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Ask HN: Female hacker-founder AMA
151 points by dzink on Jan 2, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments
Tired of all the gender banter lately? Me too. Especially when every press outlet says we (female tech founders) are as rare as a mythical creature. So how about getting them answers straight from the source (female tech founders). If you belong to this group do a quick intro about yourself before answering questions. If you don't and want to learn more about the HN female tech entrepreneurs, feel free to ask as a reply.

My turn:

Name: Diana

Startup: http://DoerHub.com (dogfooding: http://www.doerhub.com/for/doerhub )

Role: Founder, wrote every non-open-source line of code (Rails, JS, D3, Neo4j, Node.js, MongoDB) on the site in a grad school dorm room.

In tech since: 1998 (Age 13). Haven't stopped since.

How did you start?: Started in rural Bulgaria and parents couldn't afford a computer so I volunteered at internet cafes to learn HTML and JS online after hours, then did graphics in flash, then Action Script, evolved to writing data mashups, custom JS libraries, rich visualizations for CNN during elections, CMS front-end architecture, full-stack web products from there.

Why did I start: had a pen-pal girl from Sweden who was a year older than me and had built her own website. Once I realized I can learn for free and the world could see my work I was addicted (lived in a censored country for a while so that mattered).

Proof of cred: http://www.linkedin.com/in/dianazink and http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/.element/js/3.0/search/SearchProcessor.js and http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/.element/js/3.0/search/customSrchProcessor.js used by CNN, NBA, and some other sites.

Has your gender made any of this hard?: I'm not muscular, so building online stuff is actually easier on me than the "reputable" jobs my grandfather said I should do instead.

Ask away.

These are the selling points for CS that worked really well in my conversations with 10-18 year-old girls so far (Aggregated so you can use them for your niece if you find the opportunity) :

- You can do this really cool thing you wanted to do (ex: build a cringe Justin Bieber /cringe fan app ) and it's easy, let me show you how.

- This girl who was just like you is now heading Yahoo/building the top fan site for XYZ band.

- You can make something that millions of people are sharing and using tomorrow and you don't have to ask your parents for money to do it.

- You can make more money as a teenager building stuff in a day than did the average worker in my country in a month.

- You can work from a tropical island if you want, or anywhere on the planet, really.

- The quality of your work can be proven immediately and the duration of your experience shows in the size of your portfolio, so every hour you make things they can help you in perpetuity (no way to get that as a teacher, nurse, or model).

- You can graduate college in the US in one of the worst years for immigrants ('07), with no visas available, and still get multiple job offers at companies of your choice because of the point above.

- The jobs are growing, not shrinking in this industry. It is a new form of literacy you will need to know eventually.

- (When all else fails) Hacker girls get hit on quite frequently.

Great list and answer to PG's recent question of how do you get thirteen year old girls interested in programming. Another of my favorite quotes from a high-school girl on this topic [1]:

“Before taking the mandated Intro class last year, when I heard ‘computer science,’ I pictured nerdy boys, who turned into nerdy bearded men, slouched over huge computers and click-clacking out codes that meant nothing to me. There’s nothing wrong with nerdy boys, comp sci just didn’t seem like something I would ever be interested in.

“This image was quickly shattered in that first intro class. Computer science started to resonate with me when I worked on my first project, creating a simple animation of a string quartet using Netlogo. It was while I was working on this that I realized comp sci isn’t about nerdy boys sitting at computers and coding out nonsense that turns into violent video games and complicated math problem solvers. No, comp sci isn’t this at all. Comp sci, as I have found in my classes at Stuy, is a medium for expression, a place for creation and creativity.”

That's equally applicable to both genders.

Also, what do you think of John McCarthy's statement in the article also on the frontpage right now [2]:

" It has been my observation that the dropout from hard science by girls in high school is not primarily the fault of either parents or school. It is much more the fault of the values of present teen-age-girl society. Both boys and girls are affected more by the ideas of their peers than by the official policies of the educational institutions. A disproportionate number of adults with initiative come from separatist social groups where the parents prevent children from taking their values from their peers or from the schools.

