Fostering Diversity in the Ruby Community

Some of the biggest headlines about the tech industry lately have focused on its lack of diversity. Madison+ Ruby 2014 confronted this issue head-on, with several of its talks exploring the problem.

Kronda Adair, in her talk on building empathy, put a company photo on screen featuring mainly white males, saying, “This is not sustainable. There’s not an infinite supply of straight white guys. We are going to have to branch out from this and start welcoming other people into the industry.”

With an analogy between diverse people and a variety of different web browsers (straight white males could be said to be running Chrome, for example, while a differently-able trans person of color might be running IE6), Adair pointed out that “When you’re doing development, you understand that the client is going to say, ‘well, it looks terrible in IE7.’ Socially, we are looking at the same things, but we don’t see them the same way or see them at all.”

Adair challenged her listeners. “Evaluate your circle. Branch out of your comfort zone, Go on Twitter and find people who are completely different than you. Being a good ally is a process. Listen. Try to understand. Share what you learn with other people. Speak up for others.”

Carina Zona, in her talk Debugging Tech’s Class Issues, dug in to the problems of access to adequate STEM classes in majority poor high schools and narrow tech scholarship requirements that often prevent poor students from even applying. Zona noted that 30,000 students take the AP computer science exam every year, but in some states no Hispanic or African American students are taking it at all. While over a million high school students express interest in STEM fields at the beginning of high school, the number dwindles drastically by the time they graduate.

“We are really bad at keeping records on what works when tackling diversity problems,” Zona says. “We know that this is good and necessary for code, but we aren’t doing this for bigger issues. How can we be testing if things are working? Are we examining which efforts are failing? What can we do to get a fresh view?”

Zona notes that even tech workshops and boot camps assume that life can be temporarily rearranged to accommodate goals. “There exists barrier after barrier that we’re not really acknowledging.”

With these stark realities in mind, the folks behind Madison+ Ruby 2014 are taking concrete action to increase diversity in tech. They kicked off the conference with the #HYPEHARVEST fundraiser on Thursday night. A memorable start to an amazing weekend, #HYPEHARVEST welcomed a compelling mix of speakers and musicians and raised funds in support of YWebCA, a developer training pilot program from YWCA Madison in partnership with adorableio.

The evening soared on the energy of speakers revealing themselves in intensely personal and resonant ways. Kim Girard shared what it feels like to be a crazy person (her words). “You’re just standing around. That’s how it feels to be psychotic. Everything felt completely normal.”

After getting help, Girard realized she did not have the ability to distinguish between reality and not reality and fell into a deep depression. “When you’re suicidal, your brain is trying to kill you,” she says. “And you can’t fight back, because you need your brain to fight back. That’s what it feels like. We have to talk about this shit. We need to talk about this.”

Girard found the right medication and is now working as a developer, with a husband and two thriving children. “I call myself crazy because I need you to know this is what a crazy person looks like. That’s what I want you to take away from this. Let’s talk about it. Let’s make it okay to be crazy. Because it’s fine.”

Next, DJ Pain 1 shared his story. With the help of a supportive family, he decided to try for a year after college graduation to make music the focus of his career. Within seven months, he ended up on a number one selling album: Young Jeezy, The Recession. End of story, right? Not exactly.

“After that happened, I assumed positive things were going to come my way,” he says. “They really didn’t. I spun my wheels. I got frustrated, went back to grad school, but had a department that allowed me to go on tour for a few days and miss class. I worked on a lot of projects and finally came to the realization that I needed to focus on being my own advocate. That took quite a bit of research and a lot of trial and error…releasing my own work.”

It’s going well. So well, in fact, that his first world tour starts in a couple weeks. “I can do it, I can survive France,” he says. “Then there’s Poland…”

Between the evening’s cover charge and Indiegogo campaign, #HYPEHARVEST raised several thousand dollars for computer hardware to be used by the YWebCA program, which will target women and people of color aged 17 to 25. Students will learn job readiness skills, team building, and programming languages including Ruby, HTML5/ CSS, JavaScript, Node.js, and user experience design.

“We are in the recruitment phase right now,” explains Debra Schwabe at YWCA. “We have a lot of connections throughout the community to get the word out. Our target audience is women and people of color, but it is open to everyone. We are trying to build a more diverse pipeline of employees for Madison tech companies.”

Each class will offer 400 hours of instruction and be taught at the YWCA Empowerment Center. The first session will run from October 2014 until April 2015. The YWebCA leaders have also been fundraising for a 2015 summer session, which will be a more intensive program and a good fit for high school seniors. A crucial part of the program is a paid internship for each student who completes the class. “We’ve already had eleven tech companies sign on to give grads paid internships and we are working on reaching out to other companies in the area,” says Schwabe.

YWebCA is working with industry leaders to model its curriculum after their best practices. One example of an industry leader in tech curriculum is Dev BootCamp, which has a 95% graduation rate. 85% of those grads have gotten a job within four months.

If you’re interested in getting involved, YWebCA is looking for support in a variety of different ways. Helping to spread the word about the program is a valuable way to contribute. They are also recruiting companies to host interns, seeking guest speakers and tech mentors, raising funds to purchase computers for the students, and looking for more sustainable funding sources.

Madison+ Ruby 2014 would like to thank all of its #HYPEHARVEST volunteers, speakers and performers, including Madison Music Makers, Chants Sound, Tonia Brock, Teri Barr, DJ Pain 1, Kim Girard, Steve Klabnik and Jen Myers.