Inside the programming tool designed to get more girls into coding

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Alexandra Diracles didn’t learn to code until going to graduate school. She realized her own lack of interest was not a purposeful choice but instead a symptom of a larger problem: Girls think computer programming is for boys. This is a perception Diracles, and her business partner Melissa Halfon, are trying to fight. But instead of encouraging women to embrace the present culture, which can be full of stigmas and stereotypes, they aim to change how young girls (and boys, too) perceive coding in the first place.

This past January in New York City, the two met at a Hack-a-thon, an event where programmers come together over a weekend and build a project from scratch. Halfon had been looking for ways to interest young girls in coding, a kind of pre-emptive strike against the gender gap in her present field of computer engineering. Diracles’ research focused on how to use video as a medium for gaining the attention of girls who had never programmed, but loved posting videos online and sharing them with friends. The two merged their projects. At the end of the weekend, they demonstrated an early version of Vidcode, a web-based application that encourages teens to see coding not as not a bore but a creative outlet. Their team won for Best New Idea.

they aim to change how young girls perceive coding 

Halfon told me over the phone this gave them the confidence to move forward. “We had this immediate validation,” she said. “People seem to like this.” Nine months later, they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to help turn their idea into a product, and them into owners of a company.

Vidcode is something of a streamlined tutorial for first-time coders. Simply upload your own videos and the program shows users how to write simple code in order to add effects and manipulate the images. Whereas Instagram lets you tap a button to enact a pre-existing filter, Vidcode shows you the underlying process and gives you the tools to change the video directly. It’s the difference between buying a sweater and learning to knit.

Today, men are the overwhelming majority of these knitters. Code Academy is one of the most popular online programming schools with over 24 million members. Over seventy percent are male. The ratio is even more lopsided in the workplace: The Anita Borg Institute has put the number at 79% male, while Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest, led a well-publicized study last year that reported women made up only 12% of programmers at the 84 tech companies she surveyed.

Halfon hopes that changes soon. “When this generation is college-bound, I think that’s when we’ll start to see the turnover. What it takes is creating an imprint on a person when they’re as young as elementary school or middle school [aged] that gets them to consider these paths. And then we’ll see it pay off.”

Halfon and Diracles began the project as a way for kids to mess around in their free-time, building skills and having fun in an arena assumed by many to be boring. But they’ve been overwhelmed by support from educators wanting to implement Vidcode in their classrooms. Vidcode is slated to be introduced in a dozen local schools’ curriculum by spring 2015. Down the road, they plan to make the software available as an App anyone can use. 

The sooner that young girls understand programming can be creative and social, the more women we’ll see entering a field long dominated by men. Halfon stresses that Vidcode was built by two women with two other women on the team. Girls don’t have to program for others; they can build something new and take leadership roles.

“What we really want to do is be changing those perceptions now,” Halfon says. “[If] girls can have a positive experience at 11, or 12 or 15 years old, they can then look at that college course and think, ‘Oh yeah, I did that.’” 

Header image via Erik Hersman on flickr. Recolored and cropped.