Heather Mahan is an instructor at Hackbright Academy’s South Bay campus – a community she loves building. We caught up with Heather to see what she’s like in the classroom. Learn about her teaching style (as a Hackbright graduate herself, she always remembers what it’s like to be a beginner), why it’s important for women to learn in a supportive environment, and the two qualities she finds in her most successful students.
Heather, how did you get into programming?
I have a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Linguistics from UC Santa Cruz. After I graduated, I came back to the Bay Area (my hometown) and joined the tech industry – it's a really interesting field to work in at this moment in history.
But how do you do that with a linguistics degree? I decided to join tech by becoming a Technical Writer. Throughout that journey, I was documenting all these incredible products, and I realized I wanted to have the power to create those products rather than write about them.
I started learning to code with online courses – Coursera and Udacity. When I considered trying to actually become a software developer, I thought, “Do I go back to school? Do I get another university degree?” Hackbright Academy was still quite new at this time in 2014, but it seemed like an awesome option for people who had completed their education and wanted a career change. I enjoyed my experience at Hackbright and ended up taking a great offer from Google to work as a Technical Writer for their Developer Platform team, but left that job because I still wanted to build things.
Why did you return to Hackbright specifically to teach? There are tons of coding bootcamps in San Francisco!
San Francisco has tons of meetups and opportunities – the community in South Bay is so much smaller than SF. It’s a dream of mine to be able to help grow that community in my hometown.
About a year ago, Hackbright posted a position in the South Bay for their pilot Prep program. I reached out and was thrilled to become an instructor for the very first Hackbright course in the South Bay. Currently, I’m teaching the full-time Software Engineering course at the South Bay campus and I’ve taught three cohorts so far.
Did you have teaching experience before working at Hackbright Academy?
I taught in grad school, and as a technical writer, I developed a knack for explaining things. I also taught at a cool summer camp called Girls Make Games where girls learn how to program their own video games.
One of my passions is working with girls and women in tech. I got to teach younger girls at Girls Make Games, and as an instructor at Hackbright, I get to work with women. It’s important to give women opportunities to engage with tech during childhood and also as adults. You want young girls to have positive experiences with technology. But then there's also this other demographic of women who didn't have that chance when they were young, and now they want to get involved as adults. It's great that lots of different organizations are focusing on different angles of inclusivity and diversity in tech.
As you’ve become an official instructor, what have you found your teaching style to be? How do you approach teaching women to code at Hackbright?
I want people to find the subject fun and approachable. So many students feel intimidated by these topics, so I try to break them down and demystify them. I try to remember what it's like to be a beginner. I think about how to frame things so that there's as little assumed knowledge as possible when I'm explaining a concept. I also love coming up with fun analogies and colorful diagrams.
The actual course is mostly hands-on teaching. There are lectures, but there’s a lot of time dedicated to labs. We dedicate four weeks to working on an individual project. When students are struggling, my approach is to ask questions. It's sort of the Socratic Method in a way – I try to ask questions that help them think about what they're stuck on rather than just tell them the answer. Hopefully, through that conversation, I'll help them arrive at that lightbulb moment: "Oh, I needed to change this part of my code to make it work."
Are linguistics and programming similar worlds?
They're actually very connected in a way that I didn't realize when I was first studied linguistics. I studied a subfield of linguistic called Formal Semantics, which is all about modeling the meaning of language. A lot of the foundations of formal logic intersect with the founders of early computer science – there’s a lot of overlap.
In addition to teaching, do you have other tech hobbies that you’re particularly excited about right now?
After graduating from Hackbright and teaching there for about a year, could you tell us about the ideal student for Hackbright?
For a student to be successful, there are a couple qualities you need. You need to be very driven and self-motivated. We're giving you access to knowledge and we're doing our best to make these topics approachable and exciting. But ultimately, there's still a lot of hard work that the student has to do in order to learn that material.
