Bullish: Reg Braithwaite On How Tech Can Help Women, Minorities, And Any Non-Schmoozers

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Photo via @wocintechchat #WOCinTech

In last week’s Bullish: Tech Skills Are Not Optional For Your Career, I argued that you owe it to your future self to be good at technology, and that it’s not cute to brag about being bad at it.

I also pointed out that you don’t have to want to work in IT to benefit from having good tech skills – if you can code, you can be more self-sufficient as an entrepreneur.

Furthermore, if you can make anything – whether it’s an excellent set of kitchen cabinets or an Android app – it’s a lot harder for someone to put you down, and when they do, they look like idiots, because your beautifully-hewn cabinets can be stuffed with bowling balls with no adverse consequences, or thousands of people are on your app right now, adding top hats, monocles, and canes to their family photos (please, someone make an app for that).

Also last week, I pointed readers towards a piece called A Woman’s Story, by Reg Braithwaite. The piece tells the story of Reg’s mother, Arlene Gwendolyn Lee née Barzey, finagling her way into being able to take a qualifying exam for a job as a computer programmer, back in the Mad Men days.

Gwen went on to have a long and fascinating career – Reg writes in a followup piece about uprooting the whole family to Nigeria in 1968 to write software for a new IBM computer that had been sold to a Nigerian university – and is now retired. When asked about the difficulties she faced, she responded, “I had it easy. The computer didn’t care that I was a woman or that I was black. Most women had it much harder.”

Like many people, I found this story compelling, so much so that I contacted Reg Braithwaite and asked him a few questions. Here’s Reg, complete with charming Canadian spellings.

Reg Braithwaite

Bullish: I very much enjoyed “A Woman’s Story.” Since you have the benefit of your mother’s perspective, and also work in IT, you’re an excellent person to ask: What do you think about the equalizing force of technology?

RB: I think it’s an amazing force of equality for women, people of color, and even for people with few economic resources. I’m not saying it has levelled the playing field, as evidence shows that some economic divides are widening, not narrowing. But I do think the Internet makes it easier for people to work together and do business together regardless of cultural heterogeneity.

What I find disturbing is that technology seems to have worked wonders to close colour gaps but not as much for gender gaps. I don’t know if there is something about technology that makes this so, or if there are larger social forces at work and technology is caught up in their ebbs and flows. But I do think that technology helps.

One of the important things about technology is that the Internet creates opportunities for people to work together no matter how remote they are from each other. This creates opportunities for people who are finding it hard to break into a clique locally. Once upon a time, if you didn’t play golf at the local country club (with all of the consequences that a restricted membership implies), you went nowhere. Today, you can find a support network of like-minded people anywhere. Mind you, today there are people from around the world competing with your business and your job, so the coin definitely has two sides.

Bullish: Is it still true today that hard skills can help a person succeed despite sexism, racism, or just other ways in which a person might not fit in?

My personal thesis at the moment is that, while women in IT today are still a small minority and any such woman is probably going to have to spend a lot of her day dealing with massive bullshittery, it’s also the case that being better with technology than everyone else outside the IT department at a company is a tremendous competitive advantage.

RB: Yes, of course. I’m reminded of what happened when people of colour broke into baseball and basketball in the US (it seems incredible, but once upon a time nobody wanted to watch black men play basketball). When the colour barriers were broken, the first people in had to be twice as good as their team mates to earn a spot. Ridiculously unfair in a sense, but “They were like diamonds: Hardened under pressure.”

I think the result is that a lot of the women you see in tech are really, really competent and that sets an immediate example that there is no a priori reason why a woman can’t or shouldn’t do any job. This is true in any field, but the nice thing about technology is that you can’t invent little bullshit explanations for a woman’s success. If a woman is a top salesperson, bigots can try to say it’s because she’s pretty, or because she sleeps with the boss who feeds her leads, or whatever nonsense they make up to live in denial.

Whereas if a woman is a top programmer, her code is right there to see. The computer doesn’t care about her looks. She doesn’t sleep with the computer. All those nonsense rationalizations are destroyed because technology is an empirical skill.

Bullish Note: I liked this quote so much that we made it a graphic. Feel free to Pin it.

Bullish: While your mother’s story is incredible, it’s also an excellent example of the phenomenon of women and minorities (not mutually exclusive categories, obviously) having to be superstars to even get to play. Do you think this is still the case in tech jobs?

RB: As I noted above, I think it’s still the case that women and people of colour have to be better. But I want to be specific about the negatives. It’s a bad thing when there are women who are discouraged to enter the field because they think they can’t be good enough to be superstars. I think it’s a bad thing when women are better than their colleagues but paid the same or less. I think it’s a bad thing when women are better than their colleagues but not recognized as such because people have a blind spot for how good they are.

