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Trying on the Ruby programming slippers

It began in Helsinki, Finland. Committed to promoting the participation of women and girls in web development and programming, the inaugural Rails Girls in 2010 drew over one hundred participants and has since expanded into a worldwide initiative.

In July, Brisbane hosted its fifth (now yearly) Rails Girls workshop. Free and intended for women only, it is one of a growing number of programs seeking to address the gender imbalance in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. 

The workshop kicked off on a Friday evening, at Fortitude Valley’s own River City Labs. Nigel Rausch, identifying himself as MC, put on his best jokes and internet humour as he introduced Rails Girls’ modus operandi and its Swiss Army toolset, Ruby on Rails.

Ruby, a programming language developed in Japan by Yukihiro Matsumoto in the 1990s, is the soul of Rails Girls. In the words of computational philosopher Dave Kinkead, a Rails Girls mentor, Ruby has “syntantic sugar”; nimble and lucid, it is a boon to programmers weary of obfuscatory programming languages.

Rails is web application framework, a software library that extends and combines Ruby with other web languages – HTML, CSS, and Javascript – to create web apps. Ruby and Rails, it seemed, were the crown jewels to attendees’ futures as programming queens.

Present and lurking at the back of the room were the (men)tors and alumna of Rails Girls Brisbane. These former were women who, after attending previous Rails Girls workshops, went on to work in web development and programming using Ruby. 

The stories they told of their varying paths to employment in the industry were reassurance that programming and programs like Rails Girls matter. Among their audience were women in all their diverse ways of being – and one girl, who – according to her mother Rachel – wants to be a programmer when she grows up. 

Alas, mjuvenile forays into coding bottlenecked at HTML and CSS, somewhere between the <head> and </footer> tags of some blog. Thankfully, Rails Girls assumethat every attendee is a beginner.

Rail Girls' free and open event drew a full house of (mostly) women programmers to River City Labs. Photos: Jeya Karthika

Rails Girls’ free and open event drew a full house of (mostly) women programmers to River City Labs. Photos: Jeya Karthika.

On Saturday, we set to work building our first app using Ruby on Rails. An online tutorial guided attendees through their initial coding steps, with jargon satisfactorily explained so as not to spoil the curiosity of learning the Ruby code.

From early in the morning until late afternoon, the day followed a rotating schedule of short talks (on topics such as how the internet actually works, and the merits of test-driven development) and time to work through the tutorial. Mentors anchored themselves throughout the room to assist with questions and any inevitable confusionWe were reminded never to copy + paste code, for such shortcuts lead to sloth and panic when you realise you haven’t really learned the language.

Lunch was a relaxed affair in which piles of (delicious, free) food languished on tables beyond the reach of busy laptop screens. It seemed that participants were having too much fun coding to eat.

Kyla, a librarian from the Gold Coast, had concerns that she may feel out of place at Rails Girls. A self-professed “end-user of technology”, Kyla saw photos online of similar events in Europe, and felt they were “very staged, very pretty. There [were] lots of unicorns.” But Rails Girls surpassed her expectations.

I’ve enjoyed the challenge more than I thought, it’s very different to what I expected,” Kyla said. “I’ve made a little app and I actually understand, more importantly, how some of the structures underneath are working.”

“And I’m starting to break things,” she said.

For Rachelle le Quesne, one of the alumna and organisers of Rails Girls Brisbane, learning Ruby was a chance to try something new. Rachelle already worked in IT and had attended Rails Girls during a “mid-life crisis”. She was drawn to Ruby for its community and distinct programming style.

“The Ruby community is a little bit quirky,” Rachelle said. “In the, you know, the names of the gems [third-party libraries] and stuff, there’s a sense of humour there, and because it’s open-source everyone is open and sharing.”

Open-source software allows users to access the blueprint or source-code of a program and modify it to suit their whims. These modifications can then be shared with the community, allowing for further alterations, forks or improvements on the source-code. Ruby is a popular nexus for a creative scene of programmers sharing their modified source-code online with Git and Github.

But it was not just the collaborative nature of Ruby’s community that attracted Rachelle to the language.

The community, the people, are very welcoming and friendly,” Rachelle mused. “It was a community I wanted to join.”

To learn more about Ruby on Rails in Brisbane, contact the BrisRuby meetup group.  

About Stephanie Vidot