At Flatiron Labs, Sara Chipps Is On A Mission To Demystify Coding And Diversify Tech

Sara Chipps has been tapped as the first-ever CTO of the Flatiron School and its new boutique software consultancy, Flatiron Labs. Here, she discusses her vision for the tech community.

Sara Chipps, founder of Girl Develop It, has been tapped to serve as the first ever Chief Technology Officer for The Flatiron School and its new boutique software consultancy Flatiron Labs. While it might seem a bit odd that an organization dedicated to teaching people how to program didn't have anyone in this role previously, Chipps points out that developers abounded so they didn't need any single person managing the technology side of things. It was only until those programmers started building programs to improve internal operations that Flatiron felt the need to create the role. "The need never really arose until all of a sudden there was all this software going on," Chipps told Fast Company.

Sara Chipps

Chipps, who has dedicated her career to promoting diversity in technology, was drawn to the opportunity because Flatiron's founder Avi Flombaum shares her perspective. "I really always loved the way he approached software. He is really passionate about making it accessible for everyone, which is something I think is super important," Chipps explained.

Attracting more women and minorities to startups and technology jobs has generated its fair share of conversation over the last few months, starting with Paul Graham's offensive comments about women in technology. Since then, the conversation has only intensified, especially with the recent sexism scandal out of Github in which developer and designer Julie Ann Horvath accused the company of permitting an "aggressive" and sexist culture. (Horvath has worked with Girl Develop It.)

Not everyone agrees sexism in Silicon Valley is as rampant as Horvath and others claim, but many women clearly don't feel welcome among the brogrammers. Chipps, who founded Girl Develop It in 2010 because "she thinks that the development community could use a few more ladies," has focused her efforts on creating programs that welcome otherwise alienated people.

While The Flatiron School doesn't have a gender, or race, or socioeconomic specific focus—in fact, tuition costs $12,000 for 12 weeks—Chipps sees her role there as very much a part of the overall mission to bring all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds into the tech scene. Fast Company spoke with her about what specifically she will be working on and how that will ultimately bring diversity to the predominantly white, young, male dominated tech scene. (The interview has been edited for clarity.)

FAST COMPANY: Congratulations on the new job. What will this new role entail?

SARA CHIPPS: Thanks—it's been an exciting week! My role here is to focus on two things: It's working on the internal software, which is stuff that supports our students and the general public and our teachers, as well as starting a new initiative, which is Flatiron Labs.

Let's start with the first part. What exactly does "working on the internal software" entail?

The neat thing about working here is that everyone that works here is developers, so whenever they see a problem they build something. When something that they build takes off we step in and make it scalable and usable by the entire team.

What kind of things have people built?

A lot of the things our students build as part of class. They have four projects that they build throughout the curriculum. A lot of them end up being problems they see here at Flatiron School.

For example, a student made a platform called Hand Raise. Students enter a queue when they have a problem and they have a TA to help them. Often in software, when you run into a challenge when you're new, you immediately look for someone to help instead of using the resources in front of you that are online. When a student has a problem they click Hand Raise and it notifies them: Okay, you're in a queue, we'll come to you next. But first we're going to make you wait five minutes and here are some resources for you to see if you can get past your problem. After that five minutes, we have Raspberry Pis throughout the space that are linked to televisions. They display the queue on television that says this person has gone five minutes, they still need help, so our TAs know who to go and talk to.

When these things work out well, we step out and say: this is awesome, we're going to integrate into our system and we're going to build on what you've built. Only if they want to, of course, we don't nab it from them. But usually they want it to be integrated into our system.

That's a nice little feedback loop Flatiron has created there! Are there other tech projects you work on besides student creations?

We have our internal software that supports our teachers. All of our educational system is run on Github. We make it super easy for our teachers to clone a curriculum for a class and have different assignments and labs for their students. Our students do all their homework on Github. They get a lab with failing tests and what they need to do is make them pass in order to pass that lab.

The software built around that is designed to tell our teachers if any student is falling behind, if any student is having any problems and make it as easy as possible for them to teach so that they can focus on working with their students instead of building curriculum.

How has your previous experience at Girl Develop It influenced your decision to join Flatiron?

It's the precursor to all of this. Being there and putting together curriculum and watching students learn and watching them grow, it's really neat. Girl Develop It started in 2010, now the students we had early on are professional developers, they're are our teachers, they're running chapters of their own. It's really cool to watch. It's really reaffirmed the suspicion that something like that is possible.

How does working at Flatiron continue your quest to increase access in tech?

All of our classes here are at least 40% women, which is awesome. I’ve met some really great women working here. It's so interesting: One thing that we've recognized about our classes is that it works out really well for mothers that are returning to work. For example, one of our classes right now has a woman who is a neurosurgeon who took some time off because she had a family. She wanted to go back to work and it was difficult for her to get a job. She found that something like Flatiron really worked out well for her. I really appreciate that. Also, to be able to have more female software developers in the space so they know we're around and we exist.

You're also one of the founders and the CTO of Flatiron Labs. How did that role come to be?

Avi Flaumbaum, who is one of our cofounders, and I have been friends for a very long time. I really always loved the way he approached software. He is really passionate about making it accessible for everyone, which is something I think is super important. I think building software is not that hard. The developer community tries to make it look super hard so we can feel really important. I think that it's really easy to get an entry level knowledge of software pretty easily.

I visited [Flatiron] a few times. I've always been crazy impressed with our students. What really got me was the 98% placement rate. I think that it's super important not only to give people the skills, but help them to practice them.

One challenge we hit with Girl Develop It a lot was our students would take our classes and say: "So now what do I do next?" [Flatiron Labs] seemed kind of like a natural answer to what's next.

What will be going on there? How does it help students figure out what to "do next"?

Flatiron Labs is designed to give practical experience to our apprentices, to give them the ability to work with clients, work on projects, come up with creative solutions, and work really closely with senior developers. We're taking on client work.

One thing I've discovered about New York is working with a firm is crazy expensive—insanely expensive, actually. I've worked with a lot of the very expensive firms and they've done great work, but not better than we can do. I think it's great to give small- and mid-sized companies an opportunity to work with excellent developers. In the world of startups you have people that will hire one developer for eight weeks and just kind of hope it works out. You have someone who has never managed a software project, managing a software project. You have a very new developer trying to manage a client, this often ends in disaster. We're hoping to give an alternative for people that are looking for quality help.

What makes Flatiron Labs attractive to these small- or mid-sized companies looking for development work—besides the price point?

One thing that Flatiron Labs offers is a chance to work with a really diverse team. The horizon is just kind of filled with teams of early, 20-something, white guys and that's great, it's super awesome. But not everyone is building something like a fantasy football app, or something that is traditionally stereotypically focused on that demographic. When you're building something for a different audience—especially as the software world grows and people are building things for parents, and people are building things for women's fashion—people who can’t relate to your product aren't the best people to make your product. One thing we've been focusing on is making sure we have people from all kinds of backgrounds.

So who are these diverse people? Where do they come from?

We actually hire the best students from our classes. We pay them competitively. They're not taking a pay cut, they opt into the program. Any student that wants to interview with us can. We want the opportunity to help people we see a real spark in level-up and really focus on their careers and making them better developers and preparing them for the world of software.

What's the demographic breakdown of the 11 people who work there now?

That's a really good question and you can see it right on our website if you go to FlatironLabs.com.

[Image: Flickr user Lara Cores]

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