Best of Systers

Passion for Programming

by Anja Hentschel

Recently, I met a (male) colleague at the coffee machine and told him how excited I was about solving a tough coding problem. He was completely surprised to learn that I code and I love to do it. I was taken aback by this reaction, but he told me that he’d never met women with a passion for coding who keep doing it after their junior years. And when I think about this and look at the women in IT whom I know in person, I can understand his perception. The women in IT who have more than a few years in the business seem to be:

  • Trainers, coaches or consultants (seldom on coding topics, more often on topics like development processes, security, user interface design, etc.)
  • Managers
  • Testers

I was curious to know if this is representative or just based on my specific environment so I asked a couple of questions to the Systers mailing list:

  • Have you ever been a coder? (including coding requirements in education and training)
  • Do you love coding?
  • Is coding still a part of the tasks at your current job?
  • Are you coding in your spare time?
  • How long have you been in the IT business?

I received a broad range of answers which were very diverse and enlightening. They showed me (once again) that there are many ways to work in this business and that mine is just as common and extraordinary as those of the others.

This post summarizes the answers I got. It starts with some numbers and continues with observations and some exemplary quotes. The choice was hard since there were so many different and interesting answers but I tried to show the broad range of responses I received.

Participants:
I have collected insights from 31 Systers (including me). Most of them were coders and most of them love coding, at least to some extent. This was not very surprising because the mail probably hit a nerve of those with similar experiences. The answers are, of course, in no way representative; they are an interesting collection of anecdotes and viewpoints.

Coding in the current job:
For nine of the women, coding is a major part of the tasks in their current job, for nine more it is a significant part of their job. Of the rest four code seldom, seven never and two did not answer this question.

Coding in the spare time:
Only about 19 of the women answered this question. 11 of them do not code in their spare time, 8 do it but the majority only occasionally.

Time in the business:
12 of the answering Systers have more than 20 years in the business, 8 more than 10 years. Only 5 have less than 10 years in the industry and 6 didn’t answer the question. I was a bit surprised by the high number of “old-timers” and wonder if this originates from the topic or correlates with the age profile of the mailing list.

Compatibility of coding and children:
This additional and very interesting question came up in one of the answers, provoking just a few but very distinctive answers. While three women think coding and having children go very well together (as one mentioned better than management), there are four women who found the combination very difficult or even not feasible. I think it could be worth investigating where the strong discrepancies come from and especially what might be means to make it work (for those who want to stay in coding).

* * *

After receiving the first responses I became more and more curious. I took the questions to friends and colleagues. I’m glad I did as it led to very interesting and thought provoking discussions. I became aware that I had overlooked a couple of women I know. It seems that coders in general tend to be not very visible and that women coders are even less visible. Here are some of the responses on the list:

“I went to several “Girl Geek” dinners, and there were almost no software developers there. It’s like your colleague said – testers, managers, website designers, web entrepreneurs, PhD students. I can only really think of a single woman software developer whom I met through those meetings. Similarly, every single panel about “women in computing” that I went to had either senior managers or web entrepreneurs. So overall I am not surprised that your colleague has this perception, I think women coders are not necessarily visible at the moment.” -Anna

“I think that you will find women in Training, Managing and Testing because we, as women are great at communicating knowledge in a nurturing way, multitasking and good with the details. All through my career men simply ASK me to do these things a lot because they recognize women as great at those things OR they just don’t want to do it (they are introvert/shy or it’s tedious (testing)).” -Micaela

“Maybe the reason your friend doesn’t see women coding is because they are coding and not boasting about it.” -Valentina

* * *

The subject line of the post to Systers was a bit provokingly titled “A passion for programming?”. While some felt very comfortable with this notion, others found it too strong. As with any other thing there is a broad range of sympathy for coding.

“I enjoy programming, and I like what I do. But for me, it’s more like a means to an end than an end in itself. I like being able to help make someone’s job easier by doing good code that works well.” -Sofia

“I code almost every day, and I still love it as much now as when I first discovered it. Writing code has always been as easy to me as breathing, and even if I didn’t get paid for doing it, I’d likely do it anyhow. ” -Camila

“I love writing code and miss it when I don’t get to do it.” -Valentina

“I am simply happy because I get to code all day barefoot in yoga pants in a quiet room and drink coffee. I have other things to worry about business-wise but when I can concentrate on JUST programming for a whole day without interruptions… that’s heaven!!” -Micaela

“I know some programmers that don’t geek out about coding as much as I do. […] I’m guessing the surprise in *my* face when they say they only code at work is much like your male colleague’s :) […] I’d have that same expression no matter the gender because I really don’t understand why people would be programmers if they don’t love it so much that they come up with solutions on the drive home, or can’t wait to get home to try out some wild bit of code, or don’t have a late night here or there because it’s so hard to stop.” -Lucia

“I love coding, and even like reading software development books etc… […] It’s a joke at my work, everyone knows I’d rather be coding… I hide from the office to work on code […] I think my happiest moments are when my students/users make the leap and start becoming developers. […] It’s all about solving problems, and asking the right questions, and making it readable and usable to others… (and I am a fairly lousy typist, so it’s not just about typing) I can’t imagine doing anything else.” -Victoria

“While I don’t code in my spare time […], I love what I do.” -Julieta

“I am in management, but my eyes still light up when I find a great piece of code, or figure a way to pragmatically solve a pain point.” -Emily

“I like my job. That said, if I won the lottery, I would quit my job and do other things, like travel, etc. So while I like coding, I am not as passionate about it as some other people are.” -Mia

