A Girl Who Codes

Computing has always been a boys’ club. How 18-year-old Nikita Rau–and other young women like her–are finally changing that.

A Girl Who Codes
[Photos by Lauren Lancaster]

Nikita Rau is a high school senior and, at this moment, drinking applekiwi-strawberry juice out of a plastic cup. We’re in the cafeteria of Bronx High School of Science, in New York. The noise level is high–too high for older ears–but the kids seem excited. Or maybe frenzied would be a better word.

It’s around 3:30 p.m. on the second Monday of the new school year, otherwise known as club-fair day. Sipping her juice, Rau moves to straighten a pile of brochures for XX Hackers, the computer-coding club she started last year. The group is modeled on Girls Who Code (hence the XX), the tech-friendly startup summer program that got Rau excited about computer science in the first place.

A skeptical-looking girl approaches, and Rau launches into her pitch. When Rau wants something, or wants to convince somebody of something, the intensity of her focus is almost intimidating. Five-foot-four with long limbs and wavy hair pulled into a ponytail over her shoulder, she is nothing but polite and enviably poised, especially when compared with the shrieking teens literally running in circles around her. She locks in on the girl, who, despite Rau’s salesmanship, eventually walks away.

Still, others are intrigued. By the time I arrived, XX Hackers had already collected several full pages of sign-ups. “Most of them are girls, so it’s working out,” Rau tells me while retrieving pens from a pink pencil case in her backpack. The original idea had been for Rau and a couple of other Girls Who Code graduates to teach programming only to other girls, but there was enough early interest from boys that they decided to open it to everyone. A group of guys now approach and sign up, but then one notices the club’s logo–XX HACKERS in bright pink, surrounded by pink dots and a light green circle with scalloped edges–and starts shouting. “XX Hackers? No! That’s for girls.” Another waves his arms and shakes his head, saying, “Disregard,” over and over. Boys are stupid, I think to myself, but Rau is Zen about it. When all is said and done, Rau estimates that about a third of the sign-ups she got were a result of her hard sell. She ended up with about 100 names total, added to the 50 she got last spring at a fair for incoming freshmen. It’s too early to say how many of those will come to the first meeting–and of those, how many will come back–but for the moment, she’s pleased.

Rau in the attic of her home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Despite the clutter, the young programmer’s mother describes her as “meticulous…very organized, very intense, and focused.”

Rau, 18, is an extremely active kid. She plays on the golf team in the fall and the lacrosse team in the spring, and she’s a violinist in the school orchestra and a photographer for the yearbook. She’s currently taking AP calculus, AP French, AP microeconomics, AP English lit, a double period of AP bio, and a social science research seminar geared toward the Intel Talent Search competition.

Rau, in other words, is the very opposite of the sort of computer programmer you would imagine: a guy with pasty skin who hasn’t showered in days, sitting in a dark room tapping away on a keyboard through the night. Until Girls Who Code, Rau had never considered becoming a programmer. Even at Bronx Science, just a handful of girls took AP computer science last year. Of the 20 female members of Girls Who Code’s inaugural class last summer, only two had ever studied computer science at all.

None of which makes sense: Girls start using technology at a younger age, on average, than boys, but women represent less than 20% of those graduating from college with computer science degrees. Computer-related fields are among the fastest growing in the U.S., to the tune of approximately 1.4 million job openings by 2020, and yet we’re producing fewer than half the computer science majors we would need to fill them. Rau is bright, energetic, driven, creative, and lucky enough to have a loving, supportive family and the resources to pursue her passion. If she couldn’t find coding on her own, then something is wrong.

Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, arrives late for our breakfast meeting at a café in Chelsea, on Manhattan’s West Side. As she’s getting settled, I start to mention that I met Rau the day before, and before I can elaborate, Saujani interrupts: “Isn’t she adorable?” It’s midsummer, and Saujani is in the middle of an (eventually unsuccessful) campaign for New York’s high-level public advocate position. Rather than waste time with chitchat, I ask her about why she started Girls Who Code. “I think it came from seeing this problem: It’s clear where the jobs are going to be,” she says. “As someone who’s very passionate about women and passionate about the lack of parity in pay, I wanted to figure out, well, why are young women not going into these fields?”

Reshma SaujaniPhoto by Robyn Twomey

Saujani is not a coder. Before she went into politics, she worked as a lawyer representing hedge funds. The idea for Girls Who Code came to her while she was running for Congress in 2010, when she was focused, she says, on the “lens of economic transformation.” That year, the average computer programmer (of any race or gender) earned $1,218 a week; software engineers earned $1,549, placing them among the highest-paid professionals in the country. There were 429,000 computer programmers employed in the U.S., but only 96,000 were women. Almost 2.4 million men and 807,000 women worked in computer-related fields, a ratio of around 3 to 1.

