Emma Ferneyhough Colner

Thoughts On Gender And Tech

As a female engineer in SF it’s hard to ignore the hundreds of articles and blog posts about discrimination in the tech world that have cropped up over the last weeks and months. Maybe they’ve always been there, but for whatever reason the media has really taken to this topic recently. Simply put, it can be a polarizing topic. There are people who experience certain unfortunate things repeatedly and other people who have no concept of what it is like to experience those things. I have definitely experienced forms of discrimination in my work places. I don’t think they were ever intentional or malicious, luckily for me, but I am aware of them and try not to let it affect my work and standing.

I have opinions too

My feelings on all the attention that gender/racial discrimination in tech has been getting are complex. Depending on the article and the author, it can feel like they’re grasping at straws, and other times I’m like, yeah, I totally understand that. Like anything important, it’s complicated and nuanced. Never black and white, always gray.

Lately I have been especially aware of the issues based on several conversations I’ve had or witnessed. So for today’s post I wanted to say a few things about a blog post I read recently.

Udacity is posting a series about how people became developers. This is a topic I am very interested in since I didn’t become a developer until I was past the age of 30, which is, needless to say, atypical. I wonder how different people make career decisions that lead them to where they are today. Is it by chance? Did they make conscious choices? Did they have mentors? Do they come from money? How are parents involved? Social circles? Community?

This is the first one

It tells the story about a really nice guy who works at Udacity and how he became a developer through non-traditional means. I have nothing against him or Udacity at all. But there was one thing that just jumped out at me.

You don’t need a CS degree, but…

They make the point that you don’t need to have a CS degree to be a successful developer. But in the back of my head I’m thinking, well you basically do, whether you spend years teaching yourself or someone teaches you. You need time and space and support to be able to spend years of your life studying something so much that you can be a professional. It’s made abundantly clear in the first line how he managed it:

Michael got his first computer around age 10.

In my whole life, I have never had a female friend who said that her parents got her a computer, just for her, when she was a small child. I can, however, name a bunch of my guy friends for which this was the case. This speaks to the fact that his parents had enough extra money to buy a computer for a child, and even thought it might be a good idea to support his interest in computers. That is a huge advantage when it comes time for someone to actually study it “for real” in school.

Mentorship matters before you think it does

When I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley I had to take several CS courses for my Cognitive Science major. I remember feeling like the only person in my class (of about 600 students) who did not already know everything the professor was talking about. There I was, sitting in an auditorium full of young men who undoubtedly had been programming for years already by that point. I was struggling to learn the basics, at the same time as learning fundamental concepts like recursion, object-oriented programming and big O notation. Now, of course I wasn’t the only person who felt lost, it being a weeder class after all. It still felt unfair. And it was nobody’s fault. I just wish I had some more support, mentorship, and female role-models before getting to that point.

I had a happy and comfortable childhood in Silicon Valley, don’t get me wrong. We even had a computer my siblings and I could play games on in the 80s and early 90s. (You can imagine the fights we’d get into when we thought it was our turn!) My dad would build robots and rockets with me, and I’d sometimes help with woodworking projects. My parents were all about building things with their hands, having both studied electrical engineering. I’m not blind to the fact that I am a software engineer now likely because of the way my parents spent time building things with me. I had a very priveleged upbringing compared to many. But I wonder if my interest in programming would have taken root sooner if someone had only introduced it to me at a young age, and helped me believe that it was something I could be good at. Maybe I would have felt more confident about seeking out computer programming classes in high school and college, instead of being terrified of them.

Sound Life Advice

Of course it’s never that simple. Of course my parents told me over and over again to do computer science (not until I was about 20 years old, mind you - a little late). The fact was, I still loved being a cognitive science major and my interest in psychology and neuroscience were very real. And high-pressure, male-dominated CS college courses were not a great place for me to learn.

Still, I had no fucking clue what to do after college, so I just kept going to school. This would have been a great point for me to pause and hone my burgeoning front-end web development skills. (By that point I had been maintaining a personal website for 4-5 years). I had no practical knowledge of how industry or business worked. How does one find out about that stuff? Parents? Aunts and Uncles? My parents were immigrants and all our extended family lived in foreign countries. I got zero good advice at that stage in my life. I idealized science and scoffed at capitalistic pursuits. So I packed up my car and started down the long (very long) road to becoming a psychology PhD. Who would have thought I really don’t like doing research day in and day out? Funnily enough, while doing my PhD I learned that I love to program every day.

Well, whatever point I was trying to make when I started has evolved. The world is an inherently unfair place, and in modern society we strive for equality. We’re not there yet. People have different life experiences which shape their futures in so many ways. Gender, privilege, mentorship and technology - all in one big melting pot of brain mush thinking goo. Gender discimination in the workplace is real. Little boys get raised differently than little girls. But as soon as we are able, we also need to take responsibility for ourselves and the decisions we make.

And with that, goodnight!