Playing with Negative Space
3Jan/14Off

I’ve been programming since I was 10, but I don’t feel like a “hacker”

When I was 10, I was programming in Logo after being introduced to it in my school's required computer class. Our teacher did not once call this programming; it was just another project among ones that usually weren't programming. I generalized almost every exercise—something that most of my classmates weren't interested in doing, and also something that can be tricky, but useful, when writing software. Instead of a teacher pointing out that I handled the assigned non-generalized exercise well, I was criticized for playing around with generalization because it was "harder to grade". Meanwhile, male classmates who wrote very similar code to my non-generalized versions were praised for their work. This was the only programming opportunity I was made aware of for the next few years, despite telling my teacher I wanted to do more things like writing in Logo. I also tried to search online for related things to do, but since I didn't know the term "programming", searching the internet circa 1999 to 2003 didn't yield much.

My second introduction to programming happened when I turned 13. Like many other teenagers, I started a blog. Even back then, blogs had some amount of a social aspect, so I ran across other blogs frequently. I fell in love with some of their designs and discovered that you could highly customize a blog's look and feel. Customization ended up being far more exciting to me than actually writing posts, and I got really into it: I learned a lot about HTML and CSS markup, then expanded my knowledge to PHP so I could write a dynamic content site that served me well. At the time, I was unaware that this was another form of programming. Forums didn't tend to refer to these skills as web programming—it was simply the task of "creating a website".

I came across my third programming opportunity at 16. Some of my high school's student advisers asked a friend and me to develop an internal registration system because we had strong math and logic backgrounds. They called this a "programming project": it was the first time something I had worked on was referred to as "programming". Despite my shouldering a significant amount of work, he got almost all of the praise. This lack of recognition was discouraging and made me feel like programming was not something people thought I could pursue. Not everything in my life was like this, however: I felt very encouraged by my mathematics and economics teachers to pursue my dreams in those fields, so that's what I initially went to college to study.

The end of my freshman year in college was the first time that anyone reacted to my interest in programming—or, as far as I could see, to anyone's interest—with something other than indifference or discouragement. I slowly realized that the negativity surrounding my previous experiences wasn't because the world was apathetic about programming; the cause was people's unease towards working with an interested young woman. This newfound constructive environment got me really fired up about the subject, and I changed my majors from math and economics to math and computer science. I finally found out about how programming was a part of a broad field known as "computer science and software engineering", a respected field full of awesome people and interesting problems. This turned out to be a fantastic decision for me, and I am eternally grateful for the friends (all male) who encouraged me to do so.

I found out a few months after graduating college that I'd secretly been hacking since I was 10. I don't mention this to many people, in part because it doesn't occur to me to do so. In fact, it was only after finishing the first draft of this post that I remembered that writing assembly on the TI-83+ in high school also counts. It was certainly valuable experience, but I guess this is is a sign that I don't tend to think of these experiences as though they were "hacking". My friends call me a "hacker", and I begrudgingly agree, but I still don't feel proud of those experiences or reflect positively on them. I feel awkward writing about them.

It also turns out that I had more opportunities than many women who were of similar age at the time, and my experiences were not positive ones, but ones that made me feel discouraged. Many women who grew up when I did were never aware that programming and "hacking" were things that they, or their male counterparts, could do. It was a field that was completely invisible to them—even as one of the lucky ones who stumbled upon opportunities early on, I still perceived the field as exclusionary at worst and invisible at best. I am not going to claim that the perceived invisibility is unique to women—for example, I grew up just outside of Chicago where there were people with software engineering jobs, but in rural areas, the field is far less represented. Still, I imagine that this is unfortunately more common among women due to the ongoing sexism surrounding the field and the effects that this has on young, impressionable women. Despite how invisible the field was to many people I know, a good number of these people, both male and female, have grown to be software engineers I respect immensely, even though they were not the "hackers" that got an early start.

Every so often, I think that the invisibility of software engineering and the sexism within the field have virtually gone away—or at least that they are going away. It certainly has in many places I frequent these days: I live in New York City, I've opted out of the SF/Silicon Valley startup scene for the time being, and I have found equal footing by being a software engineer and data scientist at a high-frequency trading company. But sadly, these problems haven't gone away. One such reminder of the gender gap is pointed out in Paul Graham's interview with The Information:

God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. [...] We can't make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven't been hacking for the past 10 years.

I don't think he deserved the flaming that he received for this statement—his statement is true. Women often haven't been "hacking for the past 10 years". The same thing can be said about a lot of male software engineers. I admit that some women and arguably more men were lucky and had the opportunities to start becoming a "hacker" early on. I am among those lucky women, but I didn't know it at the time. Now, I know it, but it's surrounded by mixed feelings. I personally feel qualified to take on the title of "hacker" because of my early in life and broad experiences with programming, but simultaneously feel that I'll never truly be one because I don't fit the stereotype and am okay with that: I wear dresses and heels instead of hoodies and sneakers, I keep a regular sleep schedule, and most of all, I'm not male. I feel like I might be earning extra respect because of my extra years of experience, but I find that advantage extremely unfair to the many spectacular "non-hacker" software engineers out there. Actually, I might not even be getting that advantage—I didn't notice I was a "hacker" for so long, so why would anyone else see it? I have to wonder how many other women who've been programming for the past 10 years also were, or still are, unable to notice it.

It's important to understand that the underrepresentation of women among "hackers" doesn't mean women had the option to become them but were uninterested. The issues of invisibility and sexism illustrated above have systematically been leaving women behind or even pushing them out of the pool. I don't have all the answers about how to "get 13 year old girls interested in computers", but I know that it has to start with the field becoming visible to them. The issues surrounding women who did not have these opportunities at a young age compound on top of the issues that I mentioned the woman "hacker" faces. In addition to being unable to self-identify with the "hacker" stereotype, starting to write code at a later age necessitates working twice as hard to "catch up" to the "hacker". Actually, doubling up on the work is becoming increasingly necessary not just to compete with the "hacker", but also to succeed at all as a software engineer. Many women, and "non-hacker" men, really spend the time needed to catch up: an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, some of these hard-working "latecomers" face imposter syndrome in the face of the desirable "hacker" stereotype—we simply haven't figured out time travel yet, so they still feel powerless compared to the stereotype.

The prevalence of the "hacker" stereotype hurts those who don't identify with it, such as women; in turn, this hurts everyone. "Hacker" doesn't equate to the best software engineer, the best founder, or much of anything other than having benefited from a longer period of time to gain experience—extra time that may or may not have been used effectively to gain additional knowledge. But that's not the really disappointing part: it's the alienating connotations the term carries. Those who haven't been given the title of "hacker" are often ignored or pull themselves out of the competitive pool because it's a term they can never earn as the time frame for doing so has passed. This rejection might even discourage bright minds from seeking to start an equivalent "hacker" training at a time some might call years too late. Wouldn't it be better for everyone if the people from all backgrounds were given the opportunity to succeed on merit and grow without overcoming unnecessary hurdles instead of focusing all our energy on the exclusionary "hacker" stereotype?