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Coding Black Females – Making a Difference in the World

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Charlene Hunter, founder and CEO of Coding Black Females, a community that connects Black women in tech and provides opportunities for learning, mentoring, and career advancement.


Key Takeaways

  • Coding Black Females has grown into a community of around 20,000 people worldwide.
  • They provide opportunities for learning, mentoring, and career advancement offering events and a boot camp program.
  • The lack of diversity in the tech industry is still a challenge, and more companies need to support initiatives like Coding Black Females to create a more inclusive environment.
  • The industry loses great people because of the lack of awareness and poor approaches to diversity and belonging.
  • The key to establishing a community is to just start doing something.


Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today, I'm sitting down with Charlene Hunter. Charlene is the founder of Coding Black Females. Am I correct, Charlene?

Introductions [01:02]

Charlene Hunter: That is correct. Yes, I'm the founder and CEO of Coding Black Females.

Shane Hastie: Welcome. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Charlene Hunter: Thank you for having me. Looking forward to the conversation.

Shane Hastie: My normal starting point with these interviews is who’s Charlene?

Charlene Hunter: So, as I said, I'm the founder and CEO of Coding Black Females. It's an organization that I've been running for the last seven years because my background is in software engineering and technology. I've actually been coding since I was about 10 years old. So I set up Coding Black Females a few years ago as a way to connect with other Black women in tech, basically because of my passion for technology and my passion for coding. And maybe when I would tell my friends about the fact that I was a developer, they'd be like, "Oh, that sounds boring." And I'd be like, "No, I actually love going to work every single day," and they hated me for it. So I wanted to find people that didn't hate me for the fact that I loved doing what I do.

So I set up the community, and unfortunately, I don't get to code that much anymore, but that's what I do. I run a tech community, which provides a lot of opportunities and is a growing community around the world now.

Shane Hastie: Tell us some of the background, the why of Coding Black Females.

The why of Coding Black Females [02:11]

Charlene Hunter: It's interesting because about 15 years ago, I guess, is when I got into coding, into software engineering, and I landed my first role in a consultancy, and it was fantastic. Absolutely loved it. I really enjoyed coding. However, I'd never met any of the Black women who were software engineers, so it didn't really pose a problem for me at all, I would say. It was just more of an observation. So about seven years ago, I set up the community just to meet other people who were like me, basically, who were a bit geeky and were also Black women. And that's the background. I think the day before I actually set it up, I'd watched Hidden Figures, the film about the Black women who were part of the space race, and it was the first time I'd ever seen a film that was about Black women who liked maths and coding. And I was like, "Oh, this is kind of cool." Let me see if there's other people like that out there too, so I set the community up.

So that's the background. We started out having a lot of events, connecting people together, having a community where people could learn from each other. And we've grown now into this fantastic community of people still having events, mentoring, and then also we have a boot camp program as well that we run for people to train and transition into the tech industry as well.

Shane Hastie: A lot of events, the boot camp program. What is the impact that this community is having?

The impact Coding Black Females is making [03:29]

Charlene Hunter: So I think when we started, we had probably about, well, obviously, hardly any members at all. There weren't many people that were part of the network. We now have a community of around 20,000 people around the world, and that's people who want to come along and hear about different tech topics. So we have talks about cybersecurity, DevOps, and AI, anything that's part of the time, we'll talk about those things. And we'll also do different types of training, like I said. So over the years, I think we've probably trained about 2,000 people, and that's people who really want to either enter the industry or develop additional technical skills once they're in tech and want to learn something new. So we have a technical architecture course, for example, for people that have been software engineers for a while and they might want to train a bit more.

And through that course, we've seen people then land new roles as architects or land new roles in leadership positions as well. So the impact really is, we've trained around 2,000 people around the world. We've run mentor programs and mentored around 500 people, and we've had about 20,000 people attend our events over the years as well. So something that started out in a little bar in London has grown to have a huge impact all around the world and for both the individuals that we work with but also companies that are able to now build their teams through us as well, which has been really impactful to them too.

Shane Hastie: Tell us some stories of people who've been through your programs, and what have the outcomes been?

Examples of the impact in action [05:00]

Charlene Hunter: So one of the stories that I really enjoy is somebody who joined our community because she'd liked the fact that we had events, and at the events we had a lot of free food and we had a chance to network. So she'd come to the events, and she'd have a fantastic time. And through that, though, she was accidentally, almost, learning information about React and how to build front-end applications and things like that. So she was coming to the events, not interested in being in tech at all, but knew that we had a strong and solid community. So she'd come and just learn more about React. And after that, then started doing one of our intro to web development courses, so learned a bit more about how to be a front-end developer. And then, through our job board, found a job in a company and got her first role in tech on an academy program.

