A modest proposal

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part essay by Joyce Park. Here’s her first piece, which drew quite a few comments).

I’m not much on speculating about social problems, but if I were forced into diagnostic mode about the lack of self-taught female software engineers, I’d probably put the following rationales at the top of my list (in no particular order):

* Almost all of the male engineers I know report childhood experience “playing” with computers. I also had this experience, as did most of the female engineers I know; but non-engineer women seem far less likely to have done so.
* If Programming 101 classes started with social software rather than math problems and competitive games, more women might discover an unexpected interest.
* Women seem to be disproportionately attracted to careers where they feel they can help others — for instance medicine (which of course requires rigorous, highly competitive scientific training) — rather than careers that promise high pay or entrepreneurial possibility.
* Male self-taught engineers often begin working with computers as a hobby — for instance, legions of Open Source devotees (including
myself) began this way. Women seem less inclined to learn programming just for fun, and more likely to see it as simply a job (to be fair, many self-taught male engineers also seem to primarily see their work as a job rather than a personal passion).
* Women often seem to gain self-confidence by pursuing institutional affiliations, credentials, and clear career goals — rather than simply pushing forward as “lone wolves” driven by individual curiosity.

Let’s review my argument so far. I surmise that both individual women and Silicon Valley itself are suffering from the opportunity costs imposed by lack of sufficient numbers of female engineers. Instead of taking a long-term education-centered approach, I have focused on the phenomenon of engineers without computer science degrees who manage to retrain themselves as software professionals — an area where there is still a significant gender gap, but one in which remediation might perhaps be relatively cheap and fast. My observations for the reasons behind the self-taught engineer gender gap lead me to conclude that individual women are not taking advantage of the opportunities available to them to retrain themselves through self-study of programming and possibly participation in the Open Source movement. For whatever reasons — and they are probably far more complex and multivariate than I could possibly touch on here — women are not self-training themselves as software professionals at nearly the rate of men.

Faced with this unpalatable conclusion, we can choose to blame the individuals; we can choose to put our faith in long-term efforts; or we can choose to treat the symptom without necessarily fixing the root causes. By “treating the symptom”, I mean we should simply attempt to help as many women as possible become paid professional members of engineering teams. I believe that the best way to accomplish this goal is for the denizens of Silicon Valley to start a small school or certification program. It would not be a degree-granting program, but something closer in spirit to one of those post-baccalaureate programs for aspiring medical students who did not choose a pre-med major.

The candidates would ideally receive a combination of classroom tuition focused on new technologies not yet taught well in universities — currently that might include Web, mobile, and IM — plus on-the-job training for which they would be paid as an intern by the hosting company. At the end of a year, the student would receive a certificate showing demonstrated competence in one of the engineering subfields, and with a modicum of job placement assistance she would be ready to take her place as a junior engineer. She would be able to rise or fall to the level of her own competence from there.

When I first articulated this goal, I was surprised to find that even extremely liberal male friends of mine — not to mention the libertarian ones — were surprisingly vehement in their opposition. Their objections seemed to fall into two major categories: whether it was somehow discriminatory to help women rather than qualified candidates of both genders; and whether a program such as I describe would result in a flood of underqualified, mediocre female engineers who (not to put too fine a point on it) don’t really give a rat’s ass about the craft of wrangling code. One friend practically spit in disgust as he accused women of “expecting their hands held” in ways that men evidently do not. Another accused me of promoting affirmative action, a concept that I generally do not approve of.

I have really struggled with these objections, because as an individual I don’t necessarily disagree with them at a philosophical level. But…
those are pretty abstract principles of fairness to hold up against the realities of business and life. Every week I hear from hiring managers who say that they would love to get more female engineers. Every week I also hear from awe-inspiringly intelligent, motivated, practical women who want jobs — or better jobs — but need help. Sometimes all they really need is a critique of their resume, or an introduction inside a particular company. But sometimes they need someone to see them for the valuable engineer they could be, and say, “You’re so good at analyzing this type of problem and finding a solution… have you ever considered a career as a [QA engineer | release engineer | sysadmin | metrics analyst | DBA | webdev | etc.]? I will train you.” I enjoy helping out as much as I can personally, but we would get economies of scale if all the interested parties of Silicon Valley could combine our efforts and institutionalize the method by which women without CS degrees could be turned into contributing members of engineering teams.

I believe we already have all the resources available in Silicon Valley to create valuable female junior engineers within one year of hard work. We have unmatched knowledge, money, jobs, connections, organizations, and motivation. What we lack is a single institution to give focus to all these efforts. It both inspires and irks me that East Coast entrepreneurs have already pioneered the post-baccalaureate internship plus classroom instruction program in technology startups; but that program doesn’t seem to be intended to solve problems on the level of the gender balance in technology. I think Silicon Valley can and should go one better by establishing a post-baccalaureate program specifically designed to create female engineers in significant numbers.

<a href="

http://joelonsoftware.com/articles/FogCreekMBA.html

“>post-baccalaureate
internship plus classroom instruction program in technology startups; but that program doesn’t seem to be intended to solve problems on the level of the gender balance in technology. I think Silicon Valley can and should go one better by establishing a post-baccalaureate program specifically designed to create female engineers in significant numbers.

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