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Nicole: The Girl Who Codes

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Chicago may not be the largest tech ecosystem in the nation, but it’s certainly no slouch.

According to a CBRE analysis, the Windy City has topped both New York and Los Angeles in tech job growth, having increased by 35% from 2010 to 2015. Chicago is considered the 13th best market in the country for tech talent, and as the nation’s third largest city, it also boasts the fifth largest pool of tech workers.

Nicole Carlson is a coder in that pool.

To say Carlson has always been passionate about solving problems would be an understatement. After growing up in the Midwest and receiving her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University in Integrated Science, Physics and Math, she moved to the Bay Area to pursue her PhD in Physics at UC Berkeley. For two years after grad school, she worked at a handful of tech companies and served as a science educator at the Exploratorium, where she continued her passion for STEM education.

In 2014, Carlson moved back to the Midwest and took a position developing online math and science curriculum for the University of Chicago. She was satisfied with the work, but interested in a change of pace.

“Data science was something that a lot of people with physics PhDs go into so I always had it in the back of my mind as a potential career,” explained Carlson.

Her mentor from Berkeley, Vivienne Ming, is a consultant for Shiftgig, and her introduction landed Carlson a job as Shiftgig’s first Data Scientist. “It was kind of an accident,” she explained. “But I was really excited to work with Vivienne again and the stuff at Shiftgig sounded really cool.”

In addition to her role at Shiftgig, Carlson is also active in Chicago’s female tech communities. PyLadies, an international Python open-source community, has one of its most active chapters in Chicago. “That’s probably my favorite organization,” said Carlson. “I feel very comfortable at the meetups, which are open to everyone. But they have a very inclusive code of conduct, so I’m never scared to ask questions. It’s awesome seeing other women in the room.”

Carlson has noticed a growth in the number of women in tech, but it’s still far below the population of men in the industry. By 2020, there will be an estimated 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields. U.S. graduates are on track to fill 29% of those jobs and women are on track to fill just 3%.

Carlson is hoping to help prove that prediction wrong.

Since 2015, she has spent two hours almost every Saturday during the school year volunteering at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus teaching female students who are part of the club Girls Who Code.

“It was always something I’ve been interested in, and since moving to Chicago, I got more into coding,” Carlson said. “I also missed working with students like I had at Exploratorium, so it seemed like a good match.”

Founded in 2012, the non-profit organization is dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology. UIC’s chapter is one of the biggest chapters in the nation with 70 students and there is a waiting list to get in - girls who are interested are required to apply in order to be considered.

Carlson holds "How to Code," a book written by one of her Girls Who Code students, Meg Cadell.

Throughout the year, the girls are divided into levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. While the beginner level has more of a set curriculum, the intermediate and advanced classes try to teach based off the girls’ interests. Carlson is currently teaching an advanced class that is interested in making websites, so she’s been teaching some of the girls the Django web framework.

“We were teaching them about the command line in one of our first classes and I told them the command to make a folder. So, they typed it in and then the folder appeared on the desktop. They were just like, ‘What?! How did that happen?’” Carlson smiled, “I like seeing moments like that, where we can say, ‘Yes, this isn’t entirely magic. You can do this!’ Or when they first make a webpage and can see their own work. I really enjoy that.”  

Carlson encourages young female coders to continue to find a community, if possible, that is all-inclusive. “Unfortunately, there are some programming communities that are a lot ‘bro-ier’ and so that can be really intimidating if you wind up in one of those,” she explained. “Just know that there are other groups out there that are striving to not be like that. And there are tons of them in Chicago.”

As the city’s tech community continues to grow, so does the collaboration of the groups within it. Carlson is an active member of the Slack group called ‘Chi Tech Diversity’, an umbrella chat community for all of the different organizations to talk to each other and share resources. “There’s always interesting stuff being posted in there,” she said.

When Carlson was growing up, she didn’t have any of these communities accessible to her, but she is happy to have them now.  “I don’t regret the path I took to get here, even if it did take a little bit longer than other people,” she stated.

“So, I guess another piece of advice would be that it’s fine if you can’t start until you’re in college or after college. I think often times, men have been programming since they’re babies and there’s this notion that ‘Oh, they already know how to do everything, so I can’t join them,’ but you can always be a beginner. You can always join - it doesn’t matter if you’re 13 or 50 - I’ve known people who represent the full spectrum,” she said.

“So just go at your own pace. You’ll get there eventually.”


Image Above: Carlson holds "How to Code," a book written and illustrated by one of her Girls Who Code students, Meg Cadell.

January 23, 2017 | Kelly Hickey