7 Leadership Skills I Developed as a Girls Who Code Instructor

** This blog is written by guest blogger, Madelyn, a Senior Consultant in our Chicago office **

This summer marked my third consecutive summer serving as an instructor for Girls Who Code (GWC). First and foremost, I’m grateful for the incredible experiences that I’ve had. GWC, an international non-profit aiming to close the gender gap in technology, is creating change in a wonderful way. The past three summers, I’ve had the chance to be a part of that change by teaching and mentoring young girls about the possibilities that technology provides.

But the true icing on the cake?

Although my focus is always on building students’ technical and social skills, I ultimately end up developing my own skills as well. As I reflect on my time at GWC, I’ve identified several ways that teaching technology has actually helped me develop in my professional career.

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Madelyn (far right) and some of her students at GWC

Here’s 7 of the leadership skills that I’ve developed as a Girls Who Code instructor – and how they translate into my consulting career.

  1. Understand your Audience

At Girls Who Code, students come from a wide range of backgrounds – aging from 13-17 and representing up to twenty different neighborhoods. While teaching for GWC, I’ve embraced the idea that “understanding your audience” is crucial to creating an effective learning environment. It’s vital to continuously reassess who you are speaking with and what they may (or may not) understand. Build off what they already know, without over-simplifying. The goal should be to read and understand your audience and to deliver a clear, impactful message.  As Consultants, we often need to use this same awareness approach with our client meetings.

From an instructing perspective, the goal is to explain concepts in a way that both expands upon the students’ existing knowledge and defines those concepts in terms they understand.

  1. Empower & Embrace a Culture of Feedback

Girls Who Code classrooms are designed around constant feedback. Students are encouraged to give open, constructive, and respectful feedback on others’ projects. There are many informal means of feedback throughout the day as well. One of my favorites is taking a “thumb survey”, in which all students respond to a question on a spectrum of thumbs up to thumbs down. It’s a quick and easy way to get lots of valuable feedback from the students – and encourage participation!

Teaching for Girls Who Code was a great opportunity for me to practice creating a culture of feedback and responding to the constant stream of suggestions that such a culture entails.

  1. Command a Room (While Exuding Positivity)

As an instructor, one of my top priorities is to create a positive classroom atmosphere (after all, the goal is to give the students the best possible experience with computer science). I want students to feel supported, empowered, and comfortable being their true selves.

It’s also very important that I gain the respect of the students – and that can be challenging! Before teaching for GWC, I’d stifled my energy and enthusiasm in order to be taken seriously as leader or authority figure. When in charge, I’d focused on coming off as stern, decisive, and principled.

While teaching for Girls Who Code, I learned to balance my energy and enthusiasm with my ability to implement structure. Over time, this has developed into a unique leadership style that has allowed me to be more successful. I’ve found that by expressing certain traits (confidence, transparency, and optimism), I’m able to exude a positive (and fun!) presence while maintaining my position as a leader.

While teaching for Girls Who Code, I learned to command the attention and respect of an audience, while maintaining a positive presence.

  1. Be Adaptable

Adaptability is vital to the success of a classroom. No matter how much you prepare, something will not go according to plan. As the instructor, it’s my job to make the best of every situation that arises – even if that means an impromptu team building exercise while locked out of a classroom!

I’ve come away from Girls Who Code with an attitude of adaptability. I cannot guarantee that everything will go according to plan. I can guarantee, though, that no matter what happens, I will adjust and make the best of it.

  1. Take Ownership

GWC’s education model allows teachers to take full ownership over their classrooms. At teacher training, instructors are encouraged by GWC staff to “feel empowered” to make positive change. The needs of every class will be a little different, and it’s the teaching team’s responsibility to adjust the plans to best fit the needs of their class.

Instructing has encouraged me to take ownership. My experience teaching for  GWChas both allowed me to participate in a culture of trust and empowered me to make decisions based on knowledge I have. In many ways, this goes hand-in-hand with ‘understand your audience’. If I notice there is an opportunity to improve a process, I will do it.

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Madelyn (far right) and her colleagues at GWC
  1. Listen and Learn

GWC serves high school girls from many different backgrounds. Thanks to strategic recruiting efforts, Girls Who Code students can bond with, and learn from, peers with very different experiences than their own. Throughout the program, students are encouraged to reflect on how their life experiences have shaped their perspectives, particularly within the realm of technology.

As we work our way through the curriculum, students and instructors learn to celebrate perspectives that differ from their own. Students practice this by openly sharing their ideas (& corresponding experiences / perspectives) during the website design process and by openly giving and receiving peer feedback on project work. Consequently, I’ve left Girls Who Code with a habit of searching for perspectives that differ from my own. I’ve helped to create atmospheres where diversity is celebrated, and I look forward to continuing to lead teams with this in mind.

As the instructor, it’s my job to help the students recognize diversity and see how diverse perspectives benefit innovative work.

  1. Be Brave, Not Perfect

Serving as a Girls Who Code instructor is an opportunity to live this idea of “Brave, Not Perfect” – the mantra of Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. Her new book and podcast encourages women to “fear less, fail more, and live bolder”. Learning to program a computer goes hand in hand with this mantra because programming requires imperfection, perseverance, and bravery.

While teaching, I do my best to embody this mantra for my students, pointing out to students that bugs in code are nothing to be ashamed of — they are a part of every software developer’s experience.

Throughout my experience, I’ve been reminded to embrace imperfection as a positive and understanding that the only true failure is quitting. This can be applied to every aspect of your life, work or not. 

These seven skills have been crucial. Each day, I implement these in the work that I do as a Consultant and they have humbled me and empowered me to be the best that I can be. I’m so grateful for my experience at Girls Who Code and with Protiviti. My hope is that in reading the above, you now recognize the importance of diverse experiences in your life. Each teaches us something new and exciting – and if you allow it the opportunity, I think you’ll find that all experiences can provide you with something that makes you better.

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