How can we encourage children to code? Linda Liukas is the author and illustrator of Hello Ruby, a children’s book about the whimsical world of computers, as well as the founder of Rails Girls, a global movement to teach young women programming in more than 220 cities. I talk with her about falling in love with code, illustrating a children’s book and inspiring a generation of future programmers.
Let’s start the show. Linda, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, I come from Helsinki, Finland, the most northern part of the world. No Polar bears, but it’s a pretty exotic place to be.
I feel like all of my work happens at the intersection of art, and technology, and people and teaching.
What else? I enjoy cooking, running and I have way too many children’s books.
Well that’s appropriate.
We’ll talk about Hello Ruby later, but, there’s an interesting story about your first experience with web development—you built a website for Al Gore. Could you tell us a little about that?
Yes, I was 15 years old and, I had this mad-mad crush on the vice president of the United States, Al Gore, so I guess this was about 2001.
All my other girlfriends were in love with people like Orlando Bloom or Leonardo DiCaprio and, I guess I wanted to be a bit of an oddball, so I developed this massive interest in Al Gore. I don’t really know exactly why I chose him, but I felt very strongly about his politics and history—he was always in the shadow of Clinton. I wanted to show all this excitement and express this passion for him, so I made a website.
At the time, there was no Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest. I had to learn to program. I googled “how to make a website” and I learned about HTML and CSS, a little bit of PHP. I learned how to set up a server.
And when I finally got that website up, I was amazingly proud of myself. So I was like, “I made this happen! This is me!” and I don’t know if it ever got any visitors or even if people even found it at all.
It’s probably, to date, the first and last finished website dedicated to Al Gore, but I got the spark to start experimenting with technology. I think still to this day, technology and programming are, for me, a way of expressing myself.
A lot of people don’t have the same Al Gore experience, but do have a similar beginning to their career, like an approach of their own that satisfied their curiosity and helped them to develop their skills.
So yeah, that’s how I learned to program.
I’ve got to ask, is that site still up somewhere?
Thank god, no. I still have a screenshot I’ll have to send you one, it had a very nice iframe system going on.
As a teenager Linda had a crush on then Vice President Al Gore. Pictured is the website she made for him, and the project she says sparked her interest in technology.
Initially after you built that site, your love with web development faded, right?
Yeah, I feel like I was interested in so many other things in the world like philosophy, other boys besides Al Gore, French. I studied social sciences, and all of these other things.
It felt like it was a binary decision—you’re either a math-oriented programmer person or you’re a person who does all of these other things. And at the time I wanted to do all of the other things.
Later in life I realized it wasn’t a binary thing, you can totally be a person who’s interested in technology and the arts at the same time, but in the early 2000s it wasn’t much encouraged. So, I did what most girls did—I studied French and history—stuff like that.
It wasn’t really until 2009 that I started programming again. I was taking part in this course at Stanford University and just by accident tried Ruby on Rails, which was gaining momentum at that time, and had this sort of tangible feeling of, “Wow, the computer obeys my commands, and I can do amazing things with it!”
It was the sort of same excitement I had as a 13-year-old, I rediscovered as a 23-year-old.
Creating Rails Girls
Well, let’s talk about Rails Girls. You’re a co-founder of Rails Girls, how did that come to be?
I was in Stanford University soaking up all of the California sun and Silicon Valley energy, and rediscovering technology.
Then I came back to Finland, and it was mid-November, snow and slush time, and I didn’t know what I should be doing with my time. I had found Ruby on Rails again, rediscovered web development, and figured there’s bound to be more women like me who want to be learning this stuff.
Karri Saarinen, who’s the other cofounder—a guy actually, and I set up this weekend workshop for our friends who wanted to learn the basics of Ruby on Rails programming. It took two or three weeks.
We never thought it would become anything more than that. It was just something to teach myself better and give the same opportunity to other young women and a few guys also to learn the basics.
We did put a lot of effort into sort of the overall feeling of the event. We put up posters and we had this exercise where you learn about the concept of web development. We thought a lot about the curriculum and the basically philosophy of a Rails Girls event, even though we didn’t know if it would end up scaling.
Instead of focusing a lot of time on theory, we wanted to focus on the idea that people can build something over the span of a one-day workshop. They don’t necessarily understand all of the intricacies of the scaffolding of what they’re making, or the theoretical background behind the areas they make, but they make something visible happen. Plus they meet coaches and other like-minded women.
