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A snowstorm was brewing. A sudden shift had occurred in the darkness. Winter winds swooped and scraped along the St. Laurent Blvd. buildings producing an eerie guttural wail. The world shook under a starless sky.
Françoise Provencher, the thirtysomething organizer of Montreal’s Pyladies chapter, was running up and down the stairs — her curly hair bobbing along — welcoming guests into the building and out of the cold. The meetup had been rescheduled at Shopify’s office in place of Google’s. The studio was designed like an extended living room. Rows of computers shared space with pink cupcakes.
“There’s something about Pyladies that is special,” Provencher said as she sat, her legs folded under her like a bespectacled feline on a kelly green couch.
“Computer science classes are usually 80 per cent guys. If you look closely in the room here, there are 20 girls. There’s no way they all went to a computer science program.”
Social clubs have sprouted across the city teaching its members the not-so secrets of web programming and development. The Pyladies are an international membership group formed to help women learn Python, a programming language, in a safe, friendly environment. While men are still welcome, the group enables ladies to network without having to deal with the usual trappings of patriarchy.
They defy the assumption that women are incapable or unwilling to learn how to code. While the chapter is two years old, Provencher, a physicist by trade, has been in charge for about a year. The idea behind the safe space was to inspire and build networks to enable minorities.
“A member here told me that she was the only girl at a meetup once and a guy asked her where the bathroom was,” said Provencher. “He thought she was the secretary.”
Among sofas, a curious jellyfish-like lamp and a few houseplants, two presenters took turns to showcase their skills in front of a gaggle of women of eclectic backgrounds and a few men who might have had to leave their gonads at the door.
Outside the windows, hanging winter city lamps danced in the raucous flurries. The crowd shushed and listened as Blanca Mancilla, a type A personality with leathery skin and an accent the size of Colombia, presented a complex lecture on using the command line effectively while using Linux. As the TV monitor showed shortcuts and tricks in the form of command lines, Mancilla explained that she is only a novice.
“Does everybody know what a glob pattern is?” she said.
To her surprise, everybody acquiesced. Or perhaps, no one dared show their ignorance. She laughed.
“You’re better than me then,” she said. “You could teach me. I just learned all this stuff.”
According to Provencher, since the inception of Pyladies, women have had more input on the development and dissemination of this programming language. She beamed when she mentioned that their rapid influence had reached PyCon. The foremost annual convention for the community using and developing Python will be held in Montreal this April.
“I read a short article on PyCon,” she said. “Since the inception of Pyladies, there has been a direct correlation with the diversity of speakers at PyCon.”
Outside, the flurries died out.
The next speaker was Nicole Parrot — pronounced the French way — a middle aged homemaker who claimed she knit the comfy red sweater she was wearing twenty years ago. The self-starter picked up the lamp that looked like a miniature of H.G. Wells’ Martian fighting-machines.
“Say hello to Clyde,” she said.
The small audience boomed in awe.
“Every time I see you, you have a new gadget,” one of them said.
Parrot, who teaches school children how to code, worked with the creators of Clyde — also women. The lamp’s legs are tactile sensitive. It responds by turning color, its head flashed red, then green as Parrot stroked its tentacle.
“It’s also afraid of the dark,” Parrot said.
Provencher and other ladies whooped. They whisked to switch seats in order to get a closer look at the alien lamp but also to not disturb the presentation.
The creators of Clyde had hired Parrot to reprogram it using simple Python language. Marvin the Martian could monitor a plant’s moods letting its owner know when to water it.
“And remember,” she said. “I’m only a beginner. Imagine what you can do with this technology.”
Sitting comfortably, Provencher was confident that Python is an easy language to learn.
“Python is a free, open-source popular for data analysis,” she said. “It is built on a strong community. We are always willing to share code. So if you’re in a bind, all you have to do is join a forum and type in a question. It’s amazing how fast people will answer.”
She shared a list of the most important things to remember when learning Python:
1. Have a project and just do it.
2. Codecademy.com is nice if you’re a beginner.
3. If you like puzzles though, Rosalind.info is even more interesting.
Provencher’s favorite thing about it is its flexibility.
“There is no need to know three different languages to accomplish what I want,” she said. “Except maybe if you are building a website. The front end will have to be something else.”