Women coders in Finland take on the “newest boy’s club”


The organizers of a group called Rail Girls believe the internet must "democratize" to develop.


Frederic J. Brown

HELSINKI, Finland — When Linda Liukas and Karri Saarinen started teaching women about the male-dominated world of software development two years ago, they could not have imagined how popular their idea would become.

Advertised with a cute heart logo and “girly” slogans, their code-writing courses were an instant success here. Now their Helsinki-based non-profit organization Rails Girls holds workshops around the world to enact change they believe the internet needs.

The Finns, who are in their 20s, started their workshops after realizing that the web, as they describe it, was developed chiefly by young men Liukas compares to medieval blacksmiths.

“Just like they forge their own instruments, coder boys built themselves many useful tools," she says. "But the world would never have progressed if blacksmiths had made devices only for their own needs.”

For the internet to continue evolving, Liukas believes, it must be “democratized.”

“Just look at all the most successful companies of Silicon Valley: Google, Facebook, Twitter — all built by 20-something boys,” says Henrietta Kekalainen, who runs Rails Girls workshops in Europe.

Liukas believes women are able to create new kinds of web applications relevant to themselves — from online shops to computer systems for maternity clinics — that men would never devise. To start doing that, she says, they must understand coding.

“Generating new ideas doesn’t necessarily require big changes,” she explains. “But communication inside organizations is often difficult if it’s along a chain of people. That’s why speaking the same language speeds product development.”

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Rails Girls began receiving invitations to teach in Singapore, Berlin and Buenos Aires soon after it launched its first beginner-friendly coding course for women in 2010. The group has since taught more than 1,500 would-be coders.

Rails Girls is a very girly movement. Adult participants are called “girls.” Furry creatures and unicorns adorn the website. Slogans on workshop posters feature geeky humor with girly twists: “I (heart) HTML more than Ryan Gosling,” and “My code is getting worse, please send more chocolate.”

The playful ethos extends to the way organizers describe their roles. "You can call me a big sister," Kekalainen says. "That sounds much better than ‘chief operating manager’.”

Software development shouldn’t be seen as scary or lethally boring, Liukas says, but as a playground for creative experimentation. She says she would like to see children's books depict the internet as a magical world, and talks about coding as if it’s poetry.

Rails Girls organizers see themselves less as programming teachers than instigators of a social movement. Coding can’t be taught in a single weekend, they explain. Instead, they aim to inspire participants to conceive applications and connect beginners to their local software-developer communities.

After taking part in workshops, students continue studying independently, sometimes under the guidance of local coaches, members of Rails Girls’ ever-expanding network around the world.

“I think it's fun that they don't present coding as serious,” says Meri Saarivirta, an economics university student in Helsinki who took part in a Rails Girls workshop in Estonia last March. “Life is increasingly linked to the internet,” she adds, “so it would be good if everyone knew at least something about coding.”

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Rails Girls is run by volunteers. Workshops are financed by local sponsors, and no one in the organization makes money from their courses. Liukas's day job is with a company called Codeacademy in New York, Kekalainen works for a technology conference in Vienna and Saarinen runs a startup company in San Francisco. Fomenting a women’s internet revolution is a hobby.

They see themselves as part of the Finnish tradition of open sourcing, which dictates that any software programmer can take part in collaborative work on products that are distributed free. Liukas points out that some of the most popular open-source innovations come from Finland.

“American society is based largely on individualism and liberalism, which is partly why Silicon Valley is dominated by a classic cowboy mentality,” she says.  “Our Nordic thinking has a different starting point. The MySQL and Linux systems, which are based on open, collaborative work, were born here.”

All the materials for running workshops are available on the Rails Girls website, meaning anyone can organize a course, something Liukas describes as inspired by an "open-source teaching model.”

That’s something the “girls” taking part appreciate.

"I had no idea I was stumbling into a movement setting out to do something big,” one participant wrote on the Rails Girls blog after attending a workshop in Berlin. "If any of us had doubts we couldn’t do it, Rails Girls has set us straight.”