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Jennifer Konikowski
Jennifer Konikowski

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Building A Community For Beginners

Originally given as a talk at PyCaribbean on February 18, 2017. Modified slightly for the web. X-posted to

I started programming in Python six years ago and have been doing Ruby development for the past five years. When I would go to user groups as a new developer, it was very intimidating. People seemed to know each other, and I wasn't sure who to ask for help. In the end, I stopped going and just created my own group. But many people get so discouraged that they decide programming isn't for them.

That's the reason I believe that building a community for beginners is so important. Let me explain why. We want to ensure that our communities are open to beginners because we need to expand and diversify. The more diverse our community is, the more diverse our teams will be. According to the Harvard Business Review, "working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance."Â I also think that everyone should be able to learn to program. Programming shouldn't be limited only to people who were privileged enough to learn to code in grade school. No matter their age, gender, or background, if someone wants to join our community, we should be open to helping them learn. Having community to help learn should not only be open to people willing to pay thousands of dollars for a code school. I started PyLadies Boston almost four years ago with the express intention of bringing more women into the Python community. I am also involved with Boston Ruby Women, leading weekly study sessions where I answer any questions that people bring me. More on these and a few others as we move on…

How can you do your best to make sure your group is open to beginners? First, let's talk about new groups. As I mentioned, existing groups can still benefit from many of these ideas, so don't totally zone out if you already have a group that you run.

  1. Make sure the way you describe your group and events is beginner inclusive

    Ex. “no problem too big or small “good for people of all levels”

  2. Be clear about what knowledge and skills are required

    Be clear about what level of knowledge is required. People will often underestimate themselves, so keep this is mind when describing what is needed. Ex. “basic Python required, should have mostly completed a tutorial like Learn Python The Hard Way”

  3. Find out what your local community needs

    This is important. Every community needs different things. With PyLadies, we have a large community of academics and scientists, so there's a huge desire for tutorials and code reviews. With Boston Ruby Women, we have a lot of recent boot camp grads, so we spend a lot of time talking about interviews and finding jobs.

  4. Ask for feedback all the time.

    Every year, I have an anniversary party and ask everyone who attends for feedback on the past year (what did you like, what did you not like) and for suggestions for the future. This regular evaluation of PyLadies has led us to have new types of events that I would never think of on my own and to get rid of ones that I thought would be successful that weren't.

  5. Try out different types of events for the whole group. Depending on your local community, some may work better for you than others. Here are some event types that I've had success with:

    1. Presentation Nights are the standard, but often there's an idea that you have to be an expert to give a presentation. Make it clear when asking for presentations that you are open to presentations about beginner projects.
    2. Lightning Talks are a great way to get people to do their first public talk. One of the ways that I have encouraged people is to say that, while it should be related, if you have a hobby that you want to share with everyone, we'd love to hear a lightning talk on it. One of the members of PyLadies ended up doing her first presentation on bird-watching, and it was a huge hit!
    3. Tutorials are always successful. They give experienced people a chance to share their knowledge in a meaningful way and beginners a chance to learn a new skill or toolset. However, with tutorials it's key to allow for extra time in the beginning, or before the event, to get set up. Even if you give clear instructions and ask people to set up prior, believe me, you will still likely need extra time.
    4. Mob Programming is where the whole group looks at the same problem and tries to solve it together. We started running events that were combination mob programming and code reviews, and they have been a blast. Everyone can participate: even with limited programming knowledge, you can get an idea of what kinds of problems other people are facing.
    5. Host separate beginner-focused events. These events will draw out people who are still too intimated to go to the main meetings. We regularly have women show up to our beginner events that almost never go to the main group because they don't feel they are ready, despite my encouragement.
      1. Study groups can help people teach each other. At PyLadies, we try to have study groups every week and have a mentor each time. However, we've also encouraged our members to start study groups in their neighborhoods as well and have had a ton of success with that. I've used these to target people who are just starting to learn to code. If you are trying to provide mentors at study groups, it can be a challenge. One way to sell it to your more experienced members is that it's a way to both share their knowledge and improve their understanding of fundamentals. I have one woman who comes every week who always challenges me and makes me go deeper into the language than I had before.
      2. Mentor sessions are similar to study groups but more focused on career growth. These target people who know how to code and are looking to enter the industry. Job hunting as a junior is often very discouraging, and it helps to have regular meetings with someone who tells you that you can do it. Also, by getting to know a larger amount of junior developers, it makes it easier for you to find great developers who just haven't been given a chance yet. Through these groups, I've gotten two people hired at both Akamai and a previous company. Frequently, it is harder to get to know people in a larger group setting. Having a smaller subset like a mentor session can help your more experienced members get to know the individuals who are just getting started.

