KC Lemson

By KC Lemson [MS]

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On women in high tech

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I've been watching with interest the various posts about why there are so few women in tech and what can/should be done about it. This is an area that I have a fair amount of interest in and (of course) some personal experience.

So, here's my opinion on the whole issue:

#1: When you talk about the lack of women in tech, don't call it “lack of women programmers“.
Sure, long term it'd be great to have a more even split in that role, but that's not really what it's all about. By focusing on coding, you risk alienating women who don't find that particular aspect of high-tech interesting (or maybe don't find it interesting yet), but don't know that there are plenty of technical things you can work on that don't involve writing code.

#2: Figure out what makes computers fun for kids and encourage it. The learning will come later.
My parents were pretty forward looking in the early 80s and bought a PC and an Apple for home use (thinking back on it, it's kind of amazing that in 1984 we had not one but two computers[2]). I got into computers early on for gaming purposes (Oregon Trail ruleezzz!), but where it really started to get my interest was in the late 80s when I discovered BBSes and chatting (yes, how stereotypically female :-). I spent most of those years online making new friends, keeping up with old ones, etc. I didn't know much about the software I was using, but I didn't need to - the important thing was that I was using it, it was an integral part of my life.

#3: Make sure that the variety of career paths in high-tech are known to high school/college students
This relates back to #1 but it's still a separate issue. In high school, I knew I wanted to do something with computers, but I wasn't really sure what - I didn't really know what the options were. I decided I wanted to do something that was a mix of business and computers, so
I started out majoring in Management Information Systems since that was pretty much the only major that mixed the two. It took only a couple of semesters to discover my school's idea of technology in the MIS track was to take a class on how to use Access and use a “gooey“, so I switched to Math/CS. Then I ran into #4 below. Fortunately for me, I lucked out and had an opportunity to come interview at Microsoft and, oddly enough, today I work in a fairly technical field with a mix of both business and software..

While casting about for what to do with my life after discovering how much I disliked programming, I asked the following question on a school newsgroup: “So why do I get the impression that the only "CS job" is that of a programmer?“. The response: “There's no reason you can't get a job which requires you to inquire of customers their preference for the addition of processed fried potatos to their requested purchase.“ While intended in jest, I clearly remember my reaction, figuring that there was no way I would succeed in CS so I might as well stop trying, since my only career opportunity was that of a coder.

#4: Remove/reduce social barriers to learning more about computers
I hated coding in college... and I was horrible at it. I'm not sure which came first. I started out really enjoying my Scheme class and I did very well in it (I remember sitting
in labs long after I finished the homework, just coding up fun little applications to do weird things, usually sitting next to a friend doing the same thing). I did decently well in my C class but started to fumble when we got into the details of pointers, although I still kept up well enough to understand most of the material. The next year we started C++ and data structures and that's where I started to hate coding. Where did it start to go south? When I wasn't able to handle the material instinctively - when I needed help. Being the only female in a class is really intimidating if you want to ask a question - are you letting down your gender? Will your classmates make blonde jokes or worse yet, offer to 'help tutor' you?

Now what?

Well, I've already started with #1 in this post. Now I pass that on to you - if you're going to blog about the “women/high tech/blah blah“ issue, don't get tunnel vision about programming.

I think that there are already some things happening that will encourage the next generation of women to be more involved in techology. Take #2 above for example... While BBSing and meeting people online was mostly unheard of on my day (“online“ wasn't really a word, actually - I had to say “on the computer“ which didn't really mean anything either), many kids nowadays can't imagine a life without instant messaging, blogging, etc. And I believe I read recently that the majority of blogs created these days are from female teenagers. Lead with fun, the rest will follow. Game authors should find more games that appeal to women, actually market them, and make them work online (not like The Sims Online, which sucked because it just wasn't fun).

Making the games work online is important to help appeal to women - chatting with people I'm playing with is one of the appealing parts of online gaming to me. I used to spend hours playing Euchre online with random people. I also enjoyed playing Doom (mostly with the cheats enabled (idkfa!) because it's just more fun that way) and in more recent years have spent many an hour with the Age of Empires series or that year of my life I lost to Asheron's Call. For example, I keep hearing about more games being added to Xbox live, which is great - but they seem to all be FP shooters or sports games; there are few games like competitive tetris (which, to be fair, is on Xbox live but is apparently one of few puzzle-type games), or bust-a-move, or other types of games that in general tend to appeal to more women than men.

