Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be a woman in tech? It’s International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s Month throughout March, so I thought it would be the perfect time to share my experiences.
When I first started to learn to code, it was 2000, I was 13, and most people were still using Yahoo instead of Google.
I’ve always been self-taught, so my experiences in tech don’t come from classes like some might, but I’ve also been working as a web developer since I was 18.
Let me preface this all by saying that I know that I’ve been very lucky in my journey. I’ve had wonderful mentors, leaders, and jobs where I “missed out” on a lot of the more negative experiences some of my female peers.
But my journey also hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, either.
Being a Teenage Girl in Tech
I think I got involved in the tech world at the right time, honestly.
I never had anyone tell me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t code because I was a girl. In fact, most people just thought I was “magic” because I had started to figure this out when I was so young.
Honestly, I think learning at a young age is the perfect time to learn code. It’s like learning a second (or third or fourth) language, so our brains are primed for that when we’re younger.
But in 2005, being able to code a website was a pretty uncommon skill for anyone. Sure, many of us at that time were learning basic HTML for our MySpace pages and Xanga diaries, but building a full website and launching it? That was a mystical thing.
I took a couple of classes in high school (honestly for the easy A’s) that covered basic HTML and CSS. I thought I might learn something new, but what I learned was that I had taught myself most of it already.
My teacher had also taught my computer programmer older brother, so she took an interest in me from the start. Because of her, I landed my first couple of freelance jobs and she recommended me for a full-time in-house web development job right after I’d graduated high school.
No One Questioned Me
I grew up in Wichita, KS, and I honestly think that’s one reason I had the experience I did. No one really questioned my skillset because I was a girl. Or a teenager. It was so unusual and such a new concept here, that no one cared who I was. They just got told I could build a website and they believed me.
That was not my experience as I delved further into my career, but that early encouragement made it a lot easier for me to continue on.
My First Full Time Gig
That trust honestly extended into my first full-time job. As I mentioned, my high school teacher recommended me to a friend of hers that operated a local computer repair company. It paid like $7/hour, but it was full-time work for the summer before I left for college. My job mostly revolved around making updates to their current websites and managing any future growth plans, but it quickly started to include some marketing related tasks. After all, I was young. I should understand these new digital techniques.
At that job, I got to basically do what I thought was best. It meant that I spent a lot of time researching, learning, and expanding my skillset. I even spent a ridiculous amount of time building out a super sweet Flash animation and website (it was acceptable back in 2005, OK?). My boss trusted me.
It was just odd, because I was one of the lone women on the staff and I was the youngest by about 10 years (besides a front desk guy).
Being Surrounded by Men
That’s one thing that you have to understand about being a woman in tech. You’re likely going to have to work with teams of men.
Have you ever seen the show Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist? Zoey is a software programmer for a Silicon Valley start-up. She miraculously has a female boss, but she’s the only woman on a team of a couple of dozen men.
That’s almost always been my experience.
Be Self Driven
I actually had a female coworker once tell me that she could have been a coder if anyone had ever encouraged her to be one when she was younger. I looked up at her from behind my multiple monitor setup and told her frankly that no one had encouraged me. I had just gone and learned. No one told me I couldn’t, but no one told me to do it, either.
There’s no need to wait for permission if you think you want to code. You just need to go and do.
Rant over. LOL. Back to being the sole woman.
Teams of Dudes
Look, I’ll be totally honest with you. I have three brothers and I’m the only girl. I’ve always been comfortable around guys. Much more than I am around women, honestly. Maybe that’s part of the reason that I never struggled quite the same way I’ve heard some women struggle.
And just because you’re the sole female on a team of guys doesn’t mean that you have to change who you are, either.
My favorite team, to this day, was my dev team in college. It was me and 5 male Computer Science majors. Sure, when our boss introduced the female English major as the newest member of their team, I got some looks. But they accepted me pretty quickly. We were all learning and none of us were experts by any means. We were happy to help each other out and I had skills they didn’t (like design and front-end layouts). We hung out together, nerded-out together, got lunch together. It was an awesome little community in our Nerd Cave.
But again, I know that could have gone a totally different way.
No Women Mentors
One downside to being surrounded by men in this industry? It’s hard to find a female mentor.
Not to brag, but I’ve been doing this a long time. Now it’s been over 20 years since I started learning to code. For awhile, I leaned on my brother to help guide me. (Though he always refused to teach me how to hack; he felt I would use my powers for evil rather than good. He probably wasn’t wrong….) My high school teacher was great, but she didn’t have dev experience, not really.
All of my bosses and team leads have always been men. I’ve yet to meet a woman who’s been coding longer than I have.
