The GDG Coast Lebanon co-founder, Rayan Al Zahab, tells us that her favorite part of all events is the discussions after an event itself and how communities talking openly about diversity can help lead to a more accepting society. In the conversation with her we also found out what developers and bamboo have in common.
Rayan, why did you become a community organizer?
I wanted to excite more women about IT and make the path easier for them. I knew from my own experience that you can feel pretty lonely not having peers or mentors to turn to. Since January 2016, our GDG chapter has grown to 158 members. We have both students and senior developers. Women participation in our meetups is never less than 35%.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I organized and spoke at the Google Developers Roadshow in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 2016. We had two separate events, one for women only and one for men only. I was feeling really sick, but managed to host and speak at the event for several hours with just one other organizer helping me. Another challenge was the language. Although the culture is similar, in Saudi Arabia they learn in Arabic at school, whereas in Lebanon it's French/English. So I literally had to prepare vocabulary for my presentation. It was all worth it because of the positive feedback from the 50 women that attended the event. It was like you'd pour water over a desert. Five or six of them applied to start a new GDG Mecca chapter and I was mentoring them to start WTM chapter as well.
That sounds like a very successful event, and you mentioned that some participants got interested in becoming organizers. How do you handle chapter growth in general?
Lebanon is a very small country, so it's hard to attract new members. We partner with other companies in the ecosystem, like Lebanese American University, various incubators like BDD, and ANTWork to attract their community members to our events. We just make sure we alternate locations of our meetups to attract a diverse audience.
We're mentoring university students to have their own GDG chapter at the LAU. They have similar schedules and will have a space for regular, smaller meetups for free at the campus. Of course, the risk is dividing the community. But I think that they could meet regularly as a student group, and we could have larger events together.
The association with the Google brand also helps when talking to partners. Hosting an event that Googlers attend helps the credibility of such an event. We also work with some private companies and I just heard that one of them is making GDG meetups count toward the work hours of its employees. One of their managers called me to say that their developers are learning so many useful things. I offered him to prepare content for workshops and he was very excited about the opportunity. This is how you do it I guess, build on relationships that you make as you go.
How do you decide about the content of your meetups?
This was challenging at the beginning, but we found that setting the expectations before the event really helps – even if you don't have a diverse audience. We did a Machine Learning meetup and we made it clear that the first hour would be a general introduction even for non-tech folks (I created content for this part myself), and then we moved to more complex content. This worked well for both junior and senior participants. Also, dividing a meetup into presentations and codelabs is useful. Participants who don’t want to join a codelab can move to networking.
Do you face any interesting challenges?
I want to create a self-sustaining operational model for my chapter. The idea is to find members that will become organizers and speakers. We have a few such members and we're on the right track, but we're not there yet.
Sometimes it's also difficult to talk about Google products and perks - like free product subscriptions - knowing that they are not yet available in Lebanon.
What do you think you are best at?
This is something I've always heard from other people: I'm good at public speaking and come across as a natural leader. I do better if I don't prepare too much for my presentations. It just feels natural to me to be on stage.
Also, living in Lebanon means that you have to embrace diversity by nature. We have a lot of folks with different opinions - and coming from 18 different religious backgrounds, you learn to understand other perspectives. I didn't realize this until I met communities that were more homogenous.
My company, BambooGeeks is my other passion. So much so that I'm financially supporting this project from my savings and some support from an NGO. I want to bridge the gap between what you learn at a university and what the market actually wants. Developers (and people in general) need to be like bamboo – able to grow and teach themselves as the IT world is constantly evolving. In the future, I want universities and companies to financially support BambooGeeks activities, and for students to pay just a commitment fee for the courses.
Keeping the conversations going is something that a lot of communities are dealing with. What tools are you using to help you?
What in the near future are you looking forward to the most?
In August, Google is hosting the Women Techmakers Summit of the region in Lebanon, and we'll be hosting 50 WTM Leads in Lebanon along with 20 Googlers. The attendees will also be running most of the sessions, workshop, and keynotes of the Arab Women in Computing conference. I'm very much looking forward to this.