Why it took a decade for me to get into coding

Sophie Fitzpatrick
Feb 9, 2018 · 8 min read

It’s 2004, somewhere up north. I am 14 and spend a lot of time on my own. I have a lot of interests and the time to pursue them all.

I have spent a good portion of my weekend rewriting the HTML for my MySpace profile to reflect my present vibe. I have a cerise background littered with sketches of Viking weaponry, which I crafted in Illustrator. My new bio, in edgy Cambria typeface, reflects my current admiration for Marie Stopes, my love of Finland and the fact that I have outgrown Times New Roman. NIN’s Downward Spiral is one of many embeds on my page.

My new profile is awesome, at least my irl MySpace friend crazed_guitarist seems to think so.

It’s 2018, somewhere down south. I am 27 and mostly busy. I have lots of interests and have to be selective about which ones I pursue.

I have spent a few evenings and the odd Sunday during January building a personal website in HTML and CSS. It’s a cool project and I’m having some fun. I am writing a separate article with some observations about my process.

My journey with code to this point is uncomfortably common, you’re likely to have heard it before. The “MySpace” generation — learning HTML before they even knew what HTML was. Or at least that was the case for me.

Let me explain.

I did most of my growing up in the 90s. My childhood was predominantly outdoors. I climbed trees, scraped my knees and built forts. My family didn’t own a computer until 2002: my father thought the internet would never catch on.

In 2001, I attended an all girls Grammar school. The arrival of the family computer a year later was long overdue. I was already behind my classmates in the single hour dedicated to IT each week. Not that this mattered much. By the time the class had settled and everyone had logged on to the school’s intranet, it was time for lunch. The lesson aborted before it had even begun.

My teacher, we’ll call him Mr. H, was by all means a nice man. But he was uninspiring, and failed to convey the potential importance of IT to our futures — and how this subject could unlock interests and career paths in web development further down the line.

All the IT teachers at my school were similar to Mr. H; male, middle aged, unrelatable. Other subjects were littered with young professional women, not far off my own age now. We had rapport and they had an innate ability to inspire a previously unthought of future within us.

IT as a subject sat within the same category as art, wood work and PE — pleasant enough to do but not vital to a successful future. Mr. H’s reputation as a teacher reduced by his own subject’s diminished status within the school. His office, a broom cupboard outside his regular classroom.

Needless to say I dropped IT at the end of 3rd year (aged 14), along with every other girl in my year. My introduction to computers reduced to 3 short years and a future in web development ever more elusive. My choice to drop IT wasn’t unusual. It wasn’t questioned by Mr. H, the school, my parents or indeed by society. To put this into perspective, that’s 120 girls in my year, in my school alone who moved into adulthood aged 16 or 18, with little or no computer skills — let alone the foresight that a career in tech might be something they could be good at or interested in.

As I have already mentioned, my story is uncomfortably common, if not depressingly familiar.

Disconnect.

At this time I spent a lot of time drawing and writing (bad) fan fiction. I decided it was time to inflict this on the internet. In this sense, I gained a basic level of computer literacy because I had a need and could see value in doing so. With the birth of social media and customisable web pages such as MySpace I learnt to code in HTML and some CSS. It was something I enjoyed, felt naturally inclined to, but was unaware that this could inform my career choice.

Looking back, there is massive disconnect between my perception of IT as taught by Mr. H and what I was organically absorbing on my own. This disconnect is so huge that at the time I saw no relation at all between my self-learning and Mr. H’s IT lessons — other than the fact there was a computer involved.

Now we’ve all had less than competent teachers and maybe Mr. H was one of these? Or maybe he just wasn’t interested in his subject? Maybe he felt undervalued as an IT teacher? Perhaps he struggled with the different levels of computer literacy in my class? We lived in an affluent area, but that’s not to say every family could afford a home computer. Or maybe he personally couldn’t see value in teaching a traditionally “masculine” subject to girls? Or could it be that as an all girls school, IT was just simply not a priority?

IT skills, vital to success in every office based profession; squashed into a single hour long period once a week for just 3 short years. But hey, it was a government requirement and another ticked checkbox which made the school excellent — at least on paper.

