These Young Coders Are Going to Change the World—Starting With Viacom

Zahraa Lopez vividly remembers the excitement she felt when, as a child, she’d walk past the TRL stage, gleaming behind the windows of Viacom’s Times Square Headquarters. She’d look up at the majestic silver skyscraper with awe. “I always wanted to see inside,” said Lopez, who grew up in the Bronx. “I wanted to be part of what was going on.”

Lopez got her chance to do more than peek inside the building last summer, when Viacom selected her for its first Girls Who Code (GWC) summer immersion program.

Her Viacom experience was part of the larger Girls Who Code program, which is laser-focused on closing the enormous gender gap in technology by immersing small groups of bright, promising students into the inner workings of major corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft. Over the course of a summer of project-based learning, the girls learn invaluable skills, broaden their understanding of technology, and join a tight-knit sisterhood of tech-savvy teens.

Viacom is so determined to help make the GWC dream a reality that the company extended its efforts beyond that initial summer immersion program by instituting a four-year-long summer internship for a trio of GWC grads. Lopez is one of them.

Watch this interview with News 12 Bronx, where Lopez and her fellow GWC intern Zahraa Lopez explain what this internship means to them:

“There are over 40 companies doing the summer program,” said Kimberly Hicks, a member of Viacom’s product management team who first suggested a Viacom-GWC partnership to Viacom Chief Technology Officer David Kline. “We are one of the few providing a customized internship. We plan to select two or three girls from each GWC summer immersion program to participate in the internship program.” This is Viacom’s first internship program that accepts students who are not yet in their junior year of college.

GWC grads Sabrina Bergsten and Ana Leon join Lopez in this inaugural group of long-term interns. Bergsten was also a teaching assistant, after completing her initial GWC program in 2014.

“It’s important to show the girls that there are a lot of paths to take,” said Hicks. “My generation didn’t have many people to help show us the way.”

Technology Touches Everything

For Kline, GWC is a social imperative, a way to funnel Viacom’s prodigious resources to a cause that can fundamentally impact our tech workforce. “Technology touches everything,” said Kline. “With tech, you can experience legal, content-creation, marketing, programming, and research.”

Viacom is an ideal company for these girls to become acquainted with the multiple iterations of technology. After learning the basics of coding in the summer immersion program, interns get the chance to see the vast range of careers that tech skills open up.

“Everybody grew up watching Nickelodeon,” said Lopez. “But Viacom is so much more than just TV shows. I had no idea there would be an engineering department.”

The first year of the internship is a broad overview of each area of Viacom’s technology department, a vast organization with more than 1,000 employees in areas as diverse as engineering, UX (User Experience) design, product management, project management, infrastructure, and broadcast and production technologies.

Interns generally do not work on projects in this introductory phase. Instead they shadow mentors, observing their day-to-day workflow and learning by osmosis. Their mentors—mostly female—are engineers and recent college graduates.

“The whole focus of the internship is to expose the interns to all technology-related areas of the company, and expose them to women in these technical roles,” said Hicks.

Lopez, for example, shadowed Product Management’s Elisa Francovilla, who stressed the importance of not letting gender roles get in the way of learning and producing.

“I was inspired by her, and the other women I shadowed,” said Lopez. “At times, they were the only women in the room. I learned I don’t have to be quiet, that as a woman you sometimes have to demand respect.”

Lopez has lofty ambitions. “I’d like to create a company like Microsoft that is made up of mostly women,” said Lopez.

By year two, the girls will narrow their focus to two of these areas, and by year three they will have an active role in a specific area. If our interns show consistent effort throughout the four years, Viacom may offer them permanent jobs.

Hicks tailored the internship program based on her personal experience working in a male-dominated industry. “It’s important to show the girls that there are a lot of paths to take,” said Hicks. “My generation didn’t have many people to help show us the way. There is coding, but there are also the broadcast engineering teams who get our content on the air; designers who make our apps, sites, and promos look great; project managers who help us deliver; and product managers who are always looking for ways to make our sites and apps more engaging.”

