How a hackathon project became a Kickstarter success that is enticing young students to dive into the world of software development.
Computer programs allow us to build almost anything these days, from complicated construction blueprints to amazingly life-like CGI visuals. Vidcode, started by Alexandra Diracles and Melissa Halfon, builds something even more important: confidence in young girls.
“Programming used to be a jumble [for me to understand],” says Emma, a 14-year-old user of Vidcode’s online software that teaches how to edit videos by changing the code itself.
“But now that I see the vocabulary and how it works, it’s a lot simpler, and I feel confident to continue coding.”
Vidcode’s Diracles didn’t learn to code until going to graduate school. She realized her own lack of interest was not a purposeful choice. It had more to do with the notion that most girls believe computer programming is for boys.
This perception is one Diracles and her business partner, Melissa Halfon, both 29, are trying to fight. But instead of encouraging women to embrace the present culture, which can be full of stigmas and stereotypes, they’re aiming to change how young girls and boys perceive coding in the first place.
In January 2014 in New York City, the two met at the Startup Weekend EDU NYC hackathon, which is an event where programmers come together over a weekend and build a project from scratch.
Halfon had been looking for ways to balance the gender gap in computer engineering, while Diracles’ research focused on how videos could grab the attention of girls who had never programmed but who loved posting and sharing videos online.
When the two merged their ideas during that hackathon, the result was an early version of Vidcode, a web-based application that encourages teens to see coding, not as not a technical bore, but as a tool for creativity.
That early version won Best New Idea at the hackathon.
Halfon said this win was the confidence booster that moved the team forward.
“We had this immediate validation,” she said.
Nine months later, Halfon and Diracles ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $30,000 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. Users simply upload their own videos and the program shows them how to write simple code in order to add effects and manipulate the images.
Whereas Instagram lets users tap a button to enact a pre-existing filter, Vidcode shows students the underlying process and gives them 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.” One of the most popular online programming schools in the United States is Code Academy, which has over 24 million members. Over 70 percent are male.
That ratio is even more lopsided in the workplace, which is at 79 percent male, according to a recent Anita Borg Institute study called “Achieving Gender Equality in Technology and Innovation: 50:50 by 2020.”
Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest, led a well-publicized study in 2013 that reported women made up only 12 percent of programmers at the 84 tech companies she surveyed.
Vidcode faces a big challenge in changing the perception of coding, but Diracles and Halfon believe that if more young girls try getting their hands on the yarn of coding, they might eventually pursue interests in software development for games and real world needs.
“When this generation is college-bound, I think that’s when we’ll start to see the turnover,” she said.
“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.
Helping more young girls understand that programming can be creative and social could attract more women to a field long dominated by men, said Halfon, stressing 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.
“[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,’” said Halfon.
Kill Screen, based in Brooklyn, publishes a gaming culture news site and printed magazine. The New Yorker called Kill Screen “the McSweeney’s of interactive media” and TIME said the writing was so “polished that they might help convince doubters that games are worth taking seriously.”