Getting more women in higher positions in society depends on breaking this tradition. One possibility is batch processing rather than continuous operation. Normally a school is a continuous institution. Freshmen come in at the bottom and seniors go out at the top. If the tradition is regarded as bad, we could experiment with a system wherein a particular school is filled with freshmen and no new ones are admitted until the first lot graduates. If a new desirable tradition is successfully inculcated, then continuous processing can be resumed. This idea might also work in prisons. Another possibility is to teach initiative directly."

Also, regarding the recommendations to post to reddit, ignore them. HN is a smaller audience, but more specific and relevant to your post, and I'm glad you posted here instead, since I for one don't subscribe to /r/AMA or /r/IAMA (or whatever) and never would have seen it. By all means feel free to cross-post it there, but I suspect it will get a better reception here.



> - (When all else fails) Hacker girls get hit on quite frequently.

Amen! Brain power is indeed a beautiful thing.

> - (When all else fails) Hacker girls get hit on quite frequently.

Not sure about that but "Single" hacker girls get hit on quite

that works too. i'm married with my co-founder :)

This would likely be more apt for reddit, which does AMAs. I respect you, but this sets a rather polluted and boring precedent. Founders not from tech hub cities, founders over 40 years old, founders who grew up poor, founders who were born outside USA, etc etc. Everyone is unique in many ways, many more interesting than race or gender.

I posted it here because I enjoy this community and I want to reduce the awkwardness of the many recent "women and tech" discussions here. I hope other female founders on HN can chime in as well.

TBH I find the "rural Bulgaria" bit to be far more interesting :-) Did you have any exposure to Soviet computers? Like their clone of the Sinclair Spectrum say? Did you learn trinary in school? Do you say "reverse Polish notation" or know it by a different name?

I love these questions! Yes, I started on "Pravets" 8 and 16 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pravetz_computers ) with BASIC and Pascal. We also had these robot hands you could maneuver with the Pravets machines. I would travel 250 miles to get the huge sheet-sized disk with a plumber game on it from my cousin in Sofia to show it off to classmates in Tutrakan. Karateka was also huge. For reference, my hometown had no traffic lights or english teachers (I started learning English from Cartoon Network because I could only study German, French or Russian at school until 8th grade.)

I was 8 years old when I started dabbling with Pravetz in the school lab and the 16 year old "Informatics TA" pulled me aside one day to show me a picture of two people kissing to tell me in the most awkward possible way that he wanted to kiss me. Who does that to an 8-year-old? I just ran back into the lab.

I think Reverse Polish Notation is called the same in Bulgaria (CS after the age of the internet is taught mostly in English back there I think).

I remember the local "pioneers home" (what's the translation of "пионерски дом" actaully?) not having floppy disc controllers for their Pravetz 82 machines. So we had to type small BASIC games found in magazines in order to play. Typing to play ratio was usually 1/1.

Good luck with the project!

Small world, isn't it? I grew up right across the street from the one in my hometown (twin story house with a grey garage fence).

Learning English from Cartoon Network? What sort of vocabulary does that result in?

It develops the ears mostly. I could see so many friends getting the same basic understanding as well. When I went to an English Language School for High School I failed my first written test, because I wrote a letter in Germish (English words, German spelling). I worked for Cartoon Network briefly a decade afterwards and the CMO told me they hear that story often. I think few things did more for the spread of English as an international language than good movies and cartoons. German was my second language because RTL had the best american movies at the time cable TV came to my hometown (and English wasn't an option).

I knew a lot of people who learned English from watching fan translated anime. They had perfect written English, but I don't know about spoken.

Can't help recalling this pic http://xkcd.com/645/

Being a >40 founder, not from the US in a non-tech-hub-city I'd find those conversations rather interesting ;-)

It seems that topic starter has all those covered except for not being over 40. Which clears the landscape a bit.

What attracted you to computer science? Put another way, why do you think it is that when your penpal showed you the website she built your reaction was "cool" instead of "lame...." (especially in 98 when the web technologies were much more primitive)?

I liked math and physics because they allowed me to predict or affect future events. I also loved design because it allowed me create things that might have never existed otherwise. CS was the perfect combination of both - you can create things, solve problems, and distribute them to the rest of the world for free (I couldn't afford to buy even books at that time). I started with HTML and flash because the computer my mother (a brick-and-mortar entrepreneur) eventually got was an IBM 486 machine with 20megs of space and only Flash 4 would fit on it for graphics.

