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Changing the Image of Software Developers to Achieve Higher Diversity

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We have to break the cycle of hiring ourselves over and over again to achieve higher levels of diversity in the software industry, argues Birgitta Böckeler. According to her, things are slowly changing; organizations increasingly focus on diversity and inclusion. There are a lot of people out there who could be great and very happy to become a software developer, but they never even discover it.

In the article Born for it - How the Image of Software Developers Came about, Böckeler described that the first computer was programmed by women:

The women programming the ENIAC — one of the very first electronic, general purpose, digital computers — are widely considered to be the first programmers. At the time, the word "programmer", or the concept of a program, did not even exist yet. The six women (...) were hired to "setup" the ENIAC to perform "plans of computation". More specifically, they were teaching the machine to calculate trajectories of weapons, to be used by soldiers in the field. The ENIAC women were recruited from the existing groups of women who up until then had been calculating these plans manually.

Birgitta Böckeler, lead consultant and software developer with ThoughtWorks, spoke about the image of software developers and how that impacts diversity in the software industry at GOTO Berlin 2016. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

The psychologists William M. Cannon and Dallas K. Perry published a paper on the "vocational interest scale for computer programmers". They came up with one unusual characteristic of programmers: they like to work with "things" rather than people, and have a disinterest in people, said Böckeler. This image of what a good software developer looks like has significantly influenced who was selected and hired to program computers in the 1960s. According to Böckeler, today’s hiring decisions are still impacted by the image of software developers that was shaped more than 50 years ago.

InfoQ interviewed Birgitta Böckeler about the reasons companies started recruiting males, how the software industry is being impacted by diversion and inclusion and what individuals can do in their daily work to increase it, and the benefits that organizations can gain from having a strategy that supports diversity.

InfoQ: Your article describes that the first programmers actually were women, but after that mostly men were recruited for programming jobs. What were the main reasons for recruiting males?

Birgitta Böckeler: When big companies first started hiring programmers, nobody really knew what abilities were needed to be a good programmer. So in the 60s, companies introduced aptitude testing and personality profiles as a means to identify potential programmers. Using test scores seems objective and gender neutral. But those tests did inadvertently check skills and look for characteristics that favored males. For one thing, they were very heavy on math questions, a subject that was less available to women at the time. Take British software pioneer Stephanie Shirley: as a child, she needed to get special permission and transfer to a boys school to get advanced math education, as it was not offered at her all-girls school.

The general sexism of that time of course also played a role. At first, programming was something very manual and mechanical. Once it turned out that writing software was a lot more scientific and intellectual than everybody initially thought, the perception of who could do it also shifted.

InfoQ: There’s a lot ongoing about diversity and inclusion. Has this impacted the software industry?

Böckeler: I do think that things are changing, albeit very slowly. More and more companies are increasingly focusing on diversity, and there is more pressure to release hard numbers. There are at least a few conferences who manage to have a more diverse group of speakers.

However, it still seems difficult to get a better sense of the situation outside of the US, as most of the available facts and articles on this topic come from there. I recently tried to find some numbers for my home country, Germany, but I did not succeed. My impression is that on average, there is still not a lot of willingness to put in the work necessary to change the status quo.

I would like to believe that we’re at the beginning of a transition phase, and that the increased noise- good and bad- is a sign of diversity growing pains that we need to get through.

InfoQ: What can individuals do in their daily work when they would like to increase diversity and inclusion?

Böckeler: To simplify, let’s say diversity was all about recruiting, and inclusion about retention.

When we’re involved in recruiting, being self-aware and admitting to our biases is really important. To me, it was really eye-opening when I discovered the narrative of self-selection and the similarity-attraction effect – what if boys don’t "just like computers more", what if instead, they have been hiring themselves over and over again? What if we started off with this one programmer personality profile in the 60s and continuously reinforced it? One thing you can do to fight your biases is to change what you see. With social media, you have the power to do that, to see more diverse groups of people and perspectives, but you have to deliberately change your follow-behavior, or seek out stories like those on

After hiring people with more diverse skills and backgrounds, inclusion is important, especially while the work force is still rather homogeneous. When we add people to a group who are different from the majority, we should not expect them to just adapt and "fit in". That would not only defeat the purpose of creating more diverse teams, but also create the risk that those people feel like outsiders in a strong existing culture and just quit. There are so many in our profession who are really passionate about what they do, and identify strongly with it, and I actually love that. But to really open ourselves up for people with different personalities, skills and backgrounds, we all have to be open to changes to that culture we identify with. And that might start with little, seemingly silly things like the jokes and cultural references we make, like not assuming that everybody who can write good code also knows the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars.

InfoQ: What are the benefits organizations can gain from having a strategy that supports diversity?

Böckeler: There are lots of great resources talking about the benefits of diversity. Differences of opinion and perspective make us smarter and more creative, driving innovation. There are also studies showing that more diverse companies have an increased probability to outperform the industry average by up to 35%.

In the IT industry in particular, the benefits of diversity also come down to a simple question of talent supply. Everywhere you look, companies are struggling to hire software developers. I believe that there are a lot of people out there who could be great and very happy at this job, but they never even discover it. I think it’s a combination of the public image of what the job is (the caricature of the male, anti-social, basement-dwelling programmer), and on the flip side our expectations of what "real programmers" should be like. If we can change those two baselines, we can open up whole new pools of talent that companies could tap into.

And finally, it cannot be said often enough that increasing diversity in tech is just the right thing to do – considering the enormous influence that technology has on our lives today, it’s crucial that the people who build it are representative of the people who use it.

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