Girls Who Code program at Riot Games inspiring new career pursuits

Riot Games hosted 18 high school girls in the Girls Who Code summer immersion program this year. Provided by Riot Games

Rachel Burak always wondered how the online fortune telling games she played in middle school knew who or what she was thinking about. Back then, it seemed like magic, but these days the incoming Calabasas High School junior can see behind the curtain.

"I was so interested in the algorithm behind [the games], how they knew certain things about me," Burak said. "They didn't, actually, it was just the computer scientist."

Despite having no prior experience with computer science, Burak applied for and was accepted into the Girls Who Code summer immersion program held at Riot Games. For the past seven weeks, Burak and 17 other high school girls from across Los Angeles County received a crash course in coding from the nonprofit, culminating in a graduation ceremony last Thursday attended by family, friends and hundreds of Rioters.

Like many of her classmates, 16-year-old Celine Boudaie had never heard of Riot before applying for the program. She imagined a tiny room isolated inside a nondescript office building somewhere in Santa Monica.

"And then we get to this whole huge campus, 2,000 employees working, it's just amazing," Boudaie said. "Today, I got like ten people asking me, 'How are you? Are you excited for graduation? Have you prepared?' It's a really good environment, I did not expect that at all."

Based in the glass-walled Illaoi conference room across the breezeway from Bilgewater Café, the students learned the basics of coding languages like Python, HTML, CSS, Scratch and JavaScript. As they worked toward a final project -- functioning websites detailing a group interest -- Riot provided a steady stream of on-site mentors, field trip opportunities and any other resources the girls needed.

Riot corporate social responsibility manager Sue-Min Koh was responsible for all of the above, acting as the group's day-to-day Riot intermediary. Her small touches, like a welcome ceremony on the girls' first day -- complete with a human tunnel from the soccer field -- or a hug for every student as they left campus each afternoon, helped create the experience Koh wished she had at their age.

"So many times during this program I was like, 'Oh my gosh, if this program was around when I was in high school ...'" Koh, 38, said. "I mean, I love my job. I love where I am today. But it could have been easier. I could have gotten here faster."

Koh joined Riot in 2012 after years bouncing between Bay Area tech startups and a brief stint aboard the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship off the West African coast. By championing the Girls Who Code program, Koh wanted to bring the lessons learned from her "scenic" career path to the next generation of female professionals. One of the most important issues? An initial lack of self-confidence at work.

"For me, I was too scared to make a mistake that I made all the mistakes," Koh said. "It took me two decades to be where I'm at now. I'm proud of where I am today, building confidence in the decisions I make, and being comfortable knowing I can make mistakes. I'm confident if I do, I can recognize and fix it."

Building self-confidence in the workplace has long been an uphill battle for women in the tech industry, and Riot is no exception. A recent blog post by Riot chief diversity officer Angela Roseboro detailed the company's efforts to combat their lack of diversity and alleged culture of sexism that led to an employee walkout in May. In the post, Roseboro pointed to the GWC's summer immersion program, along with the company joining Melinda Gates' Reboot Representation Coalition, as examples of Riot's evolving culture.

As Riot's head of corporate social responsibility (or Karma Initiative) -- and former employee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- Jeffrey Burrell is heavily involved in both partnerships. Under Burrell's direction, Riot has sponsored GWC and all of its West Coast clubs for the past three years. This year marks the first time Riot has personally hosted the program, and money has already been set aside to do so against next year. The money makes the program free for students and covers all daily commuting costs.

For Burrell, it's important that young women get the chance to see themselves in careers they might not know exist.

"Exposure makes all the difference in the world," Burrell said. "If you know something's out there, you can see yourself there some day. ... To have that little switch in your brain change, 'I am somebody that can do this, no one can tell me I can't do this because I have.' You need to invest in that because that's what's ultimately going to change our industry."

Burrell understands that not every girl who participated in the GWC program will pivot to a career in tech. Many students were like Miquelle Ralston and Susie Fowler, two incoming Hamilton High School seniors, who aimed to utilize their new coding skills within their dream careers of stylist and nurse, respectively. Yet a core message -- forging a professional sisterhood to support other women -- transcended any particular career choice.

"All these girls here come from different backgrounds, different interests," Ralston said, "Sisterhood means someone I know I can come to, no matter what our differences, knowing that we can come together for a common purpose and support each other through adversity."

Those ideas of sisterhood, echoed by each of the students and instructors, will persist beyond the graduation ceremony held in the Noms cafeteria space normally used for company all-hands meetings. One group of students after another presented their finished websites and made them available to view in a postceremony gallery walk. Tales of missed coding brackets, Unity coding struggles and troubled Yelp API integration drew knowing laughs from Rioters in the audience. After the presentation, each student was awarded a certificate of completion and a Teemo hat, which together they threw into the air in-lieu of graduation caps.

Burak's project, a website meant to help travelers better understand new cultures, isn't quite the career subject she has in mind. An experienced pianist, Burak wants to pursue sound engineering through the dual computer science and music major offered by Carnegie Mellon or MIT, her dream schools. A backstage look inside Riot's esports production space, complete with some light Foley work (used to add sound effects to movies), helped clarify Burak's future goals, no algorithm required.

"I really enjoy music, but I never wanted to be a performer or anything," Burak said. "Now, with the help of Girls Who Code, I've been able to discover this other field in sound engineering that'd I'd be interested in pursuing."