By 2012, those numbers hadn’t gotten better, and Saujani, then New York’s deputy public advocate (her congressional campaign failed to take off), launched Girls Who Code. The single largest thing holding back the growth of any tech company, anyone in the industry will tell you, is the lack of trained engineers, and Girls Who Code promised to create more. Google, eBay, and Twitter all came aboard early on as sponsors. Girls want to know they can change the world, Saujani thought, and her new program would show them how.

Twenty girls were admitted the first year, including Rau. They spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight weeks of the summer, in the Flatiron headquarters of AppNexus, which makes digital advertising platforms, learning coding languages and listening to speakers talk about programming. Some of the girls couldn’t speak English very well, and at the start of the summer, one didn’t know how to use a mouse. “One of the things that’s interesting about the coding divide, when it comes to gender, is it’s kind of socioeconomic-blind,” Saujani says. “Even the best private schools here in New York City don’t offer it.”

Bronx Science offers an introductory course in computer programming, in addition to the AP, but Rau was more interested in the Intel research course. She’d done a program with Google the summer after eighth grade, but, while interesting, it didn’t excite her. Part of why she pursued the Google program in the first place, she says, was because the application asked her to create a scrapbook representing herself. At the time, Rau was interested in drawing and making art projects.

Going places inside the Bronx High School of Science

She still is, of course. Computer science is, as she puts it, “like a creative mix” between STEM subjects and the liberal-arts classes girls tend to favor. The programming projects she and her classmates completed last summer included language-learning software for ESL students and apps to address immigration issues, as well as games and puzzles. Lessons were based in problem solving, not binary abstractions. The girls got out of the classroom from time to time and toured the New York offices of companies such as Twitter and Facebook, where they met and talked with female executives. By the end of the summer, every one of the girls said they were interested in pursuing computer science as a college major.

This past summer, Girls Who Code expanded to eight programs in five cities (New York, San Francisco, Detroit, San Jose, and Davis, California), with 10 to 15 more programs to come next year. Teachers Who Code, a partnership with the United Federation of Teachers, was announced in June, and Saujani tells me she’s working on an initiative to bring Girls Who Code clubs into high schools nationwide. Saujani is still trying to figure out how to get girls interested in the first place, though. “The thing I struggle with is, girls have a natural inclination not to want to pick a job just to make money,” she says. “Then you have, again, pay inequity. If we are talking about poverty alleviation for women, crashing through that glass ceiling, we have to get girls to focus on that select group of careers that are going to help them both change the world and make money.”

What she’s talking about sounds like how people think about law school: the thing you do when you don’t know what to do. I say as much to Saujani, and she nods. “Computer science is the modern legal degree,” says the former lawyer. “And that’s the way we should be talking about it: a skill set you need to do whatever you want.”

One day, Rau and I are having a conversation about school, and I ask whether other kids are as intrigued by computer programming as she is. “At Bronx Science, there’s a huge mix of students who are interested in a variety of different things, like drama and science,” she says. “But I think a lot of people are getting more interested in coding. There was recently a video on YouTube with all these famous characters speaking about computer science. Some students posted it on Facebook, and they were like, ‘You should really look into pursuing computer science, or at least knowing how to code, because it can prove to be very vital in the future.'”

A few days later, I’m chatting with Hadi Partovi, the Silicon Valley investor who made the video, and I tell him what a difference Rau said it had made. “That makes me so happy,” he says, sounding genuinely moved. The video–which also marked the launch of Code.org, a resource hub for teachers and students–was a viral hit in February, generating more than 2 million views in the 24 hours after it went online. Its message is not just that everyone should learn to code, but that anyone can.

Screen time with her friend Mahzabin Hasnath

State policy has long implied otherwise: In 36 states, computer science counts only as an elective credit, not a math or a science. “It’s a huge disincentive,” Partovi says. “In fact, we’ve heard people say that the smart kids don’t take computer science. Why? Because they’re smart enough to know that it doesn’t count for their graduation. It’s a complete reverse incentive compared to what our economy and our country needs.” Girls in particular need to see the value of a class on computer science before they’ll sign up. In the 14 states that allow computer science to be counted (15 including the District of Columbia), schools see classes that are 50% bigger than they are in other states.

