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Born for it: How the Image of Software Developers Came About

The stereotype of the socially-awkward, white, male programmer has been around for a long time.  Where does this image come from? Did the demographics of the world’s programmer population really evolve naturally, because “boys just like computers more”? What shaped our perception of programmers? This text is about some possible explanations I found when reading about the history of computing.

Did demographics of programmer profession really evolve naturally, because “boys like computers more?”
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The following is an excerpt from the original article published on martinfowler.com.​

Coders

Nathan Ensmenger is a professor at Indiana University who has specialised in the social and historical aspects of computing. In his book “The Computer Boys Take Over”, he explores the origins of our profession, and how programmers were first hired and trained.

The title of the book is a reference to where it all started...with the “Computer Girls.” The women programming the ENIAC, one of the very first electronic, general purpose, digital computers, are widely considered to be the first programmers, back in the 1940s. At the time, the word “programmer,” or the concept of a program, did not even exist yet.

This interview with Jean Bartik from the Computer History Museum offers a glimpse into the way Jean and her colleagues approached the task. She describes how those very first programmers already appreciated the value of pair programming, a concept that took more than 50 years (and Kent Beck’s book, “Extreme Programming”) to get its name:

“Betty Snyder and I, from the beginning, were a pair. And I believe that the best design and all that stuff is done by pairs because you can criticize each other, find each other’s errors, and use the best ideas.”

The ENIAC women at work (Wikimedia Commons)
[The ENIAC women at work, Wikimedia Commons]

Computer “setup” was a very mechanical process at the time, it was seen as handicraft and mechanical, as opposed to scientific and intellectual. Nobody paid much attention to software yet, most of the focus was on hardware.

But it turned out that the challenge of software development had been sorely underestimated—they soon found that programming was hard, and error-prone.

Born, not made

It was hard for IT companies in the '50s and '60s to figure out what skills were needed for this totally new profession. They needed programmers to be really good, because they were panicking about errors. At the same time, they had no specific idea of the necessary skill set. Companies started to think that programmers had to be born, “not made,” and that programming was a “Black Art.” How do you recruit people for a profession like that, when at the same time the demand increases rapidly?

One approach the big players in the industry took at the time to identify and recruit programmers were aptitude tests, to filter for traits thought essential to good programming, such as logical thinking and abstract reasoning. In 1967 alone, 700,000 individuals took the IBM “Programmer Aptitude Test”, which at the time was basically the gateway into the programming occupation.

But these aptitude tests were not enough for some, among them SDC, a company hired in the '50s by IBM to work on one of the largest software projects at the time, the SAGE. SDC claims they “trained the industry”, hiring thousands of programmers in the late '50s and early '60s.

They commissioned two psychologists, William M. Cannon and Dallas K. Perry, to define a “vocational interest scale” for programmers, a personality profile to predict which type of people had a good chance to become happy programmers. Cannon’s and Perry’s paper, published in 1966, concluded that programmers "are crazy about puzzles and tend to like research applications and risk taking". Overall, the profile was pretty similar to other white-collar work, except for one striking characteristic: They decided that programmers "don't like people."​

A self-fulfilling prophecy

So let’s recap:

700,000 individuals took the same test to determine if they could become apt programmers.

The company that “trained the industry” chose their employees based on a template that included “disinterest in people”.

Ensmenger’s conclusion:

“The primary selection mechanism used by the industry selected for antisocial, mathematically inclined males, and therefore antisocial, mathematically inclined males were overrepresented in the programmer population; this in turn reinforced the popular perception that programmers ought to be male, antisocial and mathematically inclined, and so on.”

If you look at what the stereotype of a typical programmer is today, 50 years later, Ensmenger makes a very convincing point. Are we still expecting “real programmers” to be like this? And even worse, on the flip side, are we suspecting people who do not match this image of not being “real programmers”?

A single model to identify potential programmers

In the highly recommendable book “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” the authors, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, describe an email exchange between two high school teachers. The male teacher is writing “I have yet to run into a girl like that,” and by that he means a girl who loves computers and wants to be programming all night. His female counterpart is calling this statement out as a misassumption. Girls may just show their love for computers and science very differently.

“If we are using a single model to identify potential programmers, we will miss many potential students.”

Are we looking for “passion” for computers in only a few places? Let’s say you believe people are indeed “born for IT,” with a larger aptitude and inclination towards programming and working with computers in general—if parents, educators, role models and society in general teach and convey a very specific image of what programmers are like, many of those people might never even discover this aptitude.

Let’s break the cycle!

Self-selection

What is the “vocational interest scale” in your head? How does it affect the way you are interviewing and choosing candidates for programmer jobs? Or when you are describing to other people what our job is like? How do we all contribute to the perpetuation of the programmer image, every day?

Something I always wondered about was why such a majority of programmers seem to like science fiction and fantasy (myself included). I actually thought there must be a correlation. Now I am finally starting to suspect, there is not a natural link at all, it’s all just self-selection!

Don’t think the status quo is “just natural.” And don’t let a few men in the '60s still determine who we are. Let’s break the cycle of hiring ourselves over and over again.

Read the full version of this article for more suggestions how to keep our self-selection bias in check.