RWDevCon 2017 Inspiration Talk: Creating Community by Sarah Olson

The Director of Women Who Code Twin Cities, Sarah Olson, shares what she’s learned about building communities that are inclusive and welcoming. By Sarah E Olson.

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We recorded these talks so that you could enjoy them even if you didn’t get to attend the conference. Here’s one of the inspiration talks from RWDevCon 2017: “Creating Community” by Sarah Olson. I hope you enjoy it!

Note from Ray: At our 2017 RWDevCon tutorial conference, in addition to hands-on tutorials, we also had a number of “inspiration talks” – non-technical talks with the goal of giving you a new idea or some battle-won advice, and leaving you excited and energized.

We recorded these talks so that you could enjoy them even if you didn’t get to attend the conference. Here’s one of the inspiration talks from RWDevCon 2017: “Creating Community” by Sarah Olson. I hope you enjoy it!


When I attend a tech event, one of the first things I do—and I don’t know that I really even think about it—is I count the number of women I see in the audience. Usually I can count them on my two hands. I’ve noticed at this conference I had to use my feet too, which was great, but it’s still nowhere near where we should be.

I wonder to you guys if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be a woman in tech, to walk in to a conference room and immediately feel out of place, not sure if you’re welcome or if anyone’s going to talk to you. It’s alienating to be different, to look around the room and wonder why there’s no one there that looks like you or comes from your background.

What Does Different Feel Like?

It’s a really hard feeling to describe. I think most people have had those moments, maybe your first day of school or college. It’s hard to put that into words, but the fact is: 41% of women leave tech within 10 years. That’s almost half.

I’ve nearly doubled that with my career, but I have to tell you there were times that I almost left. Multiple times. I get so excited when I see other women developers because it’s really rare—especially, I’ve noticed, in iOS—and it’s actually getting worse. I probably worked with twice as many female developers when I started my career than I do now.

When I tell people about the issues women face they’re usually shocked and they’re very concerned, and they want to know how to fix it. But it’s not a problem that’s easy to fix. It’s little things here and there, death by a thousand cuts. There are lots of seemingly insignificant signals and choices and language that can create a culture that feels hostile and unwelcoming.

It doesn’t feel like my kind of space. Do I belong here?

I’ve moved around from corporate to startups, from small companies to large companies, and I’ve struggled to find a place where I felt like I really belonged. I’ve been searching for my community.

Finding a Community

Now my story here today begins with a conference.

Two years ago, Apple opened up their WWDC scholarship program to marginalized groups in tech. Previously, this had only been available for students, but now they were opening it up to developers with experience. They listed a group of diversity organizations that would qualify you to apply for a scholarship. I looked at this list and I’d never heard of any of them, but I didn’t actually know these groups existed. They didn’t have these kinds of things around when I started.

I was fairly new to iOS development at this time. I spent most of my career on backend Java, database, middleware. A few years prior, I had started at a software development shop that was technology agnostic and when they ran out of work in Java, they would say, “Well, what do you want to learn now?” And I said, “Well, iOS sounds fun.”

I would do an iOS project and then they were like, “Well, no, we don’t have those. How about Android?” So I do some Android and I did WordPress sites for friends, so they had me do some WordPress. It was great, but I was the jack-of-all-trades and master of none. You can’t keep up in all those different technologies and I’ve always felt like I was struggling to stay up to date.

I felt like if I got into WWDC, it would give me a whole week full of really great technical expertise that I could go back to my employer and say, “Look, I can do this full time. Make me a primary member of the iOS team and not the person who flits around between projects and technologies.”

I wanted to apply for a scholarship, but I wasn’t actually a member of these groups yet, so I looked through them and there were two that looked promising that I could qualify for. One was Women Who Code and the other was Girl Develop It, which goes by GDI typically these days. GDI was the only one that was in my area at the time.

Girl Develop It

GDI is a group that offers coding classes to adult women. They do it on nights and weekends so more women can attend. They’re very inexpensive, and it’s a great group that’s helping bring more women into tech.

This particular group in Minneapolis already had a pretty large leadership team, which I joined, but I struggled to find my place within their group. I couldn’t figure out what exactly I could give them to help them with their mission, but I loved helping women find a passion for technology.

Now GDI, like many of the other diversity groups out there, focuses on the pipeline.

They want to bring more women into tech. They especially want girls to become interested in tech. There’s a lot of science and research out there that shows that especially in middle school, girls lose interest in STEM. There are a lot of reasons for that, but there are also many programs out there to help them. Plus, kids (especially my kids) love their iPads and iPhones, and anything they can do to play with them. They’re so excited.

It always felt to me like this is a little easier of a problem to solve. They already love technology. It’s just letting them know that they can do it. Fixing retention, keeping women in tech—that’s super hard, but it didn’t seem like anybody was actually tackling that problem, that death by a thousand cuts. We are just handing out band-aids. That’s not helping.

Women face so many problems with culture and benefits, flexibility, promotion. Sexism is systemic and it’s everywhere, and it’s hard to address all these things that are coming at you from so many different places. But what good is fixing the pipeline if it just ends up in a sewer?

Not a great place to end up.

Not a great place to end up.

Back to WWDC. I won a scholarship. Yay!

It was great. We flew out to go to Moscone, and they had the scholarship program the day before with events and some of the leaders talking. It was a little strange. I don’t think people really knew what to do with the experienced developers in the room. It was mostly high school students, so we felt really out of place, but I’m like, “Well, free ticket, WWDC. I can’t complain.”

While I was there, though, I met with a bunch of different leaders from Women Who Code and they shared my vision of, “Let’s fix retention. Let’s work on those problems that are really hard. That’s what we need to solve.”