I started teaching myself to code around age nine or 10, when I first had access to a computer. At the time, it felt like wizardry: This shiny new tool could let me conjure something into reality with the power of my words. Unfortunately, that initial high was quickly brought low. I found myself the only girl in my computer science class, and though I performed well (if I do say so myself), I was ignored while my male counterparts were praised. Ultimately, that lack of feedback — and the lack of access to role models who understood and embraced technology — led me to drop out of the classes altogether.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, in the wake of the tech boom and inspired by the desire to build something with impact, that I remembered my natural affinity for code and began to look for ways to rekindle it. It was then that I learned that my journey of squelched enthusiasm and disillusionment was not an uncommon one: Countless women like me had been discouraged from pursuing tech before finding their way back, and doubtless there were countless more who never returned at all.
When learning to code as an adult — especially as a woman, steeped in the idea that math and hard science will never be our forte — there is an inescapable undercurrent of fear that it may, in fact, be too late. There are people who’ve been coding their whole lives, who built their first video game when they were eight, who wrote their own languages in grade school. Without the additional edge provided by a lifetime of muscle memory, how could we compete? Whatever our reasons, we missed the boat. How hard would we have to paddle to catch up now?
At the time, I did what any other enterprising young adult would — I sought out resources to help me in the process. To my frustration, I found that those resources were few and far between in Toronto, and those that existed (largely online) didn’t support social, collaborative learning. This was the second roadblock on my journey into the programming world: For someone not yet integrated in the tech space (like so many of us at the time), it was very difficult to find a proper mentor, and it was impossible to find a mentor who looked like me.
What resources exist for us, the late-life code hopefuls? Of course, online resources are nondiscriminatory — Codecademy and a slew of MOOCs exist for anyone with an Internet connection — but in the early days of learning such a foreign way of thinking, intimacy is crucial. No number of online courses or books can take the place of direct human-to-human communication. Workshops and bootcamps exist in abundance but generally target the already-indoctrinated and are often male-dominated. In such spaces, women are minorities and (like any minority) are often called upon as spokespersons of their gender — our struggles are attributed to our gender rather than our inexperience. These environments make it very difficult to admit ignorance, which is, unfortunately, the requisite first step in learning a new skill.
This is why so many women (myself included) have founded coding nonprofits over the past 10 years: because it was unfathomable to us that someone else hadn’t already done so. For me and my cofounders, it was partly selfishly motivated — how could we learn to code without any resources available? Answer: Conjure those resources into existence! But as we moved forward in the process, we found out just how many women there were like us, women who tech education had passed over in their youth, who now needed individual, interpersonal mentoring to make up for lost time.
Today, resources like this are available all over the world, if you know where to look. Check out Meetup.com to find legions of groups of competent lady coders; Girls Who Code offers workshops and programs in five cities across the United States; Black Girls Code offers workshops and school programs to help women and people of color to learn languages like Scratch and Ruby; my own Ladies Learning Code provides small, intimate workshops for social, interpersonal learning. Even women who live in regions that lack these resources need not go without personal mentorship: The hack.pledge() movement leverages screensharing technology to offer individual, one-on-one pair programming online, so anyone with a Wi-Fi connection can access interpersonal mentorship.
I won’t say that mentorship alone is the answer to the industry’s inaccessibility — that would be an oversimplification at best. But I can say that, for those of you who feel you missed the boat, it’s not too late. With tenacity, time, and a Wi-Fi connection, even latecomers like me can find ourselves at home in the tech space.
Melissa Sariffodeen is a cofounder of Ladies Learning Code.