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.

Not If But When

I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about education. Everything from new company ideas to following the recent turnover in the education chancellor ranks. Whenever I do, I think about teachers.

I realized, for as much schooling as I've had - all the way through Stanford Law School a combined 17 years - there were only a handful of teachers that I remember. And not all for their teaching.

There was Mrs. Valenzuela's assistant, technically not a teacher but taught me nonetheless. She found me crying with a sandwich in my hand. When I told her how the sandwich bread was filled with bugs, she wrapped an arm around my shoulder and explained those "bugs" were actually poppy seeds and the more you ate them the more beautiful you became. I looked up at her through my tears and a pretty young woman was looking at me. So I believed her. I sniffled and took tentative bites until I had finished my entire sandwich.

There was Mrs. Greenwade, a small woman who didn't impart any knowledge that I can remember, but demonstrated you didn't need to be big to be heard.

There was a biology professor in college who told me I had a special aptitude for science and should consider changing my major. I told her I had loans to pay back and needed to make money.

There was my property law professor's face when he related his surprise in discovering I had written one of the highest grade exams in his class.

But there is only one teacher who managed to shape my life view and I don't even remember her name. She was my world studies/geography teacher in high school.

She was notoriously strict. She taught us how to outline, requiring that we carry rulers, red pens and yellow highlighters everywhere we went. She instructed us in the fine art of writing down only what was essential.

Every week she lectured on a new country. And every lecture, throughout the lecture she would say, "Not if, but when."

"If I go to Singapore," a boy in class would start to say in response to a discussion, and she would interrupt him. "Not if, but when you go to Singapore, John." She'd wait until he restarted his point with the proper language.

She was relentless. Our language never slipped her attention and she was adamant about reshaping it and thus, what we saw as possible. She truly believed, for all of us, it was a matter of when.

I haven't been to Singapore, yet but I've traveled. My world opened up like she predicted and I know it will continue to because I know it's not if, but when.

The Landmark Forum

Course: The Forum

Institution: Landmark Education

Instructor: David Cunningham

Location: San Francisco

A Harvard MBA grad introduced me to Landmark in 2007. She wasn’t trying to recruit me but mentioned the name Landmark offhandedly during a conversation at dinner. At the time, I didn’t ask her what it was or what it meant. But I was curious enough that when I went home I googled the term “Landmark San Francisco” and discovered its program, The Forum. I also discovered that it is a fairly controversial one.

In essence, The Forum is an updated version of Werner Erhard’s Est – the group awareness program from the high flying 70s. Est borrowed heavily from Zen Buddhism and many of its principles are said to have been picked up by the founders of Landmark. The Forum itself is basically an intense weekend in a basement full of about 50 strangers.

There are many stories about how Landmark is a cult, how they push marketing too much, they verbally abuse participants, etc. You can read one take here (btw - what's with everyone needing snacks everywhere they go? That's for another post, I suppose). I wasn’t worried about being brainwashed so much as I was concerned about missing my daily runs, but given I’m open to learning (as you all well know) I signed myself up.

Day One

The first day was a Friday and because I had returned from traveling to the east coast for work the night before, I found the main struggle of the day was just to stay awake. Not to mention how difficult it was to sit for such long periods of time. There are scheduled breaks and yes, contrary to reports, you can go to the bathroom, but it’s still more sitting than I was used to.

I thought going into it, after reading all the terrible reviews, that I would not be receptive or at least, highly combatant. Surprisingly, I was not. Because what I heard were a lot of concepts and philosophies that frankly, I had heard before.

The class is about adopting a new language with which to structure your life. The Landmark Forum premise is that the language we use, affects what we think and hence how we behave.

This is not new. There is a whole research movement dedicated to how linguistics affects cognition, perception and memory. “Linguistic relativity” or “explanatory style” are different names for the same thesis: your thoughts create your reality.

