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The questions I am often asked about my career tend to concentrate not on how one learns to code but how a woman does.
Let me separate the two words and begin with what it means to become a programmer.
The first requirement for programming is a passion for the work, a deep need to probe the mysterious space between human thoughts and what a machine can understand; between human desires and how machines might satisfy them.
The second requirement is a high tolerance for failure. Programming is the art of algorithm design and the craft of debugging errant code.
Now to the “woman” question.
I broke into the ranks of computing in the early 1980s, when women were just starting to poke their shoulder pads through crowds of men. There was no legal protection against “hostile environments for women.” I endured a client — a sweaty man with pendulous earlobes — who stroked my back as I worked to fix his system. At any moment I expected him to snap my bra. I considered installing a small software bomb but understood, right then, what was more important to me than revenge: the desire to create good systems.
I had a boss who said flatly, “I hate to hire all you girls but you’re too damned smart.” By “all” he meant three but, at the time, it was rare to find even one woman in a well-placed technical position. At a meeting, he kept interrupting me to say, “Gee, you sure have pretty hair.” By then I realized he was teaching me a great deal about computing. It would be a complicated professional relationship, in which his occasional need for male dominance would surface.
So, on that day of my pretty hair, I leaned to one side and said, “I’m just going to let that nonsense fly over my shoulder.” The meeting went on. We discussed the principles of relational databases, which later led me to explore deeper reaches of programming, closer to operating systems and networks, where I would find my real passion for the work. My leaning to one side, not confronting him, letting him be the flawed man he was, changed the direction of my technical life.
Pioneering software engineer Ellen Ullman, author of the fascinating Close to the Machine, on how to be a ‘woman programmer.’ Also see the letters of the women who helmed the tectonic cultural shift of the era Ullman describes.explore-blog)
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1. Associative orientation: Imaginative, playful, have a wealth of ideas, ability to be committed, sliding transitions between fact and fiction.
2. Need for originality: Resists rules and conventions. Have a rebellious attitude because of a need to do things no one else does.
3. Motivation: Have a need to perform, goal oriented, innovative attitude, stamina to tackle difficult issues.
4. Ambition: Have a need to be influential, attract attention and recognition.
5. Flexibility: Have the ability to see different aspects of issues and come up with optimal solutions.
6. Low emotional stability: Have a tendency to experience negative emotions, greater fluctuations in moods and emotional state, failing self-confidence.
7. Low sociability: Have a tendency not to be very considerate, are obstinate and find faults and flaws in ideas and people.
Norwegian researchers find the 7 characteristics of highly creative people. Pair with John Cleese on 5 factors to make your life more creative and Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work.
Particularly interesting and counter-intuitive is #6 – but then again, we do know that emotional excess is essential to creativity.
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What you read is important, but not all important. How you read is the main consideration. For if you know how to read, there’s a world of education even in the newspapers, the magazines, on a single billboard or a stray advertising dodger.
Th secret of good reading is this: read critically!
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