Confusion of An Old Technologist

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As someone who still actively pursues a career in technology, I’m a little on the older side. I got started in tech when a lot of the people I know were still in elementary school. So please understand that when I write the rest of this little… rant.

I read the blog post by Susan J. Fowler the day it was posted. I’m not sure where I found it. It’s been running around and around in my head ever since, so I’m finally going to write a couple of posts on this.

Let’s Start With Age

There’s at least an implication that with age comes wisdom. Well, I’m living proof that’s total BS. However, I will agree that with age comes perspective.

The modern age has its problems. I’ve had this discussion with my kids. They grew up with many, maybe even most, of their peers having cell phones and being hooked into the “glories” of social media from a young age. My daughter had a “friend” hack into an online doll’s account and give away all the furniture & stuff my daughter had won & purchased playing whatever the heck game it was. Devastating stuff for a young girl. My son got into a few online fights with people who promptly outed the fight bringing in everyone to gang up on him. Tough stuff.

However, remember that perspective thing?

I grew up in Tulsa, OK in the 60s & 70s, a lot of it in the poorer parts of town. I never had online fights or hacks to worry about. However, I did get into fights on the school ground. I’ve come home bloody with a broken nose (more than once). From a perspective stand point, I’ll take the loss of self-esteem over the loss of blood (and self-esteem, you think there wasn’t ALSO name calling and ridicule when you got your bottom thoroughly womped?).

My kids also got into trouble at school a couple of times. Nothing huge. They aren’t criminals or monsters. They’re just human kids and they screwed up a couple of times. We had to go in and have talks with their teachers and in one case a talk with the vice-principal.

Perspective.

I was a pretty good kid in school. However, a couple of times, like my kids, I got in trouble. Heck, one of them, for real, I didn’t do it. That said, when I got in trouble, I actually got spanked, with a big board, that flipping well hurt. The school could actually beat children back then.

Yeah, yeah, and you walked to school through six feet of snow, up hill, both ways.

Not my point (and it was Oklahoma, no snow and very damned few hills, so there).

It Was A Better Time

And no, I don’t mean getting punched and beaten at school. I mean that the participation rate of women in technology was a lot higher. Don’t believe me? I’m sure there are better stats out there, but here are a some. Some other good numbers here (although they’re poorly sourced around participation rates, which is a shame).

When I started out in IT, there were approximately 35% of the jobs held by women. The person responsible for getting me started in IT was a woman who had actually worked with Grace Hopper. The person who hired me at my first full-time gig in IT, another woman. She also mentored me through my move from support to development. My first three bosses as a developer, women. I don’t think I had a full-time male boss until I had been in IT for 10 years. Many of my peers were women. I was just used to working with, for, and around women. It’s how things were done.

My Confusion

My confusion is, times were absolutely rougher when I was younger. They were. We were ruder and cruder when I was younger. Yet, there were more women in tech. The numbers back me up. Society as a whole has gotten better. It absolutely has. Go watch Madmen if you don’t believe me (never saw it, but I’ve read over & over how accurately it portrays the working world of the 60s into the 70s, and it was NOT kind to women).

What happened? How did it happen? We’ve gone from approximately 35% involvement to approximately 12% involvement over the same years that have seen women rise in every possible way in every other aspect of our society while at the same time, that society has become less violent (crime is WAY down from it’s peak around 1994), kinder and gentler, to the point my kids biggest worry was people being mean on the internet, not a beating from Todd (ooh, I hated Todd).

Yeah, that was  run-on sentence. Whatever.

The point is, I’m so confused and I don’t understand how we’ve arrived where we have.

I have another point I want to make, but I’ll put that in a different post because this one is getting kind of long already.

16 Comments

  • Marie Haggberg

    As a female old (ahem, mature?) technologist myself, I absolutely agree . In prior years, a good 40% of my teams were women. My current team is at 15%, and I see this pattern in other areas and groups. I’ve thought about possible causes. One is burnout: worse for women as we’re implicitly responsible for tending to home and family. Another may be that our profession has elevated from niche and nerdy to high status, and it seems we are “allowed” to only ascend to an “acceptable” level. It’s worth remembering that at high leadership levels, per a Google search, in 2016 only 4% of Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO.