For many of the people who take part in Rails Girls events, it’s like, “Whoa! There are other females who are as excited about technology as I am.” And that’s why we thought it would be a one-day event but, obviously something else happened.
Images from a 2014 Rails Girls event in Berlin. There are countless other photos on the Rails Girls Flickr group.
That’s interesting, because I was going to ask you how, in about two weeks, you figured out the curriculum. Instead it was less about learning , and more about showing people what they could do—you were inspiring them to learn.
The original tagline of Rails Girls was “Web development from concept to code to deployment.” We just gave people their first experience in software craftsmanship. We never claimed we’d teach people to become programmers in one day, which is impossible, but you can get a first immersive experience to what it’s like to do programming and web development.
Also, we had design workshops and these little pedagogical things built into the programming from the very beginning.
And well, your co-founder’s a boy so I have to ask, are boys allowed?
Boys are definitely allowed. The thing with Rails Girls is that we’ve always said guys can apply if they bring an interested girl with them, but girls are given first priority.
If I had known, being 23 when this all started and feeling very much like a girl at the time, now at 28, if I could change the name, I would, because I didn’t understand there was such a strong connotation with that word. It’s such a loaded term with a lot of the world.
Rails Girls was always about building a grassroots movement for a more colorful, more happy internet, more than just gender per se. We do take male coaches, or if you’re a guy who wants to do something for the diversity problem, you can start a Rails Girls chapter. It’s totally okay. That’s sort of the legacy of Karri, being a guy so that it wasn’t only a girl thing from the very beginning.
Now that there’s Rails Girls events all over the world, from Asia to South America, how are these things organized? You can’t be at all these places at once.
After the first event, I think people started tweeting about the event. I remember David Heinemeier Hansson, who’s the inventor of Ruby on Rails tweeted about it. He was like, “Hey, look at this cool thing these Helsinki people are doing.” I actually printed that tweet and put it up on my wall.
That’s pretty incredible!
I’ve always been a pretty big fangirl.
After that people started emailing us and asking us, if we could host Rails Girls events near them.
I think it was around November 2010 that a guy from Singapore, Jason Ong, who was a local Ruby active and organizer, invited us to come to Singapore and we do a Rails Girls event as a pilot. Karri and I had never been to Singapore before. Why not?
Seeing the concept work in an Asian culture where we’d never been before gave us some courage that this is not just something for our friends, but could be appreciated by other people too. So, we started organizing events by ourselves, I think we did Shanghai, one in Tao Lin, then one in Berlin, and slowly started to see that people were excited about this everywhere.
And, in 2011, I think, March, we open sourced all of the guides. All of the materials and instructions on how to make your own Rails Girls chapter are online. This includes how to get sponsors, how to decorate, how to install Rails, how to teach the Model Views Controller framework—all of that knowledge was put online and we figured it’s way more scalable when people take ownership of their own chapters, we should just make this a global movement.
In practice Rails Girls is as free and wild as the internet itself. We have a mailing list, and we have a GitHub repository. The coaches of the local chapters make changes to the GitHub folders, maintain the content, update them and such, but they are really in charge of their own fundraising, and their own chapter. Everything’s really meritocratic in that aspect.
There are 227 Rails Girls communities worldwide. Linda open sourced the Rails Girls Guides in 2011.
People ask me why I didn’t do any fundraising, or why I didn’t make this into an organization. I feel like sometimes people, especially those who don’t work with the Internet, create structure for the sake of structure. We feel that Rails Girls will have succeeded when there is no more need for Rails Girls, when there is one colorful and crazy and happy Ruby community that is inclusive and allows beginners to learn new things. It would be kind of against that mission to create this massive Rails Girls organization that tries to teach the whole world to code.
Also, if you’ve ever tried to send money down to South America, you’ll realize why we never ended up doing this centralized organization. So that’s how it started to grow and now it’s in 227 cities. It’s pretty much everywhere in the world. I get a huge joy from just looking at how the chapters grow and create their own success stories.
That’s incredible—227 cities—and that’s all happened in almost five years or so.
Yeah, pretty much.
Linda Liukas’ Children’s book features a girl named ruby, and her adventures with firefoxes, androids and snow leopards.
