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Girls AND Geeks: Why We Desperately Need More Women in Software

Girls AND Geeks: Why We Desperately Need More Women in Software


By Keith Jaeger, Chief Technology Officer   

I’ve been building software for startups for a long time. In fact, most people I work with these days wonder if I rode to school on a horse.  A lot has changed between then and now. Some of those changes are positive, while others have me very concerned. One particularly troublesome trend, in my opinion, is the dwindling number of women that are drawn to computer programming.

When I began as a programmer in the late 1980’s, there were as many female programmers as there were male.  I started at the electric company in Chicago, and they put a new batch of about 30 recruits through a boot camp every year.  Of those recruits, the split between the sexes was pretty much down the middle. A few years later I moved to Seattle and joined a large insurance company.  The mix was similar and there were already women serving as second line managers and being regarded as up and comers.

And then the culture changed.

If video killed the radio star, the PC likely killed the original culture of programming. In the early days, programming was viewed as a profession similar to an accountant, lawyer or electrical engineer. You had to start by obtaining a degree, and there were professional certifications available to further your education. When the PC came along, you no longer had to have a degree or join a company large enough to have DECs or IBM mainframes. You could program in your underwear. This opened the door to an entirely new genre of programmers. It attracted a small subculture of young males who were inwardly focused and poorly socialized and who often had semi-obsessive hobbies:  comic books, model airplanes, building their own radios. I stole those words from Wikipedia, because there isn’t a better picture to be painted. Sorry if I am stereotyping or offending here. When the Atari and Commodore 64 and the like came on the scene, more guys with this bent were attracted to programming. And because much of the work in programming was ground breaking, the work was glamorized by our culture, as were the “geeks” driving it. This new “face” of programming did nothing to make the profession attractive and appealing to women. And so over time, we continued to see fewer and fewer women entering the field.

There are two really big problems with this trend.

The first is that we currently have a shortage of programmers. Drawing only from one gender has accentuated that shortage. I don’t think we overcome it without getting back to a time when programming appeals to girls as much as it does guys. Even more importantly, women make really good leaders. Specifically when we’re talking about computer programming. Great software comes from great teams who work effectively together. In my experience as a technologist, women, more often than men, are good at management and leadership. Sorry guys. When I worked for a development tools company in the 1990’s, I had a large team of software engineers, enough that there were second line managers and first line managers below them.  This meant there was a regular procession of senior programmers being promoted into their first management job.

When this happened, we were clear with them that they needed to like working with other people enough that it would get them out of bed in the morning. We tried to help them understand that they would need to gain personal satisfaction through the efforts of others.  In other words this would be a very different kind of job, requiring very different skills, than they were used to. And if it wasn’t their cup of tea, there was no shame in returning to programming instead of entering management.. As it played out, with a graceful way to retreat, about half returned to programming with the other half staying in management. After a few cycles, we looked up and noticed a trend. The women were staying with management, while the men were opting to go back to programming. When we looked deeper, we came to the conclusion that women were better able to deal with delayed gratification, and they were better communicators. You see, programming is a wonderful job. Essentially you are paid to sit around and solve puzzles all day.  And as you make progress on your program, you play with it until you get it to work, and see the positive results right on the screen in front of you.  Then you go on to the next part and it happens all over again.

The feedback is tangible and immediate. Your head is filled with a constant series of “way to go’s” as the day continues. Contrast that to a frontline manager who sees success measured over weeks or months. Those successes are often muted by trials and tribulations. Best case scenario is that these managers hear a “well that wasn’t too bad” from their inner monologue.   Organizing and leading people requires you to enjoy the journey for its own sake.  Again, in my experience, women are much better equipped to thrive in that type of environment.

Here’s the bottom line, though.

The vast majority of systemic issues facing our society today can effectively be addressed by software. I would go as far as to say that our societal success hinges on successful software. If this is true, it more than adequately explains the current state of our world. Around 70% of software projects fail in some significant way, with somewhere between 50 and 150 billion dollars lost annually because of these failures. Another interesting statistic is that the majority of software failures are attributed to communication issues.  Not a lack of resources or budget or changing directions or external forces.  Basically in some way, teams  couldn’t get organized well enough to get the job done.  Once more drawing from my experience, if more women were involved in software – specifically in management roles – our ability to communicate would increase, and failure rates would decrease. Of course there are many things that can be done to invent and produce better software.  We can do a better job of teaching communication and teamwork to those entering technical fields.  And we can encourage people from all backgrounds to enter software development.  Software is driven by new ideas and new ways of thinking.

Increasing diversity over time will inevitably produce more perspectives. But for me, the obvious place to start, is recruiting women back to software.  They are the majority of college graduates, and they have proven to be good for this field. I don’t bring solutions to the table on how we make this happen. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that we need more women in this field to make things better than they are today. If we are going to push software forward and fully capitalize on its true potential, we have to do one thing well. We have to find a way to add more girls to balance the geeks. The Marines may be looking for a few good men. But in software, we should be looking for many great women.