Technical Women Are Software Managers

One of my reviewers for the Modern Management Made Easy books asked a fascinating question:

I've never seen this many women in management or in senior leadership positions. Do these stories reflect your experience?

Yes, the stories reflect my experience. Let me offer a little history.

My History, Not Anyone Else's History

I started to work as a programmer in the mid-1970s. In school,  1/3 of my graduating class for Computer Science was women. (Okay, there were only 6 of us, and 2 were women. See, 1/3. Hehe.)

I was often the only woman in my hardware classes. Yes, the Computer Science curriculum had several required Hardware Engineering classes. I'm pretty sure my math classes had more women.

I had one female instructor. She did not have a Ph.D., so she was an “instructor.” All the rest of my professors were men. You might not be surprised—she was one of the two professors I learned the most from. (I mostly taught myself because the professors were so horrible at teaching.)

Up until the mid-1980s, women comprised about 1/3 of the technical people I worked with.  Up until the mid-80s, many of the software engineering jobs were for special-purpose machines or applications. Plenty of people worked in “IT,” which was strictly the business process automation for the company. I didn't work in IT, so I don't know enough about the ratio of women and men.

Then, in the mid-1980s the personal computer arrived. Before that, very few people had computers in their homes. The people with personal computers could (and did!) program at home.

And, because the companies marketed these personal computers to men and boys, many boys who had families with sufficient disposable money got a start programming before they went to college.

By the late 1980s to early 1990s, the field changed, at least in the United States. (I didn't know about other countries then.) Fewer women graduated with Computer Science degrees and fewer women applied for software jobs.

Women Quickly Dropped out of Studying Computer Science

I was surprised by how few women programmers I met, just a decade after I graduated from university. I started asking around. The men all boasted about their high school days.

I was not impressed with their so-called expertise. Too many of these educated people had no idea how to work as a collaborative team. The idea of a code review or a design review? They didn't need review—their code was just that good. (Let's not even discuss pairing or mobbing.)

These men believed in the cowboy coder, lone hero. They acted as if they were indispensable or 10x developers.

Make no mistake—I was certainly not immune from arrogance when I graduated from university. I suspect we all need a little arrogance to succeed in this industry. However, I was willing to work with other people. Most of these men did not see any value in working with other people.

Remember: None of them had ever seen any reward for working with other people. All their rewards arose from solo work.

When I had the chance to hire women and non-white men and women, they had similar stories:

  • Their parents didn't buy a personal computer because they didn't have the disposable income. Or, they thought that computers were just for boys.
  • As a result, they didn't start programming at home, in high school. (Later, in junior high or middle school.)
  • Each of these people felt behind before they even started.

What's so bad about that? Can't people catch up?

Maybe. I suspect you need a little obliviousness. (I excel at obliviousness.)

If you didn't start programming at home, you might well be lost when you took your first programming class. Especially if the professor taught to the people who already had programming experience. Not the people without experience.

And, if you didn't demand more information, as I did, you might well drop out of the computer science classes.

Consider the System

There's an entire system here we can consider:

  • Almost all the professors in Computer Science were men. (I didn't care about that, because I grew up in the reality that “men worked” and “women stayed home.” I knew that wouldn't work for me.)
  • No one chose these men for their empathy or teaching skills. Most of the time, universities select professors based on the professor's research or academic publishing record.
  • Young men started their intro Computer Science classes with experience and enthusiasm.
  • Young women started these same classes with curiosity. There's a big difference between experience and curiosity.
  • Professors are human. They tended to show preference to people who already understand the material, e.g. the men. What happens to the women in these classes? Too many of the women leave.

That started the idea of programming as a male-dominant field—in the United States.

Personal Computer: US Effects Differed from International Effects

I'm pretty sure much of the rest of the world took until the mid-late 1990s or even the early 2000s to be able to afford to buy personal computers. That's another 10-15 years. Those people tended to learn about programming at university with others—not at home alone.

And, if you look at other country's cultures, you can see the US might rank the highest on Individualism. We love the idea that each of us can make our own destiny, alone.

I started to travel internationally as a consultant in the late 1990s. I was surprised by the diversity of the teams I saw. Most teams had several female developers.  And, depending on the country, teams had people of color, too.

And, the managers?  Not an even 50-50 split, but many more women managers than in the US. Even at the C-level, internationally.

