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Why it is Awesome to be a Girl in Tech

November 2012

Why are there so few girls in tech? Okay, there are a lot of female project managers and girls doing creative stuff like design or UX, though the geekier it gets the less girls are involved.

I (100% female) work as a web developer and are not sure if the lack of female colleagues bothers me or not. Political correctness dictates that it should, even though I secretly enjoy being in the minority not only in the office but also at geeky meet-ups, usergroups or tech conferences....yeah I know...it's vanity.

So why would I want to water down my powers and my unique position by encouraging more girls to join the nerd crowd? A crowd that has no reputation for being glam or sexy (sorry fellow nerdlings, I have to exaggerate a bit for dramatic purpose now):

  • Yes, there are some oddballs and socially awkward people
  • Yes, it can get boring to stare at the screen 8h per day
  • Yes, it is tough to get respected by the guys
  • Yes, some nerds will not talk to you unless you force them to
  • Yes, the jokes in a team where there are mainly guys can be rough

Why would I promote what seems like a rather hostile environment as a career option for girls? I have no clue...must be some random attack of kindness :-D

Yet, in all seriousness, it is _awesome_
to be a girl in tech and I will explain why!!!

Target audience

Who do I want to reach with my article?

  • Girls that don’t know what to study
  • Girls that do consider a job in IT (but need a little push)
  • Girls that don’t consider a job in IT (because they might after reading this article)
  • Girls who want to change career
  • Guys who wish there were more girls in tech ;)

Why? Because I think many girls have no idea about how great it is to work in tech. When they choose a career they go for the usual suspects like HR, marketing, education or health care and are not even considering a "technical" job. How foolish! The tech world is where it’s all happening at the moment: Jobs, money and fun.

The small print

Before I start getting into details, I’d like to set the tone of this little write-up.

First, I am going to refer to females mostly as girls merely out of personal preference. I see myself as a girl even though I am not a teen anymore. Feminists, please forgive me.

Girl, woman, double-x-chromosome-creature, boy, dude, guy, blablabla.....

Second, since I am a developer I will mostly speak of coding/programming but of course I also encourage girls to become sysadmins, system analysts, IT consultants or whatever tech-stuff they fancy.

Third, my wafflings got much longer than I thought. That is why I have split them up into three chapters plus a bonus one:

Chapter 1: The perks of working (as a girl) in tech

Flexibility

Programming languages are universal languages which means: If you can program you can work anywhere. Let’s say your other half is a clown in a flying circus, a drug dealer or a rock-star and you like to follow him/her around the globe - you can happily do this if you work in IT. No matter if you need a job for a few weeks or a few years, tech offers all the flexibility you can ask for.

Doing stuff on the computer has another great perk: The possibility to work from home. Well, working from home is actually not as cool as it sounds because you

  • need a lot of discipline
  • will quickly miss the social interaction
  • look and smell like a cavewoman within days

However, being able to work from home (or any place really) is not just a luxury, it might be a necessity. Imagine you have a small child, or need to look after your sick mum. Homeoffice can add a lot of quality to your life and the life of people close to you. In tech, a flexible workplace can be arranged much easier than in many other areas where it is quite often not possible at all.

Homer Simpson operating a computer Homer 2.0 (source)

Variety

Jobs usually come with a certain work culture, many of them conservative and boring. Stupid example: If you work in a funeral parlour you have to adhere to a certain dress code and look serious and a bit sad all day.

As a programmer you can choose the company culture you like to be part of. Fancy a supercool startup? A hipster-infected advertising agency? A long-established software house with cubicles? No problem, they all need IT specialists so you can pick the work culture that suits you.

Money

I like to buy nice quality things, go to fancy restaurants and to travel. I also like to pay for all these things myself, because, girls: never ever owe a guy anything ;-) The problem is: How can you have a little bit of luxury in your life on an average salary? It just sucks.