As far as #3 goes, there are some obvious areas for improvement: make every CS student take at least one class on technical project management or UNIX/Windows/Apple systems administration or [gasp] software testing. Make sure every career counselor is educated on the available career paths and the major companies who hire for those jobs. Invite people in those roles to come and talk at career day[1]. Heck, start earlier... when the third grade class has parents in for career day, make sure you get a lawyer, a doctor, a policeman, a programmer, a tester, a sysadmin. Target the content to the appropriate level, of course - “I am responsible for making sure that windows solitaire works! So I get to play solitaire all day long!“.

In my case, I didn't like coding, but all of my friends used Linux and I decided I wanted to try that too (not for any religious motives... I remember one of the reasons being that I thought it would be cool to have a .wav file play on my machine when a friend /msg'd me on IRC and no one knew how to do that on Windows). So fast forward a year, and I've been enjoying my linux machine enough that I had learned a lot more about it and I ended up working at jobs running linux/bsdi systems and networks and labs of windows & apple machines. Even while I hated going to class, I loved my job.

A side point here: I do enjoy coding these days, but I still don't code for the fun of it, I code to solve problems. So I mainly do things like extend Office applications with VBA, to automate repetitive tasks, etc. Perhaps this is an area where colleges could improve, to not stuff the theory down students' throats in the beginning, but start with real-world applicability - pick a problem you want to solve, then we'll teach you how to write some software to solve that problem. Or what about teaching perl as one of the first languages? I remember wishing I had a .sig randomizer, and ended up getting a boyfriend to write the perl script for me. Instead, I had one class where we learned FORTH. Gee, that was useful.

As for #4? Well, I don't really have a lot of personal experience in how to solve this problem. I've seen “women-only classes“ or such efforts fail, but I'm not sure why. But I know that if I'd had the opportunity to choose between a C++ class with a female teacher and other women in the class versus the one I did take, there would have been no question in my mind.

[1] I went to Redmond High School last year to talk to a bunch of juniors and seniors about program management/testing. Unfortunately, they were mostly interested in whether or not I'd met Bill, and if I got a discount on Xboxes :-). But hopefully they at least walked out of the room knowing more about the career paths.
[2] My mom got a degree in Math in the 60s. She was a punchcard programmer at IBM. She used visicalc to calculate her taxes. I am incredibly proud of her for her atypical, geeky history.[3] Of course I recognize that my parents early geekiness definitely helped me get a head start, with two computers in the house (and that doesn't count the suitcase compaq my dad brought home from work) and all that.
[3] Several months before Y2K, she told me: “I don't know why everyone's so worried about Y2K. The real concern is 9/9/99, since everyone knows that 9999 is END OF JOB!”

Comments
  • There are other tech jobs besides programming jobs? ;)

    Seriously, good point about focusing on *programmers*, instead of all of IT.

  • Good post on a current hot topic. Its good to see MS people keeping up with the blogosphere!

  • Wait, KC, you played AC? I never knew :)

    It's worth coming back, send me an email.

  • Lazycoder weblog » Women in computing

  • Great post KC!

    I can't believe you played AC either...what server were you on? I was Setag Lib on Leafcull for a year when the game first came out (silly name I know) and I finished up playing as Mao Kuanying on Darktide. Haven't played in about a year now though.

    OK back on track...

    I really agree with you on all points above! Esp #1. I have a great career in the IT industry and eat, drink and breathe tech every day...but I am far from a programmer. I too would love to see more women break into that field but also feel strongly that plenty of other great alternatives exist for those that aren't interested in it.


  • Amanda: Frostfell. I would occasionally log into darktide when I needed a good ass kicking though. When we left (Actually it was 18 months of my life, I think the @age said something like 30 days of in-game time at one point - eek) I had a 55ish mage and a couple of 35ish archers. I started playing in December 98, IIRC, so stopped around aug 2001 when we moved houses and the computers got packed away for a month. Then we never got back into it again... tried AC2, tried DAOC, just never got into anything else.

    Larry - i'll ping you, but things have changed significantly in my home life since the days when I could game all weekend, so I don't think I can really afford the time sink! :-)

  • I'm an old female geek that did not grow up with PCs (because they weren't around yet). I was working an admin job and the person who did word processing was out the day I needed documents. Another admin took me to the word processing room where she read me instructions so I could create the documents. It was a tape-to-tape machine with a 10 character display. When the document started spewing out I was hooked. Within 2 weeks I was an expert on that machine and hungry for more.

    I began taking computer classes, but my teachers did tell us some of the options available.

    I started out as a software tester (can you say TRS-80?) until a programming job opened up (can you say DEC Rainbow PC?). A few years later I had a chance to get into LANs (1987--no classes and the only books were on low level stuff).

    During the course of my career I have taken opportunities as they have arisen. I've zigged into writing books and zagged into working as an editor for two national networking magazines.

