Django Girls one year later

By Jake Edge
July 22, 2015

Though it got a bit of a late start due to some registration woes, the first day of EuroPython 2015 began with an engaging and well-received keynote. It recounted the history of a project that got its start just a year ago when the first Django Girls workshop was held at EuroPython 2014 in Berlin. The two women who started the project, Ola Sitarska and Ola Sendecka, spoke about how the workshop to teach women about Python and the Django web framework all came together—and the amazing progress that has been made by the organization in its first year.

It all started when Sitarska and Sendecka met while organizing DjangoCon 2013 that was held in their home country of Poland. They decided to hold the event in a circus tent at a horse racing track in Warsaw. They were able to make that event work, which provided a strong bond that obviously continues to this day. Sendecka said that experience is a great way to get to know someone and that they both recognized they could pull off "crazy things" together.

[Ola Sitarska and Ola Sendecka]

It is, they noted, quite a coincidence that their names are the same length and only differ by a few letters; both also come from the same region of Poland (Silesia). They now live in London and both work as Django developers for a company called Potato. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some people think there is only one "Ola", which results in a fair amount of misdirected email and other types of confusion.

A fable

As a way of introducing Django Girls, they began with a fable of sorts that was illustrated with some eye-catching drawings made by Sendecka (slides at Speaker Deck). The story was about "Liz", who is a squirrel who is fascinated by technology and programming in particular. As she makes her way into the "forest of technology", though, she finds that there are few squirrels who are interested in technology. In fact, most of those who are learning about technology in the forest were all very similar to each other, but much different from her.

In fact, the others were badgers, she discovered. She wanted to fit in, but always stood out from the badger pack. They were generally nice, and she had nothing against badgers, but she could feel the eyes of the badgers on her whenever she entered a room and she was often "complimented" with lines like: "You are not like other squirrels" or "You are pretty good at technology for a squirrel."

She realized that the badgers knew lots about technology, so she thought she should perhaps become more badger-like to fit in. But that didn't change anything, she was still an outsider. At one point she organized a technology event and was asked by a badger whether she was just there for social reasons. She constantly had to prove her knowledge of technology, while badgers who knew far less than her were able to speak up freely.

Liz started to lose confidence in herself, worried that she was too shy and reserved to ever fit into the technology crowd, even though she loved the technical aspects of the field. She was able to make some friends among the badgers, though when she looked closely, she realized they weren't really badgers. Instead, they were really various other types of animals that only just kind of looked like badgers. The support from these friends helped her push on with her studies.

After a while, Liz realized that the problem wasn't with her, it was with the technology forest itself. She had to do so much more than badgers did to get the same recognition, but when she brought that subject up, it was not well-received, or even believed, by the badgers. She asked around about the problem on the internet and got the predictable responses about squirrel's inherent inferiority and inability to ever truly master technology.

Liz despaired of the situation ever changing. She was too tired to fight every day for her place, but then, through a fortunate series of events, she met another squirrel who loved technology. This squirrel was also named "Liz" and they became fast friends. She finally had someone with whom she could share her frustrations of trying to live in the forest of technology. She realized that she is not the only squirrel who loved technology, but was as intimidated and scared by the badger's world as she was.

Liz and Liz started to think about how awesome it would be if there were more squirrels that could get involved with technology and who could learn to love programming the way they did. So they came up with a crazy plan to teach other squirrels how to code. They told all of their friends about the idea and with their support, and the help of lots of others who joined in, the idea became a reality.

In the year since then, thousands of squirrels have learned how to program. It is all because two little squirrels met at the right time and became excited about this crazy idea. Today, they said, Liz is standing on the stage at EuroPython telling the story of this journey and of a dream that became a reality. That dream is Django Girls.

Teaching Python and Django

Sitarska and Sendecka started organizing the first Django Girls workshop just two months before last year's conference. It was targeted at teaching women who were complete beginners and had "never written a line of code in their life". In the year since, they have seen over 1600 women attend these workshops from "literally all over the world".

After a meeting with one of the EuroPython organizers, Sitarska got the idea to run a workshop. She immediately sent Sendecka email asking if she wanted to help. In something of a massive understatement, in the email she said "I don't think it's gonna be a lot of work ...". Sendecka responded "she lied" with a laugh. The idea was to get twenty students and six coaches for the workshop and to use an existing Django tutorial from the internet.

So they started working on putting the workshop together that day. But, most of the time, "we had absolutely no idea what we were doing". The amount of work started to snowball. They came up with the idea of providing financial aid for attendees, which required more sponsors and figuring out how to transfer money to the students.

They also realized that they didn't like any of the tutorials that were out there. All of them assumed that the reader was already a programmer and knew what a web framework is, what a server is, and so on. They ended up writing their own tutorial, which turned out to be roughly 90 pages of text.

In addition, they promoted the workshop in all of the places they could think of and ended up spending a lot of time evaluating the 300 attendee applications. Eventually the workshop expanded to 45 attendees, which meant that 15 coaches were needed as Django Girls has a 3:1 ratio for students to coaches.

