On the techbro and Google

At some point when I was doing my Masters, someone leaned on me to apply for an internship with Google. Going to be honest and say I thought it was ambitious for some practical reasons – they were looking for people to work in SRE and I have zero interest in that any more, and I was interested in data analytics and machine learning. They interviewed me; it went badly, they said no. I wasn’t surprised because deep down I knew they weren’t offering internships in an area which interested me in the location they were interviewing for, and what they did want, I really wasn’t. I think I got leaned on to apply by the Googler who leaned on me because I was female. But I don’t know for sure and never well. Either way, we weren’t a fit at that point and the way my life has gone since, we probably continue to diverge in interest. I use some of their products and form part of their product and that’s about it.

They were in a no-win situation in the news lately though following a 10 page essay, piece, whatever you like to call it in which a person who will never need to benefit from it cribbed a bit about the Google diversity programmes and trainings. Specifically, he seemed to argue that there was somewhat of a biological reason for which women didn’t seem to make it in companies like Google. It got me thinking, not about the fact that Google didn’t want me, but what it was like to be in tech, listening to these arguments going on. Sure there is a chronic lack of women in tech compared to men, but against that, there seems to be – in the US in particular – a high quotient of assholes working there – in the technology sector, I mean. I am not targeting Google with that comment specifically. I’m not sure the two points are unrelated.

I started working in the IT sector when I was 27 years old. IT is not a vocation, you don’t have to be born to it, and you can learn it later in in life if you want to. But it is not a vocation. This piece seems to me to elude a lot of people talking about tech and in particular, it comes to the fore when people are talking about the pipeline.

You can learn to do pretty much any job in IT if you want.

IME you don’t even have to be a maths genius. I programmed in assembly language for over 10 years. I was sysprog for a mainframe. When I was 13 years old I learned Atari BASIC. I’ve taught myself Python to some extent and have coded in R, Java and I’ve done a year of SQL dev as well.

But despite the Atari BASIC at the age of 13, I wasn’t a tech nerd all the way through school. I could solve problems (I copped how to duplicate computer games on cassettes by realising a twin deck tape recorder could do it when every one around me was messing around with computer tape decks and trying to save stuff from RAM having swapped cassettes). Mostly as a teenager though, for me, the world was music. I played three musical instruments, I sang choir, and I did dancing lessons.

I did not hide in a room doing computery stuff. When I was 14, I decided I wanted to live in France and figured knowing French would be handy. From then on, my primary motivation was foreign languages. I did my first degree and first postgrad in languages. I’m a qualified translator interpreter.

In my view given a choice between learning to program and learning to speak a foreign language the amount of work in acquiring the foreign language far outstrips any effort involved in getting functional as a programmer. But for the most part, computer programming and related tasks pays more.

When I was doing my machine learning masters, I was sitting in class one day when a fourth year undergrad told me he wanted some advice. He was about 20 years younger than me and he was thinking of doing the same Masters as I was. There was a significant amount of overlap between the modules and I basically told him he’d be wasting his time but fine if that was what he wanted. The conversation moved to the fact that as far as he was concerned, women didn’t like working hard. Did I not notice how few girls were in the classes?

I’m female and I am 20 years older than this guy plus I’ve just told him I worked in system support as a programmer for more than 10 years. Sure there are few girls in the class, although being honest, it’s not as bad as I expected, half the classes were foreign intake – in my year, primarily China – and all told, I didn’t think he was in the place for generalisations.

“Girls” he told me, “did not like work. They really only came to university to find husbands, princesses all of them”.

There were, at the time, plenty of women in the science faculty, not just doing other bits of compsci, but doing assorted natural sciences stuff and biotechnology. TBH, I’ve never done a full engineering degree or done a chemistry degree, but what I do remember is that the people who did – many of which were female – worked harder than frankly, I’d seen any of the compsci students do. Including this guy, who was, after all, looking for a way to avoid getting into the work force by redoing quite ¬†abit of his fourth year and then writing a dissertation to get a masters. I thought his attitude stank.

