IT professionals often don’t get an honest portrayal in the entertainment industry and, for better or worse, the mass perception of Computer Science has been influenced by what people see on their TV screens. Either we sit in a dingy dark room, littered with empty energy drink cans, staring at a terminal with green font flashing and passing by at light speed – with sound effects, or we are cool rich guys creating programs that become self-aware. There really isn’t a middle ground and these perceptions either drive people to developing an insatiable curiosity in the field or becoming fearful and believing that they aren’t mentally fit to join the club.
The demographic of the modern programmer isn’t what it was back in the 70’s. Most IT professionals were – well…Professionals. They were mathematicians, engineers, scientists, accountants, etc. often in their 30’s or 40’s. The programming industry was almost 50% women. What on earth happened?
Well, I have a theory. Computer Science (CS) wasn’t a course at any universities at that time, so youngsters really had no way of entering the field. Not to mention the fact that what they called a computer back then isn’t what we have today. They were big, expensive and obviously fewer. There were no operating systems. They wrote code by hand which was then converted into punch cards that could be fed into the computer and you had better pray that what you wrote was correct – which, if you code, you know it often isn’t – because then you would have to start that lengthy process from scratch. Blessed are those that came before us, for they were a resilient few. By the time we had a CS course it was the 80’s and young adults could learn how to code.
The 80’s was definitely one of the most defining times in modern history. We saw technology really being embraced in the media. Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Terminator and many more franchises showed us a world of technology that seemed almost impossible. In lots of ways we are still catching up the imaginations of the filmmakers and science fiction writers. But I find this time very interesting because it gave birth to the geek culture which has lasted to this day. This culture was very young and male dominated. It was a kind of cult to those who were part of it. This must have driven the women away. Women in general still don’t get the culture. Heck, even I don’t get it to the degree of hardcore followers. Now think about how we perceive these “geeks” in society. Beady eyed, brace faced, drooling, good-grade-getting teens with bad acne (is there good acne?) and thick glasses, always getting bullied by the “jocks”. Truth is, in a quest to fit in, teens only hang out with the group that they relate to and/or accepts them. Learning became the uncool thing and Disco was in. The media neatly crafted and packaged nerd culture. Being a cool kid meant you didn’t even greet the nerd – unless shoving someone into a wall counted as a greeting. And so that was that. Programmers were part of a culture that embraced creativity, logic and intelligence and frowned upon anything less, because in order to be a programmer you needed to love learning and solving problems. Being a cool kid meant you had to love partying, gossip and creating problems.
Things have changed somewhat. Programmers today come in different shapes and sizes. Still not many hourglass shapes, but we’re getting there. The next generation of teens will definitely be more in-tune with technology and the true culture of the geek or the “hacker”. Those that fail to see the power of new technologies will be left behind. Computers are so much more accessible and all schools are starting to teach coding. With innovative colleges like We Think Code and 42, the future of what we perceive as an IT professional will be completely different to what we have today.
It’s now up to us to make sure that our kids become programmers rather than the programmed. It’s in the small things that we spot the young coder. The little kid that breaks his/her toys to find out how they work. Kids are naturally curious and it’s up to us to nurture that curiosity and not reprimand or punish them for it. We interact with technology every day and we would only be empowering them by encouraging them to learn how to control that technology as creators in the same way that we might teach them how to play a musical instrument. I envision a world where the modern programmer is anyone, in a society that frowns on those that shun learning. Let’s make it happen.
by Sherwin Hulley