So that's some of the basics for starting a beginner-focused group, but what if you are currently running a group? Here are some suggestions that have been successful at bringing more beginners into both Boston Python and Boston RB. I'll start with the simplest:

  1. Send an email to everyone who joins with a message that emphasizes that everyone is welcome, no matter their level of programming experience and let them know what they can expect to happen at your events. With Meetup, you can write a message once and automatically send it to every new member.
  2. If you can, have someone greet people as they walk in. Ideally, it will be one of the organizers, someone who is there regularly. This individual should do their best to get to know the people who have just joined. It will give all newcomers a friendly face each time they return and someone who is familiar with their level.
  3. For presentations nights, ensure that there are regular talks that are suitable for beginners. These talks do not have to be about ‘how to write a for loop,' but more ‘here's a problem, this is how I solved it,' with less emphasis on pure programming. Organizers I spoke to said they got large influxes of new sign-ups for nights when they had multiple speakers from a variety of fields.
  4. For project nights, a few suggestions:
    1. Have a couple of beginner tables and, if you can, have a few experienced programmers to staff them and help new people work through issues.
    2. Do introductions at the beginning. Have everyone introduce themselves and mention what they are working on. You can ask experienced people to raise their hands if they are willing to be available for help throughout the night. It can be time-consuming, but it will help build community and create opportunities for people to collaborate.
    3. Reassure people that it's ok if they are not working on a project. You can have people raise their hands at the beginning if they are looking to collaborate on a project.

Ok, last but not least: running workshops and finding the best way to teach people to code.

  1. Running workshops is, personally, one of the biggest challenges as an organizer. Here's a rundown of some the problems and some suggestions on how to deal with them.
    1. Space: given that a workshop is at least 6 hours long, you can't run one on weeknights. Therefore, most businesses won't want to host. However, you should try reaching out to local universities and community colleges - even better if you have someone in your group who works at one.
    2. Volunteers are a challenge at any time, but getting people to give away their Saturday (plus maybe their Friday night) is another problem entirely. Expect at least a couple of individuals to bail last minute, so have a backup plan. Make sure to have a few more volunteers than you think you need and be prepared to present if someone who is supposed to present doesn't show.
    3. Content is probably the easiest if you are doing a Django or Rails workshop since there are already full tutorials for both aimed at a weekend time frame. If you want to run a workshop for either of those, check out DjangoGirls, RailsGirls, and RailsBridge. If you want to do a workshop for a different language or framework, consider still looking at those for example of what you should include and adopt it for the framework that you want to cover. If considering a workshop on a language, review the material covered by the Boston Python Workshops. Though the materials are in Python, you could adapt them to fit other languages.
    4. Food - it's important to provide at least lunch when you have people stuck in a room for a full day. You can reach out to local companies who use the language or framework that you are teaching and get someone to provide food. Usually, they'll also want to send a volunteer for the workshop too so they can have someone to represent their company.Â
    5. Continued engagement is probably the biggest challenge. When people come to a workshop, make sure they know what the next steps are. When a RailsBridge Boston workshop occurs, they always make sure there is a Boston RB project night the week after so people can keep learning. You could also have lightning talks soon after and encourage people to talk about problems that they want to solve or applications they want to build.
  2. There is no "one best way" for teaching people how to code. However, I have had more success with some methods than with others.
    1. Doesn't work:
      • Class style setting that builds on itself week after week potentially works if people are paying for it. However, if you are like me and just trying to provide a free service to your community, do not choose this option. I did this when I first started PyLadies because there was a demand for beginner classes. I held classes for just two hours every other weekend. I had a fantastic turnout the first week - 30 people showed up and were super engaged. The second week was still good - 20 people. Then it started dropping drastically. By the fifth week, it was just me and my co-organizer.
      • Just giving a text tutorial (like Learn Code the Hard Way), with no support. With no support group or place to reach out for help, when people get to a tight spot, they can assume that they just aren't cut out for programming and quit. There's still a stigma that you have to be good at math to be a programmer, and some non-technical people think that only geniuses can program (have been told that I must be super smart because I'm a developer). Often it's just a matter of seeing the right example for a concept to make sense. Just because someone has trouble learning using one resource doesn't mean they couldn't learn using another.
    2. Does work:
      • Short one-off tutorials on basic programming concepts that don't build on each other. You can't necessarily do a ton of these since most of programming does require knowing other concepts. But you can teach the idea of object-oriented programming without involving a significant amount of code. There are also other languages that you can learn the basics of in a two hour period - SQL being my favorite, but HTML also being a possibility. The goal is to share knowledge, so get creative!
      • Having beginner focused events where people can bring questions from any tutorial they choose. As I mentioned above, this is an essential part of PyLadies Boston. I always suggest my two favorite tutorials, but if someone learns better another way (say a MOOC or videos), then they can use those and I will still be there to answer questions. I also try to make it clear in all communication that I am always available by email. Unless you have a group that is 5K plus people, this is not as big of a deal as you might think. I make myself available to about 1500 people through the groups I run and countless more through my website, yet I maybe get an email a week max. It will give people a lifeline if they need it, but it will not take up too much of your time.

These are my recommendations on how to build a community for beginners. However you involve yourself, being part of a space where everyone is welcome to learn is a valuable and rewarding experience that can really make a difference to someone just starting out.

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