Go ahead and imagine a computer geek. You probably picture a male nerd, glued to his computer and lost in a world of bits and bytes. You might envision a budding Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but probably not a girl.
There's a reason for that. Most girls avoid tech in courses and careers because they find computer science either boring or are convinced it's not for them. The way to their inner geek isn't typically through math and science, as it is for boys, but through their love of creative self-expression and social networking. At least that's what tech trailblazers Alexandra Diracles and Melissa Halfon suspected when they decided to shake up the male-dominated geekosphere by empowering a new generation of female coders.
Their brainchild is Vidcode, an app that allows middle-school and high-school girls to upload their own videos, program in special effects using code and then share what they create with friends.
"There's a whole psychology to making girls passionate about code," says Diracles. "I think we're really good at connecting all the different life activities of teenage girls. It's important to get a big influx of girls together so this generation has the opportunity to really take this industry by storm."
Barriers to geekdom
Diracles, 30, was always artistically inclined and pursued a career in photography. "Like many girls, I wasn't introduced to technology at a young age and didn't feel associated with it," she says. "The only message I got was that math is the best entry point to computer science, but it was a foreign language."
Then during graduate school at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, she discovered that computer programming can be used in artistic endeavors. "I got really excited about the creative potential of it — the intersection of computer science, filmmaking and creativity," she says. "I wanted to let girls know about coding at a younger age than I found it."
Halfon, 29, a self-described "math nerd" whose mother was a computer programmer, never felt discriminated against growing up, not even in her mostly male-centric college math classes. "People always said you don't look like a math major, but I'm very confident in my field, so I took it as a compliment," she says.
It was only after applying for a software development job with a stock trading desk that she realized how gender perceptions can dictate reality. After beating out nearly 100 applicants in a grueling, months-long hiring process, Halfon's new boss (an old-school software developer) told her he almost passed on hiring her, despite her obvious superior technical proficiency, because she was a woman.
"That moment didn't completely change my life, but I really started thinking about the personal importance of getting more girls and women in this field so that doesn't happen anymore — and so I'm not the only girl in the room," Halfon says.
Oddly enough, Halfon's gender-biased boss also inadvertently led her to Diracles and their serendipitous development of Vidcode. He was the one who insisted that Halfon and her coworkers join him for a team-building exercise at Startup Weekend EDU in New York City. Halfon made a broad startup pitch to attendees about getting more women into math and computer science. Then another woman stood up and made a similar but more developed pitch — that was Diracles, armed with research for her master's thesis on combining video and coding education to overcome girls' technophobia.
"People wanted to be on both our teams, so we ended up merging and built the prototype of Vidcode that weekend," says Diracles. "We won first place."
Elated, Diracles, Halfon and their team decided to run with VidCode. Diracles was about to graduate, so the timing was right for her, but Halfon worried about trying to balance full-time work with the long hours needed to launch a company. Ironically, her boss had a hand in things again. Two weeks after the startup event, he left his job and shut down the trading desk. Halfon and her coworkers were laid off. Instead of panicking, Halfon saw it as another slice of serendipity. "It was perfect timing, a blessing in disguise," she says.
A gender tech revolution
Melissa Halfon (upper left) teaches girls how to code during a Vidcode session. Halfon hopes that people will see 'all these awesome lady developers' and respect the changing gender dynamics of coding. (Photo: Alexandra Diracles)
After testing Vidcode with groups of teenage girls, Diracles and Halfon launched a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014 and rolled out their app. Incidentally, Halfon's ex-boss kicked in a "modest investment."
Currently, Vidcode is being used in classes offered by partner organizations, including the Girl Scouts and the YWCA. You can check out some student projects here. About 11,000 individual users have also joined the free online community to begin creating and sharing videos. Premium content costs $12.99 a month.
"We're launching a mobile app next, and bringing on more partners and after-school programs," says Diracles. "We hope to double and even triple our numbers over the next year."
And Vidcode doesn't just appeal to girls. Boys, and even moms, also seem to enjoy telling and sharing digital stories. But the main goal remains to convince girls — and everyone else — that women are as technically adept as men.
"We want people to say, 'Wow, look at all these awesome lady developers — I guess they weren't really different from men; there were just barriers to entry,'" says Halfon. "We hope to change the overall impression of who a computer scientist is and what one looks like."