Have you read any of the Foundation series by Asimov? The action is driven by a group of scientists who are able to predict the future using mathematical models.

Of his work, I think the The Last Question has stuck with me the most http://filer.case.edu/dts8/thelastq.htm

The second thought is not really attached to the first question. Having a desire to make a website/making a website has little to do with computer science.

Telescopes can make people interested in physics, right?

The desire to learn CS came with the need to do more on the web - the more I tinkered the more I wanted to learn. I got Flash for design but then realized I could animate with code, so I started borrowing trigonometry books from my high-school math teacher in order to make flash animations that move by trig functions. After doing 4-5 years of self-learning how to do cooler, more fun things I wanted to get a degree in it because I thought it would accelerate my learning and reduce the friction of having to manually find materials and approaches for things I wanted to make.

Name: Silvia

Startup: http://www.allthecooks.com

Role: Founder, wrote the iOS app and some server stuff.

How did you start: HTML Blogging when I was 13.

Why did I start: The internet is a really cool thing.

Proof of cred: http://www.linkedin.com/in/silviacurioni

Has your gender made any of this hard?: no

Hi Silvia, thank you for jumping in! Feel free to add your answers to the AMA questions. It would be helpful to have multiple perspectives.

Any tips on entry points for coding that you've found worked well or badly?

For example - a few years back I saw several young folk move over into coding by poking away at their MySpace pages to make them do "cool" things. For those people it seemed to be the same sort of starting point as the '10 PRINT "HELLO'; 20 GOTO 10;' type stuff did for mine.

I tried to aggregate those as a sub-thread. You make a great point with the MySpace example. Legos with built in robotics might be fun as well. I never had a lego (too expensive) and I only saw the $200 robotic kits in college in the US. In Chicago, a state organization is trying to create a programable robot with LED lights to get kids interested in coding and putting together simple hardware hacks. I think that is a great idea. I think a programmable robot kids can create and control with an iphone app would be great as well (paint-by-numbers hardware + software hacking).

It is true that the more we lower the threshold, the more people will dabble with hacking. It may or may not produce more great hackers in the short run, but in the long run it will create a shared literacy that puts hacking higher on the priority list for parents and kids 10 years down the line. You don't just share code, you share a value system when you teach that.

Sorry - missed that sub-thread. Good stuff.

I'm interested that some of those seem more social than how I got into coding. I was the cliche fat-nerdy kid who spent many, many hours with the computer rather than interacting with humans ;-)

It's one of the things I noticed from the MySpace folk - they were very much more oriented towards sharing/showing their stuff with others.

The checklist I mention comes from conversations I've had with young girls in the US (seeing what resonates with them). I thing I would attribute the social stuff to a lesson I got from a KPCB guy at F8: Major startup innovation happens every 14 or so years because it takes that long for a new generation to grow up with the existing technology (today that's social) as second nature. Then (frequently) some tw/teen kid (Jobs/Gates, Zuckerberg) stepping on that invents the next big thing while tinkering. You can see that process evolving tech from hardware, to PC, to browser, to web, to social, to mobile.

Nice. One of my first thoughts was do you have any specific communities that you go to for advice from other women? Some of the ones I know of are Debian Women and Linuxchix. Have you ever tried enterprise selling? I'm curious how you deal with mostly male upper management? What about loans or venture capital? Do banks or VC's treat you differently? Do you have any women in tech you follow? When I was a boy I would devour any book on Microsoft because I idolized Bill Gates for taking on the suits at IBM. What's your experience hiring in the past?

I realize i'm asking about stereotypes that may or may not be in Bulgaria. The whole point of this post is to confront those stereotypes so I just ask what everyone may think at one point or another.

I look up to Reid Hoffman, Jobs, Drew Houston, Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer - founder/product people who put so much love into their products that you can feel it. In order to build like that you have to be so immersed into the problem and so painfully aware of its every nook and cranny it hurts. Those guys translated real-life human processes into frictionless online experiences so good, they save lifetimes worth of hours for society daily. That is what I want to do when I grow up (but do it for the execution process). The process of taking a pursuit from an idea to a fulfilled or fundable project with the right team, mentors, and exposure anywhere on the planet in the matter of hours or just a few days.

