“Coding is cool but not for me” — A story about gender, socioeconomics, and my first lines of code

Me and my classmates, circa 1996

As weird as it seems since I became a software engineer less than a year ago, the first lines of code I’ve ever written was in the year 1994. I was a freshman in a high school in São Paulo, Brazil, and they had a “technical program” to teach an occupation at the same time you could get a high school degree. I chose a program called “Data processing” (“Processamento de Dados” in Portuguese), which taught students a little bit of everything in the IT world: coding, logic, how computers work, databases, maybe more, I don’t remember, it’s been a while 😂.

That was my first time using a computer, I didn’t have one at home. That was also the first time I had access to the internet. Even though I was stoked with the whole thing about “finding anything you want on the internet”, I must say I wasn’t into coding. What I remember from that time (and I was 15) was that I thought it was “too difficult”. I loved foreign languages since then and wanted to get a degree in English/Portuguese (which I eventually did right after high school). So, in my mind, what would be the point of learning this really hard thing? Also, take into consideration that the languages I was taught back then were C, Turbo Pascal, and Cobol, which as the whole world knows are very far from being beginner-friendly languages!

But I had colleagues that were into the coding thing. As the months went by I watched them successfully writing their first pieces of code. Then successfully writing more and more complicated code. Meanwhile, I was getting more and more lagging behind. In my mind I was telling myself “I don't like this coding thing anyways”, and definitely focused on learning about as many metal/punk bands as I could during those years (which I have no regrets at all, and btw I still play in bands until nowadays). But I think I kind of remember having in the back of my mind something like “damn, wish I could do that too”.

I left that high school with a mindset “I couldn’t learn because that’s not for me, I like humanities, not tech, and that’s it.” But recently, since I’ve decided to become a software engineer, I’ve been thinking about the reasons why I had so much aversion about coding back then.

Besides the fact that C and Turbo Pascal are scary monsters and no one had taught me about growth mindset (I mean, the concept was created in the early 2000s), there’s more at stake. One fact was access to computers. I remember from back then that the best coding students were the ones who had a computer at home. They not only had already nailed the basics (how to type/how to use a mouse/some DOS commands/what those windows in Windows 3.1 do) but also they had the opportunity of practicing coding at home, doing their coding homework at home. For me, that would mean staying at school for longer, and I’d rather be at home listening to music. I’m not even sure if my parents could afford to buy a computer at that time.

Second, of course, was gender. I remember that even boys who never had access to computers before had a smoother transition into coding. It may be because of video games, it may be that their best friends just guided them through it, it may be that they were taught since they were children that they could learn anything, especially how to deal with machines. As a girl, I had very little, if none, encouragement to learn tech, praises for my tech achievements, or mentoring to overcome challenges.

All of these I just ended up having now, 25 years later. Until then, coding was just something “cool, but not for me”. I believe my high school gave me a good foundation that ended up somehow helping me in my code journey but hasn’t it been for the recent bootcamp /women in tech/growth mindset boom, I wouldn’t have taken the leap to become a software engineer. Culture changes a lot in 25 years, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to ride this wave during my lifetime, but I bet right now in some school around the world there’s a girl/ nb kid saying “cool, but not for me”, and it’s up to us, non-men, non-white, non-traditional tech background people, to reach out to them and say: “Actually…”