There are some days that I wish that was different. There are days, especially when I was younger and dealing with the sexist bosses, that I had someone to talk to about the pain of having to prove myself.
Which is one reason why whenever I hear of any of my friends’ kids want to learn to code I jump in to offer help. I actually volunteered and taught a kids’ coding class while I worked in Scotland. It’s also why when I started looking for a junior developer to help me, I specifically hired a woman newer to tech. And given my current busy schedule, it’s why I plan to donate at least 5% of my proceeds from the first half of the year to the organization Girls Who Code.
The Sexist Bosses
Another, more obvious downside to being surrounded by men in this industry? There’s always that one sexist jerk.
The College Boss
I didn’t really experience my first issue until I had been working full time as a dev for almost 4 years. My boss at the college left and his replacement was not my favorite person in the world.
At the time, it was me, 5 Computer Science major guys, and 1 customer service girl (she’d been hired to help with the increased work load from the school).
He walked into the room, looked around, and pointed at the other girl and I and said “Oh, are these both CSRs?”
Thankfully, my boys had my back and quickly pointed out that I, too, was an ASP.Net C# coder. But he never really believed them.
Very quickly, he gave a raise to my coworker and put him in “charge” of us, though I had been there a year longer and understood more about the projects. He started to not give me as much work to do. And he’d question everything I did.
So I left.
Unfortunately, I chose to go to a start-up that collapsed within my first three months so I went back to the college. I just put my head down and did good work. I only had a few months left until graduation, it was fine.
The Awkward Team Lead
My next issue was with my boss in the UK. Don’t get me wrong; he knew that I could do the work. At least at first. I was hired to be a glorified HTML data entry clerk and the team I was on was built of people of varying tech experience. Next to a coworker, I had the most actual back-end programming experience.
In my first couple of weeks, I got assigned to work on a custom conversion project that I built in PHP. Over time, I helped build WordPress websites, parallax animations, and more.
But then they hired another dude programmer.
Suddenly, I wasn’t getting the same projects.
This guy, no offense, had far fewer years’ of experience than I did and took twice as long to complete projects. He also basically refused to participate in the main HTML conversions that were our main job functions.
It didn’t matter that I had the skills or that I was a team player when the “fun” projects weren’t around. I got shoved to the side in favor of a guy.
Proving Myself Over and Over Again
I can’t even say that all of my experiences were because my bosses were sexist, per se. A lot of the time, I just found myself proving my skillset. Over and over and over again.
When I got hired by a company back here in Wichita, I was offered a super low-ball salary. I told him that I’d accept it, but I would prove I was worth more than that quickly.
Within the first six months, I got two raises equaling a 70% increase in salary and I was promoted to be the Senior in charge of the team of developers.
Why did he not trust my experience to begin with? Who knows. He actually had two other women on the team, but I came with years more experience than either of them had.
Most of the time I was hired, it was sometimes done with reluctance. I just knew that I had to work to prove that reluctance wrong as soon as possible.
As an Agency Owner
When I first started a full-service agency with a partner, I was 29. And telling people that I had 11 years worth of experience building websites and doing digital marketing.
I never really felt the “I’m too young” sting that my partner did, because I knew that I knew what I was doing. But I do know that we lost a couple contracts because we were women. I know that a few of our clients were a little skeptical that I could do what I was saying I could. That I had the actual experience I was claiming I did.
When we would meet other website agency employees and get to know them, I often had to defend my experience and why I did things the way that I did. Many, for instance, didn’t understand why I didn’t just use a premium WordPress theme. Why was I custom coding things?
Because I know that that provides a better quality product. That it’s more secure. That it will last longer.
But because I was young and a woman, I’m not sure they all trusted by experience.
For Many, It’s Not Even an Issue
I do have to say, for most of my amazing clients now and the people I’m meeting, it’s not even a question that I can do what I say I can. I sometimes have to explain that yes, I’ve been doing this for money since I was about 16 or 17 and yes, I really started to learn code when I was 13.
Of course, I have a wealth of a portfolio to point to now, too. I have the work to back up what I’m saying. I may be completely discounting that I’m able to show the proof and that’s why I don’t have an issue.
But there have been so many times throughout the ups and downs of my career that I’ve not been questioned at all. I tell friends and connections that I code and they just think it’s cool.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a casual acquaintance ask me what it’s like to be a woman in tech.
And I love that! Some day, I hope that that attitude is the norm.
Help Other Women in Tech
If you want to get involved and see women in tech be as commonplace as my experience has (mostly) felt, I highly encourage you to donate to an organization like Girls Who Code that helps girls that are the same age I was start to learn to code.
Let’s get rid of those teams of all dudes and diversify!