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The Mary Sue Interview: Code and Cupcakes Founder Jen Myers

She quotes Kelly Sue DeConnick. We're smitten.

Screenshot 2015-01-13 at 1.45.00 PM

Clearly, Code and Cupcakes founder Jen Myers is offering a service that women of all ages are hungry for: after its inaugural workshop last October, her Chicago mother-daughter coding (with cupcakes!) class became a near-overnight success, and may soon be implemented in other parts of the U.S. Still, Myers is quick to caution that fostering true diversity in tech is “difficult, long-term work.” The web designer took some time out of her schedule this week to talk to TMS about life in a male-dominated field, how to support women in STEM, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and, of course, cupcakes.

The Mary Sue: In addition to Girls Can Code, you also started a chapter of Girl Develop It. What inspired you to start working with women in tech programs?

Jen Myers: About fourteen years ago, I taught myself HTML and switched my college major to computer science to learn how to program. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great experience. I had a lot of factors that made me feel different from the other students I knew: I was from a working-class background where I didn’t have a computer or technical family, I learn best visually and I had always felt massively under-confident about working with math or abstract concepts. I was also one of two women majoring in computer science and I felt very isolated.

I wished I had a learning environment made from a community of people who were accepted, supported and empowered to learn what they didn’t know in whatever ways worked best for them. As the years passed, I met more and more women who felt the same way—not only in their education but in their careers—and nothing seemed to exist in the community as it was to help fix that. So, in 2011, I founded a chapter of Girl Develop It in the city I lived in, Columbus, Ohio, and worked to create classes aimed at women that helped them learn about technology and provided exactly the kind of environment I had wanted myself.

TMS: With programs like Girls Who Code, there’s a lot of emphasis on getting the next generation of women into STEM, but a mother/daughter program is really unique. What motivated you to teach a workshop that covers a broader age range, and what are the benefits of learning how to code later in life?

Myers: I’ve been a single mother of a daughter since she was born almost ten years ago (which happened at the tail end of my computer science studies and stopped me from finishing my degree—I’m re-enrolling this year to complete it). Having had little support, I know firsthand how difficult it is to not only raise a child but balance that with working and learning. There are a lot of new organizations to support women in tech these days, but there isn’t a lot out there that understands mothers’ needs. For example, I can’t just go to an evening event without arranging a sitter. I have been bringing my daughter to classes I taught and conferences I spoke at out of necessity for years. So I wanted to create an event that was inclusive of women with these kind of responsibilities and gives them them same opportunities to learn new skills that others have.

On the other side of it, young girls can learn, too. A couple of years ago, my daughter asked me if I could teach her how to make a webpage. So we started doing that. The earlier girls get exposed to creating with technology—not just consuming it—the more normal it seems to them to pursue it as an education or career. The fact that they do it side by side with their mothers also means they have an automatic role model and someone to talk to who can understand the context of what they’re learning, and means they’re less likely to feel unsupported or isolated.

People can learn to code at any age. My objective these days is really just to give people tools to improve their lives, whether its with technology itself or the benefits that can come with a technology career. I know several grown women who have switched career paths to web and software development and earned better jobs. Again, as a single mother, I want other mothers to have these type of opportunities, too.

TMS: As a web designer and developer, have you ever felt that your gender influenced the way you were perceived professionally?

Myers: This is always a difficult thing to answer, because of course the majority of it is not overt. I’ve never had anyone say point-blank to me: “You can do this because you’re a girl.” But, as I think anyone who has been through the experience of being different—whether it’s because of gender, race, sexual orientation or gender identification—knows, you always feel it. Being treated differently because you’re different is not something with strict boundary lines—it’s like colored dye dropped into water. It permeates everything until all you can see is the dye, and then how do you effectively separate what is dye and what is water? But you know it’s there. It is there.

I have always been worried about seeming too “girly.” I worried about the way I dressed, the way I talked, the fact that I’m good at soft skills like communication, design and empathy, because I thought that it would send the message I deserved to be taken less seriously. I probably have been. But, now that I’m older and wiser, I know the standards themselves are biased and that no one needs to apologize for not fitting a single narrow mold. Instead, the industry needs to grow and expand its definition of “professional” to encompass everyone who does the work.

TMS: Have you witnessed any shift in diversity since first entering your field?

Myers: The biggest shift has been that diversity is a thing we’re talking about now. Even five years ago, it was not the concept that it is now. Ten years ago, it was virtually unheard of as a concept outside of niche interest groups. Now, Intel is spending millions of dollars in its name. In that sense, everything has changed.

But, in another sense, practically, not enough has changed. I still hear women telling me the same stories of isolation and microaggressions that I experienced over a decade ago. In fact, I worry that because diversity is now such a hot topic, a lot of people have rallied behind it without really understanding what it means to support it in their daily lives. Supporting diversity means you have to carefully examine the entire structure you have based your value judgments on and understand that it might be biased, unjust and uninformed. That’s difficult, long-term work. You can’t simply sponsor a women-in-tech meetup or hire someone from an underrepresented minority and consider your part done for diversity. You have to create a sustaining, toxicity-resistant environment that these people can work and learn in. That’s our next step. We have awareness. Now that awareness has to breed real change in our learning institutions and workplaces.

TMS: Is there any advice you would give to women in STEM who are frustrated with working in a male-dominated field?

Myers: It’s the same advice that one of my heroines, comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, gave to someone who asked the same question: “Find your girls.” Find the women who get it, who have your back no matter what, who will listen to you and support you and tell you you’re not completely off-base. Find the women you’ll fight for, and support, encourage and celebrate the hell out of them.

TMS: What was the most rewarding part of getting Code and Cupcakes off the ground?

Myers: Our first workshop had a wide range of mothers and daughters and it was really great to see the different things that individuals got out of it. We had people from a variety of backgrounds and ages. One attendee was a college student who brought her mother so she could help her mother learn about what she did. Some mothers had young kids and some had teenagers. Some mothers were more technical, some kids were more technical. We also had a great team of volunteer TAs that provided diverse role models. I think my favorite thing so far has been that anyone can get out of this what they want to get out of it, not what I or someone else says they should get.

TMS: Are you hoping to expand the workshop in anyway, and how can our readers who want to support Code and Cupcakes help out?

Myers: Right now I’m formulating a long-term plan. Honestly, I didn’t expect the amount of positive response I’ve received, so I’m playing a bit of catch-up. We have two more workshops scheduled for this month (January) and February and I’ll be scheduling more later in the year. We just completed a successful crowdfunding campaign to buy Chromebooks so people don’t have to bring their own laptops to attend. We have a sizable scholarship fund that is funding free tickets for those who can use them. Right now, the best way people can help is spread the word about our scholarships so we can get them to the right people.

TMS: What’s your favorite cupcake flavor?

Myers: I am a fan of any and all cupcakes.

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