Q&A with Pamela Fox of GirlDevelopIt

Pamela Fox started the Girl Develop It chapter in San Francisco where she runs events and teaching workshops. She’s also the brains – and voice – behind most of the Khan Academy programming courses. Claire Comins quizzed her on learning to code, girls-only programming, and her pet pet, rabbits!

Your parents were both computer scientists. Did they ‘teach’ you computing or is it something you picked up just by being part of a techie household?
My parents specifically refused to teach me programming, because they knew that if I was passionate enough, I could teach myself with online resources. They gave me the support, the hardware, and the luxury of free time, and then I mostly taught myself with online tutorials. My older brother and younger brother both didn’t get into it as kids, surprisingly – so it was a combination of my interest and the supportive environment.

Some readers will know your voice from KhanAcademy. Do you write all the computer science courses for them?
I put together the courses for JS, HTML, and the advanced JS/HTML courses, and have voiced the majority of the “talk-throughs” (videos). I teach what I consider to be the fundamentals of a particular topic, based on workshops I’ve taught in person for GDI, and also by looking at what other people teach. I try to make it fun by using examples that crack me up, and by giving students a lot of opportunities to express themselves.

Pamela Fox (left) gets to grips with the Mozilla mascot

Pamela Fox (left) gets to grips with the Mozilla mascot

A lot of people say they want to learn to code but think it’s hard to learn. What advice would you give someone who wants to take the first step – for instance, a sixth-grade girl.
One of the things I’d say– and something I’ve written a whole blog post is that “Coding isn’t easy – but it *is* learnable”. If you want to learn coding, or anything new, you should be prepared for an uphill battle. But the good thing about learning to code is that there are so many resources available, so you have a lot of learning options to choose from. If you don’t like one, then try another. Also, keep in mind that coding can be used in a lot of ways – for processing data, for making apps, for creating art, for solving problems – and one way might appeal to you much more than another. Don’t give up on your first try, because maybe there’s another way of coding that you haven’t tried yet that you absolutely love.

What tips and advice would you give a parent/computer science teacher who is keen to encourage girls to get coding?
I recommend checking out the resources from NCWIT (National Center for Women in Information Technology). They’ve got great advice for encouraging more girls to get into coding. (They also have an active Facebook feed!)

IMG_9464Tell me the thinking behind setting up girls-only classes and meetups.
If we put on classes for just anyone, we would naturally fill up more with men than women, both because males seem to self-select more for programming and there are a lot of males in the bay area. When we put on a female-targeted class, then a female sees that this event is being particularly targeted at them, that they’ve been specially invited, and they feel much more comfortable signing up. They know that they’ll be around people like them (at least in one respect).
Until we get to the point where males and females self-select themselves equally (which likely requires an overhaul in the messages sent by society to kids growing up), we will likely need to keep putting on female-targeted events.
Besides that, it’s a great excuse for me to make female friends. Being in a male-dominated industry, I didn’t really have female friends for a long time, and now I finally have them, and they’re awesome!

What’s the best way for really young kids to learn about computers? Apps and games you’d recommend?
For very young kids, some parents are playing board games, like Robot Turtles and Code Monkey Island.
I wrote a blog post with some other ideas here, a few years ago. Honestly, there are more options in this space every month, so any list I make gets out of date. But hey, that’s a good thing!

Have you had the chance to play with any of the coding robots?
I got a Sphero from the last NCWIT conference, and gave it to the Lowell High School computer science classes to play with. We spent a day controlling it with the app, which was a lot of fun. Despite it being just a ball, it was a ball with a lot of personality! Hopefully they’ve been programming neat things with it since.

How old do you have to be to join GirlDevelopIt?
Despite the name, GirlDevelopIt is actually targeted at adult women, 18+. Mothers sometimes bring their high school daughters, but for liability reasons, we can’t put on events targeted at minors.
However, there are lots of other organizations specifically for girls. I recommend checking out code.org/learn/local for a local list, plus check to see if there’s a BlackGirlsCode or GirlsWhoCode near you.

If readers don’t have a GDI meetup near where they live, how else can they get to be part of the community?
You could start a GDI chapter yourself, if you think there’s enough resources and you have the time for organizing it. You can fill out this form if you’re interested. But it might be better to start smaller and just create a local study group for women, in whatever topic you’re interested in. You can meet at a local cafe, so you don’t even have to find a venue. Then eventually that could build into something bigger.
If you’re a girl in middle or high school, then you could start a coding club after school and encourage your friends to join. I did that in high school, and I got my friends to all code with me every Saturday- I even got asked out by my first boyfriend with a Java applet he wrote at the workshop!

If people get stuck on a programming class on Khan Academy, where can they go to get help?
On Khan Academy, you can “Request help” on a program you’re working on, and that request goes out to the community. A good number of those get answered, though not all of them. You should also look for local study groups where you can work around other people, and help each other.

Who do you rate as good role models for girls who want to get into computing? What makes them so special?
Google has recorded a few great videos of women that have coded amazing thing on MadeWithCode. I’ve also put together some “every day role models” in this series on KA. There’s also the famous women in history, like Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace. When finding role models, it’s important to find a range: women of different socioeconomic backgrounds, women in different computing roles, women that are super famous and women that aren’t so famous but still love what they do. I’m inspired by anyone that loves what they do.

What was the first computer you used? What did you like doing on it?
I used a Windows DOS, and I loved using all the drawing apps – there was a Garfield one that let you put together your own comic strips, a Dinosaur one that let me paint textures on T-Rexes, and of course, Kid Pix, the greatest painting program ever made – the paint brushes had sound effects!

At school, what were the classes you enjoyed most?
I loved foreign language and art classes the most. Those are still the two things I love to study on the side today – I minored in linguistics and 3-d animation in college, and did multiple research projects combining those interests with computer science. That’s the great thing about computers, you can mix and match them with every topic, and get a great synergy!

What did you study at college?
I went to USC, graduating with a bachelors and masters degree in Computer Science, with minors in 3d-animation and linguistics.

What’s the coolest project you have worked on?
For Santa, my 20% project was the Santa Tracker, which parents and students use to track Santa every year. It was a lot of fun each Christmas watching Santa make his way across the globe, and answering emails as Santa’s helper (PamElfa).

And the trickiest?
One of the trickiest projects was rewriting the discussion forums on Coursera. The hardest part about it was dealing with discussion threads that were literally hundreds of posts long, and figuring out how we could link people to a part of that thread without having to load in every single post. Luckily, I had a colleague* who helped think through and pair program a solution with me.
*That colleague is now my boyfriend, so, yay! :-)
(He doesn’t even remember it so shh, don’t ask him.)

We know you are into rabbits because there are a lot of them in the lessons you’ve made for KhanAcademy. Do you still have pet rabbits?
Sadly, the rules around rabbits in San Francisco make it much harder for us to keep rabbits. One day, when I live in a house surrounded by lots of land, I shall have rabbits again! I just think rabbits are adorable and the *best* listeners – they just sit there and say nothing. I use them as my role model when I try to improve my own listening skills. Silly humans, we talk too much.

First published on kidscontent.co.uk. Interview by Claire Comins, co-founder, Codemaker Club