Another quality I’ve noticed is curiosity. Students who do well at Hackbright, typically, have a curiosity for wanting to know why something works the way it does, instead of just being satisfied that it works. You can copy-paste code from the internet that will work, but that’s not the point. How does it work? Why does it work? You need to have a curiosity about those things.
Do you see success tied to prior programming experience? Can someone be successful at Hackbright without having a technical background?
Any prior knowledge that you start with is helpful. In fact, for our full-time software engineering program, we don't admit students who have no coding experience. For a case like that, we offer the Hackbright Prep course, which will introduce you to Python and help you understand if you like coding and want to pursue it.
So, yes prior knowledge helps, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you’ve been tinkering with computers since you were five years old. Prior knowledge can take various forms – it doesn't have to be the same for everybody. We just want to see that you’ve demonstrated recently that you have a serious interest in programming.
Do you see any validity in arguments that an all-women's learning environment doesn't prepare women for working in the real world? How do you balance the learning environment with the working environment?
Ideally, there shouldn’t be any difference between an all-women’s environment compared to a co-ed environment. Every person should be treated fairly, regardless of their gender. Unfortunately, gender-bias and sexism do happen sometimes in ‘the real world’.
When you’re attempting to learn difficult topics, such as computer science and programming - and these topics really are tough for everyone, regardless of gender - why wouldn’t you choose a bootcamp that provides the most supportive unbiased space for your learning?
The reality is that women in the workplace and even in academic settings sometimes get sidelined because of their gender. We want to provide a space that is the most welcoming and supportive of that already underserved demographic. A lot of folks, myself included, feel like if we had to learn computer science from the very beginning in a traditional academic environment, we probably wouldn't have done very well because it's an intimidating environment. Traditional academics are often set up to weed people out.
But this space isn’t just about learning – it's also about gaining confidence. A man who has the same amount of knowledge as a woman is probably going to act more confident. We're trying to help women build their confidence in addition to learning computer science. We’re giving women the confidence to say, "I can do this, I deserve this, I’m every bit as good as my male peers." Building that sense of pride before they enter the workplace can make a really big difference.
So the Hackbright classroom doesn't mimic the real world, but how do you prepare students for their first jobs?
Hackbright is a place where women don’t have to worry about gender discrimination. I think this environment really does help our students focus on learning and building confidence. Being more effective learners only makes our students more prepared for their new jobs as software engineers. And hopefully the confidence they build at Hackbright also helps our students navigate other aspects of ‘real life’ - such as advocating for themselves in the workplace.
Another thing that sets Hackbright apart is that you teach Python. Has anything changed in the past few months? Any upcoming curriculum changes you’re excited about?
One of the unique things about Hackbright is that after every single lecture, the students have the opportunity to give feedback. Students hop on their phones to fill out our surveys everyday, so we're constantly revising lectures. We end up with tons data from every cohort.
Tell us about your biggest student success story!
Honestly, I’m so proud of all of our whole alum community, including students I’ve taught as well as women I learned alongside back when I was a student myself. An amazing woman from my 2014 cohort came in with a background in Psychology and Marketing. Now she works as a Software Engineer at Twitch and has done collabs with my internet geek hero @sailorhg. Another student who I taught recently came from a customer support background and now she works as a Production Engineer Facebook, a job that she landed less than six months out of Hackbright! So yes, our graduates are pretty amazing.
You sound like such a proponent for the South Bay tech community – what resources, meetups, hackathons do you like in South Bay for aspiring bootcampers?
First, I definitely recommend talking to people in the industry and getting a sense of what it’s like to be a programmer. What does the everyday job look like and are you interested in it?
Meetups I love: the Women Who Code meetup – they have a Silicon Valley chapter. Girl Develop It has a chapter in San Jose.
Hackbright South Bay and San Francisco both host a bi-weekly meetup, where folks can see what it would be like to learn programming at Hackbright. I actually host that meetup so you can come hang out with me! You can check our event schedule on meetup.com.