I haven't tried to raise VC money yet. Self-funding for now. I want to build a product so good its numbers cannot be ignored. Currently trying to get access to advisors who have been there before me with similar problems.

And I genuinely hope this doesn't prove true: ( http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2013/11/02/how-female-en... )

I noticed that, by default, you don't make the doerhub.com profiles public. Somebody has to explicitly choose to do so.

I'd be interested in understanding what pushed you in that direction. It would seem like it might slow down growth?

I want to make it a go to place for people to establish and grow their identity as doers - to nurture their pursuits and benefit when they help others (If you are great at something you can mentor and invest/contribute open source in that field. The social capital you generate from doing that should come back to you as help in areas you are trying to grow in). Not everyone is comfortable putting that out there (especially non-hackers) and if they do, having real relationships with the other users on the site first helps. I would rather sacrifice short-term growth to build a product that really rocks and is spread by users in the mid-to-long term.

Cool. Did you get that feedback from users in some way (interviews?) - or is it something that you're testing now with the site?

I'm interested coz I'm involved with a new community site and think about different ways to grow the audience.

I got feedback from interviews with non-technical users and a couple of top universities.

This might be more successful on Reddit in the startups/entrepreneurship subreddits.

Curious background and I admire you for just going for it. Just some curious questions..

a) who are some of your inspirations?

b) describe an ideal society without gender disparities. what would that look like?

Role models really help. Seeing other women around who have been successful really helps. I think if one female tech founder produces a unicorn startup that exits above 1B, the dialog will get a lot easier. It's a matter of time.

I don't think anyone consciously hinders women (or other groups) from doing well in tech. Many cultural (advertising driven) perceptions made the "gateway drugs" to CS unfashionable for girls for many years (likely inadvertently).

In the startup world finding advisors may be a bottleneck, but hacking is the ultimate meritocracy and nobody can stop you from doing well (it is you vs the machine and you vs the problem). The numbers don't lie - if you build products that sell themselves most self-respecting investors will not say no to a solid company (whether you are purple, transgender, or from Mars).

If you know what you are doing, the challenging part may be getting into the close-knit SV networks when you are an outsider.

What's the situation like for women in tech in Bulgaria?

Bulgaria is a very patriarchal country, but education up-to-and-including high-school was/is fitting for CS (math is required every year and it is a frequently chosen concentration). The same applies to many eastern european countries, I assume. There is a lot of "sand in the opportunities engine" after that stage, so many smart young people prefer to get their undergraduate and graduate degrees elsewhere (Germany, US, etc). One of the teen girls I mentored just started working in Germany as a Software Engineer. Most of my classmates are abroad. For CS, a good math middle-school and high-school education and a fun component (competitions) seemed enough for the peers I know.

There's a lot of girls in the IT over here. When I think about it - most of the QAs that I know are female :-)

I Respect all entrepreneurs, and it seems to me the 'attention' the 'mythical' female hackers gets perpetuates the stereotypes we are trying to break. It is fairly obvious it draws attention on the fact that generally we don't 'expect' this type of person? Please explain why this fine young person is getting any attention besides her gender?

Hi Kelvin0,

I respect your opinion and I think those who want attention usually go to the press with some sobbing story about the tech world's insensitivities towards them. They don't expose themselves and their work to the full scrutiny of one of the best hacker groups in the world (its gut-wrenching enough to do that just to your startup). If this thread is any good the people who read it should go from debating stereotypes about women to spending 30 minutes to teach a teen girl they know the love of hacking by showing them something cool they can do on their own.

> Tired of all the gender banter lately? Me too.

I'm curious what exactly you find tiresome about it.

Is it the sexism that often spawns these discussions? the implication that women need extra help? the bad attitudes often displayed in comments? etc.