The funny thing is that while you’re learning how language can trip you up, Landmark is teaching you a new vocabulary. Like “rackets.” This is the innocent front you put on to hide criminality in the back or said another way, the lies we tell ourselves. Rackets are defined as persistent complaints plus a fixed way of being. Rackets, like other persistent behavior, have a payoff - that's why we keep them up.

The day was mainly spent learning Landmark speak and illustrating the central idea: there is what happens and then there is the “story” we attach to what happened. We humans do it so much and so quickly it’s hard to recognize when we’re doing it. When you judge people, you are creating stories on the fly. Even when you see say a wrinkled forehead, you are assigning a meaning or creating a story behind that wrinkle. The story might be negative (usually) or it might be positive (still limiting), the thing to notice is that it’s a story. If you know when you’re creating stories and learn to give them up you can, in the Landmark parlance, “create a new possibility for yourself.” How? That was for day two.

At the end of day one, I was proud that I didn't storm out or argue with the teacher. I did, however, nod off a few times.

Day Two

Day two was more of a roller-coaster. The morning started with a bit of the hard sell. The program leader reiterated the importance of getting our friends and family to sign up for Landmark. It definitely turned me off. It was also hard not to notice all the subtle things that were done to make the program "work." Like the heavy use of the Socratic method. Most people aren't used to it and it can be very intimidating. It was used in law school and I hated it. This technique, however, can make it easier to guide someone to your point. I wondered sometimes what the class "conversations" would be like without it.

This day was full of sharing by participants. One gal in class got up and shared how her ex-boyfriend cheated on her repeatedly and they broke up and she was very upset. The teacher asked her several questions which led to the fact that she willingly entered a relationship she didn't respect. The leader asked how could she be disappointed with the outcome given how she went into it? I have to say that one was an eye-opener. The teacher and program were pretty ruthless in terms of getting folks to assume some personal responsibility. It also illustrated the point that you can cause a relationship that you want to be in. But only if you take responsibility for the ones you have been in; you are honest with yourself about why you’ve chosen someone. Playing the innocent victim, as the class gal was doing, it seems, is just another racket.

We also talked about the "Genesis of Identity." How because of certain events in our lives at certain ages we created core strengths (like being independent or a people-pleaser) to combat three thoughts: I'm not enough/something's wrong with me; I don't belong; and I'm on my own. The traits we developed in response to these thoughts are called our “strong-suits.”

While I struggled with this at first I came to realize my whole identity is based on not feeling good enough/thinking something is wrong with me. Is it any wonder that I’m such an over-achiever?

Day Three
Day three was about reinforcing the entire message. “Transformation,” as they call it, happens when you understand the role you play in your life.

We took another look at our strong suits and reevaluated them. The point of understanding these is to understand that you are not limited to your strong suits, your emotions, your decisions or your attitudes. That anything is possible for you when you take responsibility for your stories (which these strong suits are based on). When anything is possible, the only question is who do I choose to be?

In the end, who I choose to be is only truly up to me when I’ve set the stories aside and taken responsibility for myself and my actions. I learned I have the power to do that. Well, at least now, the vocabulary.

Big Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating that you should attend any of Landmark’s programs or that you shouldn’t. While I’m open to learning about myself I do have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter which is to say I like to think I wouldn’t have drank the Jonestown kool-aid. Ultimately though, you have to do what feels right to you.

I should add that Landmark is one way to hear a message that many other organizations, authors espouse, like Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, etc. Below is a diagram from, that while snarky, illustrates my point.

Alicia Morga The Landmark Forum

How to Photoshop in San Francisco

Course: Photoshop, Module 1 and Module 2

Institution: LearnIT

Instructor: David Liebman

Location: San Francisco

I have a very powerful tool. No, it’s not my long, lustrous hair, but CS5. It kind of sounds like a weapon. Creative Suite 5 is Adobe’s latest version of Photoshop. I attended a class on Monday to learn how to brandish the sucker.

