Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

How I Evaluate Junior Devs with (Hopefully) Less Gender Bias

I was talking to a VC recently, who asked me a question that I thought came from a very sincere place and worth sharing. She was obviously super-intelligent, and we’d pursued similar social science majors at similarly ranked universities. Yet she had struggled in her programming classes in school, which entirely dissuaded her from a future as a professional software engineer. So she wanted to know: could I qualify what makes someone without a CS degree a good candidate to become a coder?

Especially at a time when companies are less willing to hire “risky” junior candidates, and when that opportunity can make such a huge difference in people’s lives… how can I find the fairest way to decide who is going to maximize his or her shot? I should mention that my first cut is always going to be looking for a kind and helpful person because I’m paying things forward and I want to help others who will too.

I actually have a pretty crisp theory about this, based on having given many interns and junior devs that all-important first opportunity, and it boils down to two factors:

  1. You have to enjoy making things with your own hands
  2. You have to respond well to a very short reward cycle

Whenever I interview a candidate, especially one for an internship or a junior position, first off I ask them whether they have any hobbies involving making things with their own hands. I don’t care much what the medium is: you can be a BBQ pitmaster, fix up cars or bicycles, knit or sew, carve or weld sculpture, play a musical instrument, brew beer or bake bread, run AV in a theater or for a band. My only requirement is that it has to be MANUAL intelligence — with your hands, not your voice or your athleticism or your ability to organize political campaigns (although I’d be open to hearing an argument about any of these).

I would also be the first to admit there are certain realms of skill that I’m not in a good position to judge, primarily ones involving manual skill AND digital media such as playing video games, DJ-ing, or drone racing. I’ve heard a lot of arguments about how “boring” games like Minecraft or WoW attract makers, while shooting and driving games yield the presumable opposite, adrenaline junkies — but some of the best devs I’ve worked with have been great at first-person shooters, so all I know is that I don’t know.

I have a theory about why the manual hobbies are so important. A while ago I met a female entrepreneur who had been trained as a mechanical engineer, but who traced her entire journey as a maker to a crude wooden doll she’d made as a small girl. The whole point of being a maker of any kind is that you suck at first because you don’t have any technique and there’s a big gap between what you imagine and what you can produce. In our extremely commercialized culture, most people give up when they see this gap — because it’s easier to just save up the money to buy a perfect doll than to make a little stick figure that people might laugh at. It’s only the people who can get over this gap, who can focus on learning more technique and getting better instead of being frustrated and embarrassed at what they can’t do, who are going to be good software engineers. And to be clear, this challenge is probably harder for extremely intelligent, perfectionistic overachievers like so many women I’ve met.

The short reward cycle factor is also part of my emphasis on “getting better” rather than “being perfect”. As a professional software developer, my happiest days are the ones where I make a tiny change and then rebuild and test — hundreds of times a day. There are other levels to it — as a technical founder and team lead, I have had plenty of opportunity to look at big-picture product stuff as well technical design issues — but ironically you earn the right to do those things by being soothed rather than annoyed by a short edit-build-test cycle.

Again, I want to emphasize that the quality I’m looking for has nothing to do with intelligence or the capacity for hard work. It’s more that our educational system increasingly denigrates rote practice, when in fact a lot of software engineering is about making sure you’re naming and formatting your variables correctly everywhere. In my experience software engineers who are mostly “big picture” thinkers almost always end up going into product management sooner rather than later — which is fine, but I personally want to spend my time training happy software engineers rather than frustrated product managers.

It’s easy to read a million think pieces about “fixed mindset vs growth mindset” but it can be hard to know exactly what real-life experiences and statements you’re looking for when interviewing a junior candidate without much professional experience. There’s also a considerable amount of unconscious bias and gendered “pattern-matching” that goes into who gets this important career step, in a way that’s almost always detrimental to women — e.g. “wrote bad video games in high school” is vastly preferred over “bakes great pies” even though they might demonstrate the exact same habits of mind. I’m looking for interns and junior devs who can successfully shake off boredom, perfectionism, and embarrassment in their zeal to keep improving, and for me that means I want to see a proven manual skill + ability to be happy with a short reward cycle. YMMV, and I’m happy to hear your theories!