July 8, 2015

Cracking the code

Teachers Riitta Kaisto and Tiina Lyyra, who took part in the Rails Girls workshop, believe that people should be curious about technology.
Teachers Riitta Kaisto and Tiina Lyyra, who took part in the Rails Girls workshop, believe that people should be curious about technology.
Karolina Miller

JavaScript will become the most spoken language in the world – the new lingua franca that women in particular should learn to speak more. A trainee from Good News from Finland attended a Rails Girls event one weekend to learn how to code.

My first impression: there are surprisingly many men at this event intended for women.

Before the laptops are opened up, we find out that these coke-swigging men are our coaches. Their goal is to explain to technology-ignorant people like me the difference between HTML and CSS, why JavaScript is important, and how Ruby is related to Rails.

My ignorance has not been a conscious choice; rather, in the face of complicated “IT stuff”, my brain involuntarily switches to SYNTAX ERROR mode. I have always considered myself a slow learner, especially when it comes to languages.

And now I’m trying to learn coding without even mastering the basic 10-finger typing system.

Welcome to the terminal

I’m sitting on the couch, watching people mosey about. As is to be expected, quite a diverse crowd has gathered, with the participants ranging in age from 20-something to middle age. I’m in a group with two teachers.

Tiina Lyyra and Riitta Kaisto heard about Rails Girls at a teaching seminar where the importance of coding was discussed.

“I’m a human guinea pig,” says Lyyra, who teaches Finnish in upper secondary school. “I decided two years ago to properly learn how to use a computer.”

Coding will be part of the Finnish primary school curriculum in 2016, and Kaisto, who works as a guidance counsellor, wants to understand what coding is all about.

“Girls are being encouraged to enter technical fields, so it will be good to know what we’re dealing with in practice,” she says.

Coding leads to girls and poetry

Rails Girls was founded in 2010 when Linda Liukas asked her friends to teach her about coding. Today, her and Karri Saarinen’s Rails Girls event is organised regularly around the world. In May alone, workshops were held in Poland, the UK, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Rails Girls participants are not required to have any prior knowledge of coding.

Rails Girls participants are not required to have any prior knowledge of coding.

Karolina Miller

The coding workshops are free, last one or two days, and are aimed at girls and women. They go over the basics of programming and teach the participants how to speak “nerd” and build a simple web service.

After those basics, Ruby on Rails is installed on the participants’ laptops. I’m still not really sure who Ruby is.

The first commands are entered in the ‘terminal’, meaning the computer’s own command system.

I copy parts from the Rails Girls website and dutifully enter them in the terminal.

xcode-select–install

The group members become acquainted with one another. I understand that having a gap in my technological understanding is not exclusive to me.

In her Slush speech in November 2014, Rails Girls founder Liukas said that the increase in programming and technology does not mean that the gap between two opposing ideologies – mathematics/logic and arts – will widen.

“Coding can be like poetry,” she said.

The terminal is abuzz with numbers and words. Could this be the poetry she’s talking about?

Getting to know Ruby

On the second day of the workshop, I learn that Ruby is one of many programming languages – one of the easiest. And it works on Rails, a framework for creating web apps. Exactly what we’re here to do today.

Now it’s time to get to the matter at hand. Our coding coach Esko Luontola guides us through the first phase.

We build a web app piece by piece, one command row at a time. Luontola patiently visits every participant to fix commands that have been entered in the wrong window and explains what happens before each phase.

I coded something on my page! A sound reflecting childlike wonder escapes from my lips.

The button UPLOAD PICTURE has appeared on my page.

I did it by entering command rows in various windows, which there are so many of that I can’t even keep up. Next I change the font.

Maybe red, there we go.

After the first hour, my brain feels like it’s going to explode. I’m hungry, thirsty and have to go to the loo all at the same time. I tank on the offering of soft drinks.

I add photos and headlines to my page. I edit them and change the colours. I put inspiring pictures and text on my page.

I’ve created a new Pinterest! I silently scream in my head.

The person next to me has made more progress than me, coding commentary possibilities for her page presenting places to visit in Helsinki.

I go say hi to Lyyra and Kaisto, who are working on the other side of the room.

By the end of the day, Lyyra has coded a web page dedicated to gourds. Her fonts, photos and infotext are all in their proper place. Kaisto confesses to feeling discouraged at times during the coding, but now she is very pleased:

“If I, a complete self-confessed arts enthusiast, can take this course, anyone can.”

It has been a long day. Some people have already retired to the couches to hang out and listen to music, while others can’t take their eyes off their screen.

I decide to go home because I am completely knackered.

At home I sit out on my balcony, exhausted. The clear, bright sun sets beyond the adjacent block of flats. My brain has absorbed so much information that my synapses are no longer able to fire normally.

I start thinking about mundane things. The week ahead. Cleaning. I try to remember whose turn it is to clean next week, mine or my roommate’s.

A thought flashes across my mind: Should I code a cleaning list for us?

A web app nears completion after many hours of hard work.

A web app nears completion after many hours of hard work.

Karolina Miller

Text: Karolina Miller

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