Many companies offer tuition reimbursement but employees rarely take advantage of it, either because they don’t know it’s available or they’re not sure of how to approach it. Becoming a valuable asset by strengthening or building new skills is a win-win for employees and employers alike. In this post, I’ll share tips and strategies to start the conversation and close the deal.

I approached my boss about taking a design class at University of the Arts during our site redesign last year. I made it clear aesthetics wasn’t my strong suit and it would help me do a better job with the project and others coming up.  Coupled with the steps I outline below, my request was granted and I was able to take the $545 eight-week class for free.

I’ve brought up the concept to a few Girl Develop It members. Our classes are $10 to $14 an hour and it should be an easy win to ask for compensation. So far, every member that has tried has been successful. For those that are a little apprehensive, the process is similar to a negotiation. It requires pre-planning to prepare and negate any issues that may appear.

Step 1: Have a plan

  • Align it with a project and lead with the interests of the company. Your chance of success will increase if your proposal is framed in terms of benefits to your coworkers or your company.
  • Demonstrate how your new skills will increase productivity and revenue. In my case, I mentioned our project pipeline and how improving my design skills will help us when we create new tools, redo our mailings, revamp other elements and so on.
  • Show studies of how it will impact the company in a positive way. These two links from NBER and eHow explain how tuition reimbursement attracts new talent, increases loyalty, reduces turnover, creates advancement opportunities, and improves productivity.  No one can argue with stats!

Step 2: Anticipate problems that may arise

  • Reassure her or him you will not leave right afterwards. It’s a valid concern and you can offer to sign a contract if necessary (and if you’re comfortable with the idea).
  • Let them know it won’t impact your time at work. The last thing an employer wants to do is sign off on something that will take you away from your responsibilities, regardless of the long-time benefits. Look for options that allow you to attend night or weekend classes.
  • Guarantee a good grade. My company’s policy required I pay for the class upfront and my level of reimbursement directly correlated with my grade. A “B” or higher provided me with the full compensation while a “C” would give me half. A lower grade would mean I would NOT be reimbursed. It’s a fair policy as it ensures employees are taking the course seriously despite not paying out of pocket.
  • Offer to train other employees. As an added side-benefit, you can also suggest teaching other employees your newfound abilities to save money & to help them boost their talent.

When the answer is “No”

  • Offer to split the cost. When it’s clear the answer is no and you really want to attend a class, suggest dividing the bill before you pull out your check or credit card.
  • Don’t give up.  If the answer is still no, try again in a few months when the right opportunity arises. You’ve already won because you’ve showed initiative and your boss will file this away mentally for your next performance.

It doesn’t have to be a long or nerve-wracking conversation. Bring it up during a status meeting or when the right moment presents itself. The more you focus on the benefits and advantages it’ll provide to your employer, the more successful you’ll likely be. What do you really have to lose?

We’ve officially been around since September 2011, or 15 months in total. In all, we’re one of eleven Girl Develop It chapters worldwide.  It’s exciting to see the organization grow, especially from the inside. We recently held a GDI retreat in NYC to discuss plans to standardize our material and process as well as grow to 40 (Yes, that’s FORTY) chapters by mid-2013.

Our Philly chapter specifically has held 35 Meetups including 18 classes (16 of them in 2012), 8 study groups, 2 happy hours (I didn’t realize the number was that low – must change that ASAP!), 5 party organizer meet-ups and one smashing party to celebrate our one-year anniversary (slideshow below).

Our member signup rate has been steadily growing as evidenced by the graph below. The blue line represents the number of members (we’re at 689 with the writing of this post) and the red line is the number of active members, that is, those who have visited the Meetup page or RSVP’d to an event. In the last year, we’ve grown by almost 225%!

GDI-members-growth

Besides the number of returning students, perhaps the most meaningful metric are the stories I hear from members of how our classes have benefit their personal and professional lives. Either how empowered they felt coding something on their own, tackling new responsibilities at work, completely switching positions, getting a new job or raise and so on. These keep the wheels turning and with that, I’m pumped to announce what we have coming up in 2013.

In short, we’ve grown to three organizers in total, we’re starting a Girl Develop It Scholarship Fund of which $900 (which will pay for 10 classes) has already been committed thanks to Bear and &Yet (a software development shop), we’re launching a Mentoring Program, a front-end developer track, programming track, and a mobile track. We’re also offering more advanced classes, introducing soft skill workshops, and collaborating with other tech groups.

Before I go more in-depth in each of those areas, I’d like to introduce two co-organizers who are helping make all of this happen. Corinne Warnshuis has been assisting since late Summer and Lisa Burgess just came on this month. I met both of them through our classes at Girl Develop It. Corinne is the newest Event Coordinator at Technically Philly and Lisa is the Marketing Manager at Uhuru Furniture in Center City. They’re great ladies who are passionate about our goal of increasing technical literacy among women – get to know them!

