Episode 35 – How Rachel became a champion for girls in technology and started a movement

From the dawn of time, there have always been career roles that were predominantly held by one gender over another. But, as with everything else caught up in the hustle of time, one thing always remains the same. Regardless of what moment, month, decade, or millennia it is, you can always count on change.
Once a male-biased world, the field of technology is blossoming with change.

Rachel Ober is helping to pave the way for women of technology everywhere. Rachel began with her loves of art, technology, and cognitive thinking and married the three together. Rachel’s love of technology soon leads her to a form a movement that helps support and educate women across the country. Listen in to Arsalan and Rachel in this exciting new episode for more juicy details.

Rachel’s Bio:

Rachel Ober is a Ruby on Rails developer based in New York City. A true renaissance woman, Rachel has significant experience in and a passion for user experience, user interface, and cognitive design. Rachel is a senior developer at Paperless Post where she serves as a technical mentor for all front end developers on the development team and leads front end development for the company. Rachel encourages other women developers to hone their skills by contributing to the 3-day conference Write/Speak/Code as a co-organizer. Founded in 2013, Rachel organizes and volunteers her time to teach women Ruby and Ruby on Rails through RailsBridge NYC. Rachel lives in Brooklyn with her husband and fur-child Isabella and loves scrapbooking and card making.

Episode Highlights and Show Notes:

Arsalan: Hi everyone. Today I have Rachel Ober with me. Rachel, how are you?

Rachel: I’m doing great. How are you?

Arsalan: I’m so excited to have you on here. I’ve been trying to get you on the show for a while, but we’ve had some scheduling issues. There’s something very interesting about you. You are a speaker and a presenter and a teacher. You focus on Ruby on Rails. You are a conference organizer. But, there’s something interesting about the way you started your speaking and public career that’s a little bit unusual. You weren’t asking for it. It just came to you. Tell us a little bit about it.

Rachel: I really did not expect to get to the point where I started my own conference with some friends. It wasn’t until somebody had found me and reached out to me to teach at general assembly concerning Ruby on Rails. So that’s just a little bit about what got me into it and it was kind of the ignition point in my life.

Arsalan: I think that this is really inspirational for me personally because your girl and women have certain issues when it comes to technology careers, and getting accepted is sometimes a problem. We’re going to talk about this. You are an organizer for a conference that focuses on women and helping women to speak. So, were going to talk about all that because it’s really exciting and I think that all of us who don’t know about the conference should go and check it out. It’s going to be in Chicago. So if you’re in the area, then go ahead and get there.

Rachel: Get yourself to Chicago in June.

Arsalan: Get yourself to Chicago in June. Chicago in June, by the way, is the place to be. Where else will you be, right?

Rachel: Right.

Arsalan: So, describe yourself for us. Who is Rachel Ober?

Rachel: Rachel Ober is probably first and foremost a dreamer and a creator. I love technology, and everything about me has to do with software engineering, coding, creating something new. Even in my free time outside of my job, I’m working on coding one of my projects or helping others do something similar. I would also say that I’m an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t have really called myself that it until somebody said “Rachel, you’re really an entrepreneur. You started all these things. ”I definitely like being supportive of other people. And it all comes down to all the things that I’m passionate about and being able to share what I’ve learned.

Arsalan: That’s great. You’ve been coding for a while. Do you remember your first encounter with programming?

Rachel: Wow. I would have to go really far back. I always joked about this back in college. My father conditioned me from a very young age to be a software engineer. Whenever I told him that I had been telling people this, he actually said that he really has been doing that.

Rachel: As early as I can remember, my father always supported me in my two younger sisters as well. He never treated us like princesses. He would always make us go out and do yard work like mowing the lawn and not treat us differently. He would bring me to his computers because he was also in software engineering. He would tell me what different things in the computer would do. From an early age, he also made sure that I would attend a computing class. So, the first programming language that I learned was Logo. I think that’s the official name.

Arsalan: Yes, the turtle language.

Rachel: Yes, the turtle. That’s how my mom and dad described it to me. They said, “Rachel, we signed you up for this class that you have to take. We want you to learn this and what you do is move a turtle on the screen and then you flip over a page and see all these different lines of code that tell the turtle where to move.”

