At the 2013 Strangeloop tech conference in St. Louis, several women presenters gave important lessons that we all can use on how to become better coders. 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. Notable female speakers at the show included Jenny Finkel, one of the founders of Prismatic; Sarah Dutkiewicz, the owner of Cleveland Tech Consulting LLC; Jen Myers, the founder of the Chicago chapter of GirlDevelopIT.com and Parisa Tabriz, who runs the Chrome browser security team at Google. There was a lot that all of us could learn from their talks.
Some points these various speakers made during the two-day conference:
Find a mentor that you can collaborate with. Most of the time when you hear advice about finding a mentor, you think the relationship is mostly one way: the mentor imparting wisdom to the mentee. But Dutkiewicz gave lots of great examples of how both parties learn from and inspire each other in more of a symbiotic relationship. She mentions 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.
Always be documenting your code. Lovelace also was the first to document her algorithms and this is a common theme throughout history where many female nerds were also helpful here. 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 had a major role in the project and 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.
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 who is 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 had the first interracial on-screen kiss. She found out that she had a big fan in Dr. Martin Luther King, as she relates in this video clip where he tells 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, looking for role models is also a good way to widen your horizons and challenging the status quo, whatever it might be. Dutkiewicz mentioned this in her talk and pointed to Admiral Grace Hopper who also wasn’t afraid to challenge 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 Hopper served as a goodwill ambassador in her later years, lecturing to many audiences and inspiring many women to enter tech fields.
Keep an open mind about your career. Dutkiewicz mentioned another aspect of challenging the status quo 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 spoke about the 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 also mentioned how 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.
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 them, 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 of the entrants is a teenaged programmer who has won $60,000 in two separate contests and who goes by the handle Pinkie Pie.
Finally, human growth is not a zero sum game: you need grow both intellectually and socially. Myers uses the example of the movie “The Social Network” where 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 calls the movie the “Citizen Kane of programming movies,” and urges coders to look at all aspects of their lives, both professional and personal. Good words to live by, to be sure.