When I started as a developer in the UK I earned a bit less than £30k a year and wondered: How can whole families live of this? How can anyone save money for a mortgage? According to Monster, £30k is the average salary in the UK for men, for women it is merely £24k. £30k is more or less the money most people earn per year, but in IT it is just the starting point, provided you are good and don’t let yourself get ripped off.

Take a look at the average salaries that are paid in IT on www.itjobswatch.co.uk and you see where I am getting to. Don’t forget to also look at the “contract” tab, you can use www.listentotaxman.com to do the math.

It might sound arrogant but since I am an IT contractor I don’t have to think twice about that Halston Heritage dress I fell in love with the other day, I just buy it. I also don’t have to constantly check my budget when I am travelling which really adds to the fun. Not having to worry about money too much, isn’t this the lifestyle we all deserve ladies? Hmmmmm?

If you are good, after a few years experience you can easily earn £45k or more p.a. in IT.

Pro-tip: The best thing you can do is to start contracting as that is where the real money is. It is easier and less scary than it sounds.

Super sexy Halston Heritage dress Earning IT-bling you can even afford the appropriate shoes for this little number ;-) (source)

Princess-factor

This is a bit of a delicate topic. Quite often I am the only female person in the team and have to be careful not to take advantage of the perks that come with it. Guys are fascinated and scared by girls who roll up their sleeves and take on a job that society labels as “men’s work”. If you’ve ever drilled a hole, skinned a rabbit, or changed a tyre you know what I mean.

As I mentioned earlier, guys will definitely put you to the test and as a girl it will be hard to get their respect. On the other hand, you can get away with a lot of things just by fluttering your eyelashes and being a bit cheeky, which is a habit that is so easy to get into. I have to confess I’ve done it myself because if you are surrounded by guys all day you quickly feel powerful. However, with great power comes great responsibility so don’t take (too much, hehe) advantage of the nerds treating you like a princess just because they finally get to work with a girl.

You need to ask yourself what you would like to be known for in the team: Being the bubbly harmless little ray of sunshine, or the l33t haxor chick that wrote the awesome new API.

Snow white and the seven dwarfs Princess snow white and the seven nerds....eeeh....dwarfs (source)

Gender-advantage

Technical directors are really keen to hire girls because we boost the morale. Whenever I start a new job, I hear the same story: “Since we got you on the team we behave and don’t talk so much typical male bullshit”, which is....erm.....flattering I guess.

If a male and a female developer with a similar skill level apply for a job, I bet that in 99.9% of the cases the girl will get the job. Companies want balanced teams and female devs or sysadmins are rare so don’t be shy to use your gender to your advantage. The industry is crazy for us and we get a lot of support and encouragement these days:

It’s a total no-brainer.

An ode to coder girls...the remix is also cute :-)

Guys

Guys who are into computers can be positioned on the intelligent end of the bell curve and have a GSOH. If you like www.xkcd.com or www.theoatmeal.com and can spot sarcasm, you’re fine. Computer wizards come in all shapes and sizes, so you get everything from the quiet skinny dude with the signature ponytail to the fit but annoying brogrammer. You will quickly figure out which guys are coders by heart and which ones are only into it because they have realised nerds rule the world and desperately want some of the action.

So you get the occasional douchebag and weirdo but most guys are really lovely to work with. As they are brainy and intellectual creatures, they take a while to open up. Once they do, they make very pleasant coworkers and friends. Very important: They won’t annoy you with bullshit talk and pointless waffling. They might however annoy you a little bit when all they ever talk about is the latest [some fancy technology] upgrade/release/how-to/bugfix. Step up your game and join them in their little technology battles, it is the best way to get respect and leech knowledge.

Funny comic about a noob girl that thinks an operating system is a phoneYeah so...don’t. (source)

I can highly recommend nerds for dating and you will find yourself in the middle of an abundant hunting ground ;-) Check out this infamous Craigslist article, it has some valid points: Why Geeks and Nerds Are Worth It.

Bottom line: If you like to work in an environment with a low sleazeball-count, then stay away from sales, finance or marketing and find a job in tech.

