Jessica Dene Earley-Cha, a GDG San Francisco organizer, tells an empowering story about how she transitioned from the nonprofit world into a career in engineering. Her previous work experience in leading a mental health facility has helped her figure out how to support GDG community members in overcoming their individual challenges, and how to empower them to use their skills in community management. She talks about building not only a community of members, but also a community of organizers in the Bay Area.
Jessica, tell us how you first became a community organizer.
My husband (he is a Computer Sciences major) took me to a “Nerd Fair” (this is what the event was actually called) in Fresno. I was the only woman there. We met someone from GTUG (GTUG was the name used for Google developer communities before they re-branded to GDG), and my husband decided he wanted to get actively involved and later became an organizer.
Prior to that, I worked for a nonprofit for 10 years. Nonprofits are all about community and how to empower others, organize and rally so that when you leave, the community is still sustainable. I used my experience to help my husband with GDG Fresno management. We grew the community from 2 members, to a regular group of about 30 with an organizer team of 5. I was having so much fun being part of the community that I decided to quit my job, move to San Francisco, and join a software boot camp. Because I really loved everything about communities, I was looking for a supportive and welcoming environment to start my engineering journey. That's also how I got involved with GDG San Francisco. I have been teaching the Fundamentals of Coding at Hackbright Academy for about 2 years now. I also volunteer for Latinos in Tech and teach front-end development for Girl Develop It.
How is your experience being a GDG San Francisco organizer different from being a GDG Fresno organizer?
Oh, it's totally different. GDG Fresno is this small and tight community. GDG San Francisco is a large and established community. We usually have 100-150 people coming to our meetups, but they don't come regularly. They come for the specific topic of a meetup. We're trying to figure out ways to build a sense of community on top of having interesting topics that attract a crowd. For example, for #DevFest17 we teamed up with GDG Berkeley and GDG Fremont to organize it together. We're having a 3 weekend-long event with conferences in Berkeley and San Francisco and a hackathon in Fremont.
You mentioned trying to build a community member base. What are some of the things you tried to help with this process?
We decided to have two talks in our meetups instead of just one. That way we have more diversity in the community, and we also have a natural break in between allowing people to talk to each other and connect. We're trying to figure out how to make people come and join our meetups for these connections.
How frequent are your meetups?
We meet once a month and we have the luxury to meet at the Google San Francisco office. Generally there is a lot of competition to get people in the doors in San Francisco. Having that predictability of the meetup happening every month, and also interesting topics, helps attract people for sure.
How do you choose topics for your meetups?
Again, being in San Francisco, we're lucky that speakers actively approach us. One of my goals is to invite more junior speakers to share their experience to create more diversity. In Fresno we had to generate a lot of our own content because there were almost no speakers as the community wasn't so well- established yet. At the end of the day, selecting topics that you and your members would find interesting is key.
Do you have any tips, tricks, or tools for chapter management?
We’re using Meetup.com to promote our meetups. We have a Slack channel for organizers (not for community members as there are so many Slack groups in San Francisco already and people are not very active there). We have a LinkedIn page, Twitter handle, and Facebook to cover all social channels where our members are active.
It's quite common that new organizers have a lot of excitement for everything around community organizing. However, it can be challenging to sustain this excitement over time. Have you had a similar experience? If so, can you share some tips to prevent this from happening?
Definitely. I like to be as transparent as possible in what it means to be an organizer and scoping tasks into the smallest pieces that need to be done. I encourage everyone to ask for help if necessary. If they don't want to be involved anymore, that's ok and understandable. Organizing a community is a lot of work and we all have our own life, jobs, and families.
I noticed with women stepping into leadership roles that there is a lot of concern about failure and things not going well. Having someone to voice these fears to and hear that there is a support network of a community to “catch you,” helps a lot.
Jessica, have you yourself ever felt overwhelmed as a community organizer? What helped you get through this?
I just got married this year and I needed time off to plan our wedding in just three months. So, I had to ask for help from our co-organizers. There are times when work gets really busy and it's great to have co-organizers to help out. My husband and I balance each other out. There were definitely moments that I took too much upon myself. I like to be proactive and voice my need for support rather than wait for everything to come tumbling down on me.
This is very natural for me, as my work background is in mental health. I ran a facility where half of my staff were hired from the population, having all kinds of mental health issues. Figuring out how to support and empower people through their challenges without making them feel bad versus expecting them to fit whatever idea you might have, makes all the difference. The approach of “how can we support you in what you're doing” is something that we share within our GDG organizers community as well.
Coming back to the moment when you decided to change your career completely, what was the decisive moment for this change?
Working in mental health is very emotionally draining. The pushing point for me was when someone at the facility I managed passed away. I knew I couldn't do that for my whole life. I didn't consider coding as a career choice. I thought, I'm an non-profit person and wanted to do a Masters Degree in Organizational Psychology, because I really enjoyed working with people.
So I was quite hesitant when my husband suggested I should try Computer Science. But I took a community college class and half way through it, I started to love it. I enjoyed the process of problem solving, but I had a lot of fears too. I felt vulnerable knowing that I'm not a genius/mathematician. I was asking myself, “How can I go into a field and be competitive with someone that has a 4- year degree in this field?” Hackbright Academy was great for me, because it was an environment that didn't make me feel insecure. Still, it took some self talk in a sense that it's okay not knowing everything (and fail), because that’s what the learning process is about.
What are some of the milestones that stand out for you in your chapter's history?
It had been years since the GDG San Francisco had a DevFest, and last year (in 2016) we were able to organize a DevFest in just 6 weeks. We did it together as a community – we had over 15 speakers and lot of volunteers. This year, we're able to plan way ahead and be flexible if someone steps out from the team, someone else steps in. It's all about finding individual strengths and empowering people to use them.
In your opinion, what else could Google developers do to support community organizers?
Something that comes up in a lot while planning for DevFest is the finance management of a chapter – figuring out how to create an account, reimburse costs, and how to do taxes. I mean not necessary to give GDGs finances, but having templates and resources around this topic.
Generally, folks that are GDG organizers are interested in technology and don't always have a community management skill set. Having training for these skills, including topics like dealing with conflict and discrimination, would be helpful.
Jessica, thank you for sharing your story with us. What are some things that you're looking forward to in the near future?
I'm already getting excited about International Women's Day 2018 planning.
On a different note, I want to remind everyone about the idea of taking a chance. It's one thing to hear it and a completely different thing to do it. Trying makes you a better person already and you meet amazing people because you tried. It builds onto itself. Saying “yes” leads you from one chance to another. It's amazing to experience that.