Scary questions at Django Girls Atlanta

This morning I was cleaning off my desk and found a stack of notecards from Django Girls Atlanta. They formed the basis for one of my fondest memories of the event, so I thought I might take a moment to share. Whether you’re planning your own Django Girls or involved in mentoring more generally, I hope you’ll find it useful to hear some of the things new coders are afraid to ask, but really want – and need – to know.

Backstory: the cards were used in a raffle game called “Scary questions”. On each, a student wrote something she was afraid to ask for any number of reasons. Perhaps she was nervous that her question was too basic, and presumed it a possible “waste” of her coach’s valuable time. Or maybe she felt guilty because it seemed like something she should already know… and was embarrassed to admit that she didn’t.

Whatever the reason, our Django Girls were invited to leave it at the door and ask away for the chance to win an O’Reilly book: Lightweight Django, Automate the Boring Stuff with Python, TDD with Python, Introducing Python, Think Python, the Git Pocket Guide.  Students entered the raffle by writing their questions on an index card and dropping it into a box. When it was time to draw one, I asked all of the coaches in the room to stand up. Once the question was read aloud, any coach could answer, and then the student who asked was identified – the winner!

Here are the actual questions that were asked, transcribed from the notecards as written:

I’m afraid to ask and would like to know this, so… what’s the difference between a software engineer and a programmer?

What exactly is a repository and how does it work?

What does GitHub do again?

How can I get involved with developing the Django source code?

How would I control the name of my URL?

What is the real difference between Django and WordPress? Are they both CMSs?

What is Bash? I have seen it several times today in my console and on PythonAnywhere.

What is the difference between and/or importance of a virtual environment and a virtual computer?

Do we have to use PythonAnywhere? Is there another way to host our work online?

What if I’m embarrassed of my coding skills, should I still upload to GitHub?

What is Spring? How does it compare to Django?

Should I still apply for jobs even if I don’t meet all the minimum requirements for the posted job?

How difficult is it to break into programming if you are a novice?

How long will it take to master Django/Python?

I’m not really afraid to ask any questions at this workshop, but in general I am afraid that I will never know enough about programming to get a job in it. When will I know enough??

How do I keep going? Where can I get help if I need it in the future?

Mostly I was afraid to ask how all this information is connected.

It’s important to note that raffle was at the close of the workshop, in the last hour of our second day together. Even after sitting with a caring, knowledgeable coach and working on a supportive team over two days, our students still had questions that ranged from specific “basics” (what exactly is Bash, again?) to the more generally intimidating (can I ever really master this? How will I know I’m ready?).

I enjoy giving talks at tech conferences about the experience of being a beginner programmer, because once you’ve mastered something, or even developed a working proficiency, it’s remarkably hard to remember how significant the barriers to entry can feel when you’re first getting started. Yet getting a feel for what it’s like is crucial for effective, compassionate coaching. I hope you’ll consider these questions thoughtfully and remember that even when we do our very best to provide welcoming, supportive learning environments, there will still be some “scary questions”. What will you do to help ease that fear?


Django Girls ATL

Atlanta’s first Django Girls was Friday, September 25 & Saturday, September 26. It was a huge success!

A picture of Django Girls Atlanta attendees and coaches.

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I wanted to take some time to write up how it went.

My hope is that if you’re planning a Django Girls workshop, you’ll find this encouraging, and maybe pick up a few good ideas. If you’re thinking about sponsoring, I want you to see how very worth it supporting the workshop will be. And if you’re considering coaching, volunteering, or attending as a student, you’ll see how much fun you’ll have!

Planning: from the beginning!

I learned about Django Girls from my friend Anna Ossowski, who gave an inspiring talk at PyTennessee this February. It was so inspiring, in fact, that I decided on the spot that I wanted Atlanta to have Django Girls. I returned home full of great ideas, new connections, and the drive to make the workshop a reality.

However, there wasn’t really a community for women doing Python in Atlanta. Our PyLadies meetup was dormant at the time. If this was going to happen, I’d need to lead the charge! Thankfully, we did have a very active PyATL Meetup that I’d been attending, where I made and expanded connections.

