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Outlook 2021: Shen grad Aneesa Hussain, Girls Who Code strive to put more women in technology jobs

Aneesa Hussain (Inset); Girls Who Code participants check in during a recent online coding session
Aneesa Hussain (Inset); Girls Who Code participants check in during a recent online coding session

Girls Who Code is on a mission. So is Aneesa Hussain.

“I want to be the role model I never had,” she said.

Hussain, a 2012 Shenendehowa High School graduate, has a bachelor’s degree in informatics/cybersecurity from the University at Albany. Together with Girls who Code, she is helping girls learn how to write computer programs, and encouraging them to learn the skills they need to get jobs working in technology so they can become role models — like the ones she didn’t have.

The mission is to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a computer programmer looks like and does. Spoiler alert: It looks like a girl.

Girls Who Code is building the world’s largest pipeline of future female engineers through more than 8,500 programs worldwide that sweep from India to Canada and across all 50 U.S. states.

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The nonprofit was founded in 2012 by Reshma Saujani, who saw the need to increase the number of women in computer science and technology. Girls Who Code teaches young women the skills needed for those jobs.

Their own research shows that women make up just 24 percent of the U.S. computing workforce, and even that number is shrinking. Their program aims to triple the number of women in computing jobs by 2025.

The number of jobs in technology is growing and the pay is excellent. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow much faster than other occupations. From 2019 to 2029, tech occupations will add more than half a million jobs. As for pay, in May 2019 the median annual wage for computer and information technology jobs was $88,240.

Girls Who Code wants to put women in those jobs.

Since 2012, their programs have served more than 300,000 girls across the country, half of them from historically underrepresented groups: Black, Latinx and low-income.

But they don’t just want to produce well-trained workers; they aim to give girls the skills to thrive and to be leaders in their workplaces.

Not afraid to failure

Through after-school clubs for girls in third through 12th grade, two-week intensive Summer Immersion Programs for high school-age girls and university-level networks for college-aged women, Girls Who Code provides support for girls to succeed and to build communities with other women in tech.

And they’ve made progress. Girls Who Code is working with legislators across the country on solutions to close the gender gap in K-12 computer science classrooms. They have helped pass legislation in four states and effected policy change in two others.

Hussain is a big advocate for bridging the gender gap within the tech sector. She founded the Albany chapter of Girls Who Code and facilitated the inaugural class of 2020. She is a cybersecurity professional, a technical instructor and a conference speaker.

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She is certain that everyone — everyone — can learn to code. “I believe that girls don’t have to be gifted to be programmers,” she said. Importantly, Girls Who Code shows girls what can be, because they may have never seen it before. For Hussain, that is affirming. She loves to hear girls say, “I had no idea that I would be so good at this.”

Girls Who Code focuses on soft skills as well as tech skills. Girls experience team-building and learn from failures, Hussain said.

“In fact, I tell them I want them to fail,” she said, adding that she wants them to learn from failure and not be afraid of it. She encourages the girls to get past roadblocks independently. “Ninety percent of the time they find solutions on their own.” She wants all the girls to work collaboratively so, “the 11th-grader can go the the fourth-grader” to work together to solve a problem.

Like any good teacher, Hussain brings her own interests to the course and encourages the girls to do so as well. “To incorporate their interests into programming makes it more relatable,” she said. Food, fashion, bee conservation and rabbits (she has two) can all be worked into a computer program to make it more relatable, she said.

The Girls Who Code meetings have included T-shirts, trivia games and sisterhood. The friendships — “best friendships,” she qualified — that sprang from the program were “the most beautiful thing.” There was no collaborative program for girls in technology when Hussain was growing up. “I didn’t have that,” she said. That’s why she does it.

The core values of Girls Who Code are bravery, resilience and candor, said Ashley Gramby, marketing director for Girls Who Code. “That is in addition to the hard skills of computer science and coding,” she added.

Shifting strategy

When the community rooms that provided meeting space for the program shut down due to the pandemic, Hussain moved the program to a 100 percent virtual model. So long snacks — and face-to-face relating.

“We lost some girls,” she said, citing loss of motivation and the sadly predictable problem of limited resources. But she kept Girls Who Code going via Google Meet until June, half the length of the usual program, trimming the curriculum to teaching one coding language instead of two.

Girls Who Code responded to the pandemic limitations by releasing Code @ Home lessons. They provide students, parents, educators and parents with twice-monthly downloadable activities offering varying levels of difficulty. Each of the activities features a role model: a woman in tech who pioneered innovative technology.

“We’re really just trying to adapt our program model to students where they are so they are not left behind,” said Gramby. “Many are unable to access computers,” she added, noting that some girls were going to fast-food restaurants to use the WiFi. They are hoping to remedy the “learning loss” that may happen during this time, but the main goal right now is to “support students and get them needed resources to be successful,” Gramby said.

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For example, the beginner’s activities provided by Code @ Home require nothing more than pencil and paper. Gramby said the Code @ Home program has been “wildly successful.”

“We are working to support facilitators by supplementing with the at-home program” said Granby.

And for parents who would like to spark an interest in coding, there is a New York Times bestselling, 13-book series aimed at middle-grade readers, published by Penguin Random House in partnership with Girls Who Code. Launched in 2017, the stories are engaging, with lively art and mysteries to solve. “Like a coding Nancy Drew,” Granby said.

The Albany chapter of Girls Who Code will look different in 2021. Amanda Ashmen, a computer engineering major at Union College and a member of the Society of Women Engineers, has joined as co-facilitator.

The program will go on. It will be 100 percent virtual on Google Meet, and the group has a Facebook page that builds a sense of community. This year, the girls are learning one computer programming language instead of two.

At a glance

Some technology questions answered by Aneesa Hussain:

What is coding? Coding is writing computer programs. “Coding is like writing a recipe,” Hussain said. “There are ingredients and there are steps. The ingredients can be in any order, but the steps cannot. The last step of a recipe shouldn’t be, ‘Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.’ ”

What is informatics? “Informatics takes data and transfers it into knowledge people can use,” Hussain said. Your patient portal at your doctor’s office is a good example of informatics. So are the electronic medical records, progress notes and medication records.

What is cybersecurity? “It is awareness,” she said. You protect your house and your possessions, you should protect your data as well, she added. “If you are on social media [such as Facebook], what are you sharing? What are the security settings? Who can see your information?” Cybersecurity, she says, is “hacking for good.” It keeps you, and your data, safe.

Why should I care about these things? Cybersecurity protects our data, our health information, our personal information, intellectual property, and government and industry information systems from theft. In other words, everything.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

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