First Annual Cowgirl Coder Essay Contest!

I want to encourage young women to learn to code. Programming is fun, lucrative, and once you’ve got the basics down, easy to progress in.

I know that it’s difficult sometimes to purchase the expensive resources that are needed to learn how to code. So, I’m going to hold an essay contest. (Code contests come later)

Tell me why you want to learn to be a programmer, and I’ll pick the three best essays out of the batch. I will ask two other coder friends of mine to help me judge between them. The winner can choose any of the Dummies books to help them start on their learning. If your essay explains to me why you want to learn web design, your prize can be Web Design for Dummies. Plus, I’ll make up a nice certificate.

I would like in the future to offer bigger and better prizes, including webinars, advanced training, internships, and scholarships, but that will all come in time as this community grows and we attract more
people to this nifty world of coding.

So, here are the rules. Submit to an essay of 750 words or less (as an attachment to an email, and ONLY in .txt format) by April 30th, 2010 explaining why you want to learn to code, and what obstacles you face. I’ll look over the essays, and announce the finalists by May 15th. I’ll also announce the guest judges and have them do their own blog posts explaining a little bit about themselves. On May 30th, I’ll announce the winner.*

*By submitting an essay to me, you’re saying that you (and your parents or guardians if you’re under 18 years old) are fine with having your name and essay published on this site if you are a finalist and that you live in the USA. I reserve the right to remove or alter personally identifying information in your essay.


My name is Tarah Wheeler, and I’m a cowboy coder. Er…

I work in an industry that is at times not particularly friendly to women. I code for a living. I’m the lead web developer for Lips for Xbox 360. I work at Microsoft Game Studios, where on a daily basis, I write in X/D/HTML, JavaScript, C#, Java (I know, I know…but it’s how I like to run algorithms), CSS, and functionally every other frontend dev language. I also like to throw in a few sprocs and some scripting just to liven things up a bit.

If the previous paragraph sounds a bit like gibberish to you, don’t worry. My tale is the same story of challenges and politics and beers with the boys that could have been written by any female lawyer or doctor twenty years ago. Substitute ‘genetic anomaly’ or ‘mens rea’ for any of the languages I write in, and you’d be telling the tale of any female professional in a heavily-male dominated industry.

So, why do I
do what I do? Why do I write these complicated languages? I love solving puzzles, that’s why. To me, math, French, and C++ are all just different symbolic ways of writing a problem in English. I took remote controls apart when I was a child (and my mother will tell you that I never put them back together again, but *I* think she’s exaggerating), I see social network hubs and spokes forming in my mind’s eye when I look at my Facebook page, and I calculate rates of distance traveled down to the second when I’m on road trips. I get paid to solve some of the most nifty problems out there when it comes to sorting out information and how it’s passed from server to person, and it’s challenging! I love doing it.

I think I’m very fortunate in my current position. I rarely deal with gender-based discrimination at Microsoft, and I have strong female colleagues and superiors. Why then am I starting this blog?

I have three specific reasons: (1) I had a very difficult time getting the
attention I needed for my differing learning style in college and graduate school while I was learning to code; (2) the online resources out there for building a female community of coders is nonexistent to openly hostile; and (3) no one seems to have done it before.

I learned to write Java first while I was in college and graduate school. I did NOT enjoy it. I tend to be a very visual, social learner when it comes to puzzles, problems, and algorithms. I had a difficult time learning how to write it, not only because the linear style in which it was taught (as an afterthought in the computational modeling class I was in) was not conducive to my collaborative style of learning and problem solving, but because there was active hostility to my pursuit of this knowledge. I was blocked from resources other students had access to, not invited to study groups, and treated as an uncomfortable appendage to the solely masculine research group I was in.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not always the
easiest person to get along with, so I’m certainly not going to blame all of that ostracism on my male colleagues. I can be pushy and loud (just ask my sister), but I guess I felt I had to be in order to get the learning resources I needed. When I turned to the Sun Developer Forums to get answers, I found the community there to be openly hostile on many levels to female developers. There are many friendly Java devotees there, and I found wonderful answers and support to my questions…AFTER I changed my username to one that was gender neutral. I started realizing the contrast after I had two accounts there; one under a neutral avatar name, and one under my typical female-themed handle.

I was hit with trolls, and people who told me to get out of their forum and stay in the kitchen where I belonged.

I found that irritating.

I wonder how many young women have been turned off to the wonderful and challenging world of computational problem solving simply because they found the
people they had to learn from to be openly hostile to their gender?

Here’s a community for you, ladies. I have a forum section on this site with different sections for different languages, as well as personal and professional sections. This site is specifically aimed at younger girls and women; I want to encourage you to learn in a place that is more friendly to your questions and your style of communication. If you want to call yourself PrettyFlower42 on this site, no one will be telling you to get off the computer and make them a pie.

This site is open to everyone, regardless of gender, religion, or anything else you find in the Equal Opportunity statement. Everyone WILL, however, be asked to comply with the Code of Conduct statement that I’ve written here, and you absolutely can be banned if you break it. No speech that is targeted against women coders will be permitted, and we’ll be using community moderation to enforce that. I want to encourage learning and friendships across
the web.

Welcome, and stay tuned for guest posts from senior women developers from across the world, reviews of book and movie portrayals of women coders, and ways to help girls get involved in this wonderful world wide web of programming!