Chapter 2: "But....but...." misconceptions of tech jobs

But...I suck at math!

I hereby confess that I was never very good at math and also played Barbie a lot when I was a kid. Not really a good starting point for becoming a computer nerd, hm? Well, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need much math to code, well, not for “everyday coding” that is. Also, you don’t have to be a complete tomboy and neglect your girlie side, being friends with Barbie is fine :-)

Web celebrity Pamela Fox nailed it in an interview recently: “I first learnt programming via Java applets, and my first applet was a virtual dress-up doll that I uploaded and shared with my friends. To me, programming wasn’t about math, it was about making apps that people could interact with, and that’s what was so cool about it.”

A Barbie with a notebook Computer engineer Barbie proudly presenting her blue screen of death (source)

But...I never hacked the Pentagon!

I used to think you need to be a high-flyer with a brain the size of the universe and a constant crave to code in order to justify being a developer. Then I realised: if you compare coding to sports some play in the Olympics, but it’s perfectly fine to just be a normal average n00b. For instance, I love to write pretty programs, going to geek meet-ups and spending the occasional weekend hacking away but I also have other hobbies and interests. There are even days where I don't go near a computer at all because I had enough.

First of all, code is not _that_ cryptic.
Second of all, if you ever see Christian Bale in your code please call me.

When it comes to technology there is always more to learn. It's a bottomless pit that easily sucks up all of your time. Technology also constantly evolves and you will have to upgrade your skills on a regular basis. Just do what feels right and don’t be intimidated by the über-nerds. We girls tend to be overly critical with ourselves anyway, e.g. I am still paranoid to show code I’ve written to other people which is of course stupid. But I am working on it, I will upload everything I’ve done to Github one day so my code is up there to be judged by everyone...promise...just need to rewrite it once more...or twice...maybe...soon.

But...isn’t computer stuff only for dull and awkward freaks?

Computer nerds grow in a basements, shielded from sunlight and fed with pizza, doughnuts and coffee. After reaching a certain skill level and/or when their Mum kicks them out they get replanted into cubicles. Here they live what the ingenuous observer might label as a rather dull existence, hiding behind a wall of monitors and body odour. The sole purpose of such creatures is to write cryptic lines of code - the DNA of our technology-driven world.

A very nerdy guy I can haz stereotypes (source)

Such stereotypes usually have a little bit of truth in them and I had _some_ colleagues who came across rather awkward. Most were actually pretty cool normal average people. Their smartness makes nerds very tolerant so even if you yourself are a bit of a freak (well, who isn’t), no-one will raise an eyebrow.

But...won’t I feel lonely just communicating with the computer all day?

As a freelancer who changes jobs every 3-12 months I’ve seen a lot of different places and have learned one thing: In IT _everything_ depends on the culture of the company and the team you’re in. I worked on projects where nobody said hello when I got into the office so I felt like a total code monkey. I also worked in über-cosy and über-social teams where I was hardly able to write a single line of code on my own because everything was done in pair programming and had to be discussed in extended meetings.

Code monkey song

The best projects were the ones where I was part of a talented group of developers and we were given maximum freedom to create amazing things. It was the right mixture of teamwork and independence, I was improving my skills and could totally rely on everyone in the team. I wish there were more such projects but greed, stupid clients, useless managers and inflexible company structures fuck things up. This is not just an IT problem, it happens in all industries I suppose. In IT however it’s much easier and common to change jobs if you are fed up.

Another way of keeping that nerd-mojo flowing is working on Open Source software. You collaborate with like-minded people all over the world to build popular tools like the Firefox browser or the blogger software Wordpress. As a developer you are never alone because the internet is full of us and there quite likely is a usergroup or geeky meet-up in your area. The nerd community really is totally amazing and supportive, it’s a cosy (and social!) little scene. For instance, when I moved from London to Berlin this year, I quickly found new friends and was settled in no time.

But...isn’t outsourcing abroad and offshoring a threat for IT jobs?

