CodeChix Founder on Why She Followed Her Passion

Group of three women attendees at this year’s DevPulseCon.
Some of the more than 300 attendees at this year’s DevPulseCon, the popular two-day annual woman-centric technical and educational conference organized by CodeChix.
Photo: CodeChix

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTE Not many of us would have the courage to quit our day job to focus full time on a passion project. But that’s what IEEE Member Rupa Dachere, a software engineer, did last year. Her passion is CodeChix, a nonprofit in San Jose, Calif., that she formed in 2009 to offer mentoring, networking, and technical training programs for female developers and engineers.

Today CodeChix has more than 1,500 members. It publishes a monthly newsletter and offers free technical training through a partnership with O’Reilly’s, an online education provider. CodeChix has a strong presence on social media. This year the company partnered with SRI International, a nonprofit research center, to establish a technical mentorship program so CodeChix members could sharpen their open-source technology skills as a way to advance their career.

The company holds the popular DevPulseCon, an annual two-day woman-centric technical and educational conference in San Jose that now attracts hundreds of people.

The company’s growth, increased attendance at the conference, and new offerings would not have been possible if Dachere hadn’t been encouraged last year to give her full attention to building up CodeChix, she says.

HOW IT BEGAN

Back in 2009, Dachere grew tired of being the lone female software developer at Motorola in San Jose, so she began seeking out others by attending local meetings and conferences for technologists.

“I was awfully lonely. I wanted to talk about technical issues and do some programming projects with other women,” she says. “I’m an introvert, so I forced myself to go to meet-ups, but 99 percent of the attendees were men, and there were no technical conferences back then just for women developers.”

Dachere eventually came across two other female technologists. They became friends and began meeting regularly at her house in San Jose. Those women invited others, and the group became too large for Dachere’s small quarters, so they began meeting in conference rooms at nearby companies including Google and Intel. The women mostly talked about technical issues they encountered on the job, and they worked together on coding projects.

The group’s members participated in an international competition to build an open-source SDN controller and were the first all-woman team to submit a project to the event. Their work was acclaimed at the 2014 LinuxCon Australia.

One of Dachere’s frustrations at the time was the absence of conferences tailored just for female developers, technical project managers, and system administrators.

“I wanted to create a conference that I would want to go to,” she says. “One that had very technical talks and technical workshops that enhanced my skills to prepare me to be competitive.”

In 2009 she decided to solve the problem by forming CodeChix, which became a nonprofit company in 2012.  She and other CodeChix volunteers organized the full-day conference in 2014, Coder [xx], which attracted more than 100 women. The annual conference now welcomes women as well as transgender and gender-nonconforming engineers and male allies.

The conference includes a “safe space” panel, where attendees can discuss sensitive workplace issues without worrying about being exposed to criticism, harassment, ridicule, or retaliation.

About 125 people attended the 2016 conference. In 2017 the event was renamed DevPulseCon, expanded to two days, and had 230 attendees. More than 250 people came to last year’s event, and this year close to 300 attended.

Topics covered over the years include artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, open-source software, and new programming languages, tools, and techniques. The conference offers hands-on developer workshops created per CodeChix guidelines.

For Dachere’s work, she received the 2013 IEEE Educational Activities Board Meritorious Achievement Award in Outreach and Informal Education.

Like other startup founders, she uses her own money to keep the company and conference afloat.

“I’m not doing this to make money,” Dachere says. “I’m doing this so that women developers can all get better together.”

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE

Dachere is heavily involved with organizing each of the conferences, something that was new to her when she first started. She picks the topics, finds speakers, develops the program, promotes the event, gets sponsors, and takes care of the hundreds of other time-consuming tasks.

She did all this while still working full time and climbing the career ladder. She left Motorola Mobility, worked at a startup for six months and then in 2012 joined VMWare in Palo Alto, Calif., where she was a senior member of the technical staff. In 2018, she moved to Walmart Labs, in Sunnyvale, Calif., working as a principal product manager running the company’s cloud infrastructure for e-commerce.

“I had no life,” she admits. “I had a full-time job where I was doing a lot of heavy lifting.” She also had to attend to her aging parents, who live in Denver. She confesses that her job responsibilities and eldercare duties were taking a mental and physical toll, and caused her to lose focus on organizing the 2018 DevPulseCon.

Although attendance was high, just about anything that could go wrong did, she says. She had a difficult time finding someone to help her organize the conference and the keynote speaker dropped out at the last minute. But she soldiered on. And then a life-altering event took place.

RENEWED COMMITMENT

In the fall of 2018, she attended a one-week leadership program for product management at the University of California, Berkeley. On the last day of class, she was asked to do a pitch for CodeChix.

Afterward, Dachere says, the main instructor approached her and recalls her saying, “Don’t take this the wrong way but you really need to rethink your life. What you’re doing for work—they can hire somebody else to do. But what you’re doing outside of work with CodeChix, only you can do, so think about what you want to achieve in your life and what you want to be known for.”

Finally earning a good salary, Dachere says she had no intention of quitting her new job. But Beckman got her thinking: “What if I got hit by a bus and was going to die, what would be my number one regret?,” she recalls asking herself. “It would be that I never gave CodeChix my full attention. I always worked on it in my spare time. I didn’t want to have that regret. If I failed at least I gave it my best shot. I could live with that.” A week later she resigned.

In January she began working full time on CodeChix. She restructured her board and focused on this year’s conference. And her decision paid off. She says this year’s DevPulseCon had the most sponsorships, the highest number of attendees, and the best program.

She also formed a unique partnership with SRI International. It allows CodeChix members to work with the institute’s scientists to create and contribute to open-source projects in AI, cybersecurity, data science, and machine learning.

Additionally, CodeChix will be launching the Safe Space & Ally training program for female technologists and male allies in the industry who work in R&D roles, Dachere says. The program is the first to create a non-retaliatory space for open feedback, she says, adding that it will be tested at two companies next year and should launch in 2021.

“We’ll bring our successful safe-space program to companies to bridge the gap between senior leadership and rank-and-file developers to address critical concerns that force technical women to leave the field,” she says.

One reason they are leaving, she says, is because of the lack of advancement and promotion opportunities—which is tied to a lack of quality technical training in a palatable format.

“Part of it is also the workplace culture. That includes the mindset of management, management structure, and incentive plans,” she says. “Senior leadership does not understand what’s going on, so we want to help them. No one has ever done this type of program before.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 25 November 2019.