Exposure.

School is an equaliser (or should be an equaliser in society). Yes there is an unfair inequality between different schools determined by type, size, location, governing body, religion, budget etc. (I could write a whole other article, grumbling about the injustice of this). However, within partner schools that share a small geographical radius, children from all backgrounds ideally have a consistent experience.

That is at least the case between my school, an all girls Grammar school and it’s counterpart, an all boys Grammar school. Slight variations will of course occur but the experience ought to be very similar. The only obvious difference between the two schools is the gender of the students.

I wouldn’t claim to know exact numbers, but I can say for certain that less boys dropped IT in 3rd year than girls.

Now this could be down to two factors. The first is the environment in which the boys learn. In this scenario the boys are encouraged towards IT, a subject pre-conceived as a “masculine” field of interest — alike to mathematics and the sciences. Subjects embedded in logic and reason. The second factor, considers that this difference in attitude towards IT stems from before this time and is actually driven by the boys themselves — in which case society and how we raise boys and girls needs exploring further.

Opportunity.

My school was a school of academic excellence. It churned out well-educated girls, who went to Oxbridge and red brick universities. We were neither pushed nor discouraged towards the sciences or humanities — but instead left to make up our own choices. It wasn’t that IT wasn’t a choice, it just wasn’t presented as a valid choice. There was no connection between the subject and the type of career which could be opened to you, or else shut off from you without this prerequisite knowledge.

I don’t believe for a single moment that having any qualifications in IT or Computer Science is necessary to becoming a great developer or forcing a career in tech, in fact I would argue it a hindrance in many cases. Some of the best developers I’ve met don’t have this background. However, the most impactful way an IT lesson at school can be useful (aside from providing students with basic computer literacy) is exposure to a different skill set, which leads to new opportunity. Opportunity for a career in web development. Opportunity to learn skill sets outside of academic rigor. Skill sets which can be learnt at home, built and applied to the real world.

Regular career meetings plagued my last year at school. Non-vocational university courses such as History were discussed if you weren’t sure of your calling. And vocational courses such as Medicine were discussed for those who were.

At the age of 18, I had an awareness and a degree of competency in HTML and CSS. Enough for me to have been interested in pursuing this as a career. However, it was never presented to me as something you could actually do for a living, and even more importantly something I might have been capable of.

I was tram lined from an early age to go to university. Sure Computer Science existed as a course, but such courses were outside my periphery, my parents’ vision and my school’s formula for success.

As it stands, I went to the University of Manchester and came away with a BA Hons and a Masters in the humanities.

A few career pivots later.

I now find myself working on the customer side of a tech startup.

Since leaving university, I have spoken to countless women, who like me are hovering on the periphery of a tech career, who share parts of my story. Like me they are in the right environment, their skill sets lean towards an aptitude for web development but yet they find themselves on the outside looking in.

I don’t feel the need to provide a perspective of the current climate around women in tech. I’d be retreading old ground. Chances are if you’re reading this, you are already aware of these issues.

I’m lucky enough to have known some inspiring female developers who have made this career possible for themselves despite their stories overlapping with my own. There are great initiatives like Codebar out there too, which aim to readdress this imbalance in education.

I realise that my journey will have lots of nuances specific to my life which will have also contributed to my experience. However, I’ve spoken to enough women in the industry both those who have made it and those who are still trying, to know that there are nuggets of truth in these words. And my plight is a common one.

Moving forward, there needs to be a societal shift in the way girls are raised. There needs to be a conscious effort by all adults to not gender stereotype — you never know what burden you are imparting. Similarly, schools have a responsibility to provide knowledge and expose children to different futures regardless of gender, race, orientation and religion. The playing field needs levelling. Schools are ideally positioned to do this. Companies ought to be able to hire based on talent and talent alone.

Only now in 2018 have I re-engaged my interest in coding. I could have done this sooner — the last 4 years is all on me. I was exposed to the possibility of this as a career in 2014 when I joined my first tech start-up. Only a mere decade after I initially stumbled across HTML and CSS in a bid to impress my online friends.

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