I love shaking snow globes. I can’t help myself. I’m enthralled by the snow swirling in the water, and bored when it’s stuck motionless at the bottom. When I look at the state of our nascent digital culture I see a snow globe begging to be shaken. Our technical capabilities as a species are increasing exponentially. The evolution of the Internet is measurable by the day. We are more connected to each other than ever before. But who’s building it all?
The image of the stereotypical programmer is a nerdy white guy who likes computers and Star Wars (or Star Trek, but we don’t even want to go down that road) and not much else. That may be a cheap caricature, but there’s a hint of truth in it. Most computer programmers are white, male, and intellectually inclined. The snow in the globe fell a long time ago. Access to the knowledge, resources and connections required to be a creator in this space landed in the laps of a lucky few.
Though I’m a woman, I made it into technology and became a professional programmer. I feel like I got lucky, and now I want to pass it on. My dream is to shake things up from the inside.
Fortunately, my field is ripe for disruption. Demand for programmers is exploding and the traditional education pipelines can’t keep up. Self-taught programmers are making up the difference, and they’re making a good living without much initial investment.
Here’s a secret: programming isn’t that hard. The idea that programming takes the brain of a genius steeped in years of mathematics is a myth. It’s poisonous because it reinforces itself through a secondary consequence: it gives beginners a reason to interpret the normal frustration of learning, or plain lack of familiarity, as a sign that they’re not cut out for programming, that they’re just not smart enough, that they don’t belong, and just like that, their potential withers before it has a chance to grow.
The antidote to this myth and its consequences is simple: community. All beginners need encouragement and help understanding frustrating concepts. They find comfort in the company of other beginners, in seeing that everyone struggles as they learn and grow.
I believe that by fostering learning communities for tech beginners, we can empower a much more diverse set of people to become the creators of the digital world. Just as writers of history shape the way we collectively understand our past, it’s the programmers of today who are building the online world where all of us live. If that world reflects all the different perspectives of our diverse society, we will have succeeded.
We have an incredible opportunity to foster diversity among a new cast of creators and we owe it to ourselves, our children and the rest of humanity to ensure that we do.
Michelle Rowley is a software developer, community organizer, and entrepreneur. She's currently working to help women become part of the tech community through a program called Code Scouts.
This is an excerpt from American Dreamers, a book and website bringing together optimists, mavericks and mad inventors who believe we can create a better world.