Bandcamp, Diversity, and Outreach – it’s Unicorn Season!

In 2015, much loved programmer-crutch Stack Overflow posted the results of its yearly developer survey. Aside from damning numbers indicating that this once proud nation must cede its reputation for caffeinated beverage worship to Norway (an average of 2.54 cups of tea, coffee, or energy drink a day for us, 3.09 for the Norwegians), there was some bad news about the gender gap. I say “news” but I’m not sure it qualifies. Don’t worry, this post is going to happier places. I’m just laying down some context for the uninitiated.

I’ll rip it off fast as a plaster: less than 6% of respondents self-identified as female, and while numbers showing that around 67% of female developers had less than 5 years experience could herald a more diverse generation coming through, some analysts are reading a different story – one where the few women who make their way into the industry are leaving the party early. I don’t like to think about why that would be, because when I do the answers I come up with are either unfeasible (they all got jobs as astronauts or roller coaster testers), or horrible (work environments unsupportive of pregnancy, structural sexism frustrating their hopes of promotion, seeing that “there are only 10 types of people in the world” witticism one too many times and just… snapping).

I did a detailed interview for this blog a while back about my job (read here), but the TL:DR; version goes thusly: I’m a software engineer at Bandcamp, which means that I get to write code in cooperation with some of the smartest, funnest, weirdest people I’ve ever met while lounging around my flat in my pyjamas. Two things I didn’t mention in the interview are that when I joined Bandcamp I was the only female engineer on a team of thirteen, and that I also run coding courses with Liverpool Girl Geeks in the hope of helping to put other women on the career path that has done so much for me. These two things are not unconnected.

At the time of writing, the percentage of female engineers at Bandcamp sits uncomfortably at just under 20%. And it is uncomfortable. We are gung-ho about diversity. Crazy about it. We are unequivocally on board with all of that business. If enthusiasm were enough to get a balanced and diverse tech team, we’d be there. We checked – it isn’t.

So what are we going to do? In a world where women make up so little of the candidate pool, and where big names like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are also out there trying to snap up female talent and get their ratios right, adding any other criteria into the mix – that candidates should be passionate about music, understand our aims, be a good communicator, be a good cultural “fit” – puts us perilously close to unicorn territory.

We do have some advantages – we’re endearingly small, we help musicians, we’re cool, to know us is to love us – but we don’t have the people or the time to cover a whole lot of ground with our outreach, so we have to be smart about where we go looking for future employees. Which is how I ended up flying to L.A. to talk to some people at Harvey Mudd College.

Harvey Mudd is a very smart choice. Between 2006 and 2013 they increased their proportion of female Computer Science majors from 10% to 48%. Their threefold approach could be summed up simply enough – make it fun, make it non-intimidating, make it cool – but this would belie the commitment they have shown to righting a pervasive wrong. Their success is inspiring.

I arrived at L.A. Burbank Airport at 8pm the night before my tech talk. Our head engineer Joe picked me up. He later told me that Burbank is great for celebrity spotting as it’s much smaller than LAX, which I guess means fewer gawping crowds. Cher could’ve handed my luggage off the carousel for me and I wouldn’t have flinched. Flying west kills me. I clung to wakefulness just long enough to process that we were staying in San Dimas, exchange the obligatory Bill and Ted quotes with Joe, check in to my room, and pass out.

The next morning I woke refreshed, but with my head clear of the sweet haze of jet lag I realised that it was probably time to get nervous. I’ve spoken in front of largish groups before. I don’t mind too much, but I have been known to blank out and muddle important words and names. Sometimes I get the shakes, and it’s not always hangover related. And these were going to be smart kids – what if they knew more than me? I thought back to the night before. Joe had been laughing about asking the students easy pop quiz questions like “How many zeros are in a Petabyte?”. “Ha! Good one.” I’d said. Alone in my room I Googled the answer. Just in case.

We arrived on campus at 11am. The sunshine was glorious, and we couldn’t figure out which mountain range was providing the back drop, but could agree that it’d be a shame to take it for granted. I tried to take a picture, but phone cameras being what they are it’s not worth sharing.

Our contact on campus was Madi, current leader of FEM union (or Feminist Empowerment at Mudd union), a student organisation which aims to support women who code and encourage more to do so. Months earlier via email and Skype she had helped us to figure out what form the talk should take, what content would be most interesting to the intended attendees, and what we could usefully do with the rest of our day. She put my past, 21-year-old, apathetic, gen-X-er self to shame.

She’d arranged for us to meet up with a few interested students for lunch in the canteen. About half a dozen girls came to see what we were about, and what followed was a lively discussion touching on, but not limited to: women in tech, social justice on campus, maternity rights as enshrined in law by our respective countries (or not, as the case may be), and their use of Bandcamp while running their college radio station.

After lunch we took a campus tour, capably led by Madi’s good friend Charisma. She was an experienced hand at these tours – telling us about the various halls, their traditional ‘personalities’, themed parties, and recent hijinks, as well as taking us through enviable student facilities. At one point we passed two students testing a robot in a courtyard. I don’t even think it was staged.

At 6pm it was time for me to talk. In the college’s futuristically-named Sky Cube classroom Madi had laid on a buffet for the students. They filtered in, filling their plates and taking their seats, chatting amongst themselves. I soon realised that I had no idea when to start talking. I resolved this with a rather graceless cry of “Hey! Are you all ready to be talked at?” Somehow this was not met with a chorus of enthusiastic whoops, but I’m happy to say that things went up hill from there. I got through about 40 minutes of planned material on my most recent project, before almost-seamlessly segueing into a general Bandcamp Q&A.

Earlier in the day I’d asked Madi about possible attendance. She said she normally got 10-15 students to her events and hoped to double it. I’m pleased to say she got her wish – I spoke in front of 25 students, mostly female. And they didn’t just fill seats and eat buffet. They listened, and engaged, and asked so many questions that we ran considerably over our 90 minute limit. We went on to have coffee with some of the really keen students at the campus cafe, chatting more about what we do, and about their personal specialisms.

In our imaginations we’d already hired a handful of the students we’d talked to by the time we got back to the hotel. And that’s exactly what we’d hoped for – that we’d form relationships which may bear fruit come graduation time. I’d love to have a hand in keeping those relationships going, but in a bitter sweet twist we’ve since agreed that it’d be best to send another of my female colleagues to Harvey Mudd next time, lest we give the impression that I’m Bandcamp’s token lady.

Looking to the future I think this is definitely a way forward for small, diversity-minded companies. Know who you’re looking for, and go to them. Sinking so much time into small group interactions may seem inefficient, but while we ourselves are small even a handful of the right female developers makes a big difference to the balance of the wider team. I’m hopeful that if we continue to invest time and build relationships with progressive educational institutions like Harvey Mudd we can get to 50/50, and stay there.

Can’t get enough words? Here’s some I gathered earlier:

My presentation from the day: http://prezi.com/gqhwso0k0qlt/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

More on Stack Overflow’s 2015 Developer Survey: http://stackoverflow.com/research/developer-survey-2015

More on Harvey Mudd’s efforts to improve gender balance in their Computer Science courses: http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/10/how-harvey-mudd-transformed-its-computer-science-program-and-nearly-closed-its-gender-gap/

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