The Django Girls tutorial has now been read by over 94,000 people at this point, which is 1/4 the population of Bilbao (where EuroPython 2015 was held), they noted. In total, 1,646 women have learned Python and Django in these workshops. More than 70 have now been held in 34 countries on 6 continents. Nothing, so far, in Antarctica, but "we are working on that too", Sendecka said with a chuckle.


The project has grown so much that a legal entity was needed to administer it, so the Django Girls Foundation was started in June. Django Girls has been so successful because of the huge numbers of volunteers who have put in their own time as organizers (137), contributors to the tutorial (111), and as part of a "huge army of coaches" (548). It came to a point where overseeing all of that became too much, so they asked for help and got four more people who are now helping to administer the project; they "help keep us sane".

That still is not enough, they realized, so they have made the big decision to hire the first paid position for the foundation. They are looking for an "Ambassador of Awesomeness" to help ensure that the organization does the best work that it can. It was a bit of a terrifying decision, especially since "we still don't know what we are doing and are making it up as we go". But they are sure it is the right decision to make to ensure that Django Girls "is sustainable and can grow beyond us".

They believe that things are just getting started for the project and that it can have an even bigger impact down the road. They have another big project in the works that they shared for the first time at the conference. The tutorial was enjoyable to write and "to our surprise we must have done a pretty good job". They get many requests for more advanced tutorials or ones that cover other parts of computer science. The tutorial was necessarily geared toward how much can be taught in a single day, so it skimmed over lots of material to make it all fit.

But there is much more about computers and the internet that can be taught, so they are in the process of writing a book. It will try to capture the style of the workshops but cover more material in a book that will be "beautifully crafted". The book is called Yay Python and those interested can follow the progress at that web site. The announcement was met with a loud round of applause and a stage whisper that there is "no going back on that now".

The book will build on the Django Girls tradition, with "a good dose of emoji and funny little quirks". It is still a tutorial on how to build a Django web site, but there will be lots more material, including chapters on topics like "how a computer works" and a "connect the dots" exercise to explain HTTP requests and responses. It will also talk about the communities behind Python and Django, along with how open source works. The idea is to help people "fall in love with the internet as we did".

One rule

The one rule they have adhered to throughout the Django Girls process is to "always go the extra mile" and the details of the workshops show this, they said. The room is decorated with flowers and balloons, rather than being a "boring classroom" and they do fun things like cupcake tasting or yoga during the day. To ensure that organizers have all of the information they need to run the event, and that attendees have a similar experience no matter where the event is held, there is an organizer's guide. There is also a coaching manual. All of that material is open source, so that it can be repurposed as needed. It "took weeks to write down" all of that information, but they want to ensure that Django Girls is bigger than just the two of them.

Workshops are meant to be fun and friendly. Enthusiasm from the organizers, coaches, and participants helps with that. "The power of enthusiasm is huge", they said. When the two of them get excited, that gets passed on to organizers and from there to participants. That is part of what has made Django Girls so successful so quickly.

But every labor of love comes "with a huge emotional cost". It is an enormous job and one that they always feel they are not quite putting enough of themselves into. The thing that keeps them going when they are feeling that way, though, is the stories from women who have literally changed their lives by attending the workshops.

For example, there is Dori, who was sitting in the keynote audience somewhere, and was attending her second EuroPython. At the pilot workshop, she spent half of the time in the workshop trying to get the Django server to play nicely with her Hungarian keyboard. At the time, they thought she had "the worst experience ever" and would probably never want to have anything to do with Django or programming ever again. But today she is a Django developer in Budapest, has organized a monthly meeting for Python developers, and organized two Django Girls workshops there.

Another was Josie, who was only 13 when she attended the first workshop with her mother. Immediately after that, she did a lightning talk at EuroPython in front of a thousand people about her Django Girls experience and her plan to organize the Pyxie Dust project to create a similar workshop for girls her age. That event took place in Zagreb, Croatia in 2014.

Or Linda, who organized a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya just a few months after the initial workshop in Berlin. She "blazed a trail" for other women who organized workshops in Africa after that, they said. They talked about several other women who have "graduated" from attending the workshop to organizing and coaching at others, as well as getting involved in the Python and Django communities in other ways. The Django Girls blog has lots of similar stories as well as event reports and other news.

They concluded their talk with a "huge thank you" to everyone that has helped out along the way. Their dream is for Django Girls not to be needed at some point. It may take 5, 10, or 15 years, but if that can happen, they will have achieved everything they set out to do. That is the ultimate goal for the project.

One thing they learned over the last year is that "kindness is contagious". If you put a lot of energy and effort into something to help others, "the universe will find a way to pay it all back to you". They encouraged others to follow in their footsteps; to find their dream and make it happen. All that it took was "two little squirrels with a big, big dream and a generous, wonderful community" to create something like Django Girls. Remember that "you are not alone, you are among friends", they finished—to thunderous applause.

A YouTube video of the talk is also available.

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