Campfire Camaraderie

What I learned from spending four days with 20 women @Square Code Camp.

Written by Shana Hu.

*College Code Camp is our four-day immersion program for women studying computer science. Berkeley student Shana Hu shares her experience.*

Last week, I went camping for the first time. There were no tents or sleeping bags, but there was a fire on the first night. And in its dim glow, 21 women from colleges across the U.S. and Canada milled about a chilly backyard in San Francisco, slowly getting to know each other. We were essentially a group of strangers, but the one thing we had in common was an invitation from Square to participate in Code Camp 2014, so there we sat, laughing around a campfire at the start of a four-day program which would amaze and inspire us in ways we could have never predicted.

Our days were packed with activities, including three Tech Treks spread over two days, which were 2.5 hour development sessions led by experienced Square employees. I got to clean up CSS code (which doesn’t sound like much fun but trust me — it felt so rewarding at the end), learn some iOS development by creating a custom lock screen, and hack a web app by exposing its security flaws.

The Tech Treks also helped introduce us to technologies we could use for our Dev Day project, which began through a gathering (complete with hot chocolate, comfy floor pillows, and an 8-bit fire animation on a TV screen) of current High School Code Campers and College Code Camp alumnae. When asked if we had any project ideas, one camper suggested the idea of building a sort of memory game — an app which could dispel stereotypes, inspire girls interested in engineering, and remind us all of the amazing women we had met. Campers excitedly began contributing ideas and potential features, and I realized that there are few things more amazing than being surrounded by a group of passionate people. When Dev Day rolled around, we tackled Android, iOS, and Ruby on Rails with the help of Square engineers, and after a lot of learning, helped build something out of nothing but excitement and code.

We met several employees throughout the week, including our own personal mentor who we got to know over meals. Others helped us through Tech Treks and Dev Day, or even just stopped by to say hi. Some campers and I met Sarah Friar, Square’s CFO, in line at the smoothie bar one day and then ate breakfast with her the next, listening to her talk about how she developed a love of engineering early on, pursued a degree in a heavily-male industry, worked in both goldmines and Goldman, and now — still bright-eyed and passionate about technology — helps lead Square.

As a woman in a prime leadership role, she was already an inspiration to us all, but hearing her say that she never had a doubt in her mind that she wanted to have children made her relatable in a way that male executives weren’t. In an industry where we almost never hear leaders discuss the difficulties of balancing having a career and having a child, it was raw and real to know that, as young women who have yet to create a career or a family, we could have both.

Whereas Sarah showed us a glimpse at our potential futures, Vivienne Harr taught us that it is never too early to start making a difference. At the age of ten, she’s already raised over $1 million to help end child slavery through Make A Stand Lemon-Aid, a company she founded after she saw a photo of slaves her age, and decided she had to do something about it. But she didn’t start with the B Corp she has today; she started with a simple lemonade stand, and with that stand she stood for 365 days, selling her homemade lemonade cup by cup, all the while tweeting her journey and raising money with Square. As we sat before her, each sipping a glass of the bottled lemonade her company now sells in stores, she spoke of the importance of compassion with action, the ability of each and every person to make a difference no matter how small, and the power of technology to change the world. At the end, she posed a single question to get us thinking: “How do we code empowerment?”

And of course, we were able to spend some time with Jack Dorsey. When asked what he thought about the recent push to teach programming in elementary and middle schools, he agreed that kids should learn to code, but not necessarily because they should become programmers. They should learn to code because coding teaches a different way of thinking, the same way painting does. His answer fit perfectly into the philosophy behind Square which we saw threaded throughout the office — that eye-opening combination of development and design in a company sparked by the idea that technology could aid not only a single artist trying to sell a piece of glasswork, but also a local coffee shop, a mom-and-pop corner store, or even a little lemonade stand with a big mission.

The learning didn’t stop with our schedule. We were given chances to make our own opportunities, and now that camping is over, I find myself realizing that many of my favorite moments were unplanned.

