Cougars who Code

Image: KaBoom pics

Sure, there’s a certain “cohort who codes” fatigue that comes with evolving ecosystems. For women, the flagship groups like Women Who Code & Women Who Tech have expanded to include Girls Who Code, Lesbians Who Tech, Black Girls Code, CodeChix, RailsGirls, TechGirlz, … you get the picture. Despite progress for us middle-aged women, the focus remains overwhelmingly on girls and younger women.

Let’s step back and pay some serious attention to why tech needs to embrace women born in the 1950’s & ‘60’s.

The job market is dumping us: Last March, the Harvard Business Review ran a provocative article “Older Women are Being Pushed Out of the Workforce.” The piece highlights the hurdles older women face and research showing robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women. And thanks to a 2009 Supreme Court decision, older women carry the burden of proof for such discrimination.

Tech already dumped us: According to Women Who Tech, only 7% of investor money goes to women-led startups.

Our husbands are dumping us: And we are dumping our husbands. “Silver” divorce for women over 50 occurs at twice the rate as in 1990 at a time we need to think about the adequacy of retirement accounts.

The next economy is already getting away front of us: Technology has already transformed almost every profession, from news to education to my field, urban design. For moms jumping back in, we left the workforce to have kids with the best in spreadsheet and PowerPoint skills on which we built early careers. Automation will further stress the availability of middle-level service jobs commonly held by women.


Skills we bring

Deep skills in our sectors — Every sector is built on the fundamentals, from architecture to education to accounting to nursing. Technology can give us better insight and tools, but every sector will still rest on bedrock knowledge accrued over a career.

Deep skills in community building — Stay-at-home parents tend to form and join groups centered on activities and fundraising for schools and the larger community. In tech, we talk about the Three C’s: Content, Community and Commerce. Turns out, this is a standard portfolio for modern parenting as well. These organizers are vitally important in a country where 1 in 4 adults is actively engaged in shaping our communities through churches, civic associations, PTAs and advisory commissions.

Deep skills in empathy — Women are perfect founders for what Steve Case calls the Third Wave of internet companies. Versions 1 & 2 were all about the foundation for e-commerce, communications and connections, while the third wave will be about solving problems by integrating tech into everyday life. For that, we must be willing to imagine other peoples’ lives, find the pain points and fix the underlying drivers. That, in a nutshell, describes empathy and it is what we middle aged women do best.

Why We Jumped into Tech

For my colleagues and me, “Cougars who Code” has a double meaning. Yes, it includes computer code. It also includes innovating the legal and zoning codes that drive how cities, towns and roads are designed and redesigned. While our profession has adopted technology for computer-aided design and forecasting, other areas need help.

City planning lacks a go-to, visual, organized resource across all city-building sectors that appeals to professionals and civic advocates alike. Blogs are great, but built for critique. The important “how to” information is often locked behind professional paywalls.

Communities also lack tools to connect people seeking ideas and inspiration for their cities with civic innovators doing the work worldwide in cities, firms and non-profit organizations.

Our field also lacks an affordable marketplace for innovative, small planning & engineering firms to gain visibility. This is a problem for cities since cutting edge practitioners have a hard time gaining notice and competing for RfPs often written under sclerotic procurement rules favoring larger firms. For women re-entering the workplace, we often start out by hanging a shingle.

What have we learned?

First, we have experienced firsthand the tough job environment. In hushed tones, colleagues talk of the two hiring tiers: millennials and marquee names to bring in the press & non-profit donors. There are also subtle barriers, for example, requiring HTML (whether needed or not) pretty much guarantees a younger worker gets the job.

Second, local economic development agencies have not caught up to the new toolbox needed for digital business. Offering retired volunteers to review business plans doesn’t work in a world of lean startup techniques, 6 month roadmaps, user-centered product development, digital marketing techniques and the rise of the video resume.

Without this digital curriculum, we learned iterative product development the old fashioned way –listening, prototypes and face to-face. GreaterPlaces began as an American Planning Association report that turned into a book project that turned into a recognized website, that spawned a successful Kickstarter (Cards Against Urbanity) that led to a cancelled Kickstarter (City Design Method Cards).

The Method Cards were intended to be “Cards for Urbanity.” Once launched, though, we realized we focused too much on the products and not enough on how our users need to engage each other, find, assemble, present, and use information in ways our current tools like books and pdfs do not. They wanted tech features for creating their own content, games and visualization using the best examples in urban design depending on the audience, topic and setting.

This is where things get really exciting for anyone in technology, especially women. The Third Wave challenges of solving problems by integrating technology into everyday life need a personal touch. In my work, I’ve taken an iPad in public meetings to test what works, and walked out the door with a stack of mockups for print cards and an invitation to talk further in a pub. Paper and beer turned out to be the right tool. Of course those lessons eventually work their way into tech features and we need to be ready to write that code.

P.S. Even though we cancelled the Kickstarter, we are building the mobile app aggregating the best in innovative city design and features to support users in their work. If you are a city, startup or non-profit ready for new tools, let’s talk about what your clients and constituents need. @greaterplaces.