I switched careers and became a developer in my mid-30s. I could have done that much earlier, but it genuinely never occurred to me that someone like me could have a single programming bone in her body.
I was a girl, sociable, didn’t game, liked skirts and dusty pink things (you should see my keyboard), enjoyed creative hobbies, and was a fan of the outdoors. None of those traits screamed “programmer material” to me, so I ended up doing digital marketing for 10 years instead.
The old picture
Back when I was first choosing career paths in the early 2000s, the pretty much unanimous view was that developers were:
- white men
- awkward and unsociable
- gamer nerds
- living in parents’ basements
- hacking geniuses
- probably not great with hygiene
What I think makes that especially interesting is the fact that before the ‘60s, the tech industry in the UK was dominated by women. It’s a bit difficult to imagine and even believe that now, but during WW2 a lot of the job market was opened up to women, while the men were out fighting the war. So all the programming was left to the ladies in skirts and heels.
Frustratingly enough, even though women were programming these massive electromechanical computers the size of rooms, cracking secret codes, and unraveling military strategies, their efforts were “viewed as unskilled, highly feminised work”, as shown by technology historian Marie Hicks in her book Programmed Inequality. How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. Programming was essentially considered to be just another form of typewriting, neither of which came with any sort of career ladder. Because why would women ever want a career?
Once the war was over, this over-feminization of programming jobs made young men quite reluctant to enter the tech industry, but women were pushed aside nonetheless. Fast-forward a couple of decades or so later, when everyone forgot the past: the whole world was now convinced that men were simply naturally better at programming, which is why women never showed any interest in it.
Funnily enough, we didn’t stop there. Somehow we managed to move from one unfair and reductive stereotype to another, and programming gradually became seen as a very specific type of man’s interest: the weird basement dweller.
Hollywood also did a good job of drilling that image into our collective mind. In fact, it did such an excellent job that it’s still difficult today to shun the trope, not only in movies but in real life too: I have been asked several times already how I was getting along with the guy devs at work, given that I was ‘so different.’
I’m not sure what their assumption about my fellow coders was, but there are currently four devs in our company, and as far as I know, none of us live in a basement. We all have different interests and we’re quite adept at speaking to people. We don’t do cryptic, elusive computer magic, we write code, just like our colleagues in marketing write copy.
The current picture
The world looks much different today than when I finished high school, and thankfully that also includes the world of tech. Programmers now enjoy job titles that come with prestige and healthy remuneration. They are well-respected professionals and their career ladder has so many diverse and ever-changing opportunities that it doesn’t even make sense to call it a ladder anymore: it’s a full-blown map of possibilities. And more people are being invited to explore it than ever.
That is not to say that things are in any way perfect at the moment: diversity studies still show every year that women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK (and the rest of the world) are underrepresented in tech, especially in leadership positions. The same is true for people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
However, efforts are being made to close these gaps. An increasing number of tech companies are taking practical measures to this end, ranging from being vocal about their inclusion measures to creating diversity hiring strategies and regularly measuring results for improvement.
For instance, when I attended Command Shift they (and other similar bootcamps) offered a discount to women and non-binary people, as well as to anyone from an ethnic minority. It was so refreshing and encouraging to notice that in my cohort we did not all look the same.
In the same vein, some job postings purposefully use language that is inclusive and non-gender specific, while others make sure to clarify that the company actively encourages people from diverse backgrounds to apply. My favourite example is a job posting inviting people who need special accommodations for the interviewing process to apply confidently, thus being proactive about welcoming neurodivergent and disabled candidates.
This sort of inclusion and representation is what eventually broke down my own internalized limits and made me realise that there was essentially no good reason for me to not be a developer. With every woman that I saw thriving in tech, my confidence grew a little more. With every person I saw who didn’t fit the stereotypes and yet still managed to be extremely competent at coding, my own beliefs about what a programmer looked like shifted again.
And while there is still a lot of gatekeeping in the tech world in general (see screenshots below), there is also a wonderful trend of sharing knowledge and breaking down barriers for anyone who is curious about tech. Programmers post about their journey, software engineers make coding tutorials for beginners, developers share vlogs about their day-to-day at work, and everyone is better off for it.
One encouraging statistic is that the tech industry is actually doing better in terms of diverse leadership than other fields: while 13.8% of the UK population as a whole is of non-British nationality, the tech world features 18% non-British leaders. Another positive aspect is that the gender pay gap is slightly smaller in in the tech world: 4% compared to the 8.8% average of the whole work market.
While change is slow, change is happening. So if you came to this article to find out what a dev looks like and assess if you could be one of us, the answer is yes: if you’re interested in learning code, you already look like a dev.
But who else looks like me?
One thing that helped me feel more confident and inspired about my career choice was to follow other women coders online. There are many excellent content creators out there who are generously talking about their experience in tech and who don’t fit the classic stereotypes. Some great people to follow are:
- Chieko Asakawa
- Tina Huang
- Jeremiah Peoples
- Mayuko Inoue
- Gyasi Linje
- Michael Forzano
- Laura Medalia
- Saron Yitbarek
Where do I even start?
But I don’t know any other devs.
You might also want to consider looking into tech events, bootcamps, discord groups, and podcasts about code and the technology sector at large. The more you engage with other techies, in real life or online, the more confident you will become in your own place in the industry.
It all comes down to building communities, and fortunately, the tech world has many rich and welcoming ones. Encountering gatekeepers can be dispiriting, but the good news is there is always another better group you can join just around the (internet) corner.
I like tech, but not code.
Excellent! An important thing to know is that you don’t actually need to become a software developer to work in tech: there are numerous non-coding jobs in the field that you can look into:
- IT Business Analyst
- Data Analyst
- QA Engineer
- Technical Writer
- Scrum Master
- Graphic Designer
- UX Engineer
- Project Manager
- Client Manager
- Social Media Manager
The more familiar and comfortable I get with code, the more I realise that everyone I know could do what I do if they wanted to, and that makes me happy. I think there’s good reason to expect that the tech landscape will continue to grow more inclusive, and my hope is that in a couple of decades no one will be able to say what a dev looks like because we will all look so different from one another.
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