Hicks’s philosophy is already proving true. This summer, Lopez created a video game using Ruby, a software development program. “I enjoy working with UX design. I didn’t know that was a job I could have,” said Lopez. “It’s the meeting point between art and computer science.” Now, Lopez sees the potential she has with coding and design skills.

Running game . #girlswhocodenyc #girlswhocode #girlswhocodeviacom

A photo posted by Girls Who Code at Viacom (@gwc_viacom) on

For Leon, the internship broadened her range of coding’s creative possibilities. After shadowing Release Manager Ulyana Auhustsinovich, Leon worked with Tracey Siesser in multi-platform product management. “I had never heard of product management in a tech company,” she said.  “It makes me realize that I can do coding whenever, however I want.”

Possibilities such as product management are relatively unknown to the new crop of computer science students, but emphasizing the creative aspects of technology is crucial to keeping these students from dropping their computer science major once they reach their junior year of college.

Engineering a (real life) social network 

One central message to Viacom’s GWC program: networking matters as much as training. “It’s important to build a support system,” said Caren Resnick, a summer immersion program mentor “People you can trust for business advice, or just people to confide in. There’s something unique about the way women communicate.” Many women thrive in a social environment, and Resnick credits people skills for her ability to act as a liaison between several tech departments at Viacom.


Ana Leon bonds with a 2016 GWC Summer Immersion graduate at this year’s graduation ceremony.

Bergsten learned this in her internship. “Being a software engineer is very different from what people imagine,” said Bergsten. “You don’t work alone; it’s all about communication and teamwork.”

In fact, Bergsten and her fellow interns gave senior management valuable insight into the social aspect of technology, pointing out that two adjacent technology divisions were not actually interacting much.

“We had them do an end-of-summer presentation,” said Hicks. “It was called ‘If I were Dave Kline, what would I do?’” The girls used their outside perspective as millennial women to devise team-building exercises within the mostly-male department, such as hackathons and ice cream socials.

“These are the types of young people we want to be hiring in Viacom in the future,” said Siesser, “And it’s great that we’re grooming them now to know the ins and outs of our business by the time they graduate college.”

Doing the little things that make the big things happen

Part of the allure of working at Viacom is proximity to legendary brands, and the trio’s summer internship coincided with one of the most iconic of them all—MTV’s VMAs.

Throughout the summer, the girls worked closely with our software developers and broadcast engineers to give viewers a dazzling digital experience, whether they were sitting in the front row or on their couch at home, watching via the MTV app or a livestream on their laptop.

They experienced the tireless effort behind orchestrating such a spectacle. They learned the science behind our neoteric polling system, audience-engagement apps such as (which allowed 1 million fans to create VMA tribute videos), and our multiplatform broadcast services, including Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, Roku, and iOS.

And with 208 million views across multiple networks and platforms, they saw the tangible results of what their superpowers could actually accomplish.

“Our push is to not just teach them about the technology aspect,” said Kline, “But how to conduct themselves in the real world.”

The internship emphasized significant components of tech jobs that lay outside of their core curriculum: sitting in on budget meanings, teaching GWC summer immersion program classes, and shadowing our engineers as they fixed bugs on brand apps such as the BET PlayPlex Mobile app.

But the core message throughout all of these activities was that, whatever these girls wanted to achieve in a tech career, their gender had little to do with their ability to succeed. Bergsten was usually the only girl in her high school computer classes, and this nearly stifled her nascent passion for coding. “I thought I wasn’t learning as quickly because I was a girl,” said Bergsten. “But my teacher was a woman, and that inspired me.”

Bergsten commends the internship program for teaching her how to transition between a wide range of departments and employees. She says she wants to focus on project management next semester.

In high school, Leon wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. Now she has other plans. “As a doctor, I’d impact the patients I worked with,” said Leon. “With coding, I can impact the world.”

Lopez is now a freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She plans on majoring in computer science, with an art minor.

Leon is currently a freshman at Barnard College, and plans on majoring in computer science.

Bergsten is currently a freshman at Marist College, where she majors in information systems and technology.

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