Rachel: Whenever I picked up HTML later on, I think that visionary example always stuck with me. I dabbled with TextMate as my ID, but it’s not really an ID. Then I would use Dreamweaver because I had this mental model of looking over the page and there was HTML on there. That model has since expanded and changed, but that was back in 1992 or, in early grade school when I learned that.

Rachel: It wasn’t until I got into middle school when I can access the Internet on my own without being in school and understanding with the Internet was. It was then that I started work with websites and graduated from a WYSIWYG editor into writing HTML rather than just dropping elements onto the page. That was getting into programming when I discovered that I don’t like typing out the same thing to make the pages all look the same. That’s where and I picked up PHP and CGI scripting. Then I was learning about databases and I realize that I could store all this information.

Rachel: My dad noticed that I was really getting into programming when I could explain to him that I had designed a database without having to research a lot. I was doing relational database without realizing what relational database was. I was picking up things like it had come naturally to me. That’s a brief history on how I got into programming.

Arsalan: This is really fascinating. I think you’re really lucky. I would say that your father cared enough to share his passion with you. It’s your initiative. If you’re a child or a teenager and you’re interested in software development, you may have an uncle or a parent or somebody else who you could look up to who is in this field and whom you could aspire to be like.

Rachel: As with my sister, it’s being able to not think of careers and interest as being gendered.

Arsalan: It’s important to know that for most of us that is not always the case. Nobody in my family or anybody that I knew had ever done anything with programming or computers. I had nobody to look up to or talk to. I did figure everything out myself the hard way, which computer to buy and which programming language to pick.

Rachel: So how did you get into computer science then? What made you interested?

Arsalan: I’ve always wanted to do it. I’d watch a documentary about computer programming or something similar on TV. One day early in high school I was walking around a used bookstore and picked up a book on the basic programming language. I bought it. I started reading it and that I was hooked. It was like a novel to me. I didn’t have a computer so I would write programs in my notebook. I did that for a couple of years. When you’re a kid or are just starting out, you’re going to take something that exists and tweak it a little bit.

Rachel: That’s definitely how I started. I had a website that displayed my art and what I wanted to do was have a form of people who are essentially admirers, which I think was about 20 people. At the time, I was writing a story about them. This was back in middle school and high school. The impetus for me to create the website was my art, but I had such a greater interest in the end, on the basics of how to create a website that it became so much more.

Rachel: I started with installing this forum and people would ask for certain features to be implemented and it went from there. Sometimes I would do something that would break it, but once you understand the concept of version control, you can always roll it back. There’s really very little damage that you can actually do besides may be overloading your server. I created something and posted it back to the creators of the forum software and they invited me to fix bugs, but it was all on open source. I learned so much by messing around with forum code that somebody else had written.

Arsalan: So this is something unique to our industry. We emphasize open source because you can actually do something about it. There might be other projects that need help or need fixing, but their source code for the original programming is not available for you to fix. You can go to this repository called GitHub, located at github.com.

Rachel: If you find a project there that is open to the public, which is open source, and you start using it, you can change it if you realize that it doesn’t work in a certain situation. You can change it on your local computer and then push those changes back up to the original person and that person can then merge those changes into his or her own repository and thus you become an open source contributor. It’s a badge of honor. If you do that a few times people will take notice.

Rachel: This is something that can be very hard for open source maintainers. Let’s say you spend a lot of time and emotional labor creating this project and then you have a bunch of users. It becomes popular. They start finding bugs. They can then take a lot of the emotional energy out of view by alerting you to what changes need to be made.

Rachel: You can give back to your community. You can give back to this person who has created this project for you by taking a look at their issues in GitHub, which is public, and fixes something. Then go back to that person and let them know what you fixed and how you fixed it and asked for feedback. They are often happy to talk with you and walk through the code that you contributed and merge it into their project. That’s a great way to learn more about the tools that you’re using and also give back to the community and learn from somebody who’s been doing it for longer than you. It’s a great way to find a mentor, even if it’s a short relationship.

Arsalan: One more tip. Sometimes maintainers like to get contacted before you send it a pull request. So, you might just want to send an email letting them know that you want to try to fix the issue because maybe someone else is already working on it. Sometimes they want to talk about their approaches and they can guide you a little bit.