    I really appreciate this post. Thank you.

  • Brandon Forest

    Grant, I hear ya brother. I started programming when DOS 2.11 was king. Remember the UMB and how to tweak it? I agree, age has given me perspective, wisdom is something you’re born with… or not. My older son is wiser than I am, but I have 40 years more perspective so he’s not always right. My younger son is neither wiser, nor has more perspective than I do, but he has something else… a huge, kind heart… and he’s learning perspective.

    I just turned 60 last summer, and I’ve worked in this industry since ’81, having tried my hand at a half dozen other careers before falling into this one. My one observation being in tech this long is a simple truism. No matter what the profession, or endeavor you have to have two things… 1) Interest, 2) Aptitude. If you have Interest but not aptitude you will get frustrated and quit. If you have Aptitude but no interest, you will get bored and quit. You have to have both the Interest and Aptitude to do tech. Nuff said. Cheers!

  • Randall Petty

    I’ve heard many young people have been turning away from IT in recent years just because it didn’t seem to hold great career-potential. Would someone contemplate studying medicine if they thought that 3 years into their career they’d be told to train their replacement who will be coming in on some sort of visa to work for less money? I’m not sure how this concern would be different for women than men. Perhaps women are just smarter and believe that the real money is in management or business ownership, not some IT-tech type position.
    On widsom/perspective, you may be born with a certain intellectual capacity, but I see wisdom and perspective as closely related (acquired over a long time ) and not the same thing as being smart or intelligent. “Moral compass” ? Not sure that’s even considered or taught anymore.

  • Interesting, and appreciate the thoughts. I’ll take issue with on part: “…I’ll take the loss of self-esteem over the loss of blood (and self-esteem…”. I think name calling and a few bruises are far, far easier to take than constant and regular, systemic, abuse. We get that with instant, distant, faceless communications. Even within companies with tools like Slack. I’m not saying Slack is better/worse, just a current popular item.

    In the past, while you were called names, it was relatively rare. Wasn’t in class. Wasn’t when you were walking home alone, wasn’t while you were at one table and the bully was 4 tables away or in class. Bruises heal, and often the bruises end up slowing or limiting some of the self-esteem attacks. Not always, and we had kids that were fairly well damaged from that abuse.

    Today, we we’ve gotten away from some of the overt behavior, we see constant abuse through digital systems. I think it’s worse. There’s little worse than someone wearing away at your self-esteem on a regular basis. I see people I think are strong, successful, and more bothered by comments on a message board, or off-hand rude posts made in the spur of the moment. What might be worse is the comments persist over time, unlike the quick taunts and names we were verbally called.

    Are people softer today? Maybe. We certainly try to avoid more direct confrontations, which in some sense lead us to (What I think) are worse, passive aggressive, more constant demeaning statements.

    It’s a mess, for sure. I think women put up with a lot, and perhaps in the age of more equality, more choices, more options, they choose not to. That’s sad.

  • JasonA

    On the women in tech side of things, I think possibly in the time frame mentioned, men / boys were taught to respect women (maybe not as technical peers, but simply for being women) whereas a more recent trend (and certainly not among all) is towards the “dudebro” attitude. The sort of attitude where they behave like what most of us would refer to as “jerks” including towards women, yet they would still get dates etc (the “bad boy” attitude somewhat.)

    Then, because it worked (it got them the respect of their peers, dates with women) they carried it over to their “world changing” internet startups and you get the Susan Fowler story (and yes, I’ve read it, and frankly the attitudes she had to deal with disgusts me.) In the meantime, the “dudebros” play it off as “it was one person,” “women need to toughen up and be able to take it,” etc.

    Just a couple cents worth on this.
    (PS, I was born in 1970, so I’m pushing the “get offen my lawn” age bracket)

    • Jason,

      Thanks for the feedback. Sounds great. Do we have evidence of that, apart from the loss of women in IT? I’m not saying you’re wrong. I just want to see some kind of study or something. If it is that, heck, we can fix it.

      • JasonA

        Grant,
        I’ve got nothing other than anecdotal evidence from reading articles on these situations and the comments on the articles (especially ones that reference other articles about the same company but a different but similar situation.)

