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Where are the Minority Programmers?

Posted: December 31st, 1969 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Where are the Minority Programmers?

Picture of Irv Owens Web DeveloperIt is very clear to me that the majority of all Americans are some blend of European-American. It lends itself therefore that most programmers would be of similar ethnicity. It is not clear to me however, why at approximately fifty-one percent of the population, I have met only about three female software engineers.

The problem starts at home, with me I mean. I became interested in programming at about eight years old. I do not believe that this is particularly peculiar, it was cool to be able to make boxes move around on the screen. What is peculiar is that as a ethnic minority, I had access to extremely advanced technology at home as well as at school. I can only thank my parents for that. Does that make me a product of the new technocratic mindset adopted by so many who are my age? The answer is yes. With mastery of any technical skill comes a sort of hubris. A feeling of total power, and an advantage over others who lack that mastery. This is a nice feeling, akin to being able to defend thoroughly, through incredible strength and dexterity, any property or persons deemed to be in my posession. Many will say that is a particularly male way of thinking about technology, but at the same time, it is entirely accurate. This is the way most males I have met think about their programming prowess, and they are loath to share it. Therin lies the problem.

I am not a subscriber to the theory that men and women are different in their capabilities in todays society by nature. As an African-American, I feel that to believe this would be the ultimate in hypocracy. Instead I believe that, as with African-Americans, women are socialized differently, and that leads to an apparent inability to perform tasks upon which our society puts high value. This, however is neither here nor there, it is simply that when I was young, I was introduced, and allowed to be alone with many computers. Perhaps I have a particular aptitude for this kind of thing, so with access, my ablities have been able to find the surface, and now I am a technocrat, who can not possibly communicate with non-technocrats. This is probably the most bankrupt thinking to come of technology. It is imperative for growth that people skilled in software development share and foster growth of knowledge in everyone. That is the only way that the industry can achieve the diversity in products that will enable it to reach everyone.

The materials are simply out of reach for many. The library is a good start, but where are the terminals for kids to mess around with, where are the ones they can use to see the source code that makes the computer work, where are the people who can explain to them line-by-line what is happening inside. Just sticking computers in school is going to meet with the same fate. When I was in elementary school, we had time to just mess around on the computer, to figure out how it worked, we had *an English teacher of all things* who knew how to program and was explaining how BASIC worked. He only showed those of us who showed interest, and invariably those of us who did were boys. Later, my mother struggled to keep me in a school outside of the city in which we were living at the time. She was convinced that the school where I was would ultimately be better for me than the city school. I ended up staying in the library from 1 to 5 pm when my mom would come and get me. Can you guess what I did in the library until then. It wasn't always reading. You've got it! The people in the library thought I was pretty smart, and they, after time, figured out that I knew more about the computer than they did, which probably had much to do with the fact that I was male as I don't think they would have resigned themselves to the same conclusion had I been female (it was the south after all). I went through the software, not able to see the source of course, trying to figure out how the card catalog worked. Where it kept the data on the hard drive, stuff like that. Then I had books where I could read about programming and hard drives, and all the good stuff inside those beige boxes.

It may seem that I had an unusually computer rich childhood, and you'd probably think that I was from an affluent background. I had already alluded to the fact that I was not, but now I'll just say it outright. I grew up in a not so nice neighborhood, where you were more likely to become a drug dealer than a programmer, then moved to the south where I was told that I should, in so many words and actions, and with the exception of one or two teachers along the way, only aspire to being a bank teller, because that was a good job (no disrespect to bank tellers intended). In none of these places is it typical to find people with multiple computers in their homes, or even in their schools for that matter. The difference at first was that my parents had the foresight to know that computers would be the way to go and that they had better keep me around them as much as possible. Had I been female, is this what would have happened? No, I don't think so, as well intentioned as my parents were, they were products of their environments, and as such programming just wasn't something that women did.

Fast-Forward to now, recently I started poking around with ColdFuion. I had a friend who was working as a Web Developer, and we had worked on some projects together before, with me doing business stuff, and him doing the coding. He told me about ColdFusion and showed me how it worked in a few late night coding sessions. Eventually I started writing my own programs, and now a few years later, I am pretty good at it. It was his theory that kids who take stuff apart and seem to be really interested in the workings of their surroundings are usually particularly good at programming, because of the logic requirement in understanding the mechanics of nature or the logic of machines. I was one who took everything apart and would look up what each of the parts did.

That is why the problem starts with me. I am determined to teach some kids how to write software, Apple's automator is a good place to start. The issue is now that I can do all I want to teach them about writing software, but if they can not do it at home or at the library, they will lose their ability.

There should be more women in software development. It doesn't make sense to have half of the US population developing software for the entirety of the population, there is just stuff that I can't think of that someone else would want. Parents especially, watch out for your children's interest in the mechanics of things, which all kids have. If they have an intense interest in how things work and are willing to read about it, they might be interested in writing software. I dont' mean that you should force them into learning to program, and that from then on it will be their track in life, I mean that you should make it available to them. Buy a computer if you don't have one, find things that are interesting. Much of programming is putting like blocks together to form some kind of object that can complete some unit of work. There are many, many examples of this in the world. My own daughter has begun to show the interest, and right now, at 19 months she is content to navigate the Teletubbies website, however I expect that will turn into other interest as she gets more capable with the mouse and keyboard. The key is, however not to steer her away from it, or tell her it is off limits and that it is too expensive. Computers are a commodity, and used computers cost next to nothing. Basic development tools are cheap or free. For older children, get them some software, Open Source Software is good. See if they are interested in software development. If you don't know enough about it, chances are that someone around you does. If you are a programmer, and have a friend, especially if they are female but you should help them no matter what they are, who is interested in learning about what you are doing. Tell them. I am struggling with how to explain programming to my wife since she doesn't have the same fundamental technical background that I have. Remember, I started using MS-DOS 4.0 and BASIC. She probably started with Windows 95 since her parents didn't trust her with their $8,000 computer, or whatever the 8088 cost.

The bottom line is that it is our responsiblity to educate others. No computer science program is as valuable as someone who works in software development mentoring someone else through it. As a community we should be ashamed of the way things are, not only is it elitest, it is self-defeatist since when we are running the companies, we will have the same struggle to expand into new markets, largely because our work force, from where most of our ideas spring is made up of a single group of people who all think mostly the same. See one teach one, that is the name of the game. One can learn to program from books and with open source tools, that is the way I learned. My degree is English, which isn't that much different than learning programming, it isn't exclusively the domain of the wealthy. Information is for everyone, and that is what a program is, that is what democracy is. That is the way America got built, people just coming in and learning on the fly to do stuff they didn't know they could do.