How Girl Develop It supports women in tech (and those who want to be)

Ann Arbor's Cheryl Orosz was Detroit Country Day School's first female student to earn a math/computer letter, and was once the only young woman in the school's six-person computer competition club. A photo in her yearbook shows Orosz in front of a chalkboard, teaching her peers about hexadecimal math. For many, it would be obvious where her intellectual passion was destined to lead her.

But, like many women of her generation, Orosz found her professional aspirations (ie. her graduate studies at U-M) derailed by her personal life. Raising kids, no longer on the tech workforce track, she eventually found a part time position with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD).

"It was something I could do around school drop offs and school pick ups," said Orosz.

It was at WISD that Orosz befriended a computer programmer who regularly attended Codemash, a conference that updates and educates developers on the latest tech trends and practices.

"While he was there," Orosz says "he met Ronda (Bergman) and Julie (Cameron), who founded a chapter of Girl Develop It in Ann Arbor, and he said, 'Cheryl, you need to talk to these ladies.'"

Girl Develop It is a national organization that aims to provide education and networking opportunities for women in tech careers, or a starting point for those looking to venture into that world.

The Ann Arbor chapter of Girl Develop It recently celebrated its two-year anniversary, and its MeetUp page has 1800 members (and counting) who receive info about the local chapter's monthly professional panels/workshops, educational events, and networking gatherings (called Code & Coffee, or Beer & Bytes).

"I felt like I needed to switch careers and go back to tech, …so I went to a (Girl Develop Ii) event, which was called something like A Day in the Life of a Software Engineer, back in January of 2015," says Orosz. "I was feeling socially anxious, thinking 'I don't know what I'm doing,' because even though I'd once been in grad school, I was more than 10 years out of date – the usual imposter syndrome stuff – so when the time came to ask questions, I raised my hand, told them my story and said, 'What should someone in my position do? I'm a techie, though my skills aren't current, so how do I get my foot back in the door? How do I start?'"

The general advice was to refresh her skills with courses, and play with resources like GitHub – an online repository for code –or an open source project. "It was good advice, but I was only starting to be ready to follow any of it," said Orosz.

However, through a connection made via Girl Develop It, Orosz soon learned about an opportunity to update her skills at ExperienceIT Detroit, and nine months ago, she landed a new job as a full-time application developer.

"(GDI) has been a big boost in terms of getting me back to what I felt I should have been doing," says Orosz. "I was good at my last job, but it was not the best fit for me. I was feeling frustrated. … But now – when you want to make a computer or a mobile device do something, and you don't know how to do it, it's like finishing a puzzle. It's just a moment of pure joy when you get the thing to do what you want it to do."

Orosz's transformational story is music to Ronda Bergman's ears. Bergman, who's worked as a software developer for almost 17 years, lives in Chelsea and initially got involved with the (now disbanded) Ann Arbor chapter of the Association for Women in Computing.

"When that closed down, I was searching for something, and I happened to find Girl Develop It online, and the Detroit chapter," said Bergman. "Back then, I didn't work in Detroit, so it was a far drive for me. … I kept on signing up for classes and not making it. So I reached out to Girl Develop IT, the national organization, … and I told them that Ann Arbor is a huge tech city, with lots of tech companies and startups. I soon heard back from them, and they said, 'Yeah, we think you're right. Would you like to help start a chapter?'"

Bergman is now a coding instructor for Detroit's The Iron Yard, which offers 3 month coding boot camps. But despite her longevity in the field, she didn't arrive at college with programming on her mind.

"In college, I'd sort of been planning to be a teacher," said Bergman. "I really had no idea what I wanted to do. But my academic counselor said, 'To round things out, since you don't know what you want to do exactly, why don't you take a programming class.' So I did, and I had this moment of, 'Oh, gosh. This is what I want to do.'"

That revelation has fueled Bergman's passion of Girl Develop It. "It's not just that girls aren't as likely to be pushed further into math and science, but they also tend to look up and don't see women in this field. There were no role models," she explains. "And when you have more women in these fields, you have more role models. My daughter just graduated, and now she's going to be a programmer. She always knew women could do that."

Liza Wilde, a software developer at Ann Arbor's Boxcar Studio, earned a degree in computer science at Michigan State University. After moving to Ann Arbor, she wanted to become part of the local tech community, so she attended a Girl Develop IT panel. Soon after, she volunteered time to help plan GDI events.

"I still think (software development) is a male-dominated industry, but I don't feel like it's an exclusive club," said Wilde. "It's not like anyone's trying to keep us out. But it still took a while for women to get into the field. Originally, women were more often designers, while men were programmers, but pretty quickly, I figured out that I really liked programming as well."

For a trained young professional like Wilde, the opportunity to teach, mentor, and connect with colleagues is GDI's strongest selling point. "The networking events are pretty casual," said Wilde. " … People who show up often either have school projects they're working on, or they're looking for help with a project, or they're regulars who are coming to socialize and maybe talk about the latest article on Internet security. There are a lot of reasons people come."

And though GDI primarily aims to support women, men are welcome to become involved, too.

"A lot of guys involved with Girl Develop It work for local tech companies," said Wilde. " … The main purpose of the group is to inspire women. That's what it's here to do. But many men are also excited about the new perspectives that women can bring, and so they want to support women's tech communities."

The fact that things are changing, albeit slowly, is enough to encourage the women leading GDI.

"I'm usually working with men," said Bergman. "That's just the way it is. And that was particularly true earlier in my career. …At my last job, I just had one other female in my department. So it's definitely something that's still a problem. And sometimes I'd just like to talk to a woman about work stuff. That would be nice."

"It's a long process, but the fact that people are trying, and encouraging more women to get into tech – it's great," said Orosz. "And one of the best things about Girl Develop It is that it's not a judgy culture. If you say, 'I don't know how to do that,' someone will say, 'Let me help,' or 'Maybe we should be addressing that in a seminar.' You're really feel safe to ask any question."

Jenn McKee is freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a  pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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