“I HAVE A PASSION FOR PROGRAMMING! (Yes, I’m “shouting”, but I wanted to show my enthusiasm! :-) […] I have been programming ever since, and I STILL look forward to the challenges every day.” -Isabella

“I finally found what I really love! I raced through every assignment. I loved it! I was (and am) so good at it. And I love coding.” –Charlotte

“It completely suits my personality. I’m much more “mouse” than “eagle” and like getting down into the tiny details of things. I particularly love the problem-solving aspect of coding. For me, solving the puzzle of how to make something work is more interesting than who the software is being sold to or what it’s being used for. … I prefer solving, coding, and doing a solid, elegant, bug-free job. … I love planning out the solution to a problem. I love the moment when it starts to work. I like teasing out and destroying the bugs. I love the satisfaction of submitting the finished work into SCC.“ -Sarah

“I have always wanted to code, even when I could just read about algorithms on paper.“ -Anna

“Still do it, still love it (well, I love emacs, hate svn, love to puzzle things out). Design/construction and integration/debugging are really my favorite parts, typing code into an editor, even emacs, well not so much. I get juiced when something works, but not if it works the first time (learn more from failures than successes – successes can just be lucky or I didn’t stretch :))
But I’m also a software architect and project lead and scrum master. I feel all skeevy when I can’t write code and am being all process all the time, with only minimal or drive-by technical components. But I also feel totally unbalanced when it’s all code and only code. To me, it’s about the big picture, and the team and the group experience and at the end of the day creating, producing something that others can see and touch and use as a starting point for even greater things. If I don’t have both sides of that coin most of the time, I start to get bored or grumpy or itchy or antsy to create *something* that’s a whole system that reflects a world that could be.“ 
-Hannah

“I tend to like debugging better and figuring out why something isn’t working, usually from little information.“ -Laura

“I love the problem-solving aspect, I love the instant feedback when something works (or doesn’t), and I love the fact that every day my work is helping scientists around the world in their research (I’m in bioinformatics). And I love the satisfaction I get when I happen to write a particularly elegant piece of code!“ -Aya

* * *

I found it interesting that more than half of the women who answered do not code in their spare time. This is different from what I see with my male colleagues and friends (which is of course a rather small sample). Despite their passion for coding, the women usually have many other very diverse interests and responsibilities, think that coding at work is enough, or just want to preserve a healthy work life balance. Spare time coders do this often very target oriented: for instance, they support local organizations and communities, do work for their own (non-IT) business or just try to make their own life easier.

“I don’t do it in my off time because I have many other things I prefer to do (knitting, watching movies, playing computer games, playing pen and paper role playing games, travel), but I do some volunteer coding for various local organizations. […] I’m no longer of an age that staying up late works for me, either.” -Sofia

“I can’t really code out of work – I’m too tired. So doing side projects doesn’t really work out.” -Martina

“I’ m lazy, and figuring out algorithms to make my life easier is wonderful, though I do like a break to get outdoors and do karate, just to keep balanced […] I’ m lucky to be married to another coder, so we have whiteboards in the house and talk software architecture, new languages, etc regularly” -Victoria

“I find work coding to be fulfilling enough” -Julieta

“I love a lot of other things besides coding, and when I get home from work, I want to do something different than what I was doing all day. That was part of my dilemma, and part of the reasoning behind the job change, since getting technical training was so darn hard. There are a lot of coders here who DO code in their spare time; coding is both their avocation and their vocation, and they’re more than happy to spend their free time learning new technologies off the web and out of books and through experimentation. ( It seems to me that this is a guy-style of learning, so there may be some subtle gender-selection going on as a result, with guys lasting longer in purely technical roles.)“ -Sarah

* * *

The more experienced women very often have other duties even if they are still close to coding, sometimes related to other software engineering tasks, sometimes related to coaching or training, etc. Many answers showed a desire to be able to code more or to code again.

“I don’t do much coding these days, but I love the occasions where I have a good excuse to sit down and spend a few hours programming.” -Rania

“My perfect job would be one where I could sit in a corner all day and write code. Unfortunately, I always seem to end up with a lot more duties.” -Camila

“My skills are very rusty! I would like to work in technology again though and do hands on engineering.” -Martina

“I often feel sad or down that I haven’t been coding as much, but unless I’m willing to have a little less work-life balance and code in the evenings (which my eye problems barely allow anyway), I have to be satisfied with what I am able to do.” -Augustina

“… it’s approaching ten years now since I’ve done it. There were too many other things that needed doing that I had strong skills for. Another person could always be found who had equal (or usually better) coding skills than I did. […] Looking around in my own organization, the women tend to have better skills in understanding business requirements, managing tasks, and interfacing with customers.” -Chloe

* * *

The reasons for moving from coding to management jobs are manifold. Sometimes changes are just a matter of chance. In many environments, changing to management jobs is the only possibility to advance and/or get more money.

“…I almost accidentally fell into management. Soon I was managing the project and team and although I had architectural responsibilities and product ones I had no time to code or do real engineering.” -Martina

“At first I loved it, but then I got frustrated with it. It’s too picky, and I didn’t like debugging. It seems to me that problems that get solved with coding, on a day-to-day basis anyway, are often very limited. […] I need to understand the big picture, the organization’s mission, the design of the product that’s being developed, the software architecture, the goals and requirements, the testing plan, the network infrastructure, etc.“ -Lena

“Why did I “quit fighting” to stay technical and be a developer? I got tired of playing with the boys. I wanted a little more nurturing in my life, working with women is just more fun.” -Kari