Women in Tech: If You Want to Learn to Code, Just Do It (Now!)

By Robert Half on July 7, 2016 at 3:00pm

Ever-growing demand for developers has many aspiring women in tech wondering if they should learn to code.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects in its Occupational Outlook Handbook that employment for both web developers and software developers will see double-digit growth through 2024. And the global mobile app market is expected to generate more than $100 million in revenues by 2020.

These are compelling reasons for anyone to consider pursuing a developer career. But certainly, it’s clear that the developer workforce, like the tech workforce in general, has ample room for more women. A recent survey by Stack Overflow found a “dramatic disparity” between the percentage of men (92.8 percent) and women (5.8 percent) working as developers.

Even though the developer website notes that the percentage of women is probably higher than reported because there was an underrepresentation in the survey of people from countries like South Korea, India and China “where developers have an increased likelihood of being women,” the gap is still glaring.

Barriers to becoming a developer are slipping away for everyone interested in this career path.

Some up-and-coming women in tech might be hesitant to act on their desire to learn to code because of the gender gap issue in tech, worried that the career track could prove to be a struggle. Some women may also assume there is little point in even trying to become a developer because they don’t have a computer science degree.

But according to Ryan Carson, CEO of online technology school Treehouse, barriers to becoming a developer are slipping away for everyone interested in this career path because “the whole landscape is changing.” He says, “It’s an exciting time for aspiring developers.” (It’s also worth noting that a recent study suggests women may write better code than men.)

If you have ‘grit,’ then go for it

Carson emphasizes that developing is for anyone — especially people who are “curious” and have “grit.” He says, “Coding is a trade. And we’re seeing more companies starting to figure out that your skills, and the projects you’ve built, are more important than whether or not you have a computer science degree — or even a university degree in some cases.”

To underscore his point, Carson tells the story of one recent graduate of Treehouse’s Techdegree program, which prepares people for entry-level developer jobs. He says this person had all but given up on her dream to become a developer because a high school teacher had strongly recommended she become an engineer instead. That advice did not appeal to her, so she worked as a nanny until she could no longer ignore her passion for developing.

According to Carson, the newly minted developer was snapped up by an automotive enthusiast magazine to work as a quality assurance (QA) developer. “Her resume was essentially a list of her projects,” says Carson. “The employer called her in for an interview and asked her to develop a simple weather app. She said, ‘I’ve never done that, but I know how to figure it out.’ She did — and she got the job.”

Answer this question first: Do I even like coding?

Stephanie Shupe, senior software engineer at mobile security company Lookout, and an advisor to global nonprofit Women Who Code, says there are many learning pathways for beginning developers. She also agrees that women who want to become developers but don’t have a computer science degree should not sell themselves short. Shupe herself decided to learn to code after earning a civil engineering degree and following that career track for a few years.

“To really learn to code, and retain knowledge, you need to do real projects — not just exercises in the browser.”

“I got started as a developer by learning some basics through Codecademy,” says Shupe. “This kind of resource is a good place to start because it helps you decide whether you even like coding, and if you enjoy this type of problem solving.” (This video from Treehouse, featuring Carson, can also help you choose your direction.)

Shupe says resources like Codecademy can help novice developers overcome another common obstacle to learning the trade: “Setting up your computer environment with the tools and processes you need for developing can be very frustrating. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to get stuck and just give up,” she explains. “Codecademy lets you code right in the browser, so there is nothing you need to do to get things to work.”

Shupe suggests that new developers learn Ruby or JavaScript because these programming languages are common. However, she says just getting started is more important than choosing a language. “I learned JavaScript first, but I don’t even use it now,” she says.

Making the move from dabbling to developing

Shupe says that women in tech need to commit to digging deeper with their education once they’re sure developing is right for them. “To really learn to code, and retain knowledge, you need to do real projects — not just exercises in the browser,” she says.

Shupe offers these tips for taking things to the next level:

  • Move to a tutorial or a book. “Build on the language you’ve started learning by taking part in an online tutorial or investing in a book for beginners,” says Shupe. A quick online search will help you to find many options on both fronts. Shupe says just choose whatever resource you believe best fits your learning style and will keep you engaged. Another tip: Be sure the tutorial or book provides detailed guidance on how to set up your computer environment.
  • Get involved in a developer community. “It’s important to connect with people who can answer questions, help you overcome roadblocks, and provide support as you learn to code,” says Shupe. Women Who Code, Girls Develop It, Women’s Coding Collective and Ladies Learning Code are examples of developer communities geared toward women. There are a wide range of non-gender specific groups to choose from, as well. Meetups are another option for finding people in your local area who are passionate about the programming language you’re learning.
  • Attend boot camps or classes. “If you think you would benefit from hands-on learning, look into a coding camp,” says Shupe, adding that she was in one of the “early waves” of developers who completed App Academy’s intensive program. She also suggests looking to community colleges for short-term courses.

According to Carson, Treehouse’s Techdegree program is designed to offer all of the above in a “cohesive experience”: affordable learning that lets students work at their own pace, mentor and peer support, and structured, rigorous coursework that is graded by experts.

The support aspect, he says, is particularly important. “Learning to develop takes time — and yes, grit. The encouragement and feedback you receive as you learn to code are key to your success.”

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