Arsalan: Let’s talk about how you went about constructing a career. You had a good beginning. You had a fantastic dad. Dads like him energized me. I have two little daughters that I have been trying to indoctrinate into programming. One of them is almost two, so it’s hard to indoctrinate her.

Rachel: Well, if they have an iPad, a tablet or something, and they love the game, you can say “you know you can create something like this.” Just see that information. I think that being a creator, in addition to consumers is such a powerful thing.

Arsalan: Absolutely. So now you’re doing all this. You’re learning to program and going through school. At some point, you would’ve started to think about it as a career. Did you go to college to learn this professionally or were you just taking it as a hobby?

Rachel: There was some struggle as to whether I was going to take this dabbling of programming to a higher education. I don’t think it took a lot of arm wringing to get me into programming in college, but I do think there was a bit of negotiation about that. As I mentioned, I loved art. I was doing to computer stuff. I took a lot of computer art classes when I was in high school. It was something that I really like doing because it was very imaginative.

Rachel: I have the struggle with being into programming and how I could fit the two together. So, I told my parents this, and at the time, we were living in a Boston suburb. I was introduced to Northeastern University. They have an excellent computer science college and I’m not just saying that because I’m alumna. What really made a different then all of the other computer science programs that my parents were showing me was that they had started this idea of dual majors with computer science and throughout the university. One of the choices was computer science and cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is about how humans think and how we interact with things. That really struck a chord with me because you’re thinking more about what you’re writing, what kind of tools you’re creating, and how your users are going to be using them. So I got I got to do both things that I was interested in. I got to you do the programming, but I also got to learn about how this is going to be used in a way that is going to be meaningful to somebody else.

Arsalan: How was your experience as a computer science undergraduate and doing this double major? Not everyone can do that. You spent a few years doing that.

Rachel: Yes, the program was five years at Northeastern. It wasn’t because it was a dual major, though. They wanted us to have a co-op experience. For one and a half years. It was divided up into different semesters. We would take a job and work full time for six months so that by the time we graduated we would already have a year and a half experience.

Arsalan: That is highly unusual and I think this is great. I think we should explore this a little further if we get a chance because most colleges don’t do that. They’re not trying to produce workers. Computer science is generally about learning the science of computing, the theory, and all the other finer points. My experience is that generally, most computer science programs are focused on that and not necessarily on getting jobs, especially in the public universities.

Rachel: In general, universities are extremely expensive and it’s getting worse every year. That’s why going to Code Bootcamp is so attractive, even if it’s a high upfront cost. It’s because they’re basically committed to bootstrapping you into a programming language and most of the times its Ruby on Rails and teaching you the bare minimum so you can get out there and start working. For someone who doesn’t like their job or doesn’t get paid enough, the attractiveness of being able to go and get a well-paying job is mind blowing.

Arsalan: Right, and there is this choice if you have some money on hand. You could go to college and get a computer science degree or computer engineering degree. Or, you could go to Code Bootcamp, but for a lot of people that isn’t a very realistic choice because they want to have a degree as well. But, for some people, that’s a real choice. I think for a lot of people they have moved on from their college years and perhaps a are in a job that they don’t like, and they want to switch careers. Code Bootcamps are a fantastic way for them to get a foot in the door.

Arsalan: You never went to a Code Bootcamp. I know that you taught at one, but you never were a student.

Rachel: No. I didn’t feel the need that I had to because I always sounded easy to teach myself the language, but I’ve met many people who need that structure. I have considered doing something like the Recurse Center which used to be called Hacker School. It’s very open ended and you spend that time working on personal projects and the focus of that type of schools much different than a code boot camp.

Arsalan: Did you have any difficulty getting your first job? You already had some experience with co-op, which is incredible. You had a resume and you had something to show. Was it just a snap of a finger to get a job?

Rachel: I graduated in 2008 with my degree. Back then, there was a lot going on. That was the start of the great recession. After I graduated I felt burned out because I had been doing so much, not just getting my degree, but also with the different student groups that I was involved in. So, I took some time off.

