New Hackbright CEO Sharon Wienbar Says Programming Now More Attracitve to Women

Venture capitalist Sharon Wienbar is taking the helm as chief executive of Hackbright Academy, a San Francisco computer engineering school whose mission is to bring more women into the tech industry.

Ms. Wienbar, a partner at Scale Venture Partners since 2001, succeeds Hackbright co-founder and CEO David Phillips, who will become chairman of the school. The two met in 2014 when she was researching an article on how to hire more female engineers. The next day she offered to advise the school.

In an interview, Ms. Wienbar said her venture capital experience will help the school grow by reaching beyond its San Francisco campus to serve more aspiring female software developers and companies looking for talented workers.

She said one of the greatest barriers to women becoming software engineers is that “the environment doesn’t feel welcoming to them.”

Here are portions of that interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q: drew you to Hackbright?

A: It has a massive social mission that I’m very passionate about, which is to increase women in tech and change the ratio. By 2020 it’s forecast that there is a skills gap of more than a million software engineers that American industry will need that current educational settings don’t have the capacity to provide. And if you look at current statistics on the percentage of women in computer science programs, women will represent about 60,000 of that million number.

Q: What do you see as the biggest barriers to women who want to become software developers?

A: There’s a fair amount of research that says one of the things that impedes women from entering computer science programs and then also working in tech is “no ambient sense of belonging,” meaning the environment doesn’t feel welcoming to them. I published an article in TechCrunch about how tech companies can accelerate their hiring of women engineers. There are a bunch of different levers.

What’s special about Hackbright is we teach computer science fundamentals, we teach Python. This is not programming lite. But what I think makes the women successful here is a supportive, inclusive environment.

Q: What more can the tech industry do to attract and retain women?

A: Part of it is being open to the possibility that talent comes in diverse form factors. We have come to rely on the notion of pattern matching as a way of identifying talent. If you’re the hiring manager in a technology company and you think successful engineers are guys who’ve been programming since they were six, are really into “Star Wars,” have a BS in CS degree from Stanford or Cal, you will get mostly men.

You have to believe that talent might look different, you probably have to do more work to source your candidates because there are not enough women coming out of those BS in CS programs yet there are loads of women in Web sciences who take a lot of computer science programs, but you have to dig down into the resume to find them.

You might recruit women from an adjacent department and train in how to become an engineer. And then you have to make sure that there’s pay parity, promotion parity and social parity of rank within the engineering organization–are you assigning women to fix bugs and men to work on the new algorithms, or do women get paired with men equally on the new projects.

Q: What does it take to be good software engineer?

A: To have a career as a great software developer, I think you have to have a real love for learning because languages rise and fall in prevalence. You really have to have that lifelong desire to want to learn new things.

In software programming there have been elements of the algorithm and the puzzle. Decomposing the problem, figuring out how to parameterize what you’re going to do and find an elegant solution. And then there’s the implementation cycle, the writing of code. (Historically) that was actually a very collaborative environment when women were a very high percentage of software programmers. In the mainframe days you had a really high number of women. Then when we went to personal computers, the ratio fell dramatically.

Now with Agile development methodology and pair programming replacing waterfall methodology –meaning that the engineer on high writes code for 18 months and then delivers it to the lowly QA engineer who finds the bugs–you’re coding and releasing on a continuous cycle, I think that it’s become a much more collaborative environment.

It’s very much like a maker environment. If you’re into crafting or baking or sewing, you can think of making software as very much part of that spectrum. You want to have that personal joy in making things.

Write to Russ Garland at Follow him on Twitter at @RussGarland