Coding 2012

(This post was written by Sheila Bapat, CfA’s Donor Relations Manager.)

I recently signed up for Pivotal Labs RailsBridge workshop which takes place on March 30, though currently placed on a growing waitlist of interested folks. This workshop helps participants build a complete web application using Ruby on Rails. “By the end of the workshop, you’ll have an application on the internet that connects to a database and reads and writes information.” Sounds ambitious (especially for non-techie me), but effective. I also created a Code Academy account, as a backup plan.

In a nutshell, I am committed to learning to code this year (though it will likely take me well into 2013, involve a great deal of hand wringing and a very patient, Zen-like teacher. Good luck, Pivotal.).

Why on earth would an attorney, fundraiser, and political/gender justice advocate like myself spend this major political year learning to code? The answer is: I’ve been successfully indoctrinated by Jennifer Pahlka and the CfA community. Having joined CfA as Donor Relations Manager in October, I have come to believe that coding is one of the most important new skills I could ever gain as a citizen.

Jen Pahlka’s recent TED talk sums it up perfectly: Our input into government is primarily via voting and supporting candidates. But that input does not necessarily deliver expected return, or even any return. In fact, government is a “vast ocean” that requires interface from citizens from multiple angles.

I am a lifelong civic engagement advocate, but for most of my life I’ve primarily defined civic engagement within the confines of the political realm. Voting, registering other voters, and backing political candidates is a big part of who I am. As a teenager, I joined the Kids Voting USA delegation at the Republican National Convention in San Diego, filled with the alacrity of the moment and inspired by the delegates around me. (The republican presidential candidate was Bob Dole, trying to oust incumbent President Clinton.) I went on be politically active as a college student, and I am still active in supporting strong candidates at all levels who represent my values.

But Code for America has helped me see how, like any complex problem, multi-pronged solutions are required to improve government and empower citizens to make real change. Citizen involvement cannot just be relegated to walking precincts for a candidate, fundraising, or by screaming along with cable news shows (in fact, I may keep my TV off more this year than I have in the past). There are clear ways to elevate government performance and citizen engagement independent of our elected officials and the pomp and circumstance of the political season.

By no means are civic hacking and political activism mutually exclusive. However, my understanding of how I can help has expanded dramatically since joining Code for America. Truly, the possibilities seem endless; that an application to help citizens dig fire hydrants out from under the snow in Boston has been adopted by citizens in Honolulu for an entirely different purpose, demonstrates the agility and potential of writing code for civic purposes, and the impact that even simple web applications can have within communities. It would be nice, if even in a limited way, to be able to contribute to my city and community the way our fellows do.

And in terms of gender justice – this Ruby class is geared toward women, as are a growing host of meetup groups and code training workshops. Far too few women choose to learn to code – and this skill is the gateway to success in Silicon Valley.

I will report back about my Coding 2012 experiences. I hope Pivotal has enough room for me in their class, and if not, I will be persistent in getting into the next one. In the meantime, I will be checking out Code Academy, and I hope to pick up some pointers from our illustrious fellows. Suggestions/tutorials are welcome!

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Jeff Ribeira

Nice post Abhi/Sheila. I was at a hackathon over the weekend and was impressed by what a lot of those college students, many of whom even had limited coding experience, could pull out. Keep it up!

If you’re looking for other cool resources, I’d recommend one I came across recently called Udacity (brainchild of Sebastian Thrun). They’ve got a number of free online courses on computer science, and for a variety of skill levels so it should be enough course work to keep you busy for quite a while.