I think it is more productive to focus on fixing things going forward, than trying to place blame by resurfacing or redefining stereotypes. I'd rather us spread "gateway drugs to hacking" for everyone to use regardless of gender, race, or location. (plus I want us to surface more of the dormant role models we have on HN and elsewhere instead of letting journalists put dramatic spins on a plot that claims female tech founders are on the brink of extinction)

For example, I have a 5 year old niece. Every single gift I have sent her for holidays and birthdays is a way to trigger and express creativity (a drawing board, a guitar, a music box, a basketball hoop, a stomp rocket) and none of them is pink. If her father (who is an SE) doesn't teach her how to play with code in the next 2 years, I will.

As a follow up I'd be curious if you have any ideas on how to fix things....

Its probably supposed to be obvious too, but what exactly do we need to fix?

Although I don't think female tech founders are going extinct or something I do believe based on data that they are a minority and that is not being blown out of proportion particularly - although I base that on the overall data that women are a minority in STEM fields in general. The idea that they are a minority is imo valid - but I don't think that itself is a problem - we are we not conversely worried about the minority of men in the care, fashion or sex industries for instance.

What are your plans for DoerHub this year?

Keep building it up. Add github and linkedin logins, build up the collaboration and contribution metrics features, grow at places where people and projects are really interesting, add to the team, maybe apply to an accelerator. This is my life moving forward. I love crafting every peace of it and I want to build it in a way that energizes the community within to do more, generate more, and amplify its amplifiers.

Wait.. you started working professionally in IT when you were 13? Very impressive! Especially since in that time and place the most computers at homes were Apple II clones and most people didn't have them.

Do you feel your location matters for your start-up and for you as a founder?

I started building websites and getting paid to code at 13. In 1998 building web sites was only possible if you were self-taught via the web, so market in Bulgaria and Europe (UK, Belgium) was quite lucrative. Not sure if that qualifies as professional.

What books (if any) did you read that you find particularly inspiring? Why?

In the first few years this is the stuff that helped:

- W3Schools + A List Apart + CSSZenGarden (on WebDev)

- Code Complete (on Software Engineering best practices)

- JavaScript: The Definitive Guide

- A Bulgarian niche forum and community on flash/web development called FlashBG (Similar to HN in some ways)

- Flash to the Core by Joshua Davis (he was taking regular photographs, breaking them down by color fragments in ActionScript then reassembling them to form abstract designs) http://www.amazon.com/Flash-Core-Joshua-Davis/dp/0735712883

If we assume that the male female ratio should be 50/50 how bad are racial ratios?

What was your greatest hack and what did you enjoy most about going it?

On the code side, I love what I'm doing right now with Neo4J and the DoerHub badges and topics. I am trying to use graph database searches to surface people who are strong in areas you are weak in and weak in areas you are strong in when you do a search for a topic. Also trying to apply NLP to ensure the system recognizes related topics (cancer and healthcare for example). My latest work is usually my favorite.

On the non-code product side I hypnotized NBA.com users with the Social Spotlight product you can see on its homepage now. It used to generate higher duration of stay than any page on the site including video. I did it by re-created the "Monument to Change" Stanford GSB flipping tiles effect with an unending river of the most interesting images and tweets from the NBA conversation on social media. There was some FOMO mixed with good content, mixed with a mesmerizing effect.

On the brick and mortar side I created a forge-detecting technique for printing coupons for a bakery in Bulgaria by mixing Inks with different reactions to water. Had to do it because competitors were trying to forge the coupons and put the bakery out of business. In the end though, the hack ended up getting an employee of 10 years arrested, because, as it turned out, he was swapping cash for his own home-printed version of the coupons.

Got any open source projects?

I've been thinking about open sourcing this: http://www.doerhub.com/for/whichvc but as the primary hacker on DoerHub I haven't found the time to clean up the code.

Technically, most of the code I wrote before my startup is source-visible, since my former employer doesn't obfuscate JS. If you dig into the CNN js files you will see the SearchProcessor, CSI Manager, ads js, custom local storage libraries, and other stuff I wrote or contributed to that also repeats on NBA.com, CNN Money, etc (I was a part of the front-end core-developer team and wrote library-agnostic custom js libraries). However, I founded my company and started writing code on it the day after I quit my employer, because it had very tight IP ownership of everything generated while employed (we asked for an opportunity to open-source some of our stuff, but it wasn't approved by the time I left).