        Could the attitudes be studied to see if this is what’s going on? Probably, but you’d need to get the organizations to agree to such a study. I’d suspect you’d get some that would decline on the feeling that the study might be biased from the outset, or that it would be used as the basis of a “hit piece” against the org. You’d also get the orgs that would agree, but would also (behind the scenes) “instruct” staff on the “proper” attitude to display in their answers…

        All of which would skew the results.

  • Steve,

    Great feedback. The one thing I can say about what you bring up is only anecdotal. People can do what my son did, he just walked away from the social media stuff. More or less changed his outlook overnight.

    I wouldn’t say we’re softer today than we were. I’m absolutely not one of those “things were better in the good old days” people. I’m the opposite. Things were worse in the “good old days”. We had more prejudice and more violence. We really are better now. I just can’t reconcile that with the decline of women in tech. That’s my confusion.

  • Good points Grant. I’m in the same vein as you where I was taught to respect everyone regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. Some of the best folks I’ve worked with and for were women. They are people just like men with some good and some bad at their jobs.

    One thing that puzzles me in all of the rants about the low percentage of women in IT is the assumption that it’s all due to the fault of men. Why is that? So many responses state either explicitly or implicitly that it’s due to the attitudes of men that women aren’t as prevalent in the IT workforce. You, me, and I’m sure lots of other men aren’t the reason.

    Didn’t anyone ever consider that perhaps women today aren’t finding IT as interesting of a career anymore? The same could be said for other minorities as well. Instead of finding someone to blame (men, society, what have you) why not work toward finding the real reason for the lack of interest?

  • Rebecca

    As a woman in tech who has been in the tech industry for the last 20 years, I think things are about the same, gender parity wise. My engineering school had a 6:1 male-female ratio, and I think engineering departments have a similar ratio now. I do think that careers in IT tend to often go hand in hand with working long hours, working overtime, nightly and weekend support, and so on. Our society is still encouraging women to be the ones who pick up the kids from school, take them to doctors appointments, etc. You don’t usually see part-time positions in IT for women who want to be home when their kids get home from school. So until we see societal change that makes childcare more affordable, and/or that makes just as many men take responsibility for family and household duties, I think this will still be a problem.

    Maybe it’s a PR thing too. Characters like Abby on Criminal Minds make being an IT geek “cool” for girls. Maybe as we have more characters like that in the media it will help the PR image of IT.

  • adrian

    First: my bona fides: I have a certificate for completing a systems programming class that not only pre-dates everybody that I work with, but may actually pre-date some of their parents. I, too, am aware of the drop-off in female software professionals. I attribute it to two factors: 1) back in the day, if you were in computing, it was because you were geek inclined and you sought it out. As you point out, generally nerds are much more concerned with knowledge than other factors. Now, it is much more of a “mass-market” profession, and is more reflective (in unfortunate ways) of society as a whole. 2) back then computing was (essentially) brand-new, with little ingrained culture, which made it a more comfortable place for women than other technical/engineering professions with longer histories of male dominance. As other technical fields have become more accepting of women, the percentage of technically inclined women who end up in software has gone down. Just my two cents – interesting discussion.

    • Adrian,

      I think your first point may be exactly the cause. Thinking back to the dotcom boom/bust, everyone and their younger cousin moved into IT in some fashion or another. You may have just nailed it for me. Nothing else anyone has ever said nor any of the research I’ve seen has framed it in this way. You really make sense. I think you’ve nailed it. I wonder if there’s a way to quantify this to prove it.

    • Rebecca made an interesting point: “Our society is still encouraging women to be the ones who pick up the kids from school, take them to doctors appointments, etc. You don’t usually see part-time positions in IT for women who want to be home when their kids get home from school.”

      Only in recent years have we seen companies providing paternal leave and allowing adjustments in work schedules for parental responsibilities for both mothers and fathers. As this trend improves, so should the workplace options.

      Also, Rebecca, I think you meant Penelope on Criminal Minds as Abby is on NCIS. 🙂

  • Vic

    I have noticed a high percentage of women in SQL in the warehouse / BI space, but almost completely absent in all other areas of SQL? I dont know why or have any stats to back that up, just my perception.

OK, fine, but what do you think?