The biggest work soak of my Masters actually wasn’t a compsci module. I did two stats modules with the maths people – time series analysis and multivariate analysis. Those courses were harder work than anything else I did in UCD. Those classes were about 50:50 women/men. I don’t think it was the lack of interest in work which was the problem, somehow.

The thing is, I worked with a bunch of IT heads in a specialised business, and to be honest, for the most part, my experience is that the men I worked with then were not bastards. But quite a few of them were like me and did not come from a compsci background. I know at least one person had a history degree, one was a languages dude like me although with a different set of languages, and at least one had a background in psychology or sociology, One started off life as an electrician, and I know a couple who went in with school leaving certs as their qualification. Trained by various employers. There was a time you could do that.

When I was in school, we did not have a computer module – it was the mid 1980s when home computers were really only getting there. I had a maths teacher who…was interested in application of maths and a couple of times, he took us off syllabus and spent a week doing some basic macro economics, and he spent a week teaching us BASIC as well without the benefit of anything so much as to run code on. I tended to have a go off it when I could get my brother off the computer.

I went to an all girls school and by the time I got to the age of 16, a key objective of my maths teacher was to retain as many girls in the higher level maths class as he could. He argued massively with any girl who made known a wish to go back to what was called Pass Maths (the syllabus calls it Ordinary Level Maths) from his honours class because they felt they were not up to it. In his opinion, anyone who had made it through the higher level course at junior level was capable of the higher level course at senior level. It was very often a losing battle for him. When we eventually finished up, I think the class had 7 people in it. Out of a cohort of over 60. The school itself, while having some good maths teaching did not necessarily push young women in that direction – my class had a cohort of secretaries and legal secretaries and a few nurses. The higher level physics class was even smaller than the higher level maths class, although for some reason, the higher level chemistry class was bigger. It may have been considered useful for nursing, along with biology.

One thing the maths teacher discussed with us one day, probably after another one of us had stepped back into the ordinary level class. He told us that in general, the boys’ school had bigger higher level maths classes but even so, there were times when the girls – what few of them he got to teach – did better than the best of the boys.

This is probably linked to the benefit of an extremely low teacher pupil ratio, plus the fact that he scheduled extra classes for us every chance he got. On average, in Ireland at the moment, more boys than girls take higher level maths although to be honest, the difference isn’t massive – it is in or around the 10-15% fewer girls mark. This is seriously different to the split on higher level languages where girls far outstrip boys for most languages bar Irish and English. The statistics can be found here.

What does all this have to do with Google Boy and his essay about innate differences? Well women tend to do well in most STEM subjects even the ones who go into computer science, the few of them. So he can write all the essays he likes but..frankly, his points are probably only relevant at the extreme end of the spectrum of the need for brilliance – a location occupied by Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton amongst others. In the early days of computer science, most software was written by women because it was considered beneath the men who were involved in hardware engineering. The position of women in software engineering has changed over time which suggests it’s less the question of innate skill and more a cultural matter.

The other thing is this: the technology industry at the moment is not really in a great place. It has massive security problems, an issue which is going to get worse and worse as we bring more devices online via the internet of things (for example), and as cyberwarfare becomes more of a front than it already is. One of the things I despise more than anything in software engineering is the whole release early and often ethos. You don’t get away with this in certain areas and yet it probably has contributed to a significant amount of the risk run by individuals and companies with respect to their technology assets. The culture is also such that while there are a large number of systems around running old code, the simple fact is that technical debt is more of an issue for more recent systems than it is for the mainframe so called dinosaurs with inbuilt backwards compatibility and a rather different ethos about release early and often (are you stark raving made?).

There is a desperate lack of women in technology. I wonder really how much of it is being culturally driven in a different direction and how much of it is realising that you’d have to work with a bunch of guys like the guys in Uber as a useful example. There are a lot of very bright women around the place. The technology industry is probably missing out. Instead of trying to make excuses for why it is missing out, and in addition to its diversity programmes and efforts to advertise itself to women, I think a period of self reflection in terms of the kind of organisation that seems to float to high profileness in the tech sector might be in order. If one thing is obvious from this debacle, it is that at no point do any of those busily suggesting that it’s alright that there aren’t that many women, or minorities in general in their sector consider that maybe their behaviour contributes to it.