Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

I Thought I Wasn’t the “Programmer Type”

I thought I wasn’t the “programmer type”

Why I took so long to start doing what I loved.

For years, the prospect of programming for a living frightened me. While some people stay away from the field due to insecurities about their abilities, that wasn’t the case for me. I had studied Computer Science in school, and graduated with the highest GPA in my class. Understanding algorithms came naturally to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed solving tough technical problems and frequently lost track of time when coding. I knew that I had the raw ingredients of a good programmer in me, but I thought that I wasn’t the “programmer type”. My mental image of a good software engineer was someone who contributes to open-source projects, plays a lot of video games, keeps up with all the latest tech news, and goes to enough conferences and hackathons to make a full wardrobe from all the swag. When I graduated from university, I didn’t do any of these things. While I loved programming, I had so many other interests that I didn’t have any time to do side projects. I enjoyed sleep too much to find all-night hackathons appealing, and sucked too much at hand-eye coordination to get into gaming.

I was often mistaken for a business major. And every time someone said “you studied computing?”, it further drove home the idea that I wasn’t the technical type. Sometimes I’d pause to ask someone why they were surprised, and they’d say something along the lines of “but you’re so social!” or “you don’t look geeky at all!” — hoping that I would view it as a compliment. Other times, people weren’t so diplomatic. A peer whose technical abilities I highly respected flat out told me, “Lauren, you are not technical”.

I thought I wouldn’t fit in as a programmer. And that even if I had managed to wedge my way into a tech company after not doing any internships during undergrad, I wouldn’t find like-minded people and I would be unhappy. Just like an athlete that retires right after an Olympic medal, I wanted to quit programming after a successful academic run before a professional career could taint my impressions.

After graduation, I co-founded a company (Boxit) that was much more about logistics than technology. My co-founder Michael did the technical heavy-lifting and I helped with some simple front-end features. Several times, I resolved to take on more of the coding, but kept finding my refuge in sales calls and pitch decks. It wasn’t until Michael left the company that I looked at our back-end code for the first time and became the technical lead out of necessity. During this time, a well-meaning friend gave me some advice for managing technical employees. He told me that there’s a programmer subculture, and that in order to relate to them I needed to immerse myself in more of this subculture by picking up habits like reading Hacker News. Once again, my impression that I wasn’t a “real” programmer was reinforced.

After Boxit, I joined the wearable tech company Nymi as an engineer, but quickly volunteered to do customer research instead, and then transitioned to product management at the 3-month mark. It seemed like programming was always lurking in the sidelines of my life and trying to lure me in, but I kept turning away and picking the non-technical path whenever I was at a fork in the road. I felt that since I didn’t fit the programmer mold, people would question my technical abilities, which would ultimately hinder my success. I didn’t want to start a career path already one step behind. Non-technical roles seemed so much more approachable.

I knew I wasn’t being true to myself when a friend asked what I would do if I could freeze time. It wasn’t even a second before I answered, “I’d become a better programmer”. My answer surprised even myself.

Finally, I took the plunge and moved to New York to do a 3-month programming retreat called the Recurse Center (RC). RC is a self-directed and peer-based educational experience for programmers that want to sharpen their skills. The community is made up of people of all races, gender expressions, sexual orientations, ages, and experience levels. For the first time, it sank in for me that anybody can be a good programmer. Literally anybody. There is absolutely no correlation between a person’s technical prowess and how they looked and acted.

If you are reading this and fear that you are not ____ enough for engineering or another profession, I encourage you to make the leap. Don’t discount yourself because you don’t see anybody like you doing the role. The world is big enough that you can probably find your tribe in the industry. And if you can’t, then you can be a trailblazer and make it possible for others to follow you. There will be bumps in the road, but doing what you love is worth the fight.

I now work full time as a software engineer. Even though I still occasionally get mistaken for a non-engineer, I no longer interpret it as a signal that I don’t belong. I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Every day, I get to do work that intrinsically motivates me. (One of my coworkers makes fun of me for smiling while coding.)

Years after convincing myself that I’m not technical, I’ve joined the Firebase team at Google, wrote an essay on REST that had more than 35,000 views, and gave a presentation at Google I/O that was rated 5/5 by attendees. I guess I am the “programmer type” after all. Maybe you are too.