Saturday, April 13, 2013

Making newbie-friendly developer events

GirlDevelopIt is all about welcoming and teaching newbies. Most of our students are completely new to web development, and they come to us because we try our best to provide a newbie-welcoming environment and get them over that newbie hump. Some of our students stop at the intros, others of them continue on to turn into 24/7 developers.

Since we have a membership of 1,500 women that are atleast marginally interested in development, we often get approached by other event organizers that want to get more women at their events, and are hoping we can give them advice and advertise their event to our members.

My first response to them is always: "Is it newbie friendly?"

You see, most events are not newbie friendly, or at least not marketed that way. Many of them are actually the exact opposite. For example, you might see a hackathon that says "Are you a coding ninja? Compete to see who can hack the most in a weekend" I'm sorry, but you're not going to get newbies foaming at the mouth to come to that event. Nobody wants to attend an event where they don't feel wanted.

So, here's the first question you should ask yourself: "Do you want to be newbie friendly?"
Maybe you only want to attract experienced developers. If that's the crowd you're going for, then that's totally fine, just be aware that you've made that decision.

If you actually want to attract more beginner level developer, though, you will have to do a bit more work to do it well. Here's what I'd recommend:

  • Provide beginner level content at your event. Either it should all be beginner level, or there should be continuous parallel tracks for the different levels. If only one small part of your event is at a beginner level but the rest isn't, then you will likely not get many beginners, or you'll get beginners that feel overwhelmed most of the time.
  • If your event itself doesn't have a beginner track, then offer events in the weeks leading up that will cover the prerequisite knowledge. For example, when I put on a 3-day Google APIs hackathon in college, I realized that my computer science classmates were effectively newbies in web development, and we organized a 2-week series of workshops before the hackathon to get them up to speed. For another example, when we wanted to get a lot of GDI members at the Everyone Hacks event but we realized that many of them were new to hackathons, Adria Richards gave a great workshop on "How to Rock your First Hackathon" to answer their doubts and build up their confidence.
  • Make it very clear in your marketing material what the prerequisites are, and be as specific as possible. Even when we list prerequisites for our GDI workshops, we get questions from students who still aren't sure if it's at their level. Beginner students are inherently not experts, so it won't be as obvious to them as it is to you what their level is and whether it's appropriate.
  • If your event targets multiple levels of expertise, make that clear, and maybe give attendees the option to specify their level. For example, if you're listing ticket types for a hackathon and one of them is "Super Hacker", then you should also have a ticket type for "First time Hacker" (like in this sign up). You might say elsewhere that it's okay to be beginner level, but damn if I'm going to identify myself as a "Super Hacker". Beginners are easily intimidated. (Well, we all are, actually.)

Here are some ideas specifically about hackathons. I really think hackathons can be a fantastic experience, which is why I encourage our members to attend them, but I also think that they can be the most intimidating, since there are so many opportunities for beginners to feel bad for being a beginner.

  • Sign up people ahead of time to be designated coaches for newbie teams. In their pitches, the coaches can say "And I'm looking to mentor a team of beginners, so if that's you, join me!" Liz Howard did that at our Everyone Hacks event, and I think it relieved a lot of beginners who were worried about being a drain on an experienced team. When we had our pre-workshop on "How to Rock your first Hackathon", the question that we got over and over is "how we will find a team to join?", so its worth it to spend time figuring out how team formation will work at your hackathon. Consider the case of strangers, beginners, shy folks, etc, and find something that will work for all of them.
  • Sign up mentors to wander around and help anyone that looks lost. A team coach can't always do it all, and it can be exhausting to mentor 24/7. At Everyone Hacks, my team decided to use Ruby on Rails, which I'm not familiar with, but luckily a Rails expert floated around and helped our team get it all up and running.
  • Make the hackathon less about competition and more about collaboration. Maybe that means making prizes for best team spirit or best idea, and maybe that means massaging the messaging in the marketing. The best thing about a hackathon is the people that you meet, anyway, so it doesn't hurt to put more emphasis on that aspect.

I'm not professing to be the world's expert on this, of course. This is just what I've observed during my experiences in GirlDevelopIt and the many developer events I attend. So, what do you do in your events to make them newbie friendly?

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