Chicks That Rip: Amy Chen

We've worked with our friends RailsBridge for some time now. Late last year we hosted one of their free open worskshops for women out of our SF office. Seats filled up quickly with programmers and non-programmers alike, all eager to learn Ruby/Rails with the help of a dedicated team of volunteers. The workshop was a success. RailsBridge recently announced their 2011 workshop dates.

This month we're featuring one of the sharp, committed leaders responsible for making these workshops a reality: Amy Chen, programmer and instructor extraordinaire. Amy is leading the open workshop on February 4 in SF.

Amy gets her kicks writing software that delivers business value. She works at zozi, an Agile start-up. When she's not at work, you'll find Amy riding her bike, taking a ballet class, cooking, sewing, or wistfully staring at other people's dogs at Crissy Field.

We talked with Amy about how she fell in love with programming, how she remains motivated and committed to her work, and what makes our Ruby/Rails community distinct.

You graduated from Princeton with a CS degree. When you enrolled you thought you'd graduate an English or History major. Why the 180?

I had a great time in my first Computer Science class! I loved making friends with my classmates by working on group projects and burning the midnight oil in the CS lab. It was really satisfying to build something, either as a solo person or in groups. I loved my English & History classes too, but at some point I realized that I didn't want to be a teacher, writer, or editor.

What have you been up to since you graduated?

I've worked at mostly small private companies/start-ups. At one point, I got really burned out and considered going to culinary school, but then I found an awesome job at an Agile start-up in San Francisco. It was my experience with pair programming, test-driven development, weekly iterations, etc and I was amazed by how much fun I would have at work.

Yehuda Katz's RailsConf 2010 keynote focused on the Ruby/Rails community's knack for taking the seemingly impossible, and make it possible. Have you experienced that?

The RailsBridge Open Workshops are a great example of that! Sarah Allen and Sarah Mei have done an amazing thing by starting these workshops -- they've secured funding, they've established a curriculum, and they've created a vibrant ecosystem of volunteers that keeps these workshops alive.

Yehuda's keynote also touched on how a college degree isn't necessarily mandatory to make a meaningful impact in our Ruby/Rails community. What's your take on that perspective as a CS grad?

It depends on the person. It's true that a degree isn't necessary to be able to code well, but it's also important to have a strong theoretical background. It's probably easier to get that foundation nowadays than it was 20 years ago -- anyone who is motivated can look at a university course syllabus and use that as a guideline for what to study. _ _When were you first exposed to Ruby/Rails? Why did you stick with it?__

I was first exposed to Ruby/Rails in late 2009. I stuck with it because I love the community.

How have you seen the female developer population evolve in the past few years?

Honestly, I can't say that I've seen it evolve at all. Maybe it's because I tend to work at companies with small dev teams, so there's usually only one or two women on a team of six engieers. I wonder if/how it would be different if I were working at companies with armies of engineers.

You were introduced to Sarah Allen and Alex Chaffee at a “learn how to program Ruby in my backyard” gathering. That sparked your involvement in the RailsBridge workshops. Tell us about the workshops.

I volunteered at my first workshop in early 2010. I had just been let go from a job, and I was feeling down and needed something that made me feel useful. I got in touch with Sarah and she mentioned that there was a workshop approaching, so I volunteered as a TA and had a great time. I'm a really friendly person, and I think I was good as a TA because people weren't afraid to ask me for help because I'd do my absolute best to answer their questions clearly. I left that first workshop feeling warm and fuzzy and happy.

_ _I knew that Sarah Allen and Sarah Mei were trying to build an army of co-organizers, so when asked if I wanted to lead, I said “sure why the heck not?”

Ways other community members can participate and contribute to the cause?

Volunteer! It's fun and rewarding.

Any advice for folks starting to explore a programming career?

Try to find a place that genuinely walks the Agile walk. Pair programming is a great way to learn, and it's also a fantastic way to get to know your coworkers and to build team morale. Test-driven development and continuous integration will save you hours of wasted time trying to figure out why something that used to work is now broken, and they will give you the freedom to refactor your code with peace of mind. I'd also advise people to leave some time for hobbies and activities outside of work. It's really easy to get consumed by work, and then all of a sudden you're working 12-14 hour days and weekends, and most likely you'll burn out. Make sure to make time for yourself.

We hope you're inspired by Amy's story too. Are you ready to step up to lead or volunteer a workshop in your area? Get in touch and get involved.

Do you know any smart, tech savvy ladies in the technology space? We'll be featuring one a month here on our blog. If you've got suggestions for folks to recognize, please send them our way.