So she then came back to us to do more mentoring, do one of our experience courses, and in just two years, is now progressing to a senior engineer after not really having interest in being in tech at all. So for that, it's been an amazing journey for her. And she said, "You've not just changed my life, but the life of my children. I have different prospects now that I didn't have, necessarily, before, which has been fantastic to see." And I think just knowing that it's not just me or whatever, it's the community, because people in tech, they love to share their knowledge with other people, and that's what we've seen over and over and over again. It's the different tech communities, whether it's ours or others that she's been a part of, have come together to make sure that she can learn the skills and then progress up the ladder in that way.

So that's been amazing, and we see those sort of stories over and over and over again. There's people that have come to us almost like just having a horrible time at work, not being recognized for their skills, not progressing up the ladder the way they'd like to, and through then we'd come in and support with some career support, we'd give some CV reviews, that sort of thing. And then again, through the mentoring and the training, those people are now progressing into senior positions where previously, in their companies that they were in, they wouldn't have progressed in tech, and now they're actually being influential through it. So I think that's some of the key things. It's really that people are joining the network, and yes, a network is fantastic and it's great to have connections, but one of our key views is that we want people to have tangible outcomes as well.

So we want to let you know that if you come to Coding Black Females, you can take something tangible away and actually change your life if you want to, or learn a new skill, or make some actual real solid new connections, or get connected to a company, which really does then have a huge impact on the people that we're supporting in our community.

Shane Hastie: As an industry, we still haven't got anywhere near tackling the gender imbalances, the racial imbalances, the lack of diversity. Why is it taking so long?

The technology industry still has huge challenges with diversity [07:49]

Charlene Hunter: Oh, that's a question that we have come up over and over and over again. I think one thing is, we look at organizations like ours doing some of this fantastic work, and we're getting people trained. We're getting people in, we're getting people progressing up the ladder, and that's fantastic. I guess one thing is that there needs to be more companies doing the same thing or more people that are able to know about the organizations like ours so they can get those opportunities is one thing. A lot of companies, whilst they may provide great opportunities internally, may not always recognize talent and skill they have. So if they have people who, like I said, we've had people come to us because they're slightly stagnant in their companies, so their skills aren't being recognized to then move up the ladder.

So those people are then leaving the industry as well and going elsewhere or moving into new industries completely because they may not feel as if tech is somewhere that they belong, and the industry is not enabling people to feel that they should stay either. So that's another thing. What you tend to find as well is, when everything's going great in the economy, lots of companies come to us. They get lots of people and say, "Look, we really want to have a huge impact on diversity and inclusion. We want to create the best workspace ever." And as soon as things start to change, we see diversity leads disappear, we see those initiatives disappear. We see the focus is no longer on creating a diverse environment, necessarily. It may just be having people in-house who can do the job, which I get. But at the same time, because people are naturally more likely to hire people that are like themself or like themselves, as much as we are putting in a lot of work, and there is a lot of change, it's easy to fall back into that when the initiatives are taken away.

So that does have a huge impact, too. There's a lot of work that people can be doing on the ground as well. So it's not just about people who are ready for work, there's people who are slightly younger. So what can we do to support women or girls when they're learning to make sure that we have the right set of people ready for roles when they get to the right age as well? So I think there's so many reasons that we haven't fixed the problem yet, but things are sometimes moving in the right direction. Although at the moment, I think the numbers are decreasing in some areas, so not quite in the right direction as we'd like.

Shane Hastie: Challenging. So if I'm an influencer, a leader within a technical organization, what can I do?

Practical actions that can be taken [10:13]

Charlene Hunter: So what influencers have done for us in the past is, one, share the fact that we exist, to let people know about us so that, one, we can have more people who come in and join our programs, join the community, access the opportunities, but then also they can find other people who can support the work that we do as well. So we need a lot of mentors, instructors, people to deliver our events. So that could be a huge impact is just sharing the fact that we exist in the work that we're doing.

For tech leaders, what we ask of them is to find a way to work with us and to bring us in to support their organization and the growth of the organizations. So as I mentioned, we do a lot of mentor programs and training courses, and those events. With all of that, we're not just doing it to support the women in the community. We're actually having a huge impact on the tech industry as well, making sure that we have a workforce who's understanding of different types of tech and they're interested in tech, and we're getting people who are inspired and progressing through it too. So it's really, we ask the leaders within tech to find a way to support the organization to work with us and for people who are able to influence. It's really just sharing the knowledge and sharing information about the work that we do as well.

