How I Learned to Code

A friend of mine was complaining about a job applicant who didn't know gcc and used gedit as her editor. For those not in the know, gcc is a collection of programs that translate code from human readable to something that the machine can understand, and gedit is just a notepad like program. In theory, maybe, these would've been valid complaints-except for one little sticking point. The job responsibilities were such that it didn't matter what editor she used and made it highly unlikely that she'd ever need to use gcc.

His comments got me thinking about how absurd it was to hold her lack of knowledge about an unrelated tool against her. Even more than that, it's a more systems programming type tool-and when I wrote about how a lot of people are quick to dismiss sexism in a tech company from a woman who's not knee deep in system code, a lot of commentators were quick to tell me about how women tend to be pushed towards front end jobs. And so I'm left to wonder if her lack of knowledge was in part due to more systematic biases.

There's this cool scholarship sponsored by &yet (sorry, the deadline was last night) where they ask applicants to share their "dev origin" story. My story is rather privileged and not really full of obstacles, and it makes me wonder at the factors that go into why women code and what sort of code they pick up.

My grandma was a structural engineer for 30 years and my mom picked up coding (night classes) when my dad ditched town when we were kids and has worked for a fortune 500 as a coder ever since. She writes COBOL, which snobs (and one of my old professors) will tell you isn't a real programming language. To them I say that newer versions are Turing complete and well that's all that really matters. To everyone else, it has me thinking about how single moms often have to quickly pick up whatever skills will land them a job, and in the programming world (as in many others) those skills aren't always the sort of elite ones that are bragged about on the tech meetup scene.

All those cool shiny tools with high geek cred though? Well, I was blessed with the opportunities to learn as many as I please. I've told this story many times before, but I learned to code 'cause I wanted to hack my Barbie Fashion Design game. Specifically I wanted better opacity 'cause I wanted to make slightly see thru dresses. I'd written some HTML and had a geocities page in middle school, but my big break was my 9th grade C++ class. My school being one of the best public schools in New York, I was able to follow up that course with AP Computer Science ( which very few girls take) and a computer technology class where I learned about Karnaugh Maps and really great teachers for both.

I fell so in love with K-Maps that I chose computer engineering as my major in undergrad. I struggled with the EE side of things, but fell into a fantastic computer science research lab with an advisor who I have a terrible tendency to treat as a surrogate dad. I somehow managed to graduate with my BE and asked my adviser if I could stay on for a PhD in computer science, and well I'm now going into my 5th year in the program.

Because I'm a senior graduate student, I teach. And my female students tend to do just as well as my male students, which is backed up by national research. And I wonder if it makes any difference to them to have a female teacher, and I try to be supportive, 'cause I think good mentors make all the difference. My mom and grandma, my teachers in high school, my advisor-nobody ever made me feel like I didn't belong in CS.

Which is what excites me about the Python community's rather successful push for female coders. They have scholarships and support and mentor and it's very much a community where you don't feel like the only girl in the room. But, it's also the sort of community where a lot of the action is around trendy fields-web, data mining, analytics, etc. The sort of stuff that's dismissed as "faddish" and "hipsterish" and "not a real coder". And this is sensible right? That's where the money and the sponsorships and the jobs are.

While I simultaneously scoff at the term "data science" and sheepishly admit that my research falls under that umbrella, this seems to be the entry point for a lot of people into code. And I don't know what it is (possibly that data is just cool), but data science especially seems to have a decent amount of women, at least judging by the number of data talks at PyCon and PyGotham given by woman.

And so I'm back to my friend and his job applicant. She's a data scientist and by his account rather good at it-she understood the data and the math and came up with some rather solid results. And this is rare enough that I told him he was being an idiot for holding her lack of gcc knowledge against her. Because that lack of gcc knowledge? It could be for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that the old guard CS communities can be some of the hardest for women to break into.