It all started in 2001 when 13-year-old Linda Liukas fell in love with Al Gore.
As a teenager growing up in Finland, she followed U.S. politics very closely. She couldn’t quite explain it, but for some reason she became fascinated with the former vice president of the United States. She thought he had a great belief system and values, not to mention she thought he was very handsome.
She wanted to find a way for him to notice her, and only one thing came to mind.
“I had all this passion and creativity within me that I wanted to make a website to show him how much he meant to me,” said Liukas.
She used a free platform site to create her first website dedicated to Gore, her hero.
But alas, Gore failed to notice Liukas, and she put programming on hold. For about 10 years she didn’t focus on technology at all. She went on to study philosophy, business, French and mechanical engineering. But the spark to get into programming never left her.
“Programming was, and still is, a means to an end to me,” said Liukas. “It is a way for me to express myself creatively.”
When the now 27-year-old was 23, she wanted to dip her toes into programming again and learn Ruby. She used websites like tryruby.org and codeacademy.com, read a bunch of books and tutorials, and ended up organizing a training workshop, which is now called Rails Girls.
“When I got back into programming, I felt all the same excitement and happiness I did when I created my first website,” said Liukas. “I started Rails Girls because I wanted to share that happiness and show it to other people.”
#!Rails Girls, cofounded by Liukas, aims to provide tools and a community for women to learn basic programming and get introduced to technology. The movement that started in Finland has today made its way to 160 cities across the globe, from Magdeburg, Germany to Tel Aviv, Israel to Houston.
Now, Liukas is channeling her programming teachings to a different group: children. Unlike companies that try to promote programming to kids through robots and video games, Liukas is trying to teach kids the fundamentals of programming through words.
“I think the power of narrative has been overlooked a little,” she said. “We are in an app area where we teach kids to sit in front of screens and push buttons for something to happen right away.”
“Hello Ruby” is a children’s book written by Liukas geared to teach the principles and values of programming.
“Teaching kids about the basics of programming through storytelling is the way to go,” said Mari-Liis Lind, a Rails Girls coach. “All kids love stories. And the good stories, the ones that stay with us, are the ones that educate us.”
The idea came to Liukas in 2010 when she was learning programming herself. A method that helped her to learn was to think of Ruby not as a programming language, but as a person. She would ask herself, “How would Ruby explain this me?”
From there she began doodling illustrations of the Ruby character, creating all sorts of explorations. Ruby is a red-haired protagonist who needs to go on an adventure to find her gems. On the way she makes friends with a snow leopard, solves problems with penguins and bakes with green robots.
“Hello Ruby” was a side project Liukas did for fun, but when her friends saw the illustrations, they encouraged her to turn them into a book.
“Never ever would I have ever imagined that this would actually take off,” she said.
Liukas launched a Kickstarter project on Jan. 23 to raise enough money to publish “Hello Ruby.” Her goal, US$10,000, was surpassed in 24 hours when it netted $100,000 (and counting).
“What I truly admire about Linda’s book is the fact that it is completely her story,” said Lind. “Everything in the book reflects Linda’s own journey in getting into programming.”
An activity workbook with puzzles and exercises to teach kids core programming fundamentals will accompany the book, scheduled to come out in August.
Liukas is already working on creating a parents guide to help them become more involved in their children’s education, a mobile application for Ruby, and sometime in the future she hopes to design an art exhibit where people could actually crawl inside a computer and see how it works.
“What sets Linda apart is that she has maintained a childlike curiosity, willing to know about and test new things,” said Lind.
With more than $300,000 already raised for her Kickstarter project, thousands of backers, a children’s book coming out and a bright future ahead of her, perhaps Al Gore will notice Linda Liukas now.