Three women sit in theatre. Black and white photo.
Three women sit in theatre. Black and white photo.
Three women sit in theatre. Black and white photo.
Bitwise Success Story
Ms. Leading
By Angelica Rose

Women in technology.

It exists. They exist?

Fact: There are women in the tech industry.
Also Fact: This topic carries the weight of a thousand think pieces, a million campaigns, and a nearly universal call-to-action, coupled with high-res images of ladies in their Ann Taylor Loft wardrobes.

If women make up 50% of the population, what’s keeping the technology industry from being an accurate representation of that? For every 100 females, there were 96.7 males in Fresno in 2010. So, for every one woman, there’s approximately one man in the population, yea? When you zoom into the technology industry, though, for every five men there is just one woman.

Three women standing at a desk with laptops in front of them. The image is in black and white.
Three women standing at a desk with laptops in front of them. The image is in black and white.

After studying the divide, Geekwise Academy’s all-female executive team asked two of the bravest words in the English language … what if?

What if there was a place where depicting a woman in the technology industry took no more energy than depicting a man in the field? What if, in that space, there was no room for that girl-vs-girl competition so often found in our society? What if the curriculum’s DNA was packed to the brim with encouragement? If it was possible to remove all of the posturing so common in the industry, how many women would have a shot at elevating the future of technology?

Armed with a hypothesis and just enough crazy to test it, Geekwise chartered a Women Tech Training Project in late 2017.

“We wondered if, as the concepts got more difficult, women felt self-conscious about asking for help,” said Beth Mily, CEO of Geekwise Academy and all-around badass. “We thought a room full of women might be the key to giving themselves license to collaborate and cast aside any notions about their own abilities.”

Three sets of hands on laptop keyboards. The image is in black and white.

An oft-cited Hewlett-Packard report found that men are comfortable applying for a job or promotion when they meet just 60% of the qualifications. Women, apparently, only stand up when they feel like they meet 100% of the required criteria. There’s more research needed in this space. This study is far from conclusive, but it certainly feels true.

So, Geekwise got to work carving out a space where 35 women – different ages, ethnicities, and levels of experience – met twice a week. Woven into the DNA of the course was a revolutionarily rebellious reminder: You. Do. Not. Have. To. Be. Perfect. Embedded in every line of code was the freedom to set aside self-doubt and fear. Bookended in each class was the liberty to shun perfection.

The curriculum was packed to teach four programming languages in six weeks. The cost? $0.00.

The roster was chosen solely on word of mouth. Folks at Bitwise were asked to think of women they felt had what it takes to be successful in technology and who could benefit from focused instruction while staying open to the project’s request for hold-on-to-your-seat resilience. Bitwisers were asked to vouch for their referrals.

What you have here is a company (and leadership) so committed to technological inclusivity, that it (and they) are willing to potentially (probably) make a fool of themselves in the name of progress.

It began as a six-week project. But — and we kinda thought this might happen — the decision was made to double the length of the class. Translation: We got it wrong the first time. Change everything and try again. Petition to make that the official Bitwise playbook?

“Each woman was selected because someone in our organization told us she was worth investing in,” Mily said. “That turned out to be true in every case.”

The women were split into teams to create a social impact application. Three weeks later, they were plucked from the comfort of their group and dropped onto a new team to work on a completely new app.

“They weren’t happy about it,” said Pratima Sakinala, the instructor for the second phase of the course. “I’m pretty sure they were angry with me or Geekwise, but we wanted to see how quickly they would move on. And, whether they could hand over their current project to someone else with grace and class.”

Sakinala’s biggest obstacle? Helping each woman see past her own perception of competition. That’s not super surprising, though, right? I mean, trying to get 35 women, each with their own hang-ups, battle scars, and sunken shoulders from society’s expectations, to cast aside the belief that the woman next to her is a rival in an industry synonymous with the word “brotopia” is going to be tricky.

“There aren’t enough female developers in the industry,” Sakinala said. “So, each woman felt they had to prove they were better than the one next to them.”

Three women sit on stair steps. The image is in black and white.

We had to explain, more than once, that we weren’t there to judge one over the other,” Sakinala said. “We were there to see how each grew as a developer, by helping the woman to her left and right.

For Christa Fox, a room full of 30+ intelligent women working together helped her see her own talents and self-imposed limitations.

Fox was born and raised in the Central Valley. She moved to Utah in her 20s and ended up in the computer science tract at Salt Lake Community College. She was the only woman in the program.

