Women, software development, and 10,000 hours

My colleague Thomas Otter is encouraging us to support Ada Lovelace day — an effort to have a day of bloggers showcasing role-model women in technology, on March 24th.

His comments lead me to muse upon how incredibly male-dominated the IT industry is, especially in the segment that I watch — IT operations. At Gartner’s last data center conference, for instance, women made up a tiny fraction of attendees, and many of the ones that I spoke with were in a “pink role” like Marketing with a vendor, or had side-stepped being hands-on by entering an IT management role out of an early career spent in some other discipline.

I’m all for raising awareness of role models, but I lean towards the belief that the lack of women in IT, especially in hands-on roles, is something more fundamental — a failure to be adequately prepared, in childhood, to enter a career in IT. Resources devoted to the girls-and-computers issue have long noted that a girl is less likely to get a PC in her bedroom (all the paranoia about letting kids privately use the Internet aside), less likely to be encouraged to start programming, and less likely to get encouragement from either peer or parental sources, compared to a boy. The differences are already stark by the high school level. And that’s not even counting the fact that the Internet can be a cesspool of misogyny.

Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers has gotten a lot of press and interest of late. In it, he asserts a general rule that it takes 10,000 hours, within 10 years, to become truly expert at something.

There is a substantial chance that a boy who is interested in computers will get in his 10,000 hours of useful tinkering, possibly even focused programming, before he finishes college. That’s particularly true if he’s got a computer in his bedroom, where he can focus quietly on a project.

Conversely, a girl who initially starts with similar inclinations is vastly less likely to be encouraged down the path that leads to spending two or three hours a night, for ten years, mucking around with a computer.

I was very fortunate, in that even though my parents viewed computers as essentially fancy toys for boys, that they nonetheless bought me computers (and associated things, like electronics kits), allowed me to have a computer in my bedroom, and tolerated the long stints at the keyboard that meant that I accumulated 10,000 hours of actual programming time (on top of some admittedly egregious number of hours playing computer games), well within a 10-year timeframe. I majored in computer science engineering, and I did a lot of recreational programming in college, too, as well paid systems administration and programming, but the key thing is: College classes taught me very few practical IT skills. I already had the foundation by the time I got there.

Academic computer science is great for teaching theory, but if you only do enough programming to do well in your classes, you’re simply not spending that much time acquiring expertise. And that leads to the phenomenon where companies interview entry-level software development candidates, who look pretty similar on paper, but some of whom have already put in 10,000+ hours learning the trade, and some of whom are going to have to spend the first five years of their careers doing so. The way the culture (at least in the US) is, there’s enormous social pressure on girls and women to not nerd out intensively on their own time, and while it might lead to ostensibly positive phrases like “a more balanced lifestyle”, it absolutely hurts many women when they try to enter the IT workforce.

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Posted on January 13, 2009, in Industry and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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