My dad is a farmer. He has never used a computer in his whole life and asked me recently if I am okay because he has “seen on TV that tech jobs get moved to India nowadays”. I replied “Dad, each and every project I worked on or heard of where they did that was some sort of fail. So no, I am not worried.”

IT projects are very complex and being able to talk face-to-face, even if it’s just one day per week, makes things much easier. Having a quick chat always beats trying to explain a problem in a long email or via the phone. Companies have learned (some the hard way) that nothing beats a good in-house IT department. So offshoring will continue to happen but mainly for low profile tasks so talented tech experts will always find a job.

There is also a high job security which is an additional bonus in IT. As soon as you’ve gained experience you will be in a very powerful position. I was working in a digital agency a few years ago where they laid off a lot of people but not a single developer even though we were the most expensive team. No sane company will ever fire a good developer, shit really needs to hit the fan for this to happen.

But...isn’t there a lot of sexism in tech?

There are a lot of discussions about sexism in tech lately and the community is very sensitive on that topic. TWSS humour, undie-videos, and brogrammers are used as explanations why girls stay away from IT. To me these discussions are cute and well-meaning, but also a bit over the top. They imply that girls are fragile creatures that need to be protected as soon as they enter the nerd-space: “omg a girl, can all please put on some deodorant and stop the jokes!”

A nerdcomic We’re way too precious for them nerd boys ;-)
Check out the full comic here

Making the IT-world a sterile and politically correct place is not going to get more girls into it. Also, if we never reach a 50:50 ratio between genders, so be it! Skills and passion should always be his or her most important feature, not the gender.

I am quite laid back and guys can hardly intimidate me with their little jokes and to be honest: my jokes are often borderline too. My wallpaper also used to be a topless Christian Bale so why should I be offended by e.g. Megan Fox’ pixel boobs? The _real_ sexism that I’d like to mention is more subtle.

This video contains moderately sexy male gay nerds in undies. Be offended if you wish.

Here are some scenarios you may occasionally find yourself in when working as a girl in tech:

Colleague: “So...you are the new designer?”
(yeah yeah...just because I am not a chubby dude wearing a smelly Iron Maiden T-Shirt)
Boss walks into the office and only ever talks to the guys.
(it’s that boys-club bullshit, innit...)
Colleague does not trust your answer to a technical question unless confirmed by some male team member.
(seems to be a subconscious thing)
Useless male developer has written some crappy code that he doesn’t even understand himself anymore. Now he needs to extend it with new features and asks you to do it.
(you seriously want me to clean up after you??? do I look like your Mum???)

You might wonder: But...didn’t you say we are treated like princesses? Yes I did, but when it comes to “serious bizness stuff” people still tend to turn to tall (bonus) white (bonus x2) males (jackpot!!!) for guidance and knowledge. It is a hard-wired psychological trap that we need to get rid of.

Gender simply should never matter unless you’re looking for someone suitable to shag or breed with (and even those two cases are debatable). What’s lacking to achieve this...well...excuse the picture...but what’s lacking in my opinion are balls, from both sides.

Girls need to stop doubting their abilities. They need to play the game, just like the boys do.
› Balls.
Guys have to get over themselves and their male arrogance/pride. They need to start acknowledging the skills and opinions of people outside their own gender.
› Balls.

Tech is full of bright, advanced human beings! Girls can make it here, it has been proven already by e.g. these lovely ladies. So.....what's your excuse? ;)

Yep, being a white guy is awesome. Not sure about the gingerness of Louis C.K. though ;)

Chapter 3: Useful talents to get started in tech

Attention to detail

When writing a program something as little as a missing semicolon can screw it up. It’s also tempting to just throw code at a problem to solve it for the moment when it’s much better to step back and think it through. That is why diligence and care make that little difference in coding.

A thrive for elegance and simplicity

A well-written program is like a Coco Chanel dress: very simple and very elegant.