The classroom was fairly large with close to 30 folks in the room, each with a computer and students ranged from their 20s to 60s. We were also joined by three LearnIT Anywhere participants. These are students who take the course from their own homes and join by conference call and web ex.

Our instructor, David, was designer cool. He even wore a pageboy hat. Photoshop, he told us, is not a design tool, it’s really for photo editing and Illustrator is really the design tool. That clarification aside, he launched into how Photoshop works. Basically, Photoshop takes an image and turns it into pixels of different colors. In fact, in Photoshop when you change an image, all you are doing is changing the colors of the pixels – you never actually delete a pixel.

Next we learned how to hold a mouse correctly. Before you laugh, this is actually very important. Photoshop is probably the most physically demanding of software I’ve ever used. There’s a lot of clicking, holding and dragging of the mouse to get what you want. So it’s important that you grip the mouse with the heel of your palm resting on your desk. This helps cut down on repetitive motion injury and gives you greater control when you make “selections.”

Yes, in Photoshop, as in life, it all comes down to the quality of your selection. The term selection refers to grabbing and isolating the area of a photo on which you want to work. I won’t bore you with all the ways there are to make selections (there are lassos and magic wands, to name a few), but making selections is probably the most difficult part of learning how to effectively use Photoshop.

Fortunately, the style of the class was such that David would point out a tool, demonstrate how to use it and then give us plenty of time to try it ourselves with loads of sample photos. I had a seat in the back of the class near the door and from my vantage point I could see many of the other students’ screens. It was amazing to see just how differently everyone approached a task. I was also struck by all the genius ideas students had. For one exercise, we were asked to select two photos from the sample photos we’d been working with and blend them together. There weren’t two people who did the same thing. It was a great reminder of how much creativity lives in the world.

We then learned about “layers.” The software itself works much like how old photo shops did when they had to retouch or change a photo. Back then, if you wanted to say put a hat on someone’s head in the photo lab, you had to cut out a picture of a hat, paste it on clear plastic and then lay that plastic over the photo you were trying to change. The same process would apply if you wanted to add text to a photo. This concept of creating layers is duplicated in Photoshop. Layers allow you to manipulate different parts of an image without affecting the rest of the image.

The day ended with a short lesson in air brushing. Most people associate Photoshop with air brushed pictures. I learned how to air brush pictures of myself. I have to admit, it was a bit disturbing. I noticed for the first time, how much air brushing gives a flat affect to facial expressions. Though, I did find the actual coloring in of the dark circles under my eyes, very meditative.

I left class stuffed with information and a fabulous spicy tuna sandwich from a stand nearby, The Sentinel, our teacher's recommendation. One day of class really only scratches the surface. David advised that for every day you spend in class, you need three days of practicing after you leave class for the skills to really sink in. I’ve been practicing and am noticing that, not unlike my love life, my selections need work. But hey, the fun is in the practicing.


Squaw Valley: Boarding School

Course: Private Snow Boarding Lessons

Institution: Squaw Valley Ski School

Instructor: Travis

Location: Squaw Valley, Tahoe, CA

In these very ambiguous times, there’s a lot to fear. Will I fail? Will I succeed? Will I be alright? From the generalized to the very particular. Did you know that Allodoxaphobia is the fear of opinions? If you have that, I suggest you stop reading here.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I must admit, this popular quote never occurs to me when I’m afraid. It’s tough to face fear in all its interesting forms, everywhere it pops up. Facing fear takes courage – an ability to be aware and present no matter how uncomfortable. Not an easy task when the main sources of your fear, your thoughts, are taking you everywhere but here. It’s tough to grasp that when we are consumed by fear, what we think may be happening or will happen may not actually be happening or happen at all.

That’s what happened to me. A while back, my college boyfriend, a snowboarding instructor, decided he was going to teach me to snowboard. Tears (his) and recriminations (mine) prevented us from even getting down a bunny slope together.

