Going To The Source

I first learned to code when I was four years old. My parents ended up buying a Commodore 64 despite the fact that it cost nearly as much as a car at the time, and I was immediately in love. (This despite the fact that my early exposure to it involved a lot of attempts at getting me to like Cave of the Word Wizard, which is easily one of the creepiest educational games of all time.)

The computer itself was so expensive that we didn’t get a floppy drive right away, since that was easily several hundred dollars more at the time. We had a couple of games on cartridges that plugged into the back of the C64, but most of what I did with the computer back then came from magazines. At the time, there was a magazine called Compute!'s Gazette, which had the source for programs in the back of the issue that you could enter into the computer and run. Since the operating system for the C64 was effectively BASIC, you could type the source directly in without running any additional software, run it, and have a game to play until you shut the computer down.

So I was primarily using the computer to play games, but I was also learning, at a really early age, what it takes to get a program to run. What's more, this was something that I could do by myself if I took the time to learn it, which I did. I was awesome at coding infinite loops to fill the screen with repeated text. When we eventually got a 300 baud modem and a subscription to Q-Link later on, I'd download public domain text adventure games and dump the source when I got stuck to see what to do next. This was the closest I could get to actual magic as a kid, and that feeling followed me through college and into a job where I get to make something out of nothing on a daily basis.

The thing is, I was lucky for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that I happened to be a boy. In the 80s, computers were very much marketed as something for boys, so it was an easy choice for my parents to go to the store and drop a significant amount of money on it for me to have. If I was a girl, I'd like to think my parents would have been progressive enough to still get the Commodore 64, but statistics say that's considerably less likely. Things have improved since then, but still not enough.

This has been on my mind lately because I'm in the process of figuring out how to introduce my oldest daughter to programming over the summer. She's close to a year ahead in math, so it seems like it's the right time to expose her to programming and see if it's something she likes to do. If she doesn't, that's fine, but it's important that she has that opportunity to be exposed to it and determine for herself if it's something that she could enjoy and be good at, just like I did at an early age.

My daughter is lucky, though, even though she doesn't know it, because most girls aren't in a situation where they can get that exposure early on. Programming is still seen as something "for boys" despite all the change that's happened of late, so there are a lot of girls out there who could be awesome at programming but might not ever end up getting a chance to try it; they might not have parents who are able to help them get started, and signing up for a course either in or out of school can be intimidating if it means potentially being the only girl in the room. (This is true even before harassment becomes a concern; one of my twins, despite our best efforts, bristles at trying anything she considers a "boy thing", and she's six.)

That's where App Camp For Girls comes in. This is a fantastic organization that puts on one week camps exclusively for teenaged girls, with exclusively women instructors, and gives them the opportunity to design and build an app from start to finish in a comfortable environment. They do fantastic work, and right now they're trying to raise funds to expand their efforts to more cities across the U.S. and Canada to be able to help more girls get the start they need to make a living coding. It's a cause that's really important to me, having three daughters who have the potential to do amazing things with technology if they want to, and if you feel the same, they could really use your support right now.

If you're interested in learning more about App Camp For Girls, my friend Aleen Simms has a fantastic interview with their founder, Jean MacDonald. After that, please go to App Camp For Girls' Indiegogo page and donate what you can. If we keep leaving girls' prospects in technology up to luck, things will never improve.