I believe all these things still happen in technology, and I think we have to get better. I think they happen less today than a decade ago, but again I don’t know if that is because society overall is better in the west.

Bill Gates said, roughly, that if you’re trying to make your country competitive in technology, you can’t afford to play with only half a team. I think that observation is true at every scale: You can’t be competitive as a company, as a tech hub city, as a state or province, or as a country if you start the game by throwing away 50% of your players because they have an unlucky extra X chromosome.

Speaking in megalomaniacal terms, I think that’s true of us as a species as well. Imagine where the human race would be today if we’d had twice as many people inventing new things, discovering new cures, writing new programs, and starting new companies?

We can’t change the past, but there’s no inexorable force of nature preventing us from doing something differently today.

Bullish: Thanks, Reg.

Photo via @wocintechchat #WOCinTech

Photo via @wocintechchat #WOCinTech

Not only was “A Woman’s Story” pretty great, it was also through Reg Braithwaite’s writing that I came across Why Can’t Programmers Program?, alleging that – amazingly – 199 out of 200 applicants for a coding job can’t write any code at all. Meaning that if you’re the one who can, you can probably show up smelling like finely aged gorgonzola and still have a reasonable chance of being considered a find!

Consider this in opposition to my column from a couple months back, Bullish: Career Killers You Might Not Know Are Killing You, which catalogued a laundry-list of offenses that, according to employers and HR reps I surveyed, might hurt your career or keep you from getting hired. These offenses included lack of confidence, seeming juvenile, “non-conservative” shoes, an unorganized purse or man-bag, and keeping your hands too close to your groin during an interview.

Commenter LadyHR wrote:

“I wonder if these are sometimes just excuses? We judge people so quickly naturally and I am wondering if the only way a boss who has a knee-jerk dislike reaction (racist, sexist or just something they don’t care for) will look for these little things to place blame on so they can excuse not hiring someone with otherwise perfect qualifications.”

Sure. Probably. Absolutely. You can combat that by conforming hardcore, to the extent that you are able – or by having skills that are so valuable and undeniable that employers are motivated to overlook whatever it is about you that would tank you in a job interview requiring more nebulously-defined skills.”

This post rather stunningly highlights the differences in hiring for jobs that have a surfeit of qualified applicants, and jobs where finding a qualified candidate is like finding “a needle in a haystack.” In short: When they advertise for a soft-skills job, recruiters have such a huge pile of qualified applicants that they’ll ding resumes for even the slightest thing. When recruiters advertise for jobs for which few people are truly qualified, they can’t risk eliminating the one good programmer out of 200 resumes by killing cover letters with spelling mistakes. That is, for hard-skills jobs, recruiters have a financial incentive to look past shallow bullshit.

According to this post: “We hunt down the smart CS students and individually beg them to apply for an internship with us, because if you wait around to see who sends you a resume, you’re already missing out.”

Of course, many women have reported discrimination or hostility in tech fields. Not to make light of that.

But when you’ve got rare, useful, and lucrative skills, you can always go start your own company. And I don’t mean that flippantly – when you don’t need to hire tech people, starting your own company is a hell of a lot easier. Make an app, submit it to Apple, wait. Once you get approved, market the hell out of it.

Or, start a service company and be the tech darling of a million women entrepreneurs who are tired of being talked down to by their current web designers and SEO specialists and whatnot.

If I were just starting out now, there sure as hell would be a Productivity Unicorn app in the app store. Or if I hadn’t had a productivity-unicorn-type idea, I’d pitch people like (current) me and offer to make their apps for them and split the revenue.

See last week’s column for some thoughts on how to get started. You also might enjoy the Black Gurls in Tech blog.

In these columns, I say a lot of the same things repeatedly: Pitch things. Do things that don’t have applications. Don’t try to get by on being pretty or “adorably” incompetent (that won’t work for long, and it will annoy the hell out of other women, who are about half of the people you need to impress). Don’t be afraid to effect a painful separation from people who are holding you back. Build expertise. Develop a work portfolio. Quantify everything. Learn tangible skills.

I have often cited the 10,000 hour rule – that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something, and that this deliberate practice is far more important than any kind of natural aptitude. It’s also true that for skills that other people find difficult, scary, or boring, it takes far less than 10,000 hours to develop a marketable skill. In some contexts, “tech skills” means figuring out how to open and maintain a company Twitter account. If you spent twenty solid hours learning everything there is to know about that topic, I think you’d probably have it down. Boom, that’s a job skill.

Fortunately, Bullish is not for lazy people who lack concentration! (How would you have even read this far?!) Tech skills – and anything else you can see, quantify, and judge objectively – are an excellent, strategic way to forge a path in the working world.

originally published on The Grindstone