There were (at least) two reasons for those changes. Everyone started off on the same footing in their studies in school, and many of the European-culture companies didn't fall for the myth that they should promote the best technical person to management. (See Book 2 for what you can do about that myth.)

I'm sure there were other cultural factors, especially around power distance and uncertainty avoidance.

The more I traveled, the more I saw diverse teams and managers. Even when those teams worked in resource efficiency, they created terrific products.

Outside the US, people at all levels seemed to realize management was about people. Not tools, not technology, and definitely not process. People.

Management Is About People

Women and men can be effective technical managers. That's because management is about people.

As long as you care about people, you can be an effective manager.

If you don't like to work with people, I don't see how you can succeed as a manager.

Being able to work with people isn't enough—managers also need to understand the risks their teams encounter. And, the managers need to understand the customers who buy or use the products their teams build.

That understanding is all about systems:

  • Visualize and understand the team's system.
  • Use the greater organizational system to benefit the team and the product.

Understanding these systems? Definitely a challenge, but not a challenge limited to one gender.

That's why women can excel at managing technical teams and teams of people who solve technical problems.

Managers help create an environment where people can discuss those problems and resolve them. If managers can't talk with people, how can they create an environment where the people with the problem can support each other as they solve the problem?

Yes, the manager’s job is to create an environment in which everyone can do great work.

People manage themselves. Teams can learn to manage their interactions so they can create great products and services. And, the organization can deliver on the organization’s purpose—especially if it has diverse teams.

Can anyone be a good or great manager? Yes. That ability has nothing to do with a person's gender or economic background.

That's why the people in my Modern Management Made Easy books have female and male names. Many women are technical. And, many technical women excel as managers.

4 thoughts on “Technical Women Are Software Managers”

  1. I was in the first wave after the home computer became affordable. The home computer my dad bought the family changed my life. If I had been just a few years older, I would have missed that crucial timing and who knows what I’d be doing for a living today.

    I’m a data point of one, but my experience through college was that programming was a solitary pursuit. The group capstone project wasn’t a thing yet. Every line of code I wrote in college, I wrote alone.

    I went to a tough engineering school in Indiana. It was a fantastic education. However, the school was all male (then) and that did not set me up well for the working world. When I entered it, about 1/4-1/3 of all developers were women. It stayed that way through the mid-late 1990s in my experience. The women developers I worked with were my age or older as a strong rule. Very few were younger.

    A few years ago I led engineering at a startup and I had a dozen developers, all but two young white men in their 20s. The other two were white men in their early 30s. (Story for another day why I ended up with such a non-diverse team.) Talking with them I learned how much the scene had changed since my time. CS and Software Engineering degrees were seen as safe career choices, much like Business or Accounting had been in my day. CS/SE programs disproportionately attracted gamers, which were overwhelmingly men. Through those conversations I came away with a strong impression that the bro-gamer culture pushed women away — repelled most of the curious before they chose the major, and squeezed out the few who chose the major anyway.

    Among that team of young men, most of whom did not know each other before working there, I regularly had to push hard against the formation of that bro-gamer culture.

    Anyway, that’s another perspective on why so few women developers are available these days.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I totally believe you only wrote code as a solitary activity. I had just one “team” project, which wasn’t much of a team. (A separate story.)

      The fact that you saw about 1/4-1/3 women as developers was pretty good. The fact that very few women were younger than you tells a part of the story. And, thanks for reminding me of the gamer culture.

      I will say that I see many more female developers these days, especially in agile teams who’ve changed their culture. I wonder if that’s a function of where I consult and live? I would not be surprised. I tend to work mostly on either coast, and with organizations across the world who—in general—rank lower on the power distance, individualism, and (poorly named) masculine/feminine scales than the US. (Masculine is more about achievement, and feminine is supposed to be liking what you do.)

      If we think tech should be a meritocracy, we have a lot of work to do.

  2. Johanna, thank you for this insightful piece! You touch on a number of points that have fascinated, bothered and baffled me over the years. It’s great to read both your personal perspective and your systemic analysis. I hope to contribute to the conversation when time allows (if it’s at all appropriate for a man to do so), but for now, let me simply say “thank you!”

    1. Carl, please do contribute to the conversation whenever you have the time and inclination. How can we learn about each other if we don’t talk with each other?? You’re welcome.

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