    I have since returned to hands-on in various capacities and like other geeks eat, live, and breathe this stuff.

    If you think there aren't enough women in tech these days you should have attended events back in the late 80's when I would either be the only woman or one of a handful at huge events. Nowadays I see a lot of women at technical events. Unfortunately few of them are very technical.

  • KC Lemson has posted a great piece on Women in High Tech. She makes a few really great points which I quote below (in bold) with my own comments added. When you talk about the lack of women in tech, don't call it lack of women programmers. I completely agree. As I mentioned in her comments, I have a great job in tech where I spend every day immersed in great technology and amazing products. My mind is constantly being challenged and twisted in new exciting ways as I find ways to match complex business needs with fascinating technology. I am not a programmer but I work with a bunch of great ones and doubt I could ever be as happy in any other industry. Figure out what makes computers fun for kids and encourage it. The learning will come later. This is very true. Familiarity and comfort with technology tools is something many kids today have that even their parents may not. That is why if you walk into a room with a teenager at the computer and you will probably see 10 instant messenger windows actively flashing, a word document in progress (history assignment), a half written email...

  • Take Outs for 27 April 2004

  • Take Outs for 27 April 2004

  • I have been living in Spain for 3 years now. It is very nice to have a large proportion of woman in my IT department of some 50 persons. Almost half. Granted, most are in QA, but about 1/3rd of our programmers (and very capable at it) are woman.

    I know spain has an image of a 'macho' country but in many things woman here are more equal than in the states. I remember on the US we had on our team no female coders, only on testing. I like female company at work, and besides they see things different from men and as such contribute and compliments the team.

    Regarding education the sexes are evenly distributed here on IT studies. Programming is not a 'nerdy' thing, just another profession. So some of our programmers here are into sports, outdoors, partying like crazy, etc. The only one I would catalog as a geek, to be honest, is myself.

  • Hi KC! Just had to throw my two cents' worth in on how I got into tech. I went off to college in the early 1970s a geek (Science Talent Search finalist) determined to major in physics, but fell in love with radio instead. After getting a very liberal college education (1/3 math/science, 1/3 social studies, 1/3 fine arts, both history and studio), I spent the next 20 years working in broadcast journalism, after I found that being a DJ didn't pay squat. In the middle of that journalism career, I found myself in a management position frustrated by the technical limitations that prevented the news my team produced from getting from point A to point B fast enough. So I set off on a quest to put together the technical resources needed to solve the problem (which included several thousand programmable Okidata M92 printers, a couple of Radio Shack TRS-80 computers to process weather information, a few Digital PDP-11s, and the blessing of my boss and his sales force). One thing led to another and within a few years, I'd discovered my talent for software testing, a decent ability to write specs and manage projects, and a certain flair for technical writing. I helped design (note: not code) the forerunners for what is now the world's leading newsroom computer system and was part of a small cabal that pushed the news industry to work on an SGML-, later XML-based standard for news data transmissions of both text and multi-media.

    I'm a self-taught programmer, forged in the VB era (I wrote a scheduling program with VisiCalc before that.), but I won't bother to learn a technique until I can see its practical application. It still amazes me that I am teaching other people how to program with VBA and Outlook. Funny how things come full circle, back to my super-geek roots.

    What bugs me about being involved in a tech career is that everyone thinks I know (or care) about every computer issue under the sun. No, I have don't take sides in the Windows vs. Linux debate and I can't diagnose hardware problems based on a dinner party conversation. I'd much rather hear about how people have used the technology at their disposal to work more productively or enjoy life more or help the organizations that they're passionate about.

    FWIW, a certain degree of geekiness runs in the family, too. My grandfather and two uncles were mining engineers. My mother was a chemist and nearly joined the Air Force in the 1950s in what would have been the precursor of the space program. My daughter could type her name a week before she could write it and has taught herself PowerPoint and Paint Shop Pro. She has the same practical bent that I do -- she learn graphics skills so she could make cool wallpaper and decorate her web site.

  • I received my degree in Computer Science in 1986 after spending a number of high school years watching my Mom completed her Masters and Doctorate in Statistics. She was tough enough to go back and get her degree at University of Maryland and I dove into technology.. To this day I LOVE it, but I moved to Vermont in 1987 and found few opportunities for programming as such I tackled everything and now 20 years later I continue to mix my technical side with a variety of other skills! Management, marketing, consulting and just helping people use Technology to it's highest potential! Thanks for all the great tips! For my two 16 year old girls, perhaps they will be the next generation to bring solutions to the world.

    Anne Stanton
    President
    The Norwich Group