In the spring, I worked with PyATL organizer Doug Hellman and my PyLadies co-organizer Alianor to sketch a vision for PyLadies and get it up and running again. To grow momentum and interest in Python among women in Atlanta, I wanted to host Django Girls. Doug & Alianor were supportive, and I gave a talk at PyATL in May where I explained the Django Girls program and invited folks to join as volunteers and mentors.

There were few sign-ups at first, but there was enough to give me confidence to keep going. I figured that since the event wasn’t til the fall, there was still time. Indeed: after giving another PyLadies talk in August at PyATL, we had enough coaches to make the event possible!

I made the Twitter account on July 20 and the website went live about a month later, on August 13, after I’d secured our corporate sponsorships.


A picture of students from the Django Girls workshop.

A picture of students from the Django Girls workshop.

Sponsorships: 100% Funded by Tech Companies

Okay, now that you know the backstory, let’s talk about corporate sponsorships. If you know me outside of this post, you might already be aware of my background in professional fundraising. So let’s have a few words about how you might manage sponsorships, especially if it’s something you’ve never done before.

The most important aspect of fundraising is probably what you love the most about Django: the people. Effective fundraising is all about telling stories about your values and vision to someone you hope will share them. Whether you’re trying to raise $500 or $5000, you need to be able to do the same, basic things: reach out to your contacts, articulate your vision, ask for support, and thank them profusely when you get it.

Django Girls ATL was 100% funded by tech companies who care about diversity and creating opportunities for women. Two of our sponsors are based here in Atlanta: MailChimp and Kabbage, Inc. DreamHost is based in California, but they have employees here, awesome folks I met through PyATL. ThoughtWorks is based in Chicago, but they have a (totally gorgeous, amazing) office in Atlanta.

For each of these companies, I connected with someone who shared my vision and advocated internally for Django Girls. Thanks go to Ryan at DreamHost, Alianor at MailChimp, Chris at Kabbage, and finally, Rick of Atlanta’s Clojure meetup, who put me in touch with our event host Ryanne at ThoughtWorks. The help and internal influence of each of these folks was critical.

A picture of students from the Django Girls workshop.

A picture of students from the Django Girls workshop.

A picture of swag from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

A picture of a student from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

A new way of doing swag: partnering with Hello Web App!

From the Klean Kanteens at DjangoCon Europe to the belt buckle at DjangoCon US, Django conference organizers make an effort to offer thoughtful swag. I wanted to do the same for my first class of Django Girls by including something that would help attendees continue with their study after the workshop. What could be better than a copy of Tracy Osborn’s fantastic tutorial Hello Web App?

When I talked about it with Tracy at DjangoCon, she was thrilled! When she told me that she’d found a sponsor – thank you Opbeat! – to cover the cost of donating the books to my workshop, I was elated! It was a win-win.

Since Tracy and I share a love of selfies, I asked our students to take “Hello Web App selfies” and tag them with @limedaring, @opbeat, @hellowebapp and the hashtag #thankyouHWA.

A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.


A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

Attendance: 100% Participation with NO no-shows

As anyone who has ever put on a free event might tell you, there are always going to be people who sign up but don’t show up.

Imagine my surprise when I handed out nametags on Friday evening and discovered that every single person who RSVPed was there: every coach, student, and volunteer! We had 100% participation with NO no-shows both days!

Fabulous Django Girls organizer Lacey asked me to share the communication plan that might have enabled this achievement. It probably helped that I communicated, very clearly, how important it was for people to confirm their attendance. This message, which went out two days before the event, really captures it:

An email that was sent to Django Girls attendees about the importance of RSVPing.

We actually accepted attendees on two different occasions. At first, 20 people were accepted into the program. I had them confirm their attendance with one week of receiving acceptance. If you did not confirm, I gave you one more chance by sending a personal email. One person did not respond, was removed from the roster, and was notified.

Within a few weeks, people who had confirmed said they actually wouldn’t be able to make it. I also got a few more coaches. This combination meant I could accept more students, so after talking it over with Lacey, I decided to accept new applicants for “one day only!” a few days before the event. Seven new students were admitted to the program for a total of 24, and the waiting list grew by dozens.

In my communication, I emphasized the specialness of this opportunity and the length of the waiting list. Lots of Atlanta women would have loved to be in the first class of Django Girls, but because of space, we could only accept 24. Even though it was a free event, I wanted people to take it seriously. I’m so glad they did!

