Why and how Etsy is targeting women programmers

This week, we told you about Etsy’s new grant program to get women into a summer school for hackers.

Marc Hedlund (pictured) is Etsy’s vice president in charge of all things engineering-related, and he’s actually the one who spearhearded the initiative. Hedlund first approached Hacker School co-founder Nick Bergson-Shilcock earlier this year with the idea of providing financial support to women who wanted to attend Hacker School’s intensive summer session.

“Marc’s idea was awesome: Etsy would host and sponsor the next batch of Hacker School and provide scholarships to get as many qualified women into the batch as possible,” Bergson-Shilcock wrote on the Hacker School blog.

The idea isn’t immune from controversy. On aggregation site Hacker News, commenters expressed concerns about the grant program, writing things like, ” I dislike the implicit message being sent by offering money specifically to women to go into engineering/computer science” and “How [is] giving money to women because they are women [not] sexism?”

So, to clarify the grant program’s premise and to get the information straight from the horse’s mouth, we went to Hedlund for a frank chat about why and how Etsy is singling out women for financial aid in their programming educations.

VentureBeat: Why does Etsy think it’s important to specifically reach out to women?

Marc Hedlund: While I’ve seen very small numbers of women in engineering departments elsewhere, it seems like Etsy has both a huge amount to gain from employing female developers who love and use the site, and a great platform with which to recruit women, whether engineers or otherwise. The company has historically had many very strong and talented women working with us, but not enough of them in Engineering and Operations. We felt that we had a better shot at making a meaningful difference on this issue than almost anyone out there, and that in some ways we stood to benefit more, too.

VB: What role to women play in the larger Etsy community?

MH: Women make up the majority of Etsy members, both as buyers and sellers. Hundreds of thousands of women run their businesses on Etsy. Within the company as a whole, we are fairly well balanced. Although the Engineering and Operations teams are mostly male, many of the other teams are heavily female. It’s safe to say that women play a vital part in everything that happens on the site.

I would say that this makes Etsy a great place to begin to address the larger problem across the industry.

VB: What will the summer program be like?

MH: Unlike most schools, there are no grades, teachers, or formal curricula. Instead, Hacker School is entirely project-based. Two of these rules are “No well-actuallys” and “no feigning surprise.” We don’t have these rules to make Hacker School “female-friendly.” We have these rules because we think they make Hacker School human-friendly. We have them because they help remove the ego and fear of embarrassment that so frequently get in the way of education.

Students have written Ruby gems, Python web frameworks, JavaScript libraries, and code in everything from Erlang to Haskell. Everyone writes free and open source software, because it would be antithetical to Hacker School to write code that couldn’t be read, used, and improved by others.

VB: What skill level do you need to apply? What languages do you need to know?

MH: Applicants should love programming. That’s most important. The Hacker School program spends time talking about technical problems and writing code, not working on startups and products.

They look for curiosity, passion, raw intelligence and a desire to build things. The best way to show this is to have a track record of writing code and learning new things.

Hacker School will be selecting female students the same way they’ll be selecting the men. They’re looking for people who are passionate about writing code, playing with technology, and learning in a collaborative, group environment. The Etsy grants will be given based on financial need, which will be determined on the honor code. It’s important to note that Hacker School is free. The scholarship money is meant to cover living expenses. New York City can be pricey!

Image courtesy of James Duncan Davidson, Flickr

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