Frankly, I was terrified of snowboarding. I never learned to ski as a child – we didn’t have the money and growing up no one I knew had even seen snow. All I knew about boarding was that I didn’t know anything about it. It was new and would require new things from me and that scared the bejeezus out me. I thought I would die getting off a chair lift or die from exposure. I thought that I didn’t have the right gear or was mistakenly on a black diamond run. I thought that Après was some sort of secret society that excluded brown girls from Los Angeles.

It took me years to get up the courage to try again and those attempts were equally terrible. Finally, I enrolled in a snowboarding school in Whistler. I had no idea what I was getting into. I went by myself and somehow landed in a house full of nine dudes (really – no better way to describe them). They were from all over the world, Japan, France, Italy, Australia - there to become certified snowboarding instructors.

Somehow I, the consummate beginner, had ended up in a house of near pros. Packed with all my gear were all my old fears: Tachophobia (the fear of speed), Atelophobia (the fear of imperfection), Atychiphobia (the fear of failure) and Catagelophobia (the fear of being ridiculed).

We snowboarded 5 hours a day every day for a week. When we were not riding, we worked on board maintenance or watched snowboarding footage. That’s it. It was monastic really.

I learned though. I discovered that the irrational fear, the fear that is important to face, first comes up in your mind and then makes its way to your body – tensing you up. And if there’s anything you cannot be while snowboarding – it’s tense. You have to get loose and bend your knees. A relaxed body is better able to respond to the dynamics of the terrain.

I also learned how to manage my fear by doing a few key things:

(1) get help: getting a lesson is a great way to have someone with you who is not invested in the outcome, just in teaching – boyfriend/girlfriend or parent/child skirmishes alleviated plus there’s a certain safety in numbers;

(2) be mindful and aware moment to moment: focusing in on the skills I learned in boarding school kept my mind from going off into the thoughts that fed my fear. As Rosa Parks once said, “Knowing what must be done does away with fear;” and

(3) accept my fear: it’s okay to feel fear. Just acknowledging that I was afraid allowed me to put it down and get focused on what I needed to do. As Lauren Ambrose puts it “The fear is the way through.” Or put another way: “The coward turns attention toward fighting fear; the warrior accommodates it.”

By the end of the week I was much better – hitting all the blues and a few blacks on Whistler. I finally knew what to do on a chair lift. I understood that everyone wipes out – even the best and sometimes even on exiting a chair lift. Shit happens out there. The fun is that it’s usually a soft landing.

Today, when fear, of any kind, is getting the best of me I go boarding. That’s why I headed to Tahoe last week. After a few missed seasons, I was a bit worried about how I’d do so I signed up for a lesson. Ironically, my teacher’s name was Travis. Travis and I got out on the first cable ride up the mountain and marveled at the sun peeking out from the clouds. The snow was perfect – fluffy, pristine. I snapped on my board and did the awkward shuffle to the lift line. That’s where it hit me: all my old fears came raging back. What if I wipe out trying to get off the chair lift? What if I make a fool of myself? Am I too old for this?

Yep, even though I knew what I was doing, I still had fear. It never seems to go away completely and that's the challenge. Courage takes practice. Ever the good student, I turned towards Travis in the lift chair and said, “I’m afraid.” He said, “Okay.”

Not sure what else to say I focused on the upcoming chair lift exit and told myself, “Trust your body. Look where you want to go.” I exited smoothly and joined him at a perch above the run.

He turned to me and said, “Whenever you encounter anything steep you want to stop at the top and plan your route.”

I nodded my head, trying to appear confident but truth be told I was beginning to sweat. I was so sure I was going to flip butt over head in a matter of seconds. Travis, without additional preamble, started his descent. I watched him carve smooth S shapes across the snow. I focused on those shapes and before I knew it, I was riding in his wake.

