How to Code Like a Girl: Get Thee A Support Network

This is the first in an occasional series, How To Code Like a Girl. I would especially like to thank my support network, including my Patreon Patrons, and all the folks who’ve given me support and encouragement on this journey!

Why are there no women in code? It’s a really common (and really annoying) question. There’s talk about pipeline and pool (supply and existing talent). There’s a lot of handwringing. And there’s a lot of advice for women who are considering learning to code. Some of that advice is great. Some of it is entirely useless.

The most useful piece of advice I’ve gotten thus far was about creating a support network. While it was originally given to me as I was in the process of applying (and being accepted) to numerous boot camps, even as I’ve gone on with my plan B it’s turned out to be some of the best advice I’ve ever received. As I prepare this fall to attend a year long program at a local community college and do some self-learning and MOOCs on the side, I am calling on my support network a dozen ways every week.

First, how do you assemble a support network? With a focus on coding it’s both very similar and somewhat different to any social network you’ve made for yourself before. You’ll want to find people with a diverse array of abilities and talents, across a number of areas. For me, so far, this has included: places to stay if/when I got into a boot camp, people who know the specific coding languages I am working with, people who know other types of code or design skills I may need, people who know me really well and can tell when I’m getting close to burn out, people who know how to make a nutritious dinner in under thirty minutes, and people who are good at encouragement.

When putting together a support network for your journey in code, it seems obvious to pick people who know a lot about the thing you’re studying. Asking them to help you learn a thing they know might even seem simple and easy. But there are going to be a lot of gaps in your skills and abilities that you will come across that have nothing to do with code…and having people to help you in those places is also crucial to keeping yourself from getting derailed.

To build this first layer what I did was sit down and think of all the situations I could come up with off the top of my head where I needed, or might need, help. Then I reached out to at least one friend who could do each of the things on my list (some friends got hit up for more than one thing). I also reached out to my social media community, those valuable second and third level connections, to see if there were people lurking at those levels who could help me.

In addition to this basic level, I also have a level of network that are people I can call on for serious emotional backup. People I am not afraid of seeing me ugly cry. People who will pick up the phone at two in the morning when I think I am a fraud for even trying to do this. Because I have those days. You will have those days too, if you’re a woman who’s taking up learning code. Because everyone has those days.

Your support network will help you address problems getting into code, but they’re for every phase. Some of these folks will be able to help you find employment when you’re ready. Some of these folks will be the people who listen when, after a long day at a conference away from home, you just need to complain about the “brogrammer culture.” Some of these folks may even be folks whose couches you crash on to go to those conferences to save money.

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If you’re not a woman trying to get into code, and you’re reading this article, I hope you’re asking yourself how you can help support women trying to get into code. What you can do to be part of a support network. While the answers will tend to vary from person to person, and situation to situation, I can share with you a few things that have mattered to me and with the folks who are supporting me.

The most important is to find a way you can be helpful and meaningfully offer to help there. A lot of women are enculturated not to ask for help when entering male-dominated spaces (like code) because it can make them seem weak. That means that reaching out to the people we know to ask for assistance, even if it’s unrelated to the “male” domain we’re working in, can feel impossibly hard. Or like admitting we’re failing. Being consistent with your offer of help (and following up on it if a woman you know asks) can make the difference for someone between swimming and feeling like they’re drowning.

Consistency. If you offer to help, be there to help. If you agree to help, be there to help. One of the best things in terms of my networks has been that the folks who I’ve recruited have always answered my questions, been around to share my frustrations, and celebrated my joys with me. I know I can count on them, which makes it less intimidating to ask for support.

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A support network is the first tool in the toolbox of being a woman in code. It’s a foundational thing that will allow you to navigate through the problems and challenges you’ll face, and is the key to some of the other tools I’ll be talking about later in the series (like outsourcing your questions to the collective knowledge pool). But it doesn’t work if you’re not also giving back.

Use your support network, but also participate in it. It’s not just a tool, it’s a community.

 


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