Code.org has made progress this year: Washington State and Tennessee passed computer science–friendly legislation earlier this year, and Idaho’s school board is now allowing computer classes to count toward graduation requirements. This winter, Partovi is organizing a major PR push around Computer Science Education Week, including a campaign to get every teacher in the country to give students an hour of coding instruction. “I’m sure you know,” he says, “girls tend to think of computer science as not for girls, and something only the boys do.” If everyone is doing it, so the logic goes, the girls will too.

But Partovi still faces an uphill battle. In the 1990s, when computers first started making their way out of designated “computer labs” and into libraries and classrooms, parents became concerned that the money was only being spent on a handful of computer geeks. Administrators’ response was to play down computer science and play up computers for chemistry and English lit. The No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on math and reading, helped further marginalize the study of computers, at least from a budgetary perspective, even as it was becoming clear that computers and the Internet were going to be the defining tools of our lifetime.

If his cause is so self-evidently right, I ask Partovi, what’s getting in the way? “Inertia is the obstacle,” he says. “We have more than 100,000 schools that don’t teach computer science, and more than 35,000 schools that don’t teach AP computer science at the high school level. Getting them all to do it is a bunch of effort.”

Nikita’s mother, Kanchan, looks like her, with features that are sharp but pliant, fully capable of creating a smile, but perhaps more comfortable drawn together in a look of concentration. The two seem very close. “Right from the beginning, [Nikita] was a person who was good at computers,” Kanchan says. “She got whatever it was about the computers quickly.” Nikita is “meticulous,” her mother says. “Very organized, very intense, and focused. I would tease her because she would erase something, like, 100 times to make sure that she got it right. I would say, ‘You’re Miss Eraser!’ The picture or the writing or whatever had to be perfect.”

Nikita, who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, remained that way through eighth grade and the Google program, and after ninth grade she got a Google scholarship for a one-week program in Java at NYU, which she found useful but unexciting. Freshman biology, she says, is the moment when she first began to consider a career in the sciences, and when she heard about Girls Who Code, she jumped at it. “We didn’t know too much about the program because it was new,” Kanchan says. “But the way she would come home and be so excited about everything that she did.” I ask what had made Nikita that excited in the past. Kanchan looks around, searching for an appropriate comparison. Finally, she finds it: “When we went away someplace and she went zip-lining, she had that look.”

Computer science as it’s taught in most classrooms–when it’s taught at all–is not so thrilling. The typical course is a forced march through the theory and concepts behind the writing of code, but there’s little sense of what makes those skills useful or fun. For instance, the current AP course outline requires students know how to “test classes and libraries in isolation” and understand “legal issues and intellectual property”–which are valuable, but give no sense of why programming is important, or what it’s good for.

At Bronx Science, Nikita went straight from Girls Who Code, which is extremely hands-on, to AP computer science, which is not. She struggled so much that she questioned her aptitude for the material. The problem, as Kanchan described it, was that Nikita was solving problems in her own way. “The teacher”–a woman, for what it’s worth–“explained, ‘No, she does have a knack for programming, or coding. It’s not a problem. Tell her not to be discouraged.'”

New curriculum is being developed by the College Board, with support from the National Science Foundation, for a course called AP Computer Science Principles that will address some of these issues; the first classes will convene in the fall of 2016. That won’t fix the scarcity of trained teachers, the lack of resources in poorer schools, or the inadequacy of state-level education standards, but at least it’s a start.

Club-fair day is winding down, and a shy girl approaches the XX Hackers table. The potential recruit is a beginner, and she seems hesitant. She mumbles something about “sucking” at computer programming. “It’s okay,” says Rau. “You can suck. I suck.” This is patently untrue, but it’s a shrewd and reassuring thing for her to say. I let my gaze wander for a moment, and when I turn back, the girl is writing down her name and email address, looking resolute.

On Girls Who Code’s “About Us” page, Saujani writes that the organization is more than a program, it’s a movement. So is Code.org. And so, in her own way, is Rau. Watching as she hovers near her newest XX Hacker, I recall a moment from the first time I met her. She was remembering her summer in Girls Who Code and telling me how inspiring it had been to meet female CEOs who were working with technology. “They created what they thought was possible, made it come to life,” she said. “It showed me that if I have an idea or something that I want to make, I shouldn’t be afraid to go ahead and make it. I think computer science allows you to make your dreams come true.” She paused, reflecting on what she’d just said, then added very quickly, “I don’t want to say it like that, but it does allow you to … yeah.” Rau might have been embarrassed, but it sounded right to me.

About the author

Sharon E. Sutton, FAIA, is an activist architecture educator and scholar who promotes inclusivity in the cultural makeup of her profession and in the populations it serves.