She moved back to Fresno when her daughter was two months old and applied for two non-technical jobs at Bitwise, impressed by the environment. “I remember my voice cracking when I talked about how they supported a woman’s place in technology,” Fox said. “I had written a paper on the topic fueled with research that programmers are predominantly white males.”

A woman smiles looking off to the left. The image is in black and white.

She didn’t get either job. What she did get was an invitation to the second phase of the Women Tech Training Project from Geekwise’s Terry Solis, who was unwilling to dismiss Fox’s experience and skills.

“This class made me finally recognize the abilities I wasn’t giving myself credit for,” Fox said. With a good dose of motivation and confidence from Solis, Fox is now a programmer analyst for a local community college. She’ll be the first to tell you the road there was paved with second-guesses and self-doubt.

I began programming seven years before I applied for the job and still didn’t feel ready,” Fox said. “Terry really had to inspire me. I convinced myself I was doing it for practice.

Now, Fox’s job allows her to take care of her daughter by doing something that she loves, is fulfilled by, and can continually prove herself through. That freedom is immeasurable. “I’m empowered, I’m enough, and I feel so accomplished,” Fox added.

There is an uncompromising mix of heart and grit in shining a light on the depth of someone else’s power, even when they can’t see it themselves … especially when they can’t see it themselves. For Fox, it took someone else believing in her to grant herself permission to even apply for a job. On the crappiest of days, an “I believe in you” or calling someone out on their self-limiting BS can be enough to set in motion a powerful chain of events.

Two women sit side by side at a desk while smiling at their laptops. The image is in black and white.

When we stop telling women – anyone really – how many boxes they need to check to be valuable and valid, we free them up from debilitating beliefs, whether systemically dictated or self-imposed. It gives them the space to find their own way.

In the seventh grade, Jacque Solano found she could bend the rules by taking apart Myspace’s code and putting it back together. She’d spend hours rewiring the site for friends’ profiles. When Myspace shut down, she dabbled in a few other options and even thought of building something herself but never did.

In high school she spent her time between class, video games, and taking care of her mom, who was ill with diabetes and osteoporosis. When Solano was 21, her mother passed away, changing everything she’d known.

To pay the bills, Solano worked at a customer care facility, falling into the monotony of wake – work – sleep – repeat for three years. She was making just enough to stay alive.

“I was not happy at all,” Solano said. “It was so hard. But I remembered one thing – coding. I remembered the joy I found in it.” A friend told her about Geekwise Academy but pushing the button to enroll took some epic soul searching.

“I was looking at that screen and I saw $250,” Solano said. “I was barely making it. I was living paycheck to paycheck. But I was so miserable, I knew I needed to take that leap.”

One woman looks down at her laptop, smiling. The image is in black and white.

Soon after, she joined the Women Tech Training Project (free to her) to carve out a career that could actually lift her up. Solano realized she wasn’t alone in her desire to sculpt a place for herself in technology. That discovery, she said, elevated her confidence and conviction.

She now works as a software developer for Shift3 Technologies and is teaching at Geekwise for the second time. She’s settling in to her newfound confidence, adopting a personal philosophy to not compare herself with anyone else. For a modern-day woman, let alone a female in technology, that awareness is everything. She’s consciously rewriting the rules on how she’s allowed to think of herself.

“Geekwise saw there was a sinkhole for women in tech,” Solano said. “They created a course to bridge that.”

Geekwise gave us an opportunity to come together and recognize our own badassery,” Solano said. “Just look at what we can do.

A little girl touches a laptop screen. The image is in black and white.

Technology unearthed something invaluable in each of these women – a sense of purpose and a sense of value, not given but won. And what’s frightening is that every woman in the class nearly skipped over this path altogether. Why? Because they didn’t feel perfect enough, or because they were preemptively burned out from fighting for a place in an industry with too few slots for women.

Know this: the spots at the proverbial tech table aren’t numbered. The length isn’t finite. And, if we keep adding seats, we breed a more complex, compassionate, and capable industry with the ability to blow the roof off this sucker. So, why wouldn’t we do it again and again and again?

Women supporting women, man. It’s a beautiful thing.

Music note icon
What was your theme song as a class?

Started from the Bottom” by Drake

Stamp icon
Christa, what do you collect?

Books (and then give ’em away)

film icon
Pratima, if you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Lord of the Rings

Happy icon
Jacque, how do you treat yo'self?

Rolling with my guild up in Skyrim

Super happy icon
What is something that makes you ridiculously happy as a class?

Running the world!