Women in DC Tech – Meet Shannon Turner, founder of Hear Me Code

06 Apr Women in DC Tech – Meet Shannon Turner, founder of Hear Me Code

Last year I attended and wrote about Tech Bisnow’s Trending 40. The event sparked an idea to continue the conversation on SpeakerBox’s blog. I wanted to dig a little deeper into the experiences these women face as they chart their career path. I want to know how they became interested in technology, what adversities they’ve encountered, and what drives them day-in and day-out.

The conversation of recognizing women for their leadership, contributions, and knowledge is happening, we’re even seeing change. FedScoop just announced their Top 50 Women in DC Tech for 2015, but the message and acknowledgment hasn’t spread far enough. So let’s get to know our fellow women in tech a little better.


Meet Shannon Turner, founder of Hear Me Code.

SBX: What is the big picture vision that drives you? (Why do you do what you do? What’s your passion?)

Shannon: The tech sector right now is only using half of its talent base. Women’s voices aren’t being heard, so whose ideas are being put into action?

I started Hear Me Code, a nonprofit that offers free, beginner-friendly women-only coding classes in DC because I was tired of being one of the only women in the room at tech events. Worse than that, I always felt talked down to and wasn’t taken seriously. When I realized that it wasn’t just me, that every woman that I talked to shared this experience, I knew I had to create a supportive community for women.

I see Hear Me Code as more than just coding classes: it’s an incubator for our skills and confidence; it’s a place where we can learn and grow together.

SBX: What have you learned from being a leader?

Shannon: A colleague helped me to understand that leadership is a practice, not a position. Leadership isn’t something that’s given to you, it’s not a quality some people have or don’t. Leadership is taking action when you hear that voice in your head saying, “this isn’t right” or “this could be better.” Leadership is living by example and creating space for others to do the right thing.

SBX: How do you remain agile? (When do you know it’s time to pivot?)

Shannon: Trusting your instincts can be helpful at first but eventually you’re going to have to make decisions that are grounded in more than just intuition. To do that, you have to collect data, measure it properly, and be prepared to act or change course if the data show what you’re doing isn’t effective.

SBX: What’s more vital – having the right people on your team or the right processes in place?

Shannon: Both are important — if you don’t have the right processes in place, it’s hard to attract and retain top talent. A lot of startups, in particular, don’t seem to value having strong HR departments or policies, which is a mistake.

I also see a lot of companies placing a growing emphasis on “culture fit” which to me seems like a conscious decision to build a homogenous culture. If you can only recognize a talent that looks like you, you’re going to miss out.

SBX: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Shannon: I get to create all day long! In coding, there’s never just one way to do something — just like in writing, every coder has his or her own unique style. Coding is like solving a puzzle — and I get to put my talents to work solving challenges. Coding is creativity and when problem-solving, you’re only limited by your imagination.

SBX: What is the best piece of advice you have received as you’ve “climbed the ladder?”

Shannon: Open source your projects. Show the world what you’ve done. I’m glad I listened because it’s been a great way to “extend” my resume by having a large portfolio of side projects. Demoing projects, giving talks, and speaking on panels is not only fun — it’s been a great way to meet new people.

SBX: What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?

Shannon: Community is everything. There’s a stereotype that great things are done by lone geniuses, but that’s just a self-serving myth. Great things are rarely done alone.

Find (or create!) a community and be sure to give more than you get. Nobody likes transactional relationships, so make sure you’re not reaching out to people only when you need something from them. Cultivate real, genuine relationships built on mutual respect. Invest in other people. Help others to grow. There isn’t a limited amount of success in the world.


SBX: How do you manage a work-life balance?

Shannon: Work-life balance is a constant challenge. Running a nonprofit in addition to my full-time job means I have very little downtime. I have to take advantage of early mornings, late nights, and weekends in order to handle all of the logistics, improve the curriculum, mentor and train others, and work on my own side projects.

It’s a lot of work. But it helps that my profession is also my hobby, so it never feels like work.

SBX: What aspirations are you working towards now?

Shannon: Most of my time is spent building the Hear Me Code community — training up students to become teachers and teaching assistants; improving the curriculum; creating new workshops; mentoring new developers; running classes and practice nights.

Over 50 women who started as students have become teaching assistants and teachers, and several women have changed careers based on the skills they’ve gained. They’re mentoring one another, helping others to learn and grow. They’re running their own workshops.

We just hit a major milestone of 1000 members, so I want to continue to grow the number of teachers and assistants that can support the community.

SBX: What do you want your legacy to be?

Shannon: I want to create a community of women that feels invested in one another’s success; I want to create a community that is more than just learning to code, but about putting your talents to use to serve the common good. I want to create a community of women empowering women. I want to see the end of pulling up the ladder behind yourself.

SBX: What is most interesting about the technology landscape today?

Shannon: Affordable personal computing and user-friendly interfaces (not the command-line) were instrumental in bringing computers into the mainstream. The Internet has revolutionized everything it’s touched, from how we communicate and connect to how we shop, and everything in between. Making technology for the masses has changed our society in a massive way. I see both open data and burgeoning coding literacy as the next two democratizing forces that will shape society on similar scales.

SBX: What have you seen evolve since you’ve been in the industry?

Shannon: When I was young, coding was very inaccessible. There weren’t any online tutorials, and let’s face it — most learn-to-code books (then or now) are terrible. They’re not written for beginners, they cover too much irrelevant material, and none are focused on practical applications. Most languages weren’t open-source, and therefore if you wanted to code, you had to buy special software to compile and run your code.

Most tutorials are still terrible, aren’t written for beginners, and rarely focus on practical applications, but at least there’s a lot to choose from. And free, open-source software and languages are much more common.

SBX: Have you faced adversity in your professional life because you are a woman?

Shannon: Yes, definitely. Women are held to a higher standard than men. We’re told to “lean in” but when we do, we’re “bossy” and “pushy” and “aggressive.” We point out this double standard and we’re called “bitch.” We say this isn’t fair and we’re called “emotional.”

If you’re a man, you’re rewarded for all of those behaviors. If you’re a man, you’re never described in those ways.

SBX: Have there been any advantages to being a woman in the technology industry?

Shannon: Women in the tech industry have it tough — and because we all have these shared experiences, there’s a sense of shared identity and community that’s emerged. The community I’ve found with other women in tech has been so supportive. It’s comforting to know there’s a sisterhood that has my back — and I have theirs.

SBX: Do you think there is a level playing field among women and men in technology?

Shannon: Gosh, no. I think the numbers speak for themselves. Women are entering the tech sector at lower levels, yes, but they’re also leaving at higher levels. And the pay gap exacerbates the problem. The playing field isn’t level and women are held to a much higher standard than men. And it’s stacked even higher against LGBTQ people and people of color.

SBX: What do you think needs to be done to make it more even?

Shannon: Sexual harassment and outright sexism are huge problems in the tech industry. Women face a dilemma: if we speak out, we’re harassed into silence. We’re the ones put on trial. Often, the fallout from speaking out is as traumatic as the incidents themselves.

Is it any wonder many women make a calculated decision not to share their stories? And yet women are punished for not coming forward as well. We can’t win.

A good start would be to listen and believe women when we share our stories of times we’ve faced sexism.

Jessica Lindberg
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