A picture of a whiteboard with hashtags and "YAY" in big balloon letters.A picture of thank you notes.

An image of a heart-felt thank you note from a student to her coach.

Thanking folks: it’s really, really, ridiculously important

Showing gratitude is an important step of fundraising that often doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. It’s not enough to make connections, make your case, and ask for money. You have to let folks know you appreciate it, and what a difference it made!

A spirit of sincere thankfulness permeated this workshop. I thanked the students, coaches, and volunteers for their hard work every time they arrived and at each break. I also had them extend their thanks to the folks who made this possible by doing the following:

A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.


A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

Provide quality food that everyone can eat

As someone with dietary restrictions, I know all too well the disappointment of attending a special event and being served iceberg lettuce while the folks around me enjoy creamy, decadent, thoughtfully-prepared delights. And as a former personal chef, I really care a whole lot about making food delicious. For this event, I was determined to provide food that everyone could eat and enjoy.

The thing is, the most accommodating cuisine you can serve is vegetarian/vegan, because everyone can eat it! (It’s also a feminist issue.) My students and coaches had a variety of dietary restrictions, from “no pork” and “dairy free” to vegetarian and even vegan. I decided to make the event fully vegetarian and mostly vegan to make everyone feel welcomed and cared for.

For Friday night, we had a vegetarian fajita bar with fajita veggies, seared orange tofu, two types of beans, and all of the fixins, from Willy’s Mexicana Grill. Saturday breakfast was giant fluffy cinnamon rolls, five types of scones, bagels, and gluten-free biscuits, all baked fresh that morning by local bakery Dulce Vegan. Gluten-free attendees also received fresh fruit and dairy-free yogurt.

For Saturday lunch, the students were treated to a full Italian feast: spaghetti with homemade marinara, gluten-free ziti marinara, veggie chicken francese (vegan chicken in vegan butter, white wine, and whole fresh lemon slices), vegan eggplant parmigiana, and veggie chicken marsala (vegan chicken in marsala wine with mushrooms). There were also tons of garlic rolls and two giant salads. This was provided by Vito’s Pizza and Ristorante in Alpharetta. The owner even delivered everything!

A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

A breakfast of vegan cinnamon rolls by Dulce Vegan and a nice big fair-trade coffee to start the day. Why not?

A picture of lunch: Italian food.

A picture of a lunch plate: Italian food.

A picture of decorated cupcakes.

Oh, and I baked cupcakes the morning of the workshop (yes… I know…) because it’s not a Django Girls event if you don’t have cupcakes!

I cannot tell you how many times people came up to thank me for providing quality food that they enjoyed and could eat. People were so, so, so happy. One attendee who was not vegetarian, but who has severe allergies to gluten and dairy, said that it was the most care she’d ever received at a special event.

For any organizers out there, here’s what it cost to serve 40 people the following meals:

  • Dinner Friday night: $516.92
  • Breakfast Saturday morning: $270.00
  • Coffee service Saturday morning: $122.32
  • Lunch Saturday: $545.39
  • Coffee service Saturday afternoon: $122.32
  • Snacks Saturday afternoon: about $50

As a thank you to the coaches, I budgeted funds to take them out to a nice dinner and drinks at Wrecking Bar Brewpub, an award-winning brewery and restaurant. They had a great time! When you’re saying thanks, don’t forget to find a meaningful way to acknowledge the sacrifice that your coaches and volunteers make to help out at your event.

Picture of Django Girls Atlanta coaches looking tired.

Don’t worry, these tired coaches were treated to a really nice dinner and lots of beer following. Do it right!


A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

A picture of participants from the Django Girls Atlanta workshop.

Think quickly, be flexible, and remember: Have Fun!

People kept coming up to tell me how well-planned the event was, how seamless the transitions were, and how wonderfully structured it was. And surely, I gave some thought to how I wanted things to go in advance. But it’s important to be open to thinking quickly and flexibly, because there’s only so much you can plan in advance. Also, remember, you’re supposed to have some fun with it! When you’re relaxed and having a good time, you more easily think of solutions to issues as they come up.

