What the Devchicks Can Teach Every Developer about Programming
Develop | Posted October 16, 2013

The number of women in tech is decreasing, but their contributions are significant and noteworthy beyond their representation. Here are six lessons that all coders can use.

At the annual Strangeloop tech conference in St. Louis, several women presenters gave important lessons that all developers can use on how to become better coders – and successful team members. The conference had dozens of sessions on advanced programming languages along with tutorials given by some of the leading open source authors from around the world – and many of them, I’m happy to say, were women. Notable female speakers at the show included Jenny Finkel, one of the founders and Chief Software Architect of Prismatic; Sarah Dutkiewicz, the owner of Cleveland Tech Consulting; Jen Myers, the founder of the Chicago chapter of GirlDevelopIT, and Parisa Tabriz, who runs the Chrome browser security team at Google. They had such great stuff to say that all of us, of any gender, could learn from their talks.

Some points these various speakers made during the two-day conference:

1. Find a mentor with whom you can collaborate

Most of the time when you hear advice about finding a mentor, you think the relationship mostly is one-way: the mentor imparting wisdom to the mentee. But Dutkiewicz gave many great examples of how both parties learn from and inspire each other in more of a symbiotic relationship. She mentioned Ada Lovelace, widely considered the first computer programmer, who worked closely with Charles Babbage on his Difference Engine in the 1840s and how both profited from the relationship.

2. Always be documenting your code

Lovelace also was the first to document her algorithms. This is a common theme throughout history where many female nerds were influential.

Dutkiewicz spoke about several women who were involved in the early ENIAC project in the 1940s, the first digital general-purpose computers that filled an entire room. The team, which had a major role in the ENIAC project, included Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman. They were responsible for documenting the programming used in the machine, including some of the main core programs. "These women began their careers by doing complex mathematical calculations of ballistic trajectories and were heavily involved in early Fortran and COBOL standards efforts," said Dutkiewicz during her speech.

3. Role models count

Many women and minorities played important role models to inspire future generations of techies. Myers mentioned in her talk the role played by Nichelle Nichols, the actress better known as Lt. Uhura on the original 1960s-era Star Trek TV shows. While Myers reminded her audience "Star Trek isn't real" (accompanied to many groans), Nichols served as a role model for strong, independent women. Nichols found out that she had a big fan in Dr. Martin Luther King, who told her that Star Trek was the only TV show that he allowed his kids to watch.

You can't be what you can't see. One of Myers' role models is the first American female astronaut Sally Ride, to whom she attributes this quote: "Young girls need to see role models in whatever career they choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday." Besides encouraging other women to choose technical careers, role models also encourage other people to widen their horizons and challenge the status quo, whatever it might be. Dutkiewicz gave an example of Admiral Grace Hopper,  who challenged the existing predominantly male military at the time. Hopper, of course, went on to make many contributions to computer science, including building the first compiler and the beginnings of COBOL. She also recognized herself as a role model: Hopper served as a goodwill ambassador in her later years, lecturing to many audiences and inspiring many women to enter tech fields.

4. Keep an open mind about your career

Another aspect of challenging the status quo, Dutkiewicz mentioned, is being open-minded about where your career will take you. Many of us have come to technical fields from some rather odd and non-technical places. Myers cited science fiction author Ray Bradbury, who said, "We need this thing that makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten [years old] and say, 'I want to go out and devour the world, I want to do these things.'" Myers explained that her programming classes are geared towards teaching her students how to learn about learning new things because the pace of innovation in software is too fast to keep courseware current. "I want to develop a bunch of world-class beginners," she said at her talk.

5. Don't be embarrassed about bugs

Tabriz spoke about Google's efforts, along with many other contributors from around the world, to track down and eliminate browser bugs in Chrome. Everyone's code has defects, and it is time we all accepted that fact. Over the years, Google has increased its bounty paid to documented bugs, including running a series of programming contests called Pwnium. One entrant, a teenaged programmer who goes by the handle Pinkie Pie, has won $60,000 in two separate contests.

6. Human growth is not a zero sum game

You need growth both intellectually and socially. Myers used the example of the movie, The Social Network, in which the Mark Zuckerberg character is quite a social misfit (she used a somewhat more pejorative word). "He is so smart that it doesn't matter how he acts towards others, but that doesn't have to be that way in real life." She called the movie the "Citizen Kane of programming movies," and urged coders to look at all aspects of their lives, both professional and personal. Good words to live by, to be sure.

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