Why Women Don't Code

I recently wrote an essay for Women 2.0 about women and computer programming. It was based on a difficult experience I had trying to learn Ruby on Rails. I felt a little vulnerable sharing this story, but for the most part readers were very supportive. I'm happy to divulge the name of the boot camp I talk about below, but the real purpose of sharing this story is to help other women looking to learn to code. Be careful about where you choose to learn. There's nothing as precious, in my mind, as that developing desire. Make sure you work with other people who feel the same way.

The essay:

A few months ago when my new website was crashing, and my web developer wasn’t returning emails or answering his phone, I decided to learn to code myself. Fortunately, there’s been a recent explosion of programming courses. There are community college and online classes, as well as development boot camps, all boasting accessible learning.

Many of the boot camps are only for people who already know how to program, so I was encouraged when I found one that taught programming in ten weeks for $10K and was open to beginners. The course founder and instructor, a hot shot male programmer with a resume full of top technology names, called me for an interview after I applied:

Him: “Are you passionate about coding?”

Me: “I don’t know enough to answer that yet but I can tell you, when I’m doing an HTML CSS online tutorial, I stay up into the wee hours of the night trying to solve problems. I really love that. And I know I have a passion for learning.”

Him: “A passion for learning is one thing, but a passion for coding is another.”

He went on to say a woman had once dropped out half-way through his class and he didn’t want that to happen again. What did that have to do with me? I thought. I was so angry that I couldn’t even respond. He ended the call by suggesting I try another online tutorial.

In fact, I already had a long history with coding. In seventh grade my algebra teacher offered a short course in the programming language BASIC. I built a baseball game with a pitcher on a mound who threw pitches to a batter controlled by the user. The game kept score and it even had bleachers in the outfield. I was proud of my creation but when I showed it to my teacher she gave me a disapproving look and said, “That wasn’t the assignment.” I can still remember how dejected I felt.

Like many seventh-graders who don’t get attention for their work, I switched to other activities that garnered approval. It’s sad to look back and realize that’s all it took.

My belief that I was not a computer programmer eventually bloomed into a larger belief that I was not technical. Yet, as I grew older, I had a sneaking suspicion I actually was technical. I’m quick to grab on to concepts; I’m good at math. Heck, I even started an advertising technology company. But all along I had told myself I couldn’t code.

After the more recent blow to my programming curiosity, I tackled the first few chapters of the online tutorial recommended by the hot shot instructor. My anger powered me through until I was so upset I couldn’t see anymore. Was I resentful because he was right and I just wasn’t cut out for coding? Or was it because coding was a club I’d been prevented from joining?

I see my experience and resulting self-doubt as the reason why so many women don’t pursue programming. These barriers might seem incidental at first glance, but they represent an insidiousness that keeps us from entering the fields of computer science and engineering, much less staying.

It was only when I went back to the instructor’s website that it dawned on me why his program requires an application: his course advertises job placement. He gets paid more for placing a student in a programming job than he does from teaching her. I was only looking to learn and his class wasn’t meant for me. But he didn’t have the balls to tell me that. Instead, he discouraged me.

It took me a few weeks to shake my conversation with him and come up with a new plan. For $10K, I could continue learning on my own and pay a tutor to meet with me regularly. In fact, for $10K, I could pay for other women to meet with tutors, too.

I am a successful female entrepreneur and I can still get knocked down and locked out, but the difference between now and the seventh grade is this: I don’t need anybody’s approval to code.