In light of another person in a position of power making another naive remark that discourages specific groups of people from daring to try something new, I’d like to take a moment to share some advice with everyone, based on my experiences in the tech industry.
Here’s the tl;dr of my background, and why this topic is so important to me: I went from a confused recent grad with a BA in Nobody Cares working for minimum wage at Starbucks with five figures in medical debt, to a professional software engineer in 2 years. I did this after hours, around a full-time work schedule.*
Now, as a “woman in tech” and someone who “learned to code” very recently (our industry sure does love catch phrases), I want to share some advice for anyone out there who is trying to better themselves, and is feeling discouraged by the ocean of discouragement that’s out there on the web. You needn’t be a member of an oppressed group for this to be helpful for you, but if you’re trying to learn something new, this advice is for you:
- “You can’t do this because you are _____” is wrong. End of story. Fin. I don’t care what anyone puts in that blank space when they are talking to you. Old? No. Female? No. Already graduated? No. Not a college grad? No. I don’t care what it is. You are fine. It is not too late. You are not too _____ to succeed. Anyone who tells you otherwise can choke on it.
- Your filter is your greatest asset. Therefore, you need to begin fine-tuning your filter now.** The trick to learning anything is to expose yourself to as much information about your craft as possible, and to as many talented people in your industry as possible. Read everything you can, listen to everyone you can, and then FILTER IT. Use your common sense. Does what this person is telling you make sense? Does it seem like good advice? Do they seem like they have your best interest in mind? As you grow, your filter will get better, your path will become clearer, and you will fall for less bullshit. You’ll learn how to recognize whose advice is valuable, and whose is toxic.
- Figure out who is trying to hurt you. The sad truth is that there are a lot of people in our industry who would love nothing more than to put you down in order to bring themselves up. This could be simply to bring their own personal egos up, or to eliminate you as future competition while you’re still small. Some people will even do it unintentionally. The other sad truth is that our society still harbors quite a bit of sexism, racism, and classism, and others will (both intentionally and unintentionally) use it to try to scrape you out of the runnings. Learn to recognize these people early, and don’t listen to them. In my life, these were the people who blamed my failures on my gender, used rape jokes as mnemonics to teach me about tech, treated me like an idiot for making common mistakes, or even simply disguised the work they did and refused to write documentation to prevent others from learning how to do a new (much simpler than they tried to make it seem) task. Sometimes the tactics people use will be glaring and obviously terrible, and other times they will be subtle, difficult to spot, and almost impossible to call out. Use your filter. Figure out who these people are, and realize that their advice is not valuable.
- Figure out who is trying to help you. On a more positive note, there are a lot of great people in our industry who will put aside their personal time to try to help you. I owe much of my success to coworkers and friends who heard me out, believed in me, and dedicated their time to helping me learn. When I was new, it was these same people who thought of me when a position opened up at their company. Your job is to figure out how to recognize these people, to listen to them, and to keep them close. They will help you learn, help you find opportunities, and hear you out when you need someone to talk to about the people in the group above. And remember: The day will come when you will be in a position to help others, and these will be the first people you’ll think of when it’s time to give back. For me, I’m finally in a position to give back, and run a free weekly meetup to help others learn to code. I will literally sit with you an tell you everything I know, if you bother to show up. I’m not the only one who does this. If you don’t know where to look, I highly recommend meetup.com for finding groups of helpful people near you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask good people for help. You need to be vocal, and be willing to ask them for help. Listen to them when they offer it, and ask questions. The best people with the best intentions may not help you if you don’t make it known that you need it. Watch this fantastic video with Steve Jobs on asking for help, and then go out and do it. When I was new, I got the head of our front-end engineering department at my office to spend many Friday evenings helping me one-on-one to understand the basics of pointers and memory allocation. One-on-one tutoring from a very successful industry professional is rare and expensive, but he did it for free. He did this because he’s a fantastic person who had a bit of free time, but he never would have done it if I hadn’t talked to him frequently about my efforts, and asked for his help. I have countless other stories like this about people in our industry who took time out of their lives to help me. I didn’t do this on my own, and you probably won’t either. Many great people all played a part in helping me succeed, and I would have had a much harder time if I hadn’t asked for their help.
*Some have chosen lately to use their success stories to put others down. Let me be clear from the start that I do not support the attitude of “I did it, therefor something is wrong with everyone else who can’t” that is infecting our industry. People who say that are not doing any of us any favors. I am using my success story as a sign of hope for others that it is possible to begin a new trade later in life, despite the fact that others in our industry are spreading rumors that you must be a hyper-privileged tech evangelist before puberty in order to be worthy of your career choice.
**To be very clear: This is not “grow a thick skin”, and this is not “Lean In”. Systematic oppression of minority groups is a real issue, and this is not to inform victims of oppression to “deal with it” as opposed to telling oppressors to “cut it the fuck out.” There are many good people working every day to bring us equality, but we do not have the privilege of waiting for sexism to be over before we can begin our careers. This is to help those who are trying to better themselves to find a path to success today. If you’d like to aid in the fight to bring about equality, I recommend providing your support (financially, if you can) to the people who are bearing the weight of the fight every single day, such as Ashe Dryden.