Hello Ruby, Firefoxes and Androids
Well, let’s talk about Hello Ruby, which is your children’s book. One thing that’s interesting is that you only recently started illustrating, yet you were the illustrator for the Hello Ruby.
Hello Ruby started pretty much at the same time as Rails Girls, in 2009. When people feel like there’s overnight successes, that’s never the case. I think I even have some pictures from Flickr from early 2009 with some of the early drafts of Hello Ruby.
I was learning programming at the time and was trying to figure out ways to make it more approachable and fun. Whenever I ran into a problem or a concept that I didn’t understand, I would think, “Okay, how would a five-year-old little girl explain this thing?”
Take garbage collection, the automatic memory management system, how would a six-year-old girl explain this in a way that made sense? That’s how my little doodles started to come together.
For a long time, I made them just for me and my friends, but people were telling me that they were really good and that I should publish them.
I started to look for an illustrator to properly make this happen. I didn’t really think of myself as a good illustrator, much less a person with good pedagogical skills.
I realized that if you have the vision, you have to be the one executing it as well. So that’s when I began to learn how to draw, and it’s been a very painful road—almost as painful as programming.
Sketches of Ruby and friends. Ruby lives in a whimsical world of computers, said Linda.
Are you creating these drawings by hand or do you use a tool like Adobe Illustrator?
Since the Kickstarter, there’s about 10,000 people following my journey to becoming a children’s book author. I actually wrote a blog post about the whole process of drawing and the resources that I’ve found helpful.
Basically, I have a Wacom tablet where I draw, and then I use Photoshop. One thing that’s been a huge lifesaver for me has been Kyle Webster. He makes these amazing custom print brushes that make it look like it’s water colors or something else.
I’d like to talk about that Kickstarter, because it’s pretty impressive—You set out to raise $10,000 for Hello Ruby and raised north of $380,000. That’s an incredible feat! What were your expectations going into that Kickstarter campaign?
I had been talking to my friends about this book for some time. Eventually they convinced me to move ahead. I decided to take some time off and work on this project.
I’d recently left Codecademy and was trying to figure out what I should do next. I figured that Hello Ruby would be a good art project to work on in the meantime—and that’s what it was supposed to be—an art project. The $10,000 was going to cover the print costs for, like, 500 books. I put up the Kickstarter on either a Thursday or Friday morning and within the first 24 hours, it was over $100,000, so ten times the amount I was asking.
I was so surprised. My life just changed. It’s was a very interesting and intense ride after the campaign, but I definitely feel like I owe it to all the people who’ve helped me along the way and supported my vision and idea. They actually made me into a children’s book author.
Before that, I was just jokingly saying that I would be a children’s book author, but now it’s real.
Before the Kickstarter project, you were at Codecademy and you left. Is this book the reason you left?
No, as I’m originally from Helsinki. I have family, friends, a boyfriend and such still living here. I left Codecademy and figured it was time to go back home and work for a real company or a real business and that this would just be a nice little side project for me.
I started doing 24 Days of Ruby, a Christmas calendar, so I’d draw something every day in December and, after doing that for 24 days, I figured I had enough to do a proper Kickstarter campaign.
Yeah, it is.
Let’s go back and recount that first day on Kickstarter. Did you go to work and come back to a million emails? What was that like?
People forget that making a Kickstarter is a massive amount of work. Kickstarter itself doesn’t really provide you with a lot of instruction, there’s just this empty text field and that’s where you’re supposed to write down your vision.
When I started this whole process, I didn’t really have words to explain what I was doing it, because I was doing something completely new. It was scary and exhilarating and exciting all the same. It took a long while to get all the pieces into place. Actually, I wrote a long blog post about the whole experience—what I did, what I looked for and who helped me.
I’d been doing this for several months as a hobby by then. Pressing publish was one of the scariest things I did, because there was a chance that no one would be interested the book.
People do ask me how Hello Ruby became an overnight success—how did it go viral and how did it end up being so popular? I do very strongly believe that there was a lot of value in the fact that I had worked in this space for about four or five years. I worked with a lot of Rails Girls chapters, asked for their feedback, spoke to every single person I know about the book. I think that was that core group of supporters who helped me through those first crazy 24 hours, and to go beyond my wildest dreams for the campaign.