Coco Chanel Coco Chanel is inspiring not just because of her designs (source)

Good memory

The better you can memorize and recall stuff, the easier working with computers will be. If your brain is a bit useless (drug abuse, bad genes...), you can compensate that with being organised by e.g. writing stuff down.

Cooking or baking

Kitchen? Women? I am on slippery ground here so please don’t get me wrong when I say: If you can rock the kitchen you can quite likely rock the code. That is because a recipe is a set of instructions similar to a computer program. Computer pioneer Dr. Grace Hopper once told a reporter, programming was “just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it…. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

Grace Hopper Dr. Grace Hopper has done lots of computer science groundwork (source)

Keen on learning

Computer stuff is like yoga: You are never “done” with learning, you will stay a student your whole life. It can be a bit of a battle to constantly upgrade your skills, especially as you are getting older and see youngsters mastering things easily. The good thing is that with experience you will detect helpful recurring patterns and if you stay curious you will take up new things almost automatically.

Elephant Fish Omnomnomnom.....knowledge!!!! (source)

A feel for languages

Computer languages and “real” languages are actually very similar. Take SQL for example, it almost reads like a sentence:

SELECT * FROM ‘hotActors’ WHERE name LIKE %Christian Bale%

Immersion

In the 90ies psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered the flow which is an addictive state you will get into a lot when coding. Don’t be surprised when you look up from your screen and it’s suddenly dawn! If you get kicks out of fully immersing yourself in a task, that is what happens.

Comic: Dilbert has reached 'Nerdvana'(Dilbert ppl: Please don't sue me for including this comic) (source)

Stamina

Yep, erm, not only porn stars need that. As a developer you will suffer and get frustrated on a daily basis. If you make it through you get a great feeling of achievement when stuff eventually works.

Playfulness

To mention the fabulous Coco Chanel again “As long as you know men are like children, you know everything!“ It’s probably not how Coco meant the quote but we girls can learn a lot from the playful approach many guys have. So, if you (still) go crazy when you see a pile of Lego™ bricks you will quite likely love coding.

Bonus: Little motivational slap

Yay, so....you’re eager to nerd now? Awesome. This is what you are going to do:

Think of a little project, set aside a couple of hours per week and start.

That is really all there is to it, just start. It doesn’t matter how clumsy your first attempt will be or how long it takes. In tech, it’s _all_ just about learning by doing.

I hand-picked some entry points for you:

Here is some additional advice for your journey:

Find your niche

Poke different tech areas to find your niche, this could be anything from analysing data, 3D modelling, security to content management systems or designing robots. You might even study computer science to get a broad foundation, just don’t forget to specialise eventually if you want to become a professional nerd. A diploma is actually not that important, I know many people with great IT careers that have studied something totally unrelated or not at all.

Stay out of technology battles

Most developers I know are on Mac and pester me “when will you ditch Windows and buy a Mac? Mac is sooooo much more awesome...gnarf...gnarf...gnarf.” There are often pointless pseudo-religious fights between technologies:

  • Why do you use technology bla when technology blubb is clearly superior?”
  • What? You have not heard of technology bla???
  • Oh you are developing in blubb? Why haven’t you learned bla?
  • Holy s*** you are still coding in bla?

Stay out of this arena as it can get rather dirty! Watch the spectacle from a distance, draw your conclusions and do your own thing. Create cool stuff with the technologies you have learned or want to learn and do this as good as you can, the rest is irrelevant.

Tweet, blog, speak...

All tech “celebrities” are on Twitter, follow them to get a feeling for what’s going on in the scene. Also tweet yourself and be vocal about the stuff you do, e.g. write a little blog post when you’ve figured something out. Tweeting and blogging is how like-minded nerds and recruiters (!) will find you.

Go to meet-ups and conferences

It might be a bit of a different story when you’re based in a small town but in Berlin I could go to some geeky meet-up every single day. Those gathering are cool to gain knowledge, to network and have a good time.

Magic!!!

Did you know? The internet happens to be controlled by some elderly ladies :D
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