If DoerHub is successful I believe it will help worthwhile open-source projects get a lot more support and exposure. I think I can add more value by amplifying the amplifiers in the short run.

Unless you mean in the sense of removing passwords and similar, you don't need to clean up code for it to be worth open-sourcing.

You don't strictly need to, but most people want to make sure the code the open source is at least commented and free of embarrassing mistakes, shortcuts, antipatterns and whatnot.

That impulse is exactly what I was trying to counter. It's far better to put "bad" code out there (and you may even find someone improves those things for you) than wait to tidy it (which often never actually happens).

First thought - great setup, but I'm curious about the source, so to speak.

I'll go first.. Why in the world would you feel a need to make this post?

Wow, although I guess Reddit with an AMA might be a better platform, didn't expect to see Reddit like comments :/ There's a lot of posts on here about women in tech (and the lack thereof) so she thought it may be pertinent and interesting. Men are always posting about their startups, and I don't see people saying they're "just trying to call attention to themselves".

Are those posts entitled Male Hacker-Founder AMA? I just don't see what new this brings to the table, other than perpetuating this silly conversation about the lack of x in y because of z.

I think she pretty clearly explained why she felt a need to make the post - she feels underrepresented and also wants to prove a stereotype wrong.

I'll go second... why in the world did you feel it necessary to mock her post?

go into a cpu design or fpga lectures at most universities. she doesn't just feel underrepresented. she is.

nonetheless this post imho is in the same category as i'm 15 and made a gazillion apps.

ok, you care about women? and their future in tech? go to educate parents in school for gods sake, not the people that already know that if you raise your kids to be pretty princesses, they will become pretty princesses instead of hackers.

I have presented in front of teen girls at events and mentored girls individually. The tech bug catches on best anywhere between age 8 and 14 when you see a role model for something fun you can enjoy doing that is an "gateway drug to CS". At that age parents don't matter but peers do.

When I was that age, just one of my classmates mocked me for trying, but a few other fellow tinkerers and I started competing in high-school tech competitions and that brought us together. Having other doers around made it even more fun and addictive. As a teen girl I was a minority in local hacker clubs/cafes at the time, but that actually meant I was getting hit on by the boys (mildly and jokingly, and I always brushed it off to keep tinkering), not really hindered.

there is no tech bug. there is a thing that you enjoy what you get good at(the dilbert author wrote about it too), no matter what it is.

also, as a person who caught on very early, i wouldn't advise people to study cs. for people that are really good at the stuff we're talking about here. cs without the right peers is one of the most disappointing experiences there is. imagine a professional heart surgeon having to go through basic medical exams for 4 years, that's why comparably few doctors are interested in migrating to the us.

but on a sidenote i don't really get the latter tbh. to me it seems like it would be great to share common interests as is the case for most other professions. yet, when it comes to hackers, being sexually interested in one another seems to be put down as douchebaggery. no wonder most of us stay alone, while douchebags like lawyers flourish.

I think you're entirely wrong. First off, lots of people don't enjoy things they're good at, and enjoy things they're not good at. Having sung in choirs, I've seen ample examples of both.

And "catching the tech bug" just relates (IMO) to the moment where you see computers as a source of almost limitless inquisition. And I agree with OP that that most often happens between the ages of 8 and 14.

Also, having studied CS in university and really enjoyed it, I don't share your pessimism about the degree.

Finally, lawyers date each other, as do other sorts of geeks (included CS geeks), but there isn't the extreme gender disparity in college that one sees in CS courses, so one woman is unlikely to be the target of so much unwarranted male attention. And also, lots of lawyers are nice people, just as lots of CS people (men and women) are douchebags.

Which streotype? That there are more male founders than female? I thought that's a fact, not stereotype. Semi-related: I found it stupid to carefuly write "she" when refering to some hypothetical programmer in every other case. How about writing it 5 times of 100, to get more realistic representation? Unless you believe that probablicit reference is the cause of all evil and using "she" will magically attract more females to coding.

I'm not mocking it.

to draw attention to herself, of course

God forbid that anyone on an internet forum [mostly] about startup businesses might try to draw attention to themselves.

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