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Clockwise from top left: The code evangelists: S.M. Chandima Wijendra, Faezrah Rizalman, Joanne Chia, and Jeannette Goon. The girls behind Rails Girls KL tell Amalina Kamal why coding is the way to go.

The girls behind Rails Girls KL tell Amalina Kamal why coding is the way to go.

WHEN a friend recently asked me about the type of skill I would pick up if I were to drop my current vocation, I quickly replied: “coding”.

No one can shed light on my choice better than the girls behind Rails Girls KL — a platform that promotes computer science education to the public.

The Rails Girls concept started in Finland but eventually expanded across the globe where it is seen nowadays as a non-profit volunteer community.

Joanne Chia, who makes up a quarter of the spirited group that is actively spearheading the initiative within the country, says: “Coding is akin to the new Mandarin. It is the future’s basic form of literacy.”

“I learnt to code much later in my career — although I wish I had known about it back when I was still studying. This is because I have since realised that writing programs is a highly sought-after skill,” she adds, pointing to the number of businesses using online and mobile applications in this era.

Chia, together with fellow Rails Girls Jeannette Goon, S. M. Chandima Wijendra, and Faezrah Rizalman, hold workshops that incorporate the necessary tools, expertise and resources to encourage participants to code and create.

“Across many industries today, technology plays an important role. Even if you don’t know how to code, you still need to be able to communicate with software developers or computer programmers well enough to fulfill your business or personal needs. Coding nurtures problem-solving skills that help your daily life to become more efficient — to a point where you can be comfortable at being uncomfortable,” said Goon.

“Mastering all these fundamentals — abstraction, pattern recognition and sorting — stretches your thought processes and makes you better at making logical decisions,” Chandima added.

The girls behind Rails Girls KL tell Amalina Kamal why coding is the way to go.

CODE AND CREATE

According to Goon, most of the urban youth are already quite computer-savvy but not all of them are able to do more, “like building their own web applications or writing programs which allow customisation”.

“At our workshops — which usually takes about one day off your schedule — we foster a friendly environment and engage with participants. We get them to build interesting applications that utilise social media,” said Chia.

“For instance, we teach how to create a personalised clone of Instagram or even something like a smart chatbot — a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users over the Internet — that you may find at most e-commerce site. The girls and I even have our own bot that we call ‘Jarvis’ and it’s pretty cool,” she added.

When you click an icon on your computer screen, there is actually stuff going on in the back end. Every computer has this thing called a terminal — the blank (often black) screen — that displays and which inputs data.

As Goon explains, setting up a web application is as easy as typing a command into the terminal — but only if you understand the basic programming syntax.

Rails Girls KL focuses on the ‘Ruby on Rails’ framework.

“In programming, there is much computer language to learn. Ruby is one of the languages that is known to be user-friendly and beginner-friendly because the codes used read a lot like English,” said Goon.

“As for Rails,” she added, “it is is a web development framework (built by the community of coders) written in the Ruby language meant to make programming applications easier. Less code needs to be written to complete tasks.”

Incidentally, Bloomberg.com, Airbnb, We Heart It and Goodreads are among the platforms powered by Ruby on Rails.

Rails Girls KL’s main goal is to attract as many girls as possible to coding because the field is commonly seen as a male-dominated area. However, many of those who turn up are males.

Goon said: “There are other existing groups (such as Women Who Code where they occasionally do meet-ups and hold talks on industry practices, etc). These groups have similar goals of providing support for women in technology.

“However, there is still a gap in getting outsiders to be part of the initiative because most of the avenues are more focused at supporting individuals who are already in the field.”

Newbies (teenagers and above) as well as mentors (those tasked to help with tutorials) are certainly welcome to join, she added.

“We make sure that participants are able to follow what is being taught by keeping a tight 1:2 ratio of mentors to participants,” said Goon.

To generate better understanding and to further encourage the community to take an interest in coding, Chia shared that parents especially needed to attend the workshops and participate with their children.

“Only then will they fully comprehend the power of coding,” she said.

A coding workshop held at Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) last year.

ROAD TO EMPOWERMENT

The value of computer programming has undeniably become a hot topic, crawling out from the narrow den of the geeks to the broader population — just Google anything about coding and you’ll find an array of articles and personal experiences on it.

“Do you know Karlie Kloss? She’s a supermodel and a Victoria Secret angel. She’s also a passionate coder — check out kodewithklossy.com,” noted Chia, when asked to debunk the myth that coding is for nerds.

For those who do not know if coding is “their thing”, there is really not much to lose.

Yes, it may be harder than you expect, but think of the rewards it brings in your professional career.

“Plus, you really get to work in freedom since coding really does bring you places. Despite being a law graduate, I wanted a career that allowed me to travel at the same time. My coding expertise gives me the flexibility I need as I get to experience various job opportunities without being an in-house employee,” said Faezra.

On whether computer programming has become saturated and competitive now that people have started to take notice, Chandima noted that there is still a high demand when it comes to job opportunities.

“Companies are looking at getting tech programmers and developers. In my experience working with a company, it was hard sourcing for tech interns. We were desperate enough to hire those with basic electrical engineering expertise just to fill vacancies,” she added.

“It is a competitive market and that is what makes it exciting,” added Faezrah.

When asked about the challenges faced, she noted that there are still barriers that women programmers and developers face, “but most of it is external.”

“Those within the community do not really discriminate or doubt my potential. I often get people from outside the industry questioning my profession and telling me that I look more like an accountant or a teacher,” she added.

As for the main challenge that Rails Girls KL is facing currently, it would be funding.

“There are costs that we need to manage when organising our workshops. With the whole initiative being a volunteer effort, it can be quite difficult,” said Goon.

Supermodel Karlie Kloss (right) is an avid coder and has set up a Klossy Career Scholarship for women who are passionate about building a career in coding.

For more information, go to www.facebook.com/railsgirlskl.

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