The LadyCoders Controversy

LadyCoders is a project that wants to help women learn the interviewing skills needed to get hired into tech jobs. Changing the ratio of men to women in the tech community is something I’m very passionate about, particularly since the rise of the “brogrammer.” So when I saw this project, I quickly became an early backer. Nothing for anyone to get upset about, right? It sounded like an altogether good project.

However, just as they were reaching the fundraising goal on their Kickstarter project, they became the subject of a DDOS attack and an enflamed debate on Twitter and the blogosphere, with writers both for and against:

Am I nuts, or is bowing to capitalism in order to gain financial independence becoming the ultimate scapegoat for compromising on feminist goals?

http://marginaldialogue.blogspot.com/2012/08/is-financial-independence-ultimate.html

It’s been a long time since I could pretend to be an intellectual. I attended a state university, I don’t have any advanced degrees, and it’s been years since I’ve picked up anything by Deleuze or Foucault. I don’t keep up on the current readings of feminism. So when I read posts basing judgment on this project couched in feminist theory, I feel like the Phil Hartman character “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer”:

Ladies and gentleman, I’m just a caveman. I fell on some ice and was later thawed by some of your scientists. Your world frightens and confuses me…

Do feminist goals really have no room for getting women into jobs they want? Feminism and capitalism are apparently antithetical to each other? Maybe I don’t understand feminist goals. It doesn’t sound to me like we’re even talking about the same thing. I don’t know, I’m a caveman. That’s the way I think.

The problem with tech interviews

But there is one thing that I do know: the way people currently perform software interviews is stupid. The standard tech interview, popularized by Microsoft and adopted into pretty much every tech company out there, is algorithm-heavy and accomplishment-light. It was created in a world before GitHub accounts and mobile apps, before AWS or Heroku or any of the myriad of ways you can create something to show the world.

 The fundamental problem is that the skills required to pass today’s industry-standard software interview are not the skills required to be a good software developer. Oh, there’s some correlation, but it’s like the Oakland Raiders always drafting the fastest runners available, only to discover to their endless dismay that the NFL is not a foot race.

– Jon Evans, “Why The New Guy Can’t Code”

Interviews require both men and women to conform to the interviewer’s expectations. Interviews, in particular tech interviews, force the interviewer to pigeonhole the interviewee based on a very limited set of input, and inevitably the pigeonholes are subconsciously created by the interviewer. Given the current ratio of men to women in programming, that box is most likely to be created by a male interviewer.

It’s possible to be a great developer and a bad interviewee. I think I’m a pretty good developer, but I know I’m a horrible interviewee. I’ve barely squeaked by some interview loops, and when I left those jobs the same team who thought I might not have what it takes pleaded with me to stay on board.  I’ve failed at many interview loops, but I’ve never in my life had to leave a job against my own will or desire.

(As an aside, let’s not forget that it takes two: there can be bad interviewers just as there can be bad interviewees. There’s a lot less pressure on the interviewer side to come to a “correct” judgement.)

What we’re up against

Let’s face it: the ratio of women to men in computer science, entrepreneurship and STEM education is abysmal. Theory aside, it’s going to take more than blog posts and Twitter fights to solve this problem. The tech industry needs to change, but it’s not going to change instantly. It will take time for the broken interview system to be fixed, but in the mean time we can help more women get into jobs they want. I just don’t think that automatically means conforming to a broken system. Maybe I’m naïve; maybe I’m just a caveman. But I think it is possible to “conform” enough to pass an interview while not succumbing to groupthink: it just takes the required skills.

That’s why I’m still proud to be a supporter of LadyCoders. I also have my own nascent project to help inspire more women and minorities get into tech as a career. Because writing blog posts and Twitter comments is easy; creating change is hard. And I prefer to be a part of the change.

Update

I generally don’t care for being part of Internet debates, in general there’s more vitriol than legitimate conversation, particularly where Twitter controversies are concerned. However, posts like Trimentation’s addition to the LadyCoders conversation create reasons for optimism. Please go read it. It describes the “problematic” sections of the LadyCoders curriculum in ways that are understandable in terms of gender discrimination that my caveman brain can understand.

In any debate, it’s always worthwhile to remember (or remind people) that everyone shares the same goals. Everyone knows the statistics, and I believe everyone has the same end goal (roughly) in mind. We’re not talking about strategy or outcome, we’re talking tactics and bullet points. The LadyCoders are smart enough to take constructive input and adapt or change their curriculum; women are smart enough to know that there are multiple ways of accomplishing the same goal. More knowledge and more tools in one’s tool belt, I believe, can never be a bad thing.

Ultimately I’m glad for taking part in this conversation: there’s a lot more for me to read and learn from, and hopefully become less of a caveman.

About

I like wearing different hats. Follow me on Twitter. Connect with me on Google+