Building code and community

Female developers team up and teach their skills to other women
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Kristen Stacy
Kristen Curtze and Liz Gombert run the local chapter of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit organization that teaches tech skills.

The twenty-first century is shaping up to be a good one for women in the workplace. More women today are making admirable strides down a career path than ever before. In some industries, however, male domination still lingers—without reason. One such industry is Information Technology (IT), though, ironically, many of the early major contributors to the field of computer science were females. Despite those seminal years, the percentage of women in the computing workforce has declined since the mid-’80s, from 38 percent to 26 percent in the United States—and for female programmers specifically, that percentage is even lower. 

Several local software developers believe it’s time to change those numbers around.

Rochester Institute of Technology graduates Kristen Curtze and Liz Gombert have jumped at the perfect opportunity to draw more women into the field. The two have worked with four-year-old nonprofit organization Girl Develop It (GDI) to establish a chapter here in Rochester. GDI’s mission is simple: “to provide affordable and accessible programs to women who want to learn web and software development through mentorship and hands-on instruction.” Currently, there are GDI chapters in more than fifty cities throughout the country.

Neither Gombert nor Curtze are from Rochester originally, but with numerous local opportunities here after college, the two decided to stick around and give back to the community. “Rochester’s been good to us,” says Curtze. Their idea began at a UX conference in South Carolina where the two women met the cofounder of the GDI chapter for Boston. They wanted to start something with a mission similar to that of GDI. “After researching [GDI] a bit, we both thought, ‘We’re totally doing this,’” says Gombert. In addition to their full-time jobs, Curtze and Gombert teach at least two GDI classes each month. Most of the courses currently offered are for the budding programmer. “Those seem to be the most demanded right now, and we want to work from the ground up,” says Curtze. “Plus, we’re following the GDI core curriculum until we become embedded enough to offer more advanced material.”

Aside from the provided curriculum, GDI provides wiggle room for branches to introduce new subjects. “We already have so many people interested in game design and mobile development, and though there’s currently no curriculum for those, we can help develop it,” says Gombert. Equally exciting are the hip venues for GDI classes: Rochester Brainery, Writers & Books, Rochester Makerspace, and Interlock Rochester—to name a few. “We’re trying to enlarge the community, too, by going to places people might not have heard [about],” says Gombert. 

The two women are not alone: other professionals from the community are onboard to help with teaching. An average of twelve students attend each class, and a teaching assistant is provided for every five or six students, so classes sail steadily along. GDI classes, though not free, typically cost about $50 per student, and many classes stretch over two nights. Half of the cost goes to the teachers, and the other half is put toward purchasing laptops so those who don’t have one can attend. “We also want to promote scholarships starting this year,” says Gombert. “We want to be good to Rochester.”

Curtze and Gombert also meet up at local coffee shops for what GDI has dubbed Code & Coffee. These meetups are free and open to those actively taking classes, anyone interested in taking a class, or anyone with a general tech interest. Code & Coffee serves not only as a meet-and-greet opportunity, but also as a time where people can show up with their laptops and get help on a project or brainstorm ideas they may have. 

Despite its name, GDI is open to anyone, regardless of gender. “We just want to create that environment where women can feel encouraged,” says Curtze. Because they are energetic and passionate about their pursuits, Curtze and Gombert have been met with overwhelming success in this venture to empower women while expanding the community. “We were blown away by the number of people that showed up to our first Code & Coffee,” says Curtze. “That’s proof there are people here who want to get involved and see this all come together.”

Andrew Jensen-Battaglia is a freelance writer currently living in Rochester. He is a lover of books, gadgets, and all things complex.

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