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Etsy, Hackery, and Female Programmers

I obviously think it’s really cool that Etsy’s VP of Engineering is actively looking to hire female engineers, and they’ve announced a grant that will help 10 female engineers get to Hacker School in New York. That’s awesome, and it’s even better that Marc Hedlund is being upfront about their quest for female engineering talent. I love Etsy. And Etsy could be even more awesome with more female engineering talent, especially engineering leadership. Because Marc is right, Etsy is dominated by a female audience, and while clearly men can build stuff women like, it’s also true that anyone who is building something for themselves because she is passionately and personally invested in the project is more likely to hit home runs, more often, than someone who is building for a demographic.

There’s so much to do to make that happen!

The problem of women in engineering (the problem being the lack thereof) is a complex and multi-layered thing. I’m seeing this in the university (UC Santa Cruz) where I work, where I am actively trying to recruit more women into the Computer Science program, and I know my experience is not unique. First is the simple task of recruitment — getting them interested in the first place; followed up by the retention issues. It’s not that we lack for women with strong (sometimes intensely strong!!) potential to be fierce programmers — I’ve seen them, curious and eager with amazing problem-solving and critical thinking skills. But they often choose other sciences.


First, there’s still a perception problem with computer science (and the term “hacker” doesn’t help, but more on that later) — CS is too often labeled as antisocial, isolating, and boring.  There’s this unspoken culture that says if you don’t live and breathe programming you’re not good enough and you don’t belong. Second, other science fields have more women in them as both peers and (and this is super important) senior women and professors, respected in their fields, who can act as mentors. Still, let’s say we get lucky and manage to convince two or three of these potential programming superstars to go into CS. The first class they encounter is full of guys — they might be the only women there. And the class is dominated, culturally, by hackers — kids who have been coding since they were ten, some of whom don’t do much else. And while it’s awesome that those guys are there, and many of them are individually welcoming to women, they give the untrue impression that they are the norm and that CS is for people like them. The professors are all male, and some, I’m sorry to say, are actively unsympathetic — in fact, some view these early classes as “weeding out” opportunities to encourage the “weak” students to drop out. Our superstar female students wonder why they should put up with this if they could just as easily go into another intellectually challenging and rewarding field that welcomes them instead of putting up barriers.

So why does that matter? Think about who’s building the technology now. It’s the mostly male students who went to classes mostly with other males and absorbed a mostly male perspective and got mostly male feedback their entire intellectual lives, unless they were very, very lucky. It’s a self-referential loop. They end up building apps and tools and software for the audience they know, for the audience they feel most comfortable with — which ends up being, in the end, a pretty self-selected and small audience. Less than half the population. If we’re only building stuff for less than half the population of any segment, we’re not stacking up to our potential as developers.

I think of Hacker School and I think, in spite of their awesome rules which I love, “hacker” is a value-laden term that is far from neutral. It connotes a techno-machismo culture. Douglas Thomas argues convincingly that hacker culture comes out of a tradition of “boy culture”, in which hierarchy is determined by how “leet” a programmer you are. It thrives on secrets and in-jokes and codes that non-hackers don’t know. It’s limiting and exclusionary and elitist. It’s telling that the only rules (“human-friendly”) that the founders of Hacker School put into place ban common practices of hacker social behavior: expressing camaraderie by putting each other down, competing for mastery, displaying superior knowledge or critical thinking skills through rhetorical devices like the “well, actually” that precedes a nitpicky correction of someone else’s thought. Hacker School doesn’t really want people in it who behave like hackers.

Of course that’s not the sum of what hacking is; hackers are also dedicated to open-source; to solving problems creatively; to challenging authority and the status quo; and if you prove yourself appropriately, hackers are welcoming and willing to share knowledge. Some women embrace hackery, of course, and the word has been somewhat reclaimed by the Makers and Burners who tend to be much more inclusionary and flexible than traditional hackers. Recently expressions of hackery emphasize the more creative side of hacking (cf. Lifehacker). But there are lots of good, even excellent coders (both men and women)  who do not necessarily think of themselves as “hackers”. “Hacker” sounds like you have to be in a special category, a grandmaster programmer. And the fact is, you don’t have to be elite to be a good programmer, to make something cool, to learn to be better, or to love coding. In fact you’re probably a better coder, more creative, more open-minded, more flexible, with more interesting problems to consider, if you have other interests besides living-and-breathing code.

If I were starting a school and I wanted to attract more women, I would start by avoiding the word “hacker.” I’d look for a word that says, we are not about “hacking”, which sounds like we’re staying up all night cobbling together a messy, incoherent thing that may or may not work exactly right, but we are about building creative and cool stuff with code; we’re about sharing knowledge and coming together to be better than we are individually. We are an antidote to the downside of hacker culture, with its posturing and displays of elitism and competition. Maybe we need a new name for that. I issue a friendly challenge to Hacker School co-founders Nick, Dave, and Sonali to rename the school! 🙂

In his blog post, Nick also points out that getting more women into the program is not about “lowering the bar.” I hear the “lowering the bar” attitude sometimes in the context of university recruitment, and man, we need to get enlightenment. Recruiting for diversity is not some great favor the entitled Powers That Be bestow, in their benevolence, to women, or to African-Americans, or Latinos, or whomever; no, those groups of emergent potential technologists are doing us and the future of technology a favor by participating and making us stronger; helping us build better, more thoughtful, more creative projects by bringing new perspectives and new ways of solving problems. New problems to solve.

In fact, when we require more diversity we raise the bar higher  — we challenge everyone in the program to rethink their assumptions, examine the status quo, try new approaches, accept other voices, think outside the boxes of their genders or races or ideologies. That’s really hard, and that’s why you hear sexist backlash from a few — they are afraid of the challenge, and the destabilization it can bring. But innovation clearly requires increasing the plurality of participation in technology. Women engineers (and black engineers, and Latina engineers!), we need you.

And then I realize I’m so incredibly lucky to have not one, but two awesome female programmers working with me, founding Play Crafts with me. And I think gosh, we are SO going to kick ass. And I know there are so many other women out there with other game-changing ideas that just need some solid coding and a little help to bring to fruition. I want to help make that happen. So when I have $50,000 to spare, I’ll give it to Hacker School’s new track, Creative Coder School, for women — and men, of course, although we certainly won’t lower the bar for them — who might not be hackers but who are passionate about coding, creative about solving problems, and excited for challenges!


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