Have you ever arrived late to a party and realised you’ve missed some crucial in-jokes that resonate for the rest of the night?
Have you been late to a meeting to realise that you are behind on key content and decisions that everyone else now understands?
This is a bit what it’s like to come late to the world of computer science. It’s easy to feel left behind on the technical aspects and left out of the social aspects.
I got into computer science “late”. By “late” I don’t mean a second career or change in life path. I discovered programming when I was 18 years old in my first year of university, but by this point it I already felt like I was unfashionably late to the coding party and didn’t know if I would ever catch up.
As a year 12 student I was completely oblivious to what programming was. I remember thumbing through the list of university courses looking for something of interest, and thinking to myself “A degree in IT, no way! That’s probably just about plugging in printers. Next!”.
You might be thinking that the stereotypes of coding being a “boy” activity were what kept me away. But I was always a STEM girl, all I ever wanted to be was a nerd! It was that I literally had never been exposed to what IT entailed, what it was used for, or how it was my kind of nerdy.
Getting a taste
As all aspiring university students do, I chose my degree, I chose chemical engineering and chemistry, and headed off to university. It was only a few weeks into my degree that late one night a couple of friends would decide to teach me to program just for fun. Messing around in Python I just grokked. It’s all the mathsy logical things I had loved at school, but hadn’t known how to pursue at university or how to use in the real world. I couldn’t believe that I had never known about programming until then. I didn’t realise it then, but this would be the start of the story I repeat dozens of times about the roundabout way I ended up in IT.
I wish the rest of the story was “I then picked up a bunch of IT subjects, was immediately successful and was finally surrounded by people just as nerdy as me”. But I can’t say it was that easy.
Getting amongst IT
I enjoyed that first taste of IT. That night I even considered changing my enrolment to include an IT unit… for a split second. I was quick to realise I would be a decade behind my friends who’d been coding since they were 8 years old and I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up.
It wasn’t until the following semester that I traded in a biology unit to try something daring, a computational science unit. I was still very hesitant to try it, but luckily a romantic interest persuaded me to do the class with him (if it wasn’t for being an 18 year old full of hormones this story might end here). It was lots of fun, but also a struggle. From where I was sitting it seemed like everyone already knew the programming aspect of the course and just needed to work out the maths. Meanwhile I was trying to learn the maths and the programming at the same time. But with a little bit of fight I made it out the other side.
I persevered and picked up more and more computer science units throughout my degree, eventually adding a computer science major to my collection.
There were plenty of days where I didn’t think I was cut out for it, you know those days when you’re crying over code that won’t compile at 3am. It felt like a race to keep up, but everyone had a huge head start. I was always running, running faster than I ever ran before to close that gap.
A lot of days I asked myself why. Why was I running so fast. I had plenty of other things I was studying at university. Why add the massive challenge of getting into a field where I was so far behind. It wasn’t even a place where I felt like I belonged. I wasn’t up on the geek culture movies or video games, not to mention the computer science jokes that mostly revolved around destroying your computer from the command line. Whether it was the technical challenges or fitting in socially, I had to keep running.
Why I kept running I’ll never really know. Maybe it was because I liked the challenge. Maybe it was because I felt like I deserved the chance to be great at this powerful nerdy activity. Maybe it was to show the world a girl could do it too. Maybe it was because I wanted to help more people and the speed and scale of computer science presented a whole new realm of making a difference. I think these things, and probably many more, made me want to keep running.
Getting ahead Vs feeling ahead
As the years went on I got better and better at programming, I caught up on a lot of those skills the other students had acquired by messing around with computers as kids. But now the the content was getting harder, harder for everyone. It wasn’t that programming stuff they’d seen before as kids, it was hard core computer science concepts. I’d been running so fast for so long, I didn’t realise I was catching up and that other people were starting to struggle. A lot of them had been coasting for so long they didn’t know how to run. I just kept running. I ran all the way to the top of the class.
Anything with algorithms or logic I excelled at. More and more of the higher level university courses were based around this. I took some advanced and honours level courses to learn even harder stuff, and I still climbed to the top. It was clear from my university results that I had made it. I even started tutoring for the university and teaching at the Girls’ Programming Network. But some how I still felt like I was an imposter with knowledge deficits to hide.
No matter how many High Distinctions I got, it still felt like the specific things I knew counted for less than the specific things other people knew. I couldn’t make a flashy website and wasn’t a pro at hacking on the unix command line. I thought “How could I consider myself a programmer if I can’t do these basic things, all I can do is this extra algorithmic stuff.”
Still getting there
Straight out of university I got a job as a software engineer. I couldn’t believe it. I knew I was great at algorithms, but still wasn’t great at those things I considered “basic skills”. I was surprised anyone would want to hire me and thought they would be in for a nasty shock when they realised that my good grades didn’t mean I was a “pro hacker”. I worked extra hard to prevent anyone finding out the things I didn’t know yet.
It was years before I realised nobody cared if I was a pro hacker or if I had any other extremely specific skill. None of that mattered, because I was a pro learner. I’d worked hard for years at university working to learn faster than anyone else just so I could catch up and fit in. And in the ever changing and growing world of technology, that is the best technological skill I could have.
It’s easy to feel like people around you know more than you. I’ve been quick to jump to the conclusion “every one knows this but me” when I hear about a concept that a handful of people know. And it’s easy to value other peoples knowledge over your own. I’ve thought, “if I know something it must be easy for everyone. But things I don’t know that others do must be hard, otherwise I would know them already”.
The thing is, no one goes out of their way to tell you the things they don’t know, or to let you know that they don’t get the geeky jokes either. Everyone is just trying to fit in just like you.
It turns out it’s ok to have different knowledge sets, in fact it’s great! There are a million and one different things to learn in the IT world and we keep adding more every day. No one will ever learn them all, you only have time to expose yourself to some and to become amazing at a few.
I would be lying to say that I never feel like I don’t know enough. Every now and then someone will seem surprised that you don’t know something. It’s easy to go back to feeling like you are still trying to catch up at this point. But, more often than not that person is just excited about something helpful from their skill set they can help you learn. Maybe some day you’ll return the favour.
The great thing about the world of IT is that it is full of lots of pro learners! In the ever changing landscape of IT you practice learning every day. Being surrounded by learners is great because learners are excited to share the amazing things they have found on their learning journey. The most important thing I have learnt all too recently is that it is ok to ask for help, and to expose the things you don’t know. That’s the only way to take advantage of the amazing knowledge and teaching skills of the people around you.
So it turns out being late to the coding party isn’t so bad. At the time it feels like a handicap in the race to IT success. But really it’s just a head start on honing your pro learning skills that will take you further than any specific IT knowledge ever could.
Comment with your own stories of running in the IT race or share my story to someone you want to encourage to keep running!