Encouraging the next generation of women coders
Observations as a second generation tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley
My dad came to the U.S. in the early 1970s for his graduate education (MIT masters and Berkeley PhD). Back in the day, the hottest engineering subject was not computer science, but structural engineering. Coding was done via punch cards using Fortran. My parents got married and my mom joined my dad in the Bay Area in the mid-1970s after completing her master’s at Oxford in solid state physics.
Then, they did something crazy.
In 1982, the year I was born, they both launched their own tech start-ups. As a child, I would accompany my mom to work. Her co-founders, all white men, would take turns holding me during meetings. As a child, I would spend many weekends at my mom’s office while she poured over major customer contracts, drawing on her white board, raiding her secretary’s jellybean jar, and messing around in the supplies cabinet. I would accompany her on business trips to Japan, where the Japanese businessmen at all the major semiconductor companies would pinch my cheeks and give me gifts of origami and Hello Kitty. As I got older, my dad would show me business plans of companies he was considering investing in via his new venture fund.
Growing up in this environment made it almost impossible NOT to have an appetite to learn about technology. My parents bought me my first computer, a Mac, when I was 11 years old. I was allowed to have it in my room and I decorated it with sparkly stickers. I played with it every chance I got. By age 13, I was taking computer programming summer classes at Stanford and local community colleges. Back then, the “cool” languages to learn were C, C++, Java, HTML, Unix, and Linux. I would go to Fry’s Electronics to buy motherboards and build computers from scratch. I had an internship at a tech startup every summer during high school. One summer I was focused on computer programming, the next summer I learned product marketing, the summer after that I learned web design.
Initially, I was bored by coding, but I did it to please my parents. As a typical teenage girl, I initially started to warm up to it when I developed a crush on an older boy who was obsessed with coding. But then it evolved into a genuine interest. I started by writing simple programs and moved on to more and more complex programs, even making my own “computer games.”
It also helped that I had several close family friends who were boys my age. We did many things together — coding, tae kwon do, and playing video games. Because my mom worked full-time, I would be left with my guy friends (whose moms worked part-time or were stay-at-home moms) after school. They first got me hooked on the original Nintendo. We would play Duck Hunt, Tetris and The Legend of Zelda. Then there was Super NES and Sega. We would also watch X-Men and collect Marvel playing cards. And let’s not forget awesome computer games. I loved Sim City, Warcraft, Doom, Quake, Myst, and Diablo.
By college, I had developed more of an interest in product marketing and continued to do summer internships in that area, and eventually I moved away from tech altogether after I discovered a passion for writing. Instead, I pursued journalism and then law. I finally came full circle when I went into tech law. As soon as I was back in tech, I felt completely at home, like it was in my blood. And now, I’m really, really deep into tech as a venture capitalist.
Although my parents eventually “made it,” I remember the many years that they struggled, financially and in terms of balancing time for work and life. I was always taught not to take anything for granted and that an education and financial independence, especially for girls, was paramount. My mother would quote her historian father and say, “Education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you.” It made such an impact on me that I made it the centerpiece of a second grade book report about someone I admired.
I acknowledge that I was uniquely positioned to excel in technology because I was surrounded by it growing up and I had amazing role models to foster my education. For me, technology is a core theme of my childhood.
Nevertheless, I believe there are many lessons that can be gleaned from my story in encouraging the next generation, particularly girls, to develop an interest in technology.
- If you are in tech, let your kids observe you at work. Kids are sponges and they learn so much by watching their parents in action. You can be a far more effective role model by teaching through actions, not words.
- Expose your kids to new experiences, like coding. But don’t force it.Instead, provide exposure to a variety of opportunities and experiences without putting pressure on kids to perform or commit.
- Encourage coding as a second language. The exposure to coding at a young age is enough to stick with you for a lifetime. It trained my brain to think logically. While I am now a rusty coder, when I am around engineers that use familiar words and terms, it all comes flooding back. This foundation also makes it easier for me to understand a new technology being pitched to me as a VC.
- Summer internships (in coding or otherwise) are invaluable. Kids not only learn new skills, but they learn work ethic, professionalism and responsibility. If youngsters are treated with respect in their internships, they develop a sense of pride in their work. When I was 14, I remember writing the product spec brochure for my mom’s startup one summer. I presented the brochure at their booth at Semicon West (a major semiconductor conference) and I was so proud of myself.
- Put kids in a diverse range of social situations to broaden their horizons. They will make friends with people of different backgrounds and be exposed to a wider variety of hobbies and interests. I may never have developed an interest in coding or gaming had I not spent my after school hours with a group of boys who were interested in those areas.
- Make coding fun. Find ways to integrate coding into play dates, slumber parties, and even dances. Hey, whatever works! We can make so much progress if we just get a little creative.
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