Why, As a Woman, I Almost Wrote Off a Tech Career


The tech career that almost wasn't. When a situation goes awry, men blame the technology; women blame themselves.

I wrote an article a while ago called "Why So Many Women Think They’re 'Bad With Technology'" that makes a great precursor for what I’m about to say.

The gist is that there’s a predisposition for self-blame that women have, that can make it tough to claim power over a thing as fickle and finicky as technology.

When a situation goes awry, men blame the technology; women blame themselves. And women —understandably weary beneath the weight of their constant perceived screw-ups—have a much easier time opting out altogether, saying, "Hey, technology’s not my thing."

In 2010, I followed my then-boyfriend/now-husband to Colorado and was able to nail down a full-time job very quickly upon arrival with a pretty big—and rapidly growing—technology company.

I knew I had nailed the interview. They asked me about my experience, I coded out a website for them on a whiteboard, and was able to answer most of their questions. I was kind, and considerate, and put-together, and different in demeanor than most of their other developers. I got the job right away, and with some coaching from my boyfriend and family, negotiated my salary up a small ways as well. (Read also: Your Next Computer Science Career Awaits: Top 5 Mock Interview Sites.)

What I didn’t know going in is that, despite my interview being all about HTML, CSS, and basic Javascript, this was not nearly all the position required. As soon as I got settled in, I was expected to pick up several complex new programming languages that I had never seen before.


And I was working on some of the most advanced websites in the world.

What didn’t help with the pressure was that all 80-something of us developers were arranged in a big, open office environment, where we could at all times view each other’s large, exposed screens. Also not helpful: the insistence from other developers that I just needed to read a bunch of ultra-fat textbooks to know what they know.

I’ll never forget an exchange I had with another developer around my age, who I was working with temporarily. He was being short with me as I summarized my progress. Embarrassed for having accomplished so little, I blurted, "I’ve never coded in C# before." To which he snapped, "Uh, yeah, me neither."



A cocktail of fear and shame.

I came to work every morning with a knot in my stomach, hoping someone would realize I just wasn’t producing at the rate I should be and let me go. Quietly, gently, and as swiftly as possible.

As a coping mechanism, I embodied a carefree "only girl in the office" sort of attitude. (Read also: Top Career Tips for Women Working in Technology.) I can’t speak for how anyone else there perceived that exactly, but it was a direct result of telling myself, "This is not my scene. I may as well act like I’m not trying."

The concept of doing my best and failing inspired more fear in me than even being seen as something of a ditz.

I was several months in before my saving event finally arrived. A one-on-one "check-in" lunch with my team leader.

Away from the building with the exposed screens, the constant chatter against fully whiteboard-ed walls, the memories of a succession of embarrassing moments, including the time I fainted during a PowerPoint presentation (Pennsylvania to Colorado altitude adjustment and all that).

My team leader asked me via email where I wanted to go.

Not realizing "nice restaurant" was the appropriate answer for the occasion, I recommended Chipotle. And stood by my choice even after he told me we could really go anywhere. After all, it didn’t seem right to break up with my company over a salad with fresh fruit and candied walnuts. (Tacos seemed fairer somehow).

The day came, and my team leader and I took my car to lunch, so as to avoid my riding his motorcycle. This offered me an excuse not to look him in the eye as I spoke to him on the ride over.

Before we had even reached the strip mall parking lot, I had strung together a few awkward sentences to the tune of, "How do you know, like, if something just isn’t FOR you? Like you’re just not MEANT to face the challenge after all?"

Everyone else seemed to pick up these languages on a whim. I was desperately flailing, and the "I’m new here" excuse was timing out.

He responded with some bit about 10,000 hours (a la Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers") and how he had no formal education in computer science, had just started breaking open computers some decades ago and found himself here. (Read also: How I Got an IT Job Without a Tech Background.)

Looking back on it, I can’t imagine a more fitting story to tell me—that we all sometimes feel like frauds for one reason or another, but got to where we are because it’s where we are supposed to be.

But my mind was already unemployed. I didn’t have the courage to quit over our lunch after all, but did a week or two after that, and I imagined that it came as a relief more than a loss to him (though I’ll never actually know).

Having been one out of the seven or eight women in the development department, I had a clear pulse on where the others were and what they were up to as I was on my way out. One woman who started when I did was transitioning from the development department into the design department. She, like me, had entered the situation as a clear-cut Web designer with front-end development skills and crumbled a little, though with much more grace than I had.

Once the dust settled on my separation from the company, I started my freelance Web design career and stepped back into my element, using the design sense and coding languages/CMSs I knew and missed. It’s also when I declared myself "not a programmer" of the languages I failed to master. Not because I didn’t want to be, but because I legitimately believed I wasn’t capable of it.

To make a long story short, it wasn’t until a year or two later that I ever tried to do this kind of programming again. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had been avoiding these languages for nothing, as I was picking up the material rather quickly.

Looking back on my collection of experiences and especially my stint at the big tech company, I now have some advice for people in the same position:

1. Don’t Compare Your Beginning to Someone Else’s Middle.

First, just to get it out of the way, the guys that were picking up the new languages so easily had programmed with similar languages before. I wasn’t being fair to myself in my comparisons to others. Things aren’t always as they seem. You don’t always know just where other people are coming from.

2. Be OK With Making Mistakes.

Second, none of the developers "advising" me had actually learned what they knew from those gigantic books they were suggesting, but through the act of programming itself—and making lots of mistakes along the way, without being phased by them all that much.

So, if you’re attempting to DIY your website, or customize a theme and you’re making tons of mistakes – such is to be expected. With every mistake you make, you’re becoming more and more capable.

3. You can do just as much as you believe you can.

Third, and most importantly: It wasn’t me. I wasn’t broken. I just wasn’t in an environment that felt safe and comfortable for me to learn in, and I wasn’t able to relate to anyone what my needs were.

While with the company, I mistook every programming blunder (that I tried to keep as secret as possible) as a sign of my deficiency, but I know now it was that conclusion that led me to an unhappy ending. Believing in your ability to accomplish what you want is the first step to acquiring it. It’s the stuff that leads you out of fear into action.

When we are entertaining fearful thoughts and being overcome by it all, we’re literally "not in our right mind." According to neuroscientists, there’s an inverse relationship between use of the prefrontal cortex (the logical part of the brain) and the limbic system (the emotional part of the brain) that hinders our ability to think clearly about something when we have very strong feelings about it.

When I gave myself the benefit of the doubt- that maybe I’m not deficient, that maybe I could learn to program in another language—it flowed freely. It became so. (Read also: Tech Career Shift: 5 Factors to Consider.)

I love to talk about identity because it’s such an extraordinary thing. What we think of ourselves literally shapes who we are and who we become.

So listen: If you have a limiting belief about yourself like, "technology isn’t your thing," reconsider.

When you challenge that piece of your identity, don’t be surprised to see your abilities shift in accommodation.

Republished with permission from Stephanie Peterson. Original article can be found here: http://www.fairgroundmedia.com/turn-fear-into-action


Related Reading

Stephanie Peterson

Stephanie Peterson is an entrepreneurship enthusiast with a background in branding and Web design/development. She's a founder of the up-and-coming profile photo testing site for professionals,PhotoFeeler.com, and also blogs about e-commerce for microbusiness owners at FairgroundMedia.com, where she has created such helpful resources as the Etsy Pro WordPress plugin and The Ultimate E-Commerce Platform Comparison.