Featured Innovator

Houston software developer helps bring Women Who Code to town

Silver Ehiwario flipped careers a while back, and now she hopes to help other women with that process. Courtesy of Silver Ehiwario

Silver Ehiwario worked to attain two chemical engineering degrees and had been in the industry in Nigeria for seven years when she decided she wanted to change her career path.

"I started thinking about making a switch when I found out I had this interest in being creative and building solutions for businesses so that they can become more effective and grow," Ehiwario says. "I like to be able to put my thoughts into the computer and see people use it."

She's not alone. Ehiwario and a few like-minded women are responsible for bringing the California-based nonprofit organization, Women Who Code, to Houston. On March 5, the Houston chapter celebrated its launch. At the event, the organization engaged its new members and asked them what they wanted from the organization. The feedback they received will drive the programing and events they will focus on, Ehiwario says.

"At the end of the day, I called for anyone open to mentoring. We had a whole lot of turnout — people were ready to inspire other women with what they do best," Ehiwario says. "I don't think there is a whole lot of other groups out there where your interest is represented and worked on."

Ehiwario spoke with InnovationMap about what she's excited about for Women Who Code in Houston and how she managed to change careers from a chemical engineer to a software developer.

InnovationMap: Did you find it easy to find resources for starting a new career in coding?

Silver Ehiwario: It wasn't easy — maybe I didn't know what I wanted. I searched online for something I could actually do where I wanted to do it. I decided to try the University of Texas' bootcamp here in Houston. It was very hard at first. I was very new to coding. I never used the computer other than for emails and basic work.

IM: How did you first get involved with Women Who Code?

SE: I had a colleague in the bootcamp who introduced me to it. I found out more online and it kind of aligned with what I wanted and I liked the idea of having support. In 2017, I applied to be a director so that we could have a network here. Everything started happening here at the end of 2018.

IM: Who is a part of the Houston chapter?

SE: There are seven of us. Julie Jonak, Roopa Rajala, Shefali Kapoor-Patel, Wanjun Zhang, Aditi Singh, Saima Rajwani, and myself.

IM: What's the program like?

SE: What draws me to Women Who Code is the mission and the vision. The mission is to inspire women to excel in their technology careers, and the vision is to have a world where women are representative of technical executives, founders, chairmen, and software engineer. We have people old and young. Our code of conduct has to do with inclusiveness — if you love technology, you're welcomed.

IM: Why is it important to Houston that Women Who Code have a chapter here?

SE: Houston is a huge community. I know there's a lot of tech people out here. We are able to see a lot of people are changing their careers from what they have done before — just like I changed mine. We need communities where they can be inspired. I've met people who just finished a coding bootcamp, are job hunting, and are kind of depressed. This community will be able to inspire them.

We need Women Who Code in Houston to support these women in tech — to close the gender gap and create a good working environment. If women succeed, girls will see that and it will give them that encouragement and motivation.

IM: How does someone get involved?

SE: Online. Sign up to be a member, join our Facebook network, and our LinkedIn network. We'll soon roll out our schedule of when we meet.

IM: Advice for someone wanting to switch careers?

SE: I like talking about this a lot. If you want to change your career to something in the tech industry, I would just say to take it one step at a time. Find one of the bootcamps out there and get connected. And join a network like Women Who Code so you can have a network and support after you leave that bootcamp.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Coding camps continue to grow and expand in Houston. The most recent comes from the University of Texas. Getty Images

As Houston's innovation ecosystem grows, the need for tech talent grows too. It's why the University of Texas and workforce accelerator Trilogy Education decided to bring a series of coding boot camps designed to teach Houstonians the skills they need to excel in the fast-paced world of the tech economy to town.

"Too many working adults lack the skills to succeed in the digital economy," says Liliya Spinazzola, the senior director for professional education and strategic initiatives at the Texas Extended Campus of The University of Texas at Austin. "And that means that employers are lacking a talent pool."

The Houston Coding Boot Camp aims to change all that. The 24-week sessions teach web development and coding skills, allowing adults to take classes even as they're working. That kind of flexibility helps them increase their knowledge as they continue to build career paths.

Houston's seen a good amount of growth when it comes to new coding camps. Digital Crafts, for instance, grew from an inaugural class of eight students to 125 people in just two years. Women Who Code saw a need for female coders in Houston to have a network, and now the city has a newly launched chapter.

Student success
So far, 260 students have completed the programs, going on to work at companies such as JP Morgan, IBM, and Deloitte.

One of those is Rebecca Gemeinhardt, now a full stack developer at Shell. She graduated with her bachelor's in graphic arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2017, and found that she missed being in a classroom. When she started the boot camp, she was immediately drawn to the challenge the subject matter offered, as well as the flexible schedule.

"The boot camp was just as formidable as the curriculum promised but extremely fulfilling," she says. "Going into boot camp, I didn't tell anyone I was doing it — what if I struggled and couldn't get through it? I kept it a secret until I found the confidence to identify as a developer."

Once she completed the program, she was hired at Shell.

"My life had changed so much in just six months but definitely for the better," Gemeinhardt says. "By focusing on the ability to adopt new technologies, [the coding boot camp instructors] left us with the invaluable skill of being adaptable and fast-learning full stack developers. This has helped me immensely at my current position as we are always incorporating new languages to our architecture depending on individual project needs."

Filling the need
Spinazzola says the camps deliberately try to create environments that foster the level of problem solving and exploration Gemeinhardt describes. The program partners with employers to discover what skills are most needed, and tailors the curriculum to dovetail with them. She says the skills most in demand right now are coding, cyber security, IT project management, and digital marketing.

"We also look at job description data here in Texas to see what skills are listed," she says. "And while students are in the program, we have a robust network that engages with them upfront, talking to them about what jobs are out there. And we host career fairs where they can show off their portfolios and discuss their skills set with potential employers."

Spinazzola says that students come from all walks of life and employment backgrounds, and that 26 percent of the participants are women. With 25 students per boot camp session, the small classes make for deep instruction. UT offers between three and fours sessions in Houston each year. She says that she finds participants are looking to either break into the tech sector, learn new skills or re-train to be able to advance their careers. The average age of students is somewhere in the low-30s, she says.

"We had a student who owned a cooking school and wanted to start a new career," she says. "[Rebecca] trained as a graphic artist and wanted to be a developer. One student shut down his medical practice and says that he wanted to learn coding so that he could go work for a pharmaceutical company. To me, that's the beauty of this program. These skills are in demand, and our students are able to take what they already know and enhance their abilities to be able to take on new career paths."