Shane Hastie: Tell me a little bit about your story and experience moving from a developer, the assumption is, working inside an organization, writing code, individual contributor, and now you're the chief executive. What are the different challenges?

Moving from individual contributor to founder [11:42]

Charlene Hunter: There's a whole load of different challenges. So I guess a bit about my background in a more general sense. So I started coding from quite an early age. I was about 10 when I started coding, and my parents both run companies. One's a training company, one's a software company, and they also run community businesses as well. So I've always been surrounded by people that were interested in tech, interested in supporting other people whilst running business. Then when I started working, one of the key things that I wanted to know was everything, I guess. I started, and I thought I knew everything. I realized that I didn't really know anything at all. I remember starting, and I genuinely thought that there was nothing else to know about Java. And then I started my job, and they were like, "Do you know this?" And I was like, "Oh my God, I've never heard of it at all."

So I realized that I had a lot to learn, I suppose, and I was very happy to learn as much as I could from anybody. So one thing I would say is, I was exposing myself to different teams a lot. So I'd asked to work on the requirements team, on the testing team, on the architecture team, on the team that worked with the clients, and then also on development so that I can understand what it means to really deliver a piece of software, not just write code, but deliver software. Which was then really important for me because, over that time, I started getting to a point that I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and what direction I wanted to go in. So I went to lots of conferences, looking for people who were starting businesses where I could potentially go in and be the CTO or go in and support with the build of what they wanted to do, or I was doing extra projects on the side.

And I guess through all of that, when I then started running Coding Black Females, all of the work I'd done when I was trying to understand a lot about different parts of delivering software. So the documents that you put together, and when I write a proposal, I write this very much in the way that I probably have written a technical architecture document, which outlines how different teams are going to have to support and build the system, or when I would be doing, even putting together the finances. I know that then, when I was working in a consultancy and understanding how we'd price up different projects, I would do the finances very much the same way. So I think that through spending a lot of time in different teams when I was a software engineer was definitely something that was hugely beneficial to the work that I do now. I miss hands-on coding. I don't really get to do it very often now, but it's great to know that I can support other people in developing their own careers as well.

Shane Hastie: Coming back to the community, if one of our listeners is inspired about building community, perhaps not in that specific environment that you're in, but they've got an area that they would like to focus in, what advice would you have for them on how to establish a community?

Advice for establishing communities [14:32]

Charlene Hunter: So one thing I would say is, and the first thing I always say is just do it. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that I shouldn't do it, but actually doing it was fine. The Meetup website or platform is actually quite handy for setting up any type of community that you like because people sign up, they say what they're interested in, you create a community in a location and your events, your community will be pushed out to those people. So that's what I would say is figure out what it is that you want to do. So if you do have a particular direction, if it's a particular technology, that's fine. If it's a particular, I don't know, tech in London or tech in random location, create that group and bring people together. Actually, just after I set up Coding Black Females, I also set up another community called Meet Up and Code, which was just about bringing your laptop to a bar and coding with a bunch of other people who want to code.

And it was a great way to meet other people. And that was literally by us saying, "Okay, we'll go on the Meetup platform. We're going to say that we want to do this in London, and we'll create some events," and then people will come to you. In terms of having a team around, one thing that I didn't do the first time that I did do the second time was tell people that I was doing it so that you can get people to support you as well on your journey. You can do things on your own. It's harder to do a lot of things on your own without support. So at least that way you can have a bit of balance that maybe one of you could set it up, one of you could take the pictures and post it on social media, that sort of thing, which just makes it a bit easier at the beginning as well.

So I guess, think of your direction and find a platform that you can use. Meetup's great for it, or Eventbrite's actually really good for it too now. And then maybe find somebody that can support you on your journey and get it started.

Shane Hastie: Just do it.

Charlene Hunter: Just do it. Absolutely.

Shane Hastie: Wonderful. Charlene, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. What you're doing is inspirational. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Charlene Hunter: They can find me on LinkedIn. I'm Charlene Hunter on LinkedIn, and I'm more than happy to connect with anybody who wants to find out more about what we do, looking at supporting, as I said, entry-level and experienced people. You can find me on LinkedIn and happy to connect. Or you can go to the website as well.

Shane Hastie: Wonderful. We'll make sure that those links are in the show notes. Thanks so much.

Charlene Hunter: Thank you.


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