This is the first of a few blog posts about women in technology. Written by a female coder and co founder of Glitterbug app development, it is about what software development has to offer and about my personal experience as a woman in coding as well as the things that initially deterred me from pursuing my dream of being a software engineer.
My name is Laura Cavanagh. I have been working in technology, specifically software development and software architecture, since 2003 (which, as of now is 14 years). I spent that time in large and small companies, working in a range of roles from coding to architectural design, to consultancy and presales and back to coding again.
I taught myself to code in C from the age of 20 and became a computer programmer at 22. I am a self taught java, android, swift and web developer. I just wanted to write a few blog entries on what it is like to be a female coder as it is a question I get asked a lot and I feel a need to express it and explain what it has been like for me.
Degree in Psychology
13 years in software development and software architecture
Worked in security applications, web development, XML parsing, marketing applications.
Co-founded Glitterbug with Colin Vaughan in 2016.
We make apps, we are slowly but surely finding our path through the world of app development which has taken us from quiz apps to interactive fiction and chat stories and now to our eCommerce adventure in food ordering apps.
About being a female software developer
But this blog entry is not about Glitterbug. It is about what it is like to be a woman coder.
Just as the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked “What is it like to be a bat?“, I have been asked many times what is it really like to work as a female coder in an industry which is so male dominated, particularly in the technical part of that industry.
Well, I can’t speak for all women. We are all individuals and all so very different. But I can tell you what things have been like for me and you can draw your own conclusions.
The Things I love about software engineering
The thing I love most about software development is the highs and lows that I get from solving problems. I find certain aspects of the work extremely interesting. The parts I most enjoy are finding a problem, working my way through it and solving it. I suppose, with highs and lows, excitement and frustration, there comes focus and interest.
I find it hard to focus on anything boring and almost impossible to pull my attention away from anything I find interesting (I have all the symptoms of ADHD!!!). That, for me, meant that I had to do something appealed to me, something that sparked my intrigue. I am the kind of person who could be sitting there doing a puzzle for a hour while all hell broke loose around me. I get so locked into the puzzle I am solving that I don’t hear people or notice anything.
So, for someone like me, puzzles and problem solving were really attractive. What I would take away from that (if i were you) is that if you like solving puzzles, whether they be word puzzles, crosswords, jigsaws, whatever form they take, whether you are a man or a woman, then maybe you will get a kick out of software development.
Now, that is probably glossing over the parts that are boring. All jobs have boring parts – endless meetings full of ego boosting, listening to another non-technical project manager try to minimize the difficulty of what his or her team is doing and bully them into working longer hours, writing documentation and reviewing it and configuration things, yep, there are parts which are not to my taste. But, my point still stands (unshaken by these negatives!) that software development involves a lot of fun and fun is simply something that isn’t present in every industry!.
Another reason why I have enjoyed software development (and this is hit and miss) is that you can, if you search for it, find workplaces that are full of awesome people. IT is the home of the quirky, if you look for it.
Now, in saying that, not every company has its group of funny, offbeat, quirky and interesting people – the sort who are intelligent but nice about it – so, if you haven’t found it in your current workplace, keep looking. Keep swimming!!
So, basically, in this blog and subsequent randomly placed blog entries, I will talk about the reasons why I do love software.
I just want to quickly mention the really practical benefits, which I will gloss over briefly – they pay you loads of money ((certainly on par with solicitors and accountants, but generally with shorter hours than either of those groups)), there are tons and tons of jobs out there once you get even a smidgen of experience (I’m living in Ireland and I’ve also worked in Melbourne, Australia and I found this true for both places)) and you can take this skill around the world with you.
Women and writing code
Now… as a woman coder I am often met with the misconception that there is something different about me because I write code and the implication there is that most woman cannot write code.
Now, we know that currently there are tons and tons more men than women (I hardly ever meet other women coders in my work) but that does not mean that woman can’t code!!! I mean, really, when you say it out loud it does seem silly, doesn’t it. But, there is it, there is this sort of hidden myth, permeating our societal consciousness that says – women cannot code well.
I just want to say that this is not based on scientific fact. I mean, there are fewer women who choose to go into coding, but logically this does not mean that women are worse at coding, that they cannot think like coders or that it is not for them. If you kind of think that, on any level, then you are making a logical error and that’s okay, we all make mistakes (just google warm reasoning and heuristics if you don’t believe me), just don’t keep thinking it, consider it logically,
So.. if we get rid of this myth, this silly, illogical myth, about women and our teeny tiny, little brains not being able to code, then the question raises its hand (like an over eager child in a classroom begging for some kind of approval).. why are women less likely to get into coding despite all the amazing gains from working in this industry (interesting work, money, easy to find work, travel with your work, choose your hours, ability to wear funny t shirts to work, etc)?
Things that deterred me at the start
Well… I can only tell you the things that deterred me at the start.
- People told me that it was too hard for me
- Men/guys kept trying to ‘help’ me by giving me the answers or finishing the code for me.
- People told that me I was too old because I didn’t study IT by myself as a 10 year old!
- Told not to study IT back in 1999 because there were too many people studying it
- Told that I should be doing a job that is caring (as a woman)
- Told that I should work to my strengths (as a woman ) and focus on communication
- Told that coder women were unattractive (totally not the case, btw, we coder women are awesome).
So… I’m just going to tackle the first one for now because at the rate I’m going this is turning into a manifesto rather than a Saturday Rant.
- People told me that it was too hard for me
I used to find puzzles hard. I struggled with rubix cubes. I would take ages and ages to figure out word puzzles and feel like a fool. I used to find coding hard at the start, It was mind aching, boggling and brain churning. Generally, it turned my brain to Swiss cheese Sam Becket in Quantum leap style.
People said to me, oh, it’s way too hard for women. Yes, I have heard those words from otherwise reasonable people who do not run around shouting global warming is a myth and telling people that all fertile women should be handmaids. I mean, ordinarily reasonable, logical people.
But, these reasonable people, held this unreasonable idea. When I struggled, I remembered what they said and I thought, well.., maybe they are correct, maybe, just maybe, I do find this too hard, maybe all the guys find it easy.
Now, there were reasons for this – real, actual, logical reasons
A. It is really hard, almost everyone who codes finds it hard
B. It is harder if you do not have a background in solving puzzles, you have to think in a way that you are not used to.
C. Again, it is really just difficult. Most people find it difficult. And the more self critical you are, the most you push yourself and the more difficult you find it because you challenge yourself to do harder and harder things.
D. I was comparing how I felt on the inside (sheer despairing panic) to how other people (who might also be panicked) looked like they were coping.
But I didn’t see those logical, factual reasons. I was blind to them. Instead, I dwelt on the guys who laughed at my desire to learn to code (I am self taught, which made them laugh even more), the men and women who told that women struggled with it because we were less good at maths and logic (aghhh!!!) and the men and women who explained that it was too stressful for me and that I should try something easier (nice intention but would you really say that to a man??).
So, for a while I gave up, I sunk into despair and stopped trying. I felt like a fool for even attempting it. But then, one day, inspired by friends of mine who said that everyone finds it difficult and that I should keep going, I tried again and again and I got through that massive wall and learned how to right fairly decent programs in C.
So, I have meandered for a while now, time to go, code to write, apps to release, etc, etc, but I just wanted to write what will be the first of many blog posts explaining what it was like for one particular individual, a self-taught coder woman living in Ireland at the start of the 21st century).
Hope you enjoyed reading this and if you are contemplating coding, whatever your gender, push past the tough parts and KEEP SWIMMING!