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Women in Tech

Congressional App Challenge Director Rachel Décoste: Get on Board the Tech Train

By Vivian Wagner
Aug 30, 2017 5:00 AM PT

Rachel Décoste is the director of the Congressional App Challenge (CAC).

In this exclusive interview, Décoste discusses with TechNewsWorld the importance of opening the world of coding to all students.

CAC Director Rachel
CAC Director Rachel Décoste

TechNewsWorld: What is the Congressional App Challenge, and why is it a good thing for young people and for the country?

Rachel Décoste: The Congressional App Challenge is a national contest for K-12 students to learn to code, create an app, and submit it in their district challenge. That means we are across the whole country. The goal is to connect members of Congress with the budding tech community, and to encourage the youth in America to learn skills that will make them competitive for the jobs of the 21st century.

TNW: Why is important for young people to learn coding?

Décoste: Coding is one of the most in-demand skills. There's a myth out there that you need to have this skill only if you work with computers, but as society develops, you're going to see coding in every field. This is a skill that's needed in all job sectors.

The jobs of tomorrow will require, if not coding, at least an understanding of how it works. If our children are going to be competitive on the global scale, it's going to be a skill they have to develop, and the earlier the better.

There are many app challenges across America, but a lot of them are designed to select the best coders from people who already have experience. The Congressional App Challenge, though, has a low barrier to entry. It's a way to get started. It's planting the seed, and it's important to foster those early stages of coding.

The CAC goes a long way to planting those seeds that will grow towards a competitive American work force of tomorrow. Coding is a basic knowledge tool that children need in order to be competitive for the jobs of the future. The train is going there, and you want to get on board.

TNW: What stands in the way of young people -- including both girls and kids in underserved communities -- from entering STEM fields? How can these challenges be overcome?

Décoste: At a certain age in high school, girls perceive math and technology as a man's or boy's field, and that is a psychological barrier for some girls.

For minorities, there's a notion that you can't become what you can't see. We don't see minorities included in many of the flashier tech companies, and so there is less of an aspiration to become something that you don't think is for you.

What the CAC does very well is to have exceeded the diversity in the tech sector. It's 30 percent girls participating, and we have large numbers of Latinos and African Americans and even Native Americans. We're changing people's minds -- people who thought that wasn't a part of their trajectory. We've convinced them that this is something within their grasp.

TNW: Describe your career.

Décoste: I came into this organically. When I was a kid, my immigrant parents saw that computers would be beneficial in school. They bought our first computer in 1987. I remember we would write our essays on that, and this is before Windows. It had a black screen with a prompt -- that's what you saw.

With the computer came a little book that was called GW-BASIC, a basic programming language. I stumbled upon this and started playing with the computer. I didn't know it was called programming. With the computer, I created an app for my little sister for math. The computer would ask questions, like what is 3x4, and it would continue asking questions. That was the first app that I did, and I was 13 or 14 at the time. I took it as far as I could, there on that computer in my parents' basement.

A couple of years later, I went to engineering school. In the first year, there's a mandatory coding class, and when I got there, I thought, this looks familiar. That's when I realized that I'd been coding. I enjoyed it and made it my major.

I created a Whitney Houston fan website in 1996, before the Web was a big thing. The growth was unbelievable, and that got me in the news in a magazine in 1998. It had an article about this new thing called "Web fan pages." It goes through a whole bunch of people who had made fan sites. The final paragraph said something like Web surfers tend to be white and male, and this is why Rachel Décoste stands out. She's black and a pioneer. Lo and behold, 20 years later, I'm spreading that same kind of gospel.

After that, I worked in air traffic control systems and other fields. I moved up to management, but I was always involved in tech. When I graduated, I was the only woman of color in my graduating class. The needle has not moved all that much. What I hope to do now is move that needle in a more tangible way.

TNW: What advice would you give young people, especially girls and women, who want to get into tech fields?

Décoste: The world is your oyster. The first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace. She was a girl. This is our field. We created it, and we can still make our place in it.

Vivian Wagner has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. Her main areas of focus are technology, business, CRM, e-commerce, privacy, security, arts, culture and diversity. She has extensive experience reporting on business and technology for a variety of outlets, including The Atlantic, The Establishment and O, The Oprah Magazine. She holds a PhD in English with a specialty in modern American literature and culture. She received a first-place feature reporting award from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists. Email Vivian.

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