Friday, August 20, 2004

When I lived in Seattle I volunteered with a group that ran conferences for middle and high-school girls to learn about careers. The conferences were arranged so that each girl could pick a slate of careers (3 or 4 ) and go to workshops where there was supposed to be hands-on practice. For a lot of careers -- vet, doctor -- it's easy to bring in actual real tools and let the girls use them, so those make for easy workshops. It's not so easy for the software industry, however, as I learned when I tried to increase the participation from women at my company.

The obvious approach to teaching girls what it might be like to be a developer is to put them at a computer and show them code. Unfortunately that requires having access to a computer lab at the conference location and setting up all those computers with the same tools. I only saw this done once -- Shaula Massena ran a brilliant workshop where girls used Visual Basic to construct a little prank program they could install on Dad or Mom's PC at home. The program simly popped up a dialog saying click here to dismiss, only when you click "here" the dialog jumped somewhere else on the screen :) Shaula sent the girls home with floppies containing their program executable, very cool.

I eventually helped program managers, testers and tech writers come up with workshop plans that didn't require a computer lab and software installation. For testers, we brought some home appliances in -- mixer, hair dryer, toaster -- explained how to write a test plan, and asked the girls to execute the test plan. They explored edge cases like "what happens when you press the toast button when you're already toasting". The girls also always had fun criticizing the design and usability of the devices, which we encouraged.

For tech writers, the workshop involve writing instructions and then watch somebody follow those instructions to see how challenging it is to write clear instructions. I brought a pile of coloured paper and asked each girl to make a paper airplane (or other origami thing) and then on another piece of paper explain how to make the same airplane. Then the girls exchanged instructions and tried to follow somebody else's instructions. At the end we compared results between the original and the one made by following instructions. Here, fun was had throwing planes and decorating and naming them as well as constructing them. Some girls decorated their instructions pages too -- budding Web designers.

Finally, for program/product managers, my favourite workshop was "Design your own cell phone". I focused the discussion of features by introducing the concept of a target audience and a limited budget. What features are so important for your target audience that you just have to have them? The girls split into teams and came up with lovely ideas. Often, of course, the target audience was "teenage girls" and one group came up with a "privacy phone" that would stop your bratty brother from hearing any of your conversations or messages. But one group targetted old people and thought what it would take to handle a user with poor eyesight and hearing. And another group targeted young kids (or really, concerned parents of young kids) and designed a brightly-coloured egg-shaped phone, wearable on a lanyard around the neck, with only three programmed "send call" buttons so that the kid could only call appropriate authority figures to arrange pick up time, report an emergency, and so on. The girls thought that the phone should also have toy-like features so that the kid would have something to play with besides calling Mom, Dad and Emergency, so they thought there could be a couple more buttons to play ringtones or record and playback thoughts.

For six years I've thought that the kidphone would in fact make a cool product. Finally I find validation via Gizmodo: the MYMO phone for kids. I should have hired that team of girls and founded a company.

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