What people don’t tell you about the Kickstarter campaign—or maybe they do, but it was new for me—is that the Kickstarter app has a push notification which blinks every time someone backs your project. During the first few hours of the campaign, I was in a business meeting with our Ministry of Education talking about some other projects I was working on the time. My phone started going absolutely crazy, and I had to show it to them because it was like blink, blink, blink, blink from all the people backing it. I didn’t sleep much during those first weeks.
That’s funny, and understandably so.
Teaching Kids to Code
From your perspective, what does it take to give kids that spark, an interest in programming?
Well, first of all, let me start by saying that computer science is the most exciting field there is right now.
There’s just such a massive change that has happened in the past 20 years where computer scientists have created these layers and layers of abstraction that have shielded us consumers from the real stuff that’s at work in our phones and computers.
Traditionally, the people who’ve taught computer science and programming have been a very homogenous group of individuals. My idea was to try to explore computer science and programming from a different angle, mainly the angle of storytelling.
Hello Ruby is a book about a little girl named Ruby who travels around the world and solves problems with her friends. For example, there’s the Snow Leopard, who’s very beautiful but doesn’t want to play with the other, messy kids. In a way she’s a representation of Apple. There are the Androids, and the Firefoxes, and a slew of other quirky characters, because for me, technology is very profoundly human.
I’ve always seen the human aspect of technology—stories within the world of technology and programming, and for some reason, other people always see it as very cold and mechanical and number-oriented. But it’s not, it’s about words and people and interactions and logic. Logic can be beautiful too.
With Hello Ruby, I’m trying to look into spiral learning. Even though you wouldn’t be able to write an array or a loop or a sequence of commands in Ruby code, you can still learn about the principles of those things early on.
It is possible for a five-year-old to understand the concept of looping, repeating something five times, or clapping their hands five times. They could understand an exercise where you have to select clothes based on the weather. If it’s sunny outside, choose these colors, else, choose these colors.
The goal is to understand the basics of computational thinking—even before you actually learn the words and the theoretical background for those things.
A pair programming session at a 2013 Rails Girls event in Basil, Switzerland. Photos by Daniel Puglisi.
And so, I’m curious. Do you think that learning to program, or at least this logic associated with programming, is as important as it is to learn how to read?
I would say that every child has the right to learn how computers work and how to instruct computers, in the same sense as we teach kids how our bodies work or how space works, or how to recognize different species of trees from one another. But in no way should everybody become programmers, in no way should we all learn everything about programming in school.
There’s a vast array of other things in life one should be interested in, but as more of the world we live in does become run by software, we shouldn’t treat it as such a magical and foreign place where only the bravest of engineers should go into. It’s for everyone.
If people saw computers as tools of creativity rather than these machines that run our lives, I think there would be a much gentler and kinder Internet in some senses too.
Unfortunately, I have to head to work soon, but you’ve spoken at several conferences, how did that start?
I did spoken word poetry when I was younger and that gave me the confidence to go out there and get on a stage, but I’m still the worst public speaker ever. I need to practice so much. I never improvise on stage and get so nervous before going on. I guess that’s one thing that you never really get used to. I throw myself at these situations, despite the anxieties and fears. I always think, “Why did I promise to speak at this thing? I’m so not ready, yet!”
I’ve learned that sometimes you need to do things before you’re ready. Also, start small. Just by talking at a lot of Rails Girls events I gained the confidence to speak in English, and then to built from that.
Honestly don’t know the answer. I’m probably just that female speaker; I mean… How do I say this without sounding bad?
Sometimes, there’s an added benefit to being a woman that can speak about your own profession in an intelligent and exciting way. There are so many other things that go against women that it’s nice and worth it to benefit from some of those things that do go towards our gender’s advantage.
Well, what advice do you have for someone who’s trying to learn how to program right now?
The Internet is pretty much made of advice on how to make the Internet.
And you might laugh, but it’s hard to understand for someone who doesn’t come from our industry. Someone who comes from, say, construction work where you need to have a very specific path and set of instructions to help mentor you along the way. For us the Internet is full of instructions and people are really helpful.
Real programmers Google things too. They know that they don’t have all of the answers. Learning to rely on your own ability to solve problems is probably one of the most important attitudes I would take.
The second thing is repetition. Nobody anticipates being able to speak fluent French after attending a one-week workshop or even a six-month course. It’s a lifelong commitment to practice and learning. If that skill system sounds exhilarating, I would recommend finding a group of people who are also excited about learning how to program. For instance, the Ruby community is amazing in the sense that it arranges a lot of meetings and meet-ups—events where beginners are totally welcome to join.
