An Overlooked Demographic in Tech Diversity
Was reading another good story at Model View Culture about diversity and the pipeline. I had a sudden thought while reading the story, in part because I was thinking of my own situation. In a lot of ways, I think I’m a great example of how tech covertly and overtly creates barriers for access.
I’ve talked about before regarding how I became a casualty of the leaky pipeline. Between Junior High and High School, I went to summer ‘coding’ camp at the local university. This was back in… 1997? Somewhere around there. My dad actually paid for this because after we got our first PC at home, I’d begun teaching myself how to make shitty HTML websites on Angelfire. He wanted to encourage this. Then a few months later he was kicking me out of the house and I became housing insecure for the rest of high school. I didn’t have access to a computer or the internet. And so I become lost in a leaky pipeline.
But now, many years later, I’m staring down at another area where tech is failing to remove barriers. While the pipeline gets the most attention, attrition is also important and something we at least occasionally discuss. I’m actually talking about something else.
I’m talking about the fact that I’m in need of a new career and while I was originally going to go into tech (because it turns out that I still love coding), I’ve decided to pursue writing instead. Writing.
I’m poor. The rational choice would be get into tech. If only because I already work in a tech adjacent position (well, okay, library tech is still tech). I mean… I use linux. I love the commandline. I’m getting pretty decent at bash scripting. I have a github account. I’ve made a tiny contribution to an open source project. I’ve been trying to learn ruby (and have written some scripts already). Maybe I’m not quite where I’d need to be to be a junior developer but it’d probably be pretty easy for me to make the switch from being tech adjacent to tech.
I enjoy coding.
But… I know too much about tech culture. I look at the demographics and realize that I just don’t want to switch from a field with a majority of white women to a majority of white men. I look at the work culture and realize that the ‘ideal’ employee in tech is so far beyond my abilities because I’m disabled. I read article after article about how much ‘organizational fit’ is a key component for getting hired and, well, I already don’t fit into my current field. I doubt I’d fair much better in tech. I read about ‘brogrammers’ and just… shudder because no. I see how tiny issues like the whole Django slave/master thing become huge because of how unwilling the industry is to make even a little space for Others. I see how the youth, whiteness, and maleness are all idealized and considered essential qualities.
I look at all of this and think, “Why bother?”
Doing ‘pure’ tech would be my third career. I’ve failed at two already. Yeah, that’s all me. I’m a failure and I have a toxic reputation. Maybe its all about me and my shortcomings….
But I do wonder how many other people are in my position. People who’re considering a different career and who’ve noticed that tech jobs pay well. That it is a growing industry that appears to have lot of job openings. People who’re tempted but then look at the reality of tech culture and just don’t bother.
This sort of thing isn’t unheard of but its hard to find any discussion about it. And even this article only discusses possible challenges for getting into tech as a second career. It doesn’t consider that people switching into tech might actually have something valuable and essential to contribute. It also mentions that people still look for ‘passion’, which is its own barrier. Passion is a poor measure of potential when tech is so openly hostile to people like me.
I love coding but I don’t love tech culture.
I remember hearing in high school that people of my generation would have something like 7 different careers throughout our lifetimes. I wonder how many people tech is simply not getting because its current culture makes people like me dismiss it as an alternative career.
And this sort of thing does matter for diversity, not just in terms of the ‘demographic’ types (eg, my race, gender, ability, etc). But in terms of life experience. Given how tech places a premium on the white boy whose been coding since he was 14 and maybe dropped out of college to start his full-time tech job it really puts a new spin on the whole ‘brogrammer’ thing and the general naivity of how tech approaches human problems.
How much richer would tech be if people my age or older picked it as our next career? People who have experience who not only have experience in different fields, but also have some amount of life experience.
It makes me think of being an undergrad and having ‘mature’ students in the classroom. People who were attending college at different points in their life, rather than just being fresh out of high school. People who’ve been working and living and *doing* things out there in the Big Bad World. Years later many of these fellow students stand out in my mind. Because they contributed so much to the general classroom. They brought a certain point of view that is only acquired through experience and time. They enriched the learning environment for everyone.
(Also as a side note: These people were also fucking fantastic to have as partners in group work. Why? Because as people who’d been working and living, they were usually about a million times more reliable that students my age and a million times more likely to carry their own weight. They brought a certain amount of ‘professionalism’ to the group that made working with them a pleasure. This is just one example of why this particular kind of ‘diversity’ matters.)
And that’s the thing about this ‘lost’ demographic. Given the state of the economy and the quickly shifting cultural context we have, there are a lot of people with experience, skills, and passion looking for something new and exciting to do. People who might see the joy in coding, if not for the hostile environment and unpleasant culture.