Rachel: I decided to adopt a dog and bond with her and then start looking for work. I decided that I wanted to find a job in New York City, but I was living in Pittsburgh with my parents at the time. If I remember correctly it might’ve been more difficult to find a job doing Ruby on Rails because it was still a fairly new language and you were more likely going to find more startups doing Ruby on Rails than the larger companies. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do a startup, but I did end up taking that route. What was the original question?

Arsalan: How did you get your first job?

Rachel: So I did want to move to New York City. My boyfriend, now my husband, was living there at the time and I was trying to be closer to him. I sent out dozens of resumes. It took a long time to get called back.

Arsalan: I wanted to ask you about your choice of Ruby on Rails because you were looking for, Ruby on Rails jobs in 2008. Back then it wasn’t clear that it was going to be this big giant framework that would dwarf every other framework in the startup world. For a lot of new developers Ruby and Ruby on Rails were their first experiences with programming. It’s not something that I would’ve expected back in 2008. Around that time I was starting to learn Ruby and although it wasn’t a new language, it wasn’t a widely accepted language.

Rachel: It wasn’t well-established at all.

Arsalan: It wasn’t a well-established framework at that time. It wasn’t very clear that you should be doing that, but that was your first job. I also know that in college. They don’t teach you Ruby on Rails. So, what got you interested and why were you looking for Ruby on Rails jobs?

Rachel: It was 2005 at Northeastern University College of Computer Science; we had the student chapter for computing machinery (ACM). The student group would teach students skills like programming languages or work on a project. We would have a student teacher who would serve as a guru of the technology or project we were working with and teach other students who were interested in learning it.

Rachel: One of my friends, Chris Lambert, who is the CTO of Lyft and who introduced me to my husband, he did the 5 Minutes to Blog. Everyone knows who started back then with Ruby on Rails. That blog video on how to start a blog in 5 minutes, that’s with Ruby on Rails. Whenever I saw that I thought it was amazing. You can prototype things so quickly with Ruby on Rails. I think that was the draw for a lot of startups. That’s what I liked about it and I think that’s what drew me to developing with it.

Rachel: After that experience, I started doing my own Ruby on Rails projects. At the time, it was a little difficult to get web hosting with Ruby on Rails. We had an experimental server at the college that I would deploy code to and that’s how I would test it. I also took my capstone project in software development and used Ruby. There was only a handful of us at the time that was using Ruby. Everyone else was using something else, probably Java due to its popularity at the time.

Rachel: Documentation on Ruby then was very poor. I had to create a lot of my own methods to get things working or we would’ve had to deal with other really shoddy open source products to get certain basic things like XML working correctly. Despite all this, I still saw so much potential on primetime with Ruby that I kept with it and even convinced my final co-op boss to allow me to write this prototype software in Ruby on Rails. So, I guess I just got super passionate and obsessive with it.

Arsalan: That’s a recipe for success, my friend.

Rachel: Obviously I wasn’t the only one because maybe the hotness of Ruby on Rails has died down a bit, but there are so many legacy applications out there and so much need. This boot camp culture is built almost exclusively Ruby on Rails, or at least some part of it is. So, there was an attraction to it.

Arsalan: Have you encountered any challenges while trying to become prominent and acknowledged, or getting the respect you deserved? Do you have any tips for others entering the industry?

Rachel: I think I find more discrimination. I’ve felt that discrimination more in my day job than going out and speaking. I think that’s also in the venues that I choose to present. So, I’m a little bit cautious with that, but I could probably be a little bit bolder in where I choose to present. I started as a full-stack Ruby on Rails developer and have since moved into a front-end architect and have done speaking on that. I was pretty well known in the NYC Ruby on Rails community, so they were a little surprised when I told them that I am also a front-end architect. At Paperless Post, I’m recognized just as a front end developer. So I live in these two worlds.

Rachel: I think as I get further along in my career it becomes more difficult with promotion or the feeling of belonging. I think some men do feel uncomfortable being alone with a woman. It’s almost like that ingrained line of thinking where if you see a woman and a man together it’s a romantic thing going on, but that’s not the case. It’s like a woman can’t get mentored by a man without being seen as something “fishy” going on. Sometimes even I feel awkward trying to teach a male. I have to wonder whether he respects me, whether he would come to me with a question or would he prefer speaking to another man. We still have these ingrained things in society that prevent us from having a clean exchange of information between the genders.

