As a 2018 summer software engineer intern, I had the opportunity to bring my vision of a Community Coding Day to life. Our goal for Community Coding Day was to inspire students from underrepresented groups to get involved in STEM – software engineering in particular – as well as provide a direct experience of being welcomed in our field. It also gave our participating employees and interns an opportunity to give back to the larger Boston community in a meaningful way, addressing the diversity issues that we see in the tech industry from a systemic level. Personally, Community Coding Day was a way for me, an intern at the bottom of the corporate ladder, to act on my experience existing at the intersection of being a woman, a person of color, an Asian-American, and an engineer.
Following this great event, Wayfair Engineering wrapped up its first iteration of ENGage, a volunteering program with a vision that complemented Community Coding Day, this past spring. As we continue to join in the industry-wide movement to address inequity issues existing within and created by our industry, ENGage was an important step for Wayfair, and myself, to invest in our community holistically and level the playing field for computer science education. To that end, ENGage aimed to provide opportunities for minorities, such as people of color and females, to learn the principles of Computer Science. Read on to hear more about ENGage!
Continuing the Momentum
Following the success of Community Coding Day, ENGage served as a next step in addressing the complex systemic issues that cause the lack of diversity in tech. Community Coding Day was an exciting one-day event to address systemic issues; however, society does not change in a day. Impacting change takes a movement – sparked by exciting first days, but sustained through thoughtful, long-term investment and people who are committed to seeing these investments through.
So, as I finished up the final year of my undergraduate education at Wellesley College, I also spearheaded Wayfair’s first iteration of ENGage. In partnership with Breakthrough Greater Boston, we hosted 15 of their 8th grade students for 1:1 mentorship and exposure to Computer Science principles over the course of four weekly 2-hour sessions.
What is Breakthrough Greater Boston?
Breakthrough Greater Boston is a tuition-free, out-of-school time program that supports the academic success of underserved middle and high school students across Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, MA. During the school year, they host weekly after-school programs; over the summer, they host a full day summer program. Breakthrough Greater Boston serves a student population of 99% people of color, 80% low income, and 80% first generation college students.
The goal of ENGage ran complementary to Community Coding Day. With sessions spaced out, ENGage felt more like a mile-long run than a 100-meter sprint. With the extra breathing room, we were able to intentionally invest in sparking curiosity in STEM and fostering positive relationships with mentors. We were able to tweak our lesson plans week to week, mentors were able to work with the same student each week, and students could work at their own pace.
With Breakthrough’s focus on underserved student populations, similar to Community Coding Day, ENGage was another opportunity for Wayfair Engineering to invest in community partnerships that intentionally address the root of the diversity issues we see in tech today. People of color are vastly underrepresented in the high-tech industry and Wayfair is no exception.
By exposing these students to careers in software engineering, we weren’t aiming to directly diversify our candidate pool, but were taking a small step to address the issue as it exists beyond our corporate realm.
How the Program Unfolded
The time we spent with the Breakthrough students was an absolute joy to witness. Here’s a rundown of our Week 4 session to illustrate what a typical session looked like.
4:15pm — Students arrive
At this point in the program, the students were generally comfortable and I was glad. I watched as they walked through our Copley Office with confidence – a contrast from their first week, which was instead filled with oohs, ahhs, and wide-eyed disbelief.
4:25pm — Introduce the concept of the day via non-computer activity
These activities were particularly special – they got students up, moving, and interacting with one another. Each week focused on a new computer science concept. First, we introduced them to Scratch, a block-based coding IDE, then we went over input/output behavior, then conditionals, and lastly loops.
Focusing on loops, we utilized a CS Unplugged Exercise Routine activity, which teaches loops through the steps used to instruct someone through a workout (ex. loop three times: “5 jumping jacks, 10 push ups”). Students enthusiastically volunteered (volun-told) their friends to act as the computer that would step through the exercise routine “code” we had written. They joked about how many times the exercise “code” should loop, which translated to how many burpees their friend would have to do. Students encouraged each other to call out higher numbers, mentors shouted out that it was too many burpees, a student’s mentor jokingly volunteered to do the burpees for him – it was the best kind of chaos. To be a small part of the Breakthrough community in that moment was truly a privilege.
4:45pm — Work with mentors on projects to reinforce the concept of the day
The bulk of the time was spent working 1:1 with mentors on projects that piqued students’ individual interests and catered to the general concepts that we were learning. Most students worked in Scratch, but a few chose to learn Python.
Our last week, students used the time with their mentors to finish up any projects they had started – a loan calculator they had built in Scratch and some designs made with Turtle graphics in Python to name a couple. The focus in the room was palpable, unconcerned with the announcement of cake to celebrate our last day together.
5:25pm — Dinner
Food brings people together, so it was important that we share dinner to close out each of our sessions. Even on Week 4, with some encouragement from their chaperones, students pulled themselves away from their work to get some dinner and cake.
5:45pm — Goodbye
The goodbyes at the end of Week 1 were quiet – a high-five and an exchange of “see you next week.” Week 4 was very different, indicative of the bonds that had been built over our short time together. People hugged, high-fives were more enthusiastic, then students shouted their thanks to their mentors as they rushed, cake in one hand and pizza in the other, to catch their bus home.
As someone who just finished her undergraduate education in Computer Science and Sociology, I’ve spent more hours than I can count reading sociological theory on systems of power and inequity. I also work in the technology industry, so the reality of power and inequity certainly comes to life in my corporate day-to-day. As someone who cares deeply about addressing the inequity that is ingrained in this industry, understands it from a theoretical perspective, and also lives within its system, I am sometimes paralyzed as I think about the systemic scope of the issues that we face.
Women are leaving the tech industry at higher rates than women leaving any other industry. People who hire people who look like them are evaluated harshly by their superiors unless that person (and, thus, the person they hire) is a white male. The list could go on and on.
As I dive into Wayfair as a full time software engineer this July, I’m excited to be a part of change that directly addresses some of the realities listed above. But, work done through ENGage and Community Coding Day is also important, as it raises awareness for and makes small steps to address the roots of the issue (here’s some literature if you’re interested in where I’m coming from as a sociologist). Through my experience casting vision for, and leading these initiatives, I’ve come to believe our industry can make an impact with thoughtfulness, intentionality, and prioritization of high-quality student experiences.
Not only can we make an impact, but we must. As said by Zoë Canaras, one of our volunteers, “…as a large tech company it’s on us to share the wealth of resources at our disposal with our surrounding community. We have the power (and therefore responsibility) to address and push back on discrepancies in representation and access to STEM careers.”
While addressing diversity issues is only half the battle, I am excited to see where initiatives like ENGage and Community Coding Day takes us next. I’ve passed the baton onto two coworkers, who will be organizing Community Coding Day this summer. Looking to the future, we’re excited to apply our learnings to improve ENGage for the next year of students.