Anna Neyzberg’s first job in the tech industry was not great: women employees weren’t encouraged to speak up, and when they did, management didn’t pay attention. Now a software engineer at Carbon Five, Anna co-founded ElixirBridge in 2016 to teach people from underrepresented groups how to code. In our final post in a series celebrating 21 years of mentorship in honor of Carbon Five’s 21st anniversary, Anna discusses why it’s important to her to make newcomers feel included in the tech industry.
You’re one of the co-founders of ElixirBridge, a nonprofit that teaches free workshops in the Elixir programming language to people who are underrepresented in tech. How did ElixirBridge come to be?
I started ElixirBridge with Matt Mills in 2016. At that point I had been involved with RailsBridge for a long time, which was started in 2009 by Sarah Allen and Sarah Mei because they were tired of being the only women at the tech meetups they were going to. Ruby on Rails was the technology that was super hot at the time, and their thought process was, “What if we got a bunch of women in a room and tried to teach them how to use Ruby on Rails?” They ended up getting 60 women for the first session, and there was so much interest that they kept offering more workshops. 12 years later, there are RailsBridge chapters all over the world.
When Elixir first came onto the scene, a lot of folks were excited about it, but it was a pretty homogenous group of people who were getting the opportunity to work in the language. I noticed this, and I thought that there should be more opportunities for different people to work with Elixir. So Matt and I decided to do the same thing that RailsBridge had done for Ruby on Rails but for Elixir. We put together a curriculum and started having workshops, and it took off from there.
How does ElixirBridge work?
Generally we host in-person workshops once a month, which are free, and we publicize them on Bridge Troll. We find a space to hold the sessions, provide food, and we also pay for childcare in order to make it as easy as possible for folks to be able to attend. We also try to hold the sessions on the weekends to make them more accessible. So far, our volunteers have hosted workshops in several different cities, and all of the curriculum is open source — none of it is proprietary — which means that anyone can host a workshop if they want to.
How big is the organization, and what is your role?
ElixirBridge is technically a nonprofit, and it fits under the umbrella of a parent nonprofit called Bridge Foundry. It’s not very big, and most of the work has been done by myself and my co-founder Matt. There are a few people who are getting more involved on the east coast, but because it’s all-volunteer, people usually come in when they have time to do a little bit of work or host a few workshops. It’s kind of an ad hoc situation.
I taught most of the ElixirBridge workshops for a long time, and Matt and I both wrote the curriculum. Now, my role mostly is trying to keep things going, updating things that need to be updated, and helping people who want to try something new.
Why is advocating for accessibility in tech something you’re passionate about?
There’s a great article that talks about how a lot of the people who worked in the tech industry early on were white men who knew how the game was played, and for anyone who didn’t fit in with that early group, gaining access was challenging. They didn’t know the etiquette, they came from a different background, and they weren’t always able to get into that world. I personally feel that there is so much opportunity in that world, and that there are so many interesting things happening there — it shouldn’t be siloed to a small group of people. I think everyone benefits if people from many different backgrounds are able to participate in a community.
I think I’ve always cared about improving access in tech. As someone who has had to navigate the various challenges that women face in the tech industry, I would love for the road to be easier for those who are starting their careers now.
What was your experience like when you were beginning your career in tech?
I have a non-traditional background: I was working at a nonprofit, and the person who was doing the web stuff quit, so I started teaching myself how to code. A friend suggested that I check out RailsBridge, and the community turned out to be awesome. Everybody was nice. The person that taught my first class was amazing. And because it was so welcoming, it made me feel like coding was something that I could do.
And that’s why I think accessibility and making sure people feel welcome within the tech community is critical. I had a positive experience, but it could have easily gone the other way. My experience totally changed my career trajectory, and it also gave me a sense of community, which is important.
I’ve had hard moments in the tech industry where people have assumed things about my abilities because of my physical representation in the world, but having a community to go back to and gain support from was so helpful.
“I’ve had hard moments in the tech industry where people have assumed things about my abilities because of my physical representation in the world, but having a community to go back to and gain support from was so helpful.”
What are some of the big questions or issues that you’re hearing from younger people who are starting out in tech today, and are they much different from the questions that you had when you were beginning your career?
I wish they were different, but a lot of the things I hear are very similar. The majority of the questions that I’m answering are not about, “How do I solve this technical problem?” They’re more about, “How do I navigate this strange human problem?” I get a lot of questions about how to navigate — for example, there are still a lot of challenges with regards to bias for all folks that come from underrepresented backgrounds, and how do you navigate that?
My first startup job was terrible. There was a lot of bias within the management team, and it seemed like when any woman would speak up, management would not listen to what they had to say. But I think there are more places that are doing a better job at being inclusive today, so that’s really positive. I’m meeting more people now who are starting out and finding places to work that are supportive and that provide mentorship.