So, first of all, being a problem solver, then finding a peer group of people who can help you. Third and fourth would be having a project that you’re really fascinated by and that forces you to learn. Choosing a problem that’s a problem in your life and figuring out how to solve it with programming, at least for me, has been one of the most effective ways to learn.
And I love what you said earlier, that the Internet is full of instructions on how to build the Internet. That’s fantastic.
What about parents who want their kids to learn how to program? How should they encourage them?
Kids are the most efficient learners in the world, they learn so much so fast when they are motivated, and when they aren’t, nothing happens.
Find out what motivates that specific kid, and what makes them interested in technology. Maybe it’s making a game, maybe it’s something else.
There’s this wonderful organization called Code.org which is a US non-profit that’s collected a lot of great resources like Codecademy and Khan Academy that teach programming skills.
One of the exercises I do with little kids is building a paper computer. I’ve put the instructions online and we build a computer out of paper and put in the little smiling CPU and the hard drive and the GPU—all the hardware pieces. It’s called My First Laptop and you just build a little laptop out of paper.
Then the other thing that kids do is they design a web application for this little computer. And when we first talk with kids about applications they know, they talk about Angry Birds or some kind of word processor. But then when we really start to think about what a computer is and the sorts of functions it can carry out, they start to talk about, “Oh, we could play Moms & Dads,” where dad works on the computer, and we’re like, “Yeah, that’s good, but can we think a little bit further?”
And that’s where things start to get really interesting. I had this one little girl who wanted to be a dolphin doctor when she grows up, and she designed her very first dolphin health application, where she can monitor her future dolphin patients’ health and stats.
Then, there was this little boy who has this game with his father where the dad is the astronaut and the little boy is mission control, and he has these big headphones on and he commands his father as he orbits Mars. But we designed this big interplanetary observation app, where he could help manage his father with his little paper laptop.
And all of those things, though they sound a little ridiculous, they help the kid to see technology in a more creative way and view computers as a part of their play instead of just as this machine that their parents spend too much time on. They really take ownership of the digital world they create.
The most important thing a parent can do is to spark their child’s imagination. The rest will take care of itself. There are wonderful resources for even the tiniest of children to start studying programming on. But, that attitude starts at home.
Photos of kids working on their very own paper computers. Information and the print out to build a paper computer can be found on the Hello Ruby blog.
I love the paper computer concept. You have to send me pictures of the kids working on those.
That’s the most amazing part!
People have started to send me pictures of their kids working on a paper computer and what kinds of play situations they’ve come up. Those kids are going to have a different attitude towards technology—one that my generation would scoff at.
Don’t let me get started on Minecraft, because that’s a long story! But that too is making amazing strides in introducing younger generations to technology in a more creative way.
We’ll save that conversation for another day.
You’ve obviously already achieved a lot, and I’m curious, after Hello Ruby is published, what’s next for you?
I feel like I’m in a very lucky position. I don’t have a publisher or boss telling me I need to make a huge amount of money off of this. I have my audience and the people who believe in me from the Kickstarter project, which means I have the time and the focus to make products that are absolutely magical. I can create quality products that people will enjoy for years to come. And I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the things that I can and want to do.
I feel like, with Ruby, I’ve got about four or five more ideas for books that I want to get into. I want to make a book about how to follow an HTTP request. The journey from when we press enter on our computer to it hitting the server on Google, what things it sees on the way there.
I want to do an art show where you climb inside of a computer and see how it works from the insides. I want to make a mobile app that explores the relationship between play and learning to program.
Stuff like that. And I have the resources and time and support from the community to do that. So, I’m very lucky and I wish to be doing this stuff for the next 20 years.
Well, I wish that for you too—this has been a fantastic conversation. Linda, where can people find you or follow you online?
I’m pretty active on Twitter. There’s helloruby.com, where I post some pictures and I’ve been learning about making GIF animations, so you can see some of those there. You can also hear a lot from my backer updates on Kickstarter where I tell about my journey of becoming a children’s book author.
Fantastic, thank you for joining me today!
Thank you for having me!
The most important thing a parent can do is to spark their child’s imagination. The rest will take care of itself.