Then I caught an edge. Then some air and before I could gather my thoughts was thrown into a pillow soft heap of snow. It felt fantastic. I started laughing uncontrollably. I punched back up and continued riding down to Travis.

“Are you okay?” he asked?

“Oh yeah, “ I said, with a big grin on my face. “I had to get that out of the way.”

“Cool ,” he said. “See? Being afraid can be fun.” Then Travis zipped on down the mountain and I was not far behind.

In the Know

Today is Travis’, or as he is lovingly referred to here at Consorte Media, Intern2, last day.   Travis’ story is not your typical story.  Nor is it, unfortunately, unusual.  Travis grew up on the Umatilla Indian reservation in Pendleton, Oregon.  He went to a community college for one year and then transferred to Eastern Oregon University.  He starts his third year this fall.  He will likely take 5 years or more to graduate.

He, despite being technologically savvy, doesn’t type well or fast, he’s new to Excel and Power Point (essential workplace tools these days), and he knows next to nothing about online advertising.  In fact, most of his work experience has been summer jobs in construction.  There are a lot of young men out there that I am sure can relate.

Travis got his internship with Consorte Media via his brother who knows me.  It’s this fortuitous connection that landed Travis in his first office job and his first technology start-up.   The reality is that had Travis not had this connection he probably would have been in construction jobs for some time.  I’m not knocking construction jobs, but trying to illuminate a point: it’s all about exposure.

Travis didn’t grow up exposed to business, technology or online advertising.  His parents didn’t run a business or don suits; they didn’t even go to college.  There are a lot of young people like Travis out there and his is very similar to my own story.  My mother didn’t make it past the eighth grade and my father only graduated high school.

Where does that leave people like Travis?  Behind.

In my last year of college at Stanford, I had the honor of being told by Jerry Porras, the author of Built to Last and a professor emeritus at the Stanford Business School, that I was behind and would always have to work harder than everybody else.  How was I behind exactly?  I could stand my ground, I was quick on my feet, and I was a loyal friend.  I hated him a little bit when he told me that.  But you know what?  He was right.

I was behind because my life and socio-economic status kept me in a pocket of limited options, not a bad life mind you, just a limited one.  I wouldn’t have even discovered Stanford University if my sister Maria hadn’t brought home a Seventeen Magazine one day.  In it she read an article that said Stanford was the best school in California.  She said, “You’re good at school.  Why don’t you apply there?”

Not knowing any better, I did and I’ve been playing catch up ever since.  Going to Stanford was my first exposure to a world that included terms like investment banking, entrepreneurship, and Silicon Valley.   My college roommates had computers; I had an electric typewriter.   One had traveled to Africa; I had never been outside of the western United States.  Another of my college roommates actually boarded her horse at the school’s stables.  “Man, what does your dad do?” I often thought but never ventured to ask.

When I got to Stanford I had a huge chip on my shoulder.  I didn’t realize I had stepped into a new game and resented having to play.  I only started wanting to play catch up when I finally got to see – what others have been fortunate to be exposed to from an early age - that it’s a big world out there with huge possibilities. Something really hard to see when you live next to a gas station in La Puente or on an Indian reservation.

I wonder what Travis will remember from his few weeks at Consorte.  It was short and definitely not enough time to relay everything about online advertising.  The time I spent with him I focused mainly on how to create and understand the elements of an income statement: the basics of building a business.

At the very least, I hope he will take with him a sense that there are people in the world that care about his success. That success requires hard work (no matter how talented you may be and if you don’t have a great talent ala Kobe Bryant – it takes a whole heck of a lot more hard work).  And that while Travis is capable, knows more about living off the land than most, and has already surpassed his parents in education, he’s stepped into a new game and he’s behind.

But that’s not a bad thing.  As I have learned, you can come from nothing and build something.  That, to borrow an oft repeated saying by Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.”  Consorte Media is only one glimpse of what’s out there.   I can’t wait to see if Travis plays.