An hour of free time at the office turned into a fortuitous meeting just because I took the chance to ask an employee about her role on the Brand team. She jumped at the chance to introduce me to one of Square’s designers, who then took the time out of his day to sit with me and a fellow camper, speaking for over an hour about Square’s creative process. The last-minute meeting, which concluded after most employees had left for home, ended up one of my favorite moments of the camp, and left me amazed at the detail and passion that goes into making Square the company it is, not only in development but across the board.

A lunch with women in engineering at Square transformed from a Q&A into a full-blown discussion with both employees and campers contributing experiences. We were building a community, rather than a hierarchy, and bonding over a common background. One camper expressed her frustration at the fact that people took her less seriously or wouldn’t talk to her at all when she wore a dress at a conference, and some of the most spirited advice came from another camper who encouraged us all to be confident in ability, to be comfortable in appearance, and “to not let anyone squash you.”

An exploration of San Francisco became a testament to how much of an impact technology can make in someone’s everyday life when three other campers and I visited the farmers’ market by the Ferry Building. The merchants we talked to all loved the impact Square had on their businesses, but the highlight of our outing was when we approached a young girl, no older than nine or ten, who sat on the street by a crate of bracelets she had woven. We asked if she had heard of credit card readers, and she immediately nodded, saying just one word — “Square.”

“My mom got me a reader, but we lost it,” she told us, at which point I reached into my bag for the newest iteration, which all campers had received in a goody-bag, and placed it in her palm.

After three days of learning about Square from the inside, hearing about it from executives, engineers, mentors, and more — this was the first instance of being able to see the impact of a single square out in the wild. And it was amazing to see that the energy and passion which permeated the office didn’t only belong to Square employees, it belonged to Square merchants, of all ages, as well. I was helping a young business bloom just by handing over a piece of plastic, and it was inspirational to realize through that single gift that technology can indeed change the world one step at a time.

Camping went beyond the office walls. We had evenings free to get to know each other better, and these moments were what made the trip for me. My first night began with a game of pool on a tilted table, and then after laughing about the rigged game, five of us sat and discussed perception, planetary revolutions, and programming. Other evenings featured conversations in a local café and an impromptu dance party in one of our hotel rooms, and it was wonderful knowing that I wasn’t just making connections — I was making friends.

There is something magical about being surrounded by 20 women with shared interests and diverse backgrounds, who are both humbly down to earth and unbelievably out of this world. We had campers from all sorts of hometowns, with educational experiences ranging from small private women’s colleges to large public schools with majority-male CS courses. As someone from the latter, Code Camp was more than just refreshing — it was one of the only times in my life so far that I’ve been able to sit with a group of women and discuss everything and anything, ranging from the rationality of love to Ruby on Rails.

What I learned from Square Code Camp is that there are some absolutely incredible women out there. And when brought together, we will not only be inspired by designers and developers, new-grad employees and technological leaders, ten-year-old merchants and ten-year-old philanthropists — but we will inspire each other. By helping us forge friendships that span not only the continent but the globe and by helping us build communities of women passionate about technology, we are helping both spread encouragement to others and empower ourselves. We can be our own heroes, but sometimes we just need a bit of support.

And at the end of the day, supporting women in technology is not only about gender — it’s about diversity. It’s about the power in harnessing the passion of capable individuals from various backgrounds. It’s about crafting a community which welcomes all who wish to explore, create, and contribute to products which can change our world. It’s about learning to think in a different way, whether it be by code or paint, and about realizing that whether someone chooses to dress in slacks or skirts has no impact on their capability as a coder.

Thank you to everyone @Square who made Code Camp an unforgettable experience. And here’s to the 20 other women who shared my first campground — we will not be squashed! Shana Hu - Profile *A couple of weeks before I started my summer internship at LinkedIn, I received an email from my mentor. In it, he…*