Arsalan: This is a story of most women, not just certain women. They get so used to being treated differently, and sometimes mistreated, and we know that; it happens. It doesn’t just happen in software development. It happens everywhere. There are always going to be people out there who don’t have the right intentions. But, my belief is that most people are good, they just don’t know how to be nice, kind, and good.

Arsalan: I think we could talk on and on for hours. I think we will probably have to have you on the show again at a later time. Right now I’d like you to tell us about this upcoming conference that you’re organizing.

Rachel: The conference is Write/Speak/Code. It is our 3rd international conference. This year we are holding it in Chicago. The past few times that we’ve held it, beginning back in 2013, have been in New York City. That was never our intention, but that just happened to be the easiest place for our organizers to get to because they live there. So, it’s in Chicago this year and this year we’ve introduced a fourth day, which is outside of our original 3-day curriculum.

Rachel: The extra day has to do with self-care and career development. It was something that we wanted to see and all the organizers had been in a position in the past few years where they were burnt out and overworked, and even considering whether or not to stay in the technology field. We all had to learn independently how to do self-care and why it was so important. We also introduced our alumni track. This is not just for people who’ve attended the conference before, but also for people who have spoken.

Rachel: Even though we have a curriculum for a “write” day, a “speak” day, and a “code” day, we wanted to offer a space for people who’ve already done all that and are still looking for inspiration on how to get to the next level. So our conference is really for women who’ve been in the industry for a number of years and want to do more. So our alumni track is for women who have already been writing and speaking publicly and are looking for something more. It includes writing ebooks, creating independent projects, better communication skills. We’ve sourced some of our friends who are great at these topics as well as people through an independent CFP process to talk more about these intricate topics.

Arsalan: Is this open only to women?

Rachel: Yes, because we feel we needed to create a safe space for these women to talk about their experiences. It’s not that we don’t love men. We just wanted to serve a specific community and this was how we decided to do it.

Arsalan: I think there’s a lot of room in technology to service people from a lot of different demographics. It’s cool. We should support our women. If you are a woman and listening to this and you want to be a software developer or you are a software developer, and you want to learn other skills to move your career forward, I recommend you go to this conference. It is going to be in Chicago in June 2016.

Arsalan: Rachel has been kind enough to offer you, the audience, a 20% discount off the ticket price. Just go to the Write/Speak/Code website listed in the show links, go to “register,” and use “mentoringdevs” as the discount code when you purchase your tickets.

Rachel: Yes, we want people to be able to make it. We offer three levels of ticket pricing.  The regular ticket prices are for attendees whose employers are paying for their ticket. We also have a transitional ticket price for those who are either unemployed or paying for the ticket by themselves and are not sponsored by their employers. Finally, we also have a student price, which is for someone who is in college or taking a boot camp because we want them to also be able to make it to our conference. We really try to make it affordable to different demographics.

Arsalan: Is it 20% off all tickets? Or is it just the higher priced tickets?

Rachel: I believe it is for all tickets. That is how I tried to set it up. If you have any problems, feel free to reach out to us at info@writespeakcode.com because we would love to work with you to get you to our conference.

Arsalan: You’re not making money from this, right? It is not a business.

Rachel: We recently registered it as a non-profit. We are attempting to get it registered as a 501c3 so that we will be able to offer tax incentives to companies. But, no, we don’t make any money off of it. Maybe one day, but it is mostly a labor of love for us. Despite what many people think, it actually does take a lot of time, money, and effort to run a conference. We don’t make money off of it. Any money that we do make is usually reinvested into other things that we do.

Arsalan: Okay, so it is our job to help make this conference a success. Hopefully, we’ll have a full house and sell out the tickets. Let me know how it goes. Be sure to check it out.

Arsalan: Rachel, it was such a pleasure talking to you. I hope that you find time to return to the show at some other time.

Rachel: Absolutely. This was lots of fun. Thank you so much for having me.

Arsalan: Is there a place people can check out? I know you have a website and Twitter. Do you want to share some of that?

Rachel: Sure. I’m known everywhere as Rachel Ober on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, GitHub, and www.rachelober.com.

Arsalan: Okay, that’s a marketing and branding tip for you. It was a pleasure talking to you and we’ll talk to you later.

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