Meet your future bosses: Meet the girls of TechGirlz.org

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By Todd R. Weiss

PHILADELPHIA – Yes, the halls here at the 6th annual Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise Conference (ETE) are filled with software developers, business people and technology visionaries. But if you looked a little deeper, you might have met your next boss – and she could still be in elementary school.

In a conference room here this morning, nine girls – ages eight to 15 – met with two visionary women in technology who delivered the keynotes for the event – Stormy Peters of Mozilla and Molly Holzschlag of Opera Software – to get advice, encouragement and support in pursuing their youthful interests in computers.

The girls were invited to visit by TechGirlz.org, a Philadelphia-area non-profit group begun two years ago to encourage young girls to explore their love of technology even when they think it’s too geeky to pursue.

So who are the girls of TechGirlz?

They are young women like Eliana, 12, who one day decided she wanted to create a video game. First she began creating a site for the game using HTML, then she realized she needed to use a programming language to build it correctly. She chose Python after attending several technology camps and talking with others to gaining their expertise.

“I started by teaching myself HTML then I started learning Python,” said the bright-eyed girl with braces, hot pink pants and long, curly dark hair. “What got me involved was that ever since I was really little, I was always attracted to video games and computers.”

Since then, she’s been working hard to further develop the game and continue to add features. She’s even exploring the idea of releasing it as an open source project, but she said she’s not sure she wants to give up control of the project.

Yes, I did say she’s 12.

And those code camps that Eliana’s been going to? They’re with students who are in high school and college, yet there she is coding with the best of them. “I’m still kind of more like an amateur,” she said.

Yeah, right.

I know of companies out there who are desperate today to find and hire good Python coders and here is Eliana, a 12-year-old who is building her own video game from scratch.

Classic.

Then there’s Olivia, 12, in a pink shirt and ponytail, who loves to do art and design work on her computer, “making it go from clunky to smooth and shiny.”

There was Megan, 13, who said she’d like to find ways of helping to add emotional context to online chat and other electronic communications. The problem, Megan said, is that it’s hard to know what people are feeling when they are communicating using chat – are they mad at you or are they happy with you, she wondered? That’s a great problem to solve.

Ten-year-old Kayla had another concern – she created a Web site for her business – making healthy homemade doggie treats (www.kaninekookies.webs.com) – and sometimes the technology overwhelms her, she said.

Haley, 8, is on her school’s robotics team and likes to use computers.

Meanwhile, Logan, 15, also likes robotics and learning about how to make the devices operate. “It can be frustrating figuring out how to make them do something,” she said.

So what advice did Peters and Holzschlag have for the girls?

First, Peters said, if the girls feel overwhelmed by the technology, she reminded them that it’s not due to any shortcomings of their own.

“It’s not you,” Peters said. “It’s the way that the people who are telling you about it are talking about it. I always think it’s the fault of the person who’s trying to tell you about it [if they can’t explain it better].”

Asking lots of questions is a great way to learn, Peters added, lauding Olivia for asking what CSS Zen Garden is all about in the field of Web design.

“If you’re brave enough to ask what CSS is at a technology conference, then I guarantee that 80% of the other people in the room are also wondering what CSS is,” Peters said with a laugh.

Whatever they choose to do as they continue their educations, Peters encouraged the girls to follow what they are interested in and not give up on their dreams of pursuing a technology career.

“What frustrates me is that women are missing opportunities in a fantastic field,” she said. “I started in technology because I really liked what computers could do. Now we have computers that can help blind people read, that help people find a movie, that enable people to get jobs and more. I just found computers fascinating and being able to make … them do what I wanted to do was another part of that.”

Holzschlag got involved with computers by accident, she said. She was studying Spanish and linguistics at the University of Arizona when she suddenly had to drop out of school due to a long-term illness. For 10 years she was home-bound.

One day, a cousin send her an old Commodore 64 computer and a friend sent her a 300 baud modem. She hooked it all together and went online using an ancient dial-up service back in 1988. Suddenly she went from home-bound and being isolated to joining a global community, years before the Internet ever appeared, she said.

“It was in that moment that I logged on and saw people from around the world,” Holzschlag said. “I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I knew that was ‘it.'”

She’s been involved in technology ever since.

“My life changed … because of that Commodore 64 and a 300 baud modem that somehow came into my life,”she said.

Those are the kinds of messages that TechGirlz.org is working to bring to young girls in the area, said Tracey Welson-Rossman, director of marketing and sales at Chariot Solutions, the Fort Washington, Pa.-based software development consulting company that hosts the annual ETE event.

Welson-Rossman, the founder of TechGirlz.org, said the group’s work started last September when groups of 15-20 girls would come to participate in lectures, discussions and demonstrations of technology so they could gain exposure and increase their curiosity about high-tech topics. The idea is to expose tech-minded girls at a young age to women who are working in technology so they can be inspired and empowered, Welson-Rossman said.

“We’ve seen research that says that the reason that girls drop out of pursuing technology interests starting in ninth grade in high school is because they think it’s geeky,” she said. “They think it’s not creative. They think you’re working in a cubicle and not talking to anybody.”

To battle those stereotypes, TechGirlz strives to get to them early and show them how exciting, gratifying and worthwhile technology jobs can be. “One of the other issues is that they think it’s not cool for girls to be in technology. And because of that they feel that they can’t actually express that they actually like technology.”

“So one of our goals is to create a safe place for them to be able to express this part of their personalities, of their interests,” through TechGirlz.

About 100 girls are involved in the program so far. TechGirlz is growing its program by making connections with teachers and schools in the metropolitan Philadelphia area and through communications with home-schooling organizations, Scouting groups and others.

Men in technology are also welcome to volunteer and help with the TechGirlz program, Welson-Rossman said. “We also want men to be involved because we need to show all types of role models. These girls are going to be working with men.”

Todd R. Weiss is a longtime technology journalist who worked as a staff writer for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Now a freelance tech journalist, Weiss contributes regularly to Computerworld, PCWorld.com and other publications. He has also written extensively for Linux.com, ForecastingClouds.com and TechTarget on a wide range of enterprise IT topics from Linux and open source to disaster recovery, cloud computing, virtualization, application development, IT education and mobile and wireless technologies. He began writing about computers in 1996 after a newspaper editor he worked for told him that “no one cares about technology.” Apparently, the editor was wrong.