For example, when my O’Reilly books didn’t arrive by the event to give away as prizes, I didn’t fret. We still did the raffle, but instead of giving folks their prizes that day, I invited all winners to pick up their prizes at the next PyLadiesATL Meetup on October 20. This way they get what they won, but also have an incentive to continue community involvement by checking out a meetup (possibly their first!).

Similarly, even after folks went back for seconds and thirds of lunch, we still had lots of leftovers because our caterer was so generous. I used to volunteer at a homeless shelter where they serve the residents a hot meal every night, either prepared in-house or donated. When I called to ask if we could send over our untouched pans of pasta, salad, and bread, they were thrilled! (Thanks to my sweetie Curtis for making that very special delivery.)

If I had been really stressed out, I probably wouldn’t have been thinking clearly, and definitely wouldn’t have had as much fun. So remember: whether you’re on your own as I was, or on a team, make sure you have a good time!

Teachers standing with their students during a game

So serious during one of our raffles.

A picture of six Python books that were given as raffle prizes.

Our awesome raffle giveaways!


Coach Chris explains how it all fits together.


Stickers and tattoos!

Final notes:

These are just a few random thoughts that might help other organizers:

  • Don’t forget to have first aid kits! Ours had ibuprofen, acetaminophen, Midol, migraine medicine, Tums, band-aids, Neosporin, alcohol wipes, cleansing cloths, tampons, and sanitary pads.
  • Provide pens and paper for your students! They were in our swag bags.
  • Have a raffle to reward attendees and break the monotony! We had two! You could enter to win an awesome O’Reilly book, or Two Scoops of Django, by answering one or both of the following questions:
    • Describe a specific action you plan to take, and when, to support a woman in your life who wants to learn how to code.
    • Ask your scary question – the one that you’re afraid to ask because you think it’s too basic, or sounds silly, or any other reason.
  • Don’t forget to stop everybody for stretch and snack break. Folks will keep working like robots unless you remind them they’re human – say things like “Can you believe it’s been an hour and a half since your last break? You’ve been working so hard! Give yourself a pat on the back, take a stretch, and get some water!”
  • Take a group shot! You want those memories.
  • Encourage folks when they do cool things and be sure to tell everybody. Our coach Cameron set up a Slack channel!
  • Get as many coaches as possible so that you can keep your student-teacher ratio low! This is all about learning, right, and most folks learn best when they get individual attention. Our student teacher ratio was two students per one teacher.
  • Do you have any advanced applicants to your program who don’t feel comfortable coaching solo? Have them join your team as a coaches’ aide! They can provide additional support to a coach and learn at the same time.
A weird picture of coffee boxes in a shopping cart in a rainy parking lot.

It’s not all glory and glamour: sometimes you’ll find yourself picking up a coffee order in the rain on a few hours’ sleep. But don’t worry. It’s worth it.

And thanks:

  • Anna for introducing me to Django Girls and encouraging me to make it happen
  • All of the Django Girls core/support team for putting together great training materials (tutorial and coaching manual); Baptiste for setting up my email account and providing instructions on the website; Lacey for answering all of my weird questions (really, really fast!)
  • Alianor for providing moral support and working with MailChimp to get funding
  • Chris for advocating for funding from Kabbage
  • Ryan for connecting me with DreamHost folks
  • Tracy for sending her books and for working with Opbeat as a sponsor
  • ALL of the amazing coaches! Alec, JR, Marvin, Maura, Ryan, David, Shawn, Chris, Wendy, Cameron, and Benjamin
  • Our two fabulous Friday night support coaches: Colin and James – thank you!!
  • Our two lovely coaches’ aides, Meenu and Britni
  • Our hard-working volunteer Curtis, who picked up coffee orders, helped with catering, and was generally awesome
  • Our Absolutely Amazing ThoughtWorks liaison Ryanne, who was the very picture of professionalism and thoughtful, hard-working hospitality
  • Mark Lavin for the discount code to Lightweight Django, which made it possible for me to get a bunch of O’Reilly stuff at a really good price
  • Audrey and Danny of Two Scoops Press for their really lovely inscription in “Two Scoops of Django”
  • Everyone who tweeted at me in the days and weeks before the event – you know who you are!

And you, for reading this post and caring about Django Girls! Now, go forth and volunteer, teach, learn, and have a blast doing it!