24 April 2017
Natalie Sontopski and Julia Hoffmann are the ‘code girls’: They want to bring more women into the often male-dominated world of programming. Their motto is this: Programming is supposed to make life easier. Since 2012 they’ve been working with other coaches in Leipzig to organise free workshops and talks exclusively for women.
They teach such things as how to create a homepage or a blog and how programming languages are structured. In this interview they explain why it’s important to set up a space for women in which they aren’t afraid to ask questions.
#explore: You started out as hobby programmers. How much knowledge have you amassed since then?
Julia Hoffmann: We still don’t consider ourselves to be professionals, but we do know the basics: What is HTML? What is a programming language? And how can I use this knowledge to be creative and present content that matters to me? We’ve also become pretty good at communicating the basics. But I generally find it but difficult to be professional as a programmer. You never stop learning, there are new developments the whole time – it’s a lifelong learning process.
© TÜV NORDNatalie Sontopski and Julia Hoffmann are the ‘Code Girls’.
#explore: How do you fund your work?
Natalie Sontopski: We and our coaches are volunteers. Nor could we pay them if we wanted to, because we don’t get any subsidies.
Julia Hoffmann: We’re lucky in that premises have been provided for free from the outset: we started out in the 'Sub Lab’ hacker space in Leipzig and are now working in the ‘Social impact’ co-working space.
#explore: Have you never considered being ‘code girls’ for a living?
Natalie Sontopski: Funnily enough, this has been talked about since the start, but it’s been an issue for those around us and not at all for us. Lately, however, we’ve often been booked for workshops in companies, and then of course we get a small fee.
Julia Hoffmann: Nathalie works as event manager for an IT company; I occasionally have dealings with with the intranet, web design and the like in my work at the university. But I can’t imagine working as a programmer. You have to have a lot of attention to detail and be able to sink your teeth into a problem and not let go until it’s solved. In these respects, I've come up against my personal boundaries.
© TÜV NORDProgramming is regarded as a male domain, but the Code Girls want to let women experience the fun of programming.
#explore: Programming is regarded as a male domain. Where do women currently stand?
Julia Hoffmann: We have a good means of comparison in the pizza dinner that we arrange. We invite the speakers who teach at our events on a voluntary basis and thank them for their commitment. In previous years we were the only women there. This year, for the first time, we had equal numbers of men and women. It’s still extremely difficult for us to find female coaches. And I hardly ever meet female programmers in my job, even though there have recently been a lot of initiatives to try to get more women into male professions. But I find most of the male IT professionals I meet very open-minded, and some of them lament the fact that their companies and teams aren’t more diverse.
Natalie Sontopski: I've had similar experiences. OK, so you do sometimes find women in the ‘soft skills’ areas such as web design and user experience, but when you look behind the scenes, where the hard codes are written, programming is still a very male-dominated field.
„Programming is supposed to make life easier and be useful for everyone.“
#explore: Where do you see the problem?
Natalie Sontopski: Many women get put off as soon as they start studying IT. You have a lot of young guys in the lecture theatre who’ve been doing it since they were ten and have already built up the corresponding networks. It’s this kind of experience that women usually don’t have.
Julia Hoffmann: We always have to justify ourselves to start with on Twitter. ‘So what exactly do you program then?’ is one of the questions we frequently get asked. Unfortunately!
#explore: What advice would you give to women?
Natalie Sontopski: If you happen to be in Leipzig, just drop by. There are similar organisations in other cities where women can ask questions without fear. There’s also a wide range of free tutorials on the Internet
Julia Hoffmann: Get active yourself and find a specific project that you would like to work on. Programming is supposed to make life easier and be useful for everyone.
#explore: How do you manage to keep your enthusiasm alive after nearly five years as ‘code girls’?
Natalie Sontopski: Sometimes I wonder, oh goodness, why we are doing this? But that’s very rare. I usually look forward to everything that has to do with the ‘code girls’ - precisely because it’s my hobby. We’re accountable to no one; we’re totally independent and can simply try out a new event format if we feel like it. This is a kind of luxury which keeps things fun.
Julia Hoffmann: I find it incredibly motivating to witness the light-bulb moments of other people. There have also been a whole load of highlights since we started - such as our book “We love Code!”, which we never actively planned. These milestones definitely keep us motivated.
„It would be great if we could find one or two like-minded women to join us.“
#explore: What made working on the book so special?
Julia Hoffmann: We wanted to create a book that would last. But that’s difficult in the programming field because the technology becomes obsolete so fast.
Natalie Sontopski: I do a lot of digital stuff and have my own blog. It was a great experience to create something as analogue as a book that you can hold in your hand at the end of the day and will hopefully still be relevant in two or three years.
#explore: What other milestones would you like to reach?
Natalie Sontopski: It’s not that we want to out ourselves as having no aims, but Julia and I are happy in many ways to go with the flow. But it would be nice but if we could get some financial support from the local authority or private individuals. That would help to take the ‘code girls’ forward, and we would finally be able to pay the teachers an expense allowance. And it would also be great if we could find one or two like-minded women to join us.
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Julia Hoffmann and Natalie Sontopski explain the most important basics in their book “We love Code!” Das kleine 101 des Programmierens”: What are programming languages and how do they work? What lurks under the surface of apps and websites? And what do you need to know about hacker parties and data security? #explore is giving away a copy to one lucky participant.
We love Code! Das kleine 101 des Programmierens; Julia Hoffmann and Natalie Sontopski; Verlag Koehler & Amelang; ISBN 978-3-7338-0404-6; € 16.95 (In German)