  • Scholarship Fund. Unemployed or can’t afford our already low-cost classes? Members can now apply to win a scholarship sponsored by a local company. And of course, if you’re part of a company that wants to extend their brand and provide opportunities for members to enrich their skill-set at the same time, you can also sponsor them easily using this form.
  • Mentoring Program. The biggest hurdles in learning how to code are not practicing enough and not having someone around when you’re stuck. That’s where the mentoring program comes in. Newbies will be matched with experienced developers and they will work together on a project for a non-profit that they can then add to their portfolio to show work experience. Sounds like a win-win situation, right?  We’re getting this geared up with the help of Chariot Solutions and the Scholar Program they currently have in the works. Stayed tuned for more information in January.
  • Front-end Developer Track. Want to improve your front-end skills, planning a career change or want to become a freelancer building sites? Starting in January, we’ll be offering eleven classes through May on everything you need to learn to do just that. Visit our Meetup for the classes we’re starting with. Included in the lineup so far are Intro to HTML, Intermediate HTML, Typography, SEO, Advanced CSS, JavaScript, UX, JQuery, API, Advanced JavaScript, Negotiation, and Photoshop/Illustrator.
  • Soft-skill Classes. As you probably noticed from the above bullet, we’re also expanding to offer soft-skill classes that will help you become a stronger developer. E.g. learning how to structure your site for SEO purposes, how to design better, how to create visually appearing graphics, and even how to negotiate (who doesn’t wants a raise?!).
  • Programming Track. Starting with a workshop on the basics of programming with Alice, we’ll move on to a Java course and then Android to segue into the mobile track below.
  • Mobile Track. Fueled by an idea from Corey Latislaw, this is also something we’re going to offer in March/April. We’ll be starting with Android and iOS. More information to come on that once we have our planning meeting in a few weeks.
  • Advanced Classes. We’re also going to offer courses for back-end developers such as PHP and Ruby. Look for those late Quarter 1/early Quarter 2.
  • More Collaboration. We partnered with GirlGeekDinners in one of our study groups and we want to do more of that in 2013. There are so many great tech groups in Philly, it only seems appropriate to work together. Look for more project nights, happy hours and maybe even hackathons.

It’s nice to look back and see how much we’ve accomplished and all the new things we’re about to embark on. We couldn’t have done it without the support of the Philly tech community, volunteers, teachers, members and media. Thank you for everything. Let’s rock it in 2013.

Questions? Leave a comment or contact us at philly@girldevelopit.com.

My topic was about how I brought GirlDevelopIt to Philadelphia with a brief background on my struggles as a non-technical person starting a technology company and not knowing how to communicate with developers. I was going to write a personal recap of the event but I’m not sure I can do it justice with what’s already out there on TechnicallyPHL and Flying Kite. Go ahead and give them a look. You’ll notice I nabbed the coveted “Best Overall” presentation which I’m still excited about. So much so I volunteered to speak at the next one!

My talk is titled “Learning How To Code With GirlDevelopIt”:

I have to give my brilliant friend (and GirlDevelopIt teacher) Pam Selle a shout-out on her “Go the f&*k home” presentation before signing off. She talked about how to be more efficient at work, why supervisors should set an example for their employees and creating a life/work balance. Her hilarious speech was my favorite and the video is embedded in her blog post.

Updated 10/30/2011 – The video of the event has been embedded below. I start at the 1:09:05 mark.

I’m about to head out the door to speak at PANMA’s “WhyWe LovePhilly – The Awesome Philly Tech Scene” event. The idea is to showcase the diverse, tech community in Philadelphia by having various organizers come in and speak about the groups they started or participate in.

As most of you know, I’m fairly active in Philly’s tech scene and I’ve spearheaded a few projects. They include:

  1. GirlDevelopIt Philly
  2. TechGirlz
    • Goal: To encourage middle school girls to get into technology-related fields
    • Next event: Programming with Kodu on November 19th
    • Sign up link or contact info[at]techgirlz[dot]com
  3. Philly Startup Leaders Poker Club
  4. Philly Startup Leaders Book Club

I just started a LearnRuby 101 group as well and I’ll post more information on that once we get off the ground.

See you tonight!

Girl Develop It Logo

I first heard of GirlDevelopIt (GDI) last year and I immediately fill in love with the idea. It’s based in NYC and the goal of the organization is to repair the wide gender gap in software development by helping women learn how to program in a supportive and fun environment.

GDI was started by Sara Chipps and Vanessa Hurst, two women that were tired of being the only female voices in their computer classes. They decided it was time to provide a place where all questions are acceptable and everyone can learn in an encouraging environment. The courses focus on coding, leveraging existing technology, and having something to show for it (aka building sweet websites).

I liked the concept and price-point so much (only $20/class) that I took the Bolt Bus back and forth so I can attend their first HTML/CSS class. I wanted to continue without making the trek up so I inquired about setting up a Chapter in Philadelphia. Fast forward a few months later and I’m excited to announce GirlDevelopIt Philly! In fact, we just posted the schedule and details for our first class that you can find on our Meetup page.

We found a fantastic teacher that you’ll fall in love with right away. Her name is Jenn Lukas and she’s the Interactive Development Director at HappyCog and a leading authority on structural semantic markup and CSS. We also acquired a fantastic space at Two Liberty Place, right in City Hall. A big thanks to Francis Taney and Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney for providing the beautiful space (I wish you can see the view!).

GirlDevelopIT space for HTML/CSS class

If you’re a woman or man (yes, they are allowed) and have wanted to dabble in HTML/CSS or learn how to code, this is a great time to get started!