Viacom Inspires the next Generation of Female Coders, One Sequence at a Time

Let’s do this

In 2011, Viacom Chief Information Officer David Kline attended an event for the National Association of Broadcasters, and noticed something disturbing: the awards were mostly going to men. “There wasn’t a single female in the room,” said Kline, “Unless she was somebody’s daughter or significant other.” It was a pivotal moment for Kline. While other areas of Viacom were already gender-diverse, his technology department was not. He returned from the convention inspired to change this.

Our vice president of product management Kimberly Hicks would soon have an idea that could begin to gradually change this. Hicks attended AT&T’s Girls Who Code summer immersion program graduation in 2014 and was beyond impressed.

“I was blown away,” said Hicks. “Not only by their projects, but with their presence and how empowered they were. I didn’t know any of these girls, but I could tell they were transformed.”

It was no coincidence – Girls Who Code (GWC) is a national nonprofit dedicated to closing the gender gap in tech by teaching young girls how to code, principally through partnerships with large corporations, such as AT&T. At the end of the ceremony, Hicks spoke with GWC founder and CEO, Reshma Saujani. “I told her I would make this happen at Viacom.”

When Hicks pitched the idea of sponsoring a GWC immersion program to Kline and other company leaders, it was an easy sell. “They agreed without hesitation,” said Hicks.

“It hits the heart of what I wanted to do,” said Kline. What he wanted to do was help diversify the technology workforce, starting at Viacom. According to Kline, businesses that don’t will struggle to evolve.

Hicks backs this up. “Diverse, gender-mixed teams are more productive, file more patents, and create more value than all-male teams,” said Hicks, citing statistics from the National Center for Woman & Information Technology. Viacom’s corporate ethos and cultural resonance give innovators such as Kline and Hicks the chance to shift the paradigm of the tech industry.

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Hicks has worked in tech-related jobs since the late 90s. She knows from experience the types of struggles women face when working in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] related careers. “My first major was architecture,” said Hicks. During her first meeting with her college adviser she was told, “Women don’t make it in architecture.” Her adviser proceeded to set her up with the wrong classes.

Hicks was discouraged, but didn’t let his misogyny turn her off from academia—in fact, she used it to her favor. She switched majors to management information systems, and found it a more accepting environment.

“I knew I wanted to build things,” said Hicks. “This was a new way of doing that.” She thrived in the program, and ended up going to George Washington University’s School of Business for a master’s degree in IT Project Management. Now, Hicks is one of Viacom’s senior-level tech professionals.

Still, it wasn’t an easy path.  Hicks’s first IT position was at a company with over 1,000 employees. She was the only female employee besides administrators or those working in marketing. “These things were fact back then,” said Hicks, “And my stories are no different than most women at my level.”

After working in various tech-support roles, Hicks focused on product management, an area in tech that requires an understanding of people, communication skills, and the ability to figure out creative solutions to technical problems. She knows that many young women are turned off by coding, mainly because they don’t know the range of career possibilities one can attain with a basic knowledge of coding. She believes it is imperative that we change the way we teach coding, starting by introducing young girls to all areas of computer science, including the creative ones.

“The technology we have today wasn’t around when I was in school,” said Hicks. She advises young coders to focus more on honing their skill set and following their passions. “Don’t worry so much about your specific major,” said Hicks. “My job didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

GWC founder Saujani is driven by the same underlying principles when it comes to diversifying the tech industry. The still-growing program’s formula is simple: target middle and high school girls uncertain of their future career, but attracted to what seems coolest. Then, show them how cool tech can be with summer immersion programs at trendy places like Viacom, Sephora, and Facebook. These efforts are crushing the antiquated trope of a computer scientist in a windowless room writing code.

Watch Saujani’s interview on The Daily Show.

Girls rule

Not only are these girls learning a highly marketable skill; they’re building a sisterhood. “I made a lot of new friends,” said Viacom’s 2015 summer immersion graduate Ana Leon. “We have reunions all the time, and talk about our lives, and college. We’re a family.”

Having prior coding knowledge helps, but is not required for the summer immersion program. An ideal candidate is a girl who cares deeply about changing the world, and has the drive to make this change a reality.  Some of our recent Girls Who Code alumni created an online forum to help teens with mental illness. Another group devised an app intended to inspire health and fitness by incorporating music and exercise.

Viacom’s summer immersion program mirrors what Kline thinks the American computer education system should consist of—project-based learning, creativity, and productive social interaction. Teachers, selected by GWC, work closely with the company’s technology team to teach the girls the industry standard for software development, such as Python—essentially the Latin of programming languages.

In addition to learning coding essentials to create apps and become fluent in a new language, the girls bond with mentors and attend field trips, including a visit to our broadcast facilities on Long Island and our new broadcast studio at 345 Hudson. They discover careers they never knew existed, and the confidence to pursue technology as a career.

One mentor, Caren Resnick, our senior manager of client services, says the program gives her something valuable as well. “Over time, I’ve had strong women help me get connected,” said Resnick. “Girls Who Code is a way for me to give back.”

As GWC grows, the program’s first participants have advanced closer to actual careers. Girls Who Code alumni from across the country have gone on to study computer science at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And 60 leading technology companies—including Viacom—have pledged to hire graduates.

“One of these girls could become me in the future,” said Kline. “In fact, that’s my aspiration.”

Read more about our inaugural GWC summer immersion program here, check out the 2016 GWC graduation ceremony, and take a look at what our GWC interns are currently up to.

 

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