot gets boring and strange,” she grins. “I wanted to have a community.” Her goal: to be able to program apps. Elghanam took longer to convince. But Ahmed pushed her out of her comfort zone. “I said, new year, new me! Let’s try it!”

Twenty-year-old Toni Schachl came by herself. “There are not enough women in the scene,” she says. “Girls get told that it is not their thing, that women are not technically skilled.” When she was younger, she had wanted to make a website, but got no support. “So, I figured, I am probably not talented enough. If someone had encouraged me, I might have felt differently.” Women’s reluctance, she is convinced, “has a lot to do with stereotypes.”

learning coding in vienna
Teaching each other: In this co-working- space, 25 women are learning how to code. If they get stuck in their online module, they ask other participants for help. That way, everybody learns even more. They meet up every week to improve their skills. Photo: Women and Code

THE CABLE CEILING

These stereotypes are what Lettner and Ondrisek are trying to fight. “Politics and education play a big part here,” Lettner says. Statistically speaking, young girls and boys have the same understanding of mathematics, but with time, the girls lose their confidence. Still, the situation is improving “in baby steps,” Ondrisek insists. In 1998 when she began studying informatics at TU, women were only 8% of the student body. Today, they are up to 40% in certain computer science study programs such as medical computer science.

Why teach only women? In part, because they are underrepresented in tech jobs. But it also has to do with the dynamics in the classroom: “I used to teach mixed classes,” Lettner remembers. Again and again, the same pattern emerged. The men asked questions during the lessons, the women during the breaks. “Or they didn’t come to me at all, but asked their male colleagues, who were just as clueless as they were,” she says wryly. “Sometimes, women just believe that the men are more competent and so are embarrassed to ask questions. This has a lot to do with society and schools.” So, Lettner and Ondrisek decided, just women. (They also welcome anybody from the LGBTQI community who identifies as female. “We won’t be doing gynecological examinations!”)

The next round of classes starts in March, with a study group for JavaScript, Python and HTML/CSS alternatingly every week, with registration limited to 25 people. There are also intensive courses, for a fee. Either way, training at Women and Code is an investment that could pay off in the future. In Austria, programming is one of the so-called Mangelberufe, jobs whose skills are in short supply. Which makes it relatively easy for people with good skills to get the jobs they want, positions with a lot of flexibility, home office time, shorter hours and above-average salaries.

They should know, say Ondrisek and Lettner: Rarely a day goes by where they do not receive another offer.

For more information visit: womenandcode.org

Julia Seidl
Julia started out at "Die Presse." She went on to study "Journalism & Media Management" in Vienna and worked for several local news outlets such as ORF, Kurier and Falter before joining Metropole as online content and social media manager.

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