Rails Girls Bristol

I was recently accepted onto Bristol's first Rails Girls event. If you're not familiar with Rails Girls, here's what it's all about:

Our aim is to give tools and a community for women to understand technology and to build their ideas. We do this by providing a great experience on building things and by making technology more approachable.

Learn sketching, prototyping, basic programming and get introduced to the world of technology. Rails Girls was born in Finland, but is nowadays a global, non-profit volunteer community.

So on Saturday 15 June, armed with laptop and Jaffa Cakes, I headed into Bristol for a day of geeky fun and meeting new people. The venue was pretty close to where I work so wasn't too tricky to find, and being a few minutes early meant I had the chance to get chatting to a few other ladies there for the day. I was surprised by the huge range of ages and backgrounds - computer science students, physicists, people working in e-commerce - some of whom had come from as far as London, Brighton... even Paris!

We started the day with coffee and making sure everyone had managed to get Rails set up correctly, and then there were a few introductory talks by the instructors. They covered things like what a web app is, how HTML and CSS display web pages, how the internet works, what JavaScript does etc. So the absolute basics. Being a little more advanced than this, I didn't really learn anything new here, but it meant it really was appropriate for people with no programming experience at all.

After this, we played around with TryRuby for a bit. The site was obviously having problems which was annoying, but without the crashing it seems like it would be a fun way to start learning the basics of Ruby. (There was much giggling at the realisation that some poor guy was probably getting paged about it right at that moment.) I personally found it a little confusing because I've already started to learn Python, and at this stage it probably doesn't make sense for me to learn both languages – I already manage to muddle Python and JavaScript syntax enough as it is!

Then *drumroll* it was time to start building our own web app. This basically involved following the the existing Rails Girls guides to make a very simple Rails app which lets users create, read, update and delete things. The guides walk you through exactly what to type into the command line, and then the instructors were on hand to explain what you were actually doing, answer any questions and fix it if you broke anything.

Sandwiches were brought round for lunch, but we were all far too engrossed in our apps by the time lunch happened, so obviously the sandwiches were eaten one-handed while we carried on typing with the other.

Once you got the basic app working, there was a list of other guides you could move on to, depending on your interests. So you could do things like add more features such as commenting or authentication (user accounts), improve the design with HTML and CSS, create thumbnail images, or deploy your app with Heroku (yeah, I don't think any of us got that far).

As you'd expect, what you can cover in a day barely scratches the surface. This means that although you end up with a working app at the end of it, the chances are you won't really understand much about what's going on underneath to make it work. Luckily, Rails Girls do point you at lots of stuff you can go and read independently if you are interested in learning more. So no, you won't come away a programmer, but as a day for inspiration, connecting with new people and finding out about local meetups and things, it was fantastic.

I'll probably play around with my app a bit more to see what else I can do with it, but I think I'll go back to Python after that as I feel like I've already built a more solid understanding of the fundamentals there. However, if you're a complete newbie looking to start having a play around with some code in a nice social environment, I'd say it's definitely worth applying to a Rails Girls workshop.