The Clean Code Blog

by Robert C. Martin (Uncle Bob)

Women in Tech

14 August 2017

I started my career as a programmer in 1969 at a company called A.S.C. Tabulating in Lake Bluff, Illinois. ASC had two IBM 360s that they rented out to customers. They also provided programming services for those customers. I was hired as a COBOL programmer at the tender age of 18. I was horrible at it.

The other programmers there were all in their thirties or forties. And, perhaps, a third of them were women.

I worked there for a couple of years and got to know the men and women pretty well. They taught me a lot. One of the women had to take over a program that I couldn’t seem to get right. She saved my bacon. But that was common, we all helped each other when we could.

A few months after being hired, some of us, including two of the women, began working on a minicomputer system that offered a real-time accounting system to Local 705 Trucker’s union in Chicago. We were replacing a GE Datanet 30 with a Varian 620/f. We had no libraries, no frameworks, no nothing. The code was all written on punched cards in assembler.

Again, the women were just part of the team. Nobody treated them differently. They were just as talented and dedicated as anyone else. At least that’s the way my 18 year old brain percieved the situation.

In fact, my 18 year old brain didn’t give it a lot of thought. The issue wasn’t present. Nobody was talking about the problem of Women in Tech back then. The situation just was what it was. I took it to be completely normal. I took it for granted.

I changed jobs a couple of times in the following years. Looking back on it, I can identify two trends. First, every time I changed jobs the average age of the programmers went down. The thirties and forties gave way to the twenty-somethings. Second, the number of women significantly decreased from one third to one tenth, or less.

These changes were not something I noticed at the time. I only see them now by looking back. Again, in the 70s and 80s the issue of women in tech had not entered my awareness. It wasn’t on my mind, or any of the minds around me. I was obvlivious to the issue.

In the early 90s I started a contract programming company. RCM Consulting Inc. I hired four of the best programmers I knew to help out with it. Two men, and two women. I didn’t think anything at all about the genders. What mattered to me was the talent. The women and men were paid and treated identically. We were all part of a team.

The systems we wrote were very technical. Some were Windows GUI apps on the order of Autocad. Others were deeply mathematical computational geometry applications. This was real techie, nerdy, stuff. I loved it.

The code in those systems had no gender bias. You could not look at a source file and tell whether a man or a woman wrote it. It was just code. And it was good code, for the day, too. We delivered those systems, and they rocked!

I did not become aware of the women in tech issue until the day of my, now notorious, keynote talk at RailsConf’09. In this keynote I made a bad joke about C++ being the testosterone of languages, and Java being the estrogen of languages. When I invented that joke, I didn’t think it was offensive because I was making fun of the stereotypes. You can watch it at about 9 minutes into the video. It did not occurr to me that anyone could interpret that as a serious gender slur. It seemed the opposite to me.

Of course I was wrong about that. Some folks took significant exception to it. After giving it some thought I realized that my attempt at gender stereotype humor was inartful, and I apologized. I also began to realize that there was an issue that I had stumbled upon.

You may wonder how I could have been ignorant of that issue. It’s not like the women in tech issue began in 2009. My excuse, for what it’s worth, is that, up to that point, I did not focus on the social issues of programming much. I was then, and am now, much more interested in the technology itself. So the issue took me by surprise.

Now I am not always the sharpest tack in the drawer – especially about people issues. So the ‘09 Rails talk was not the last time I managed to offend a group of people regarding gender issues. I won’t go into all the details. Suffice it to say that I managed to “step in it” a few more times and have been corrected, more than once. Those corrections were sometimes made politely, and sometimes not. In every case, however, I thought about the complaints and issued appropriate apologies if I thought they had a reasonable point.

This brings us to James Damore’s now infamous memo at Google for which he was fired. After a careful reading of that memo, I came to the conclusion that the firing was a huge mistake, and that the CEO of Google should resign or be fired. A company that depends upon innovation and creative thinking cannot survive if it stifles creative thought by firing people who disagree.

I’m not here to argue that point. I made the point in a previous blog, and in subsequent tweets and facebook posts.

I enjoy a good debate. I like to argue. It’s one of the most important ways that I learn. So I engaged those who disagreed with me with enthusiatic energy. Some folks engaged back. Some folks swore and made nasty accusations. Some blocked or unfollowed me. Some regretted buying my books. etc. etc. This is all pretty normal stuff on the internet nowadays.

But today I stumbled across a long twitter thread that I can only describe as intentional character assassination. The author of this thread is misrepresenting facts and making some pretty nasty accusations. Again this is not all that unusual, except for the fact that I was not invited to defend myself.

Usually people call me out on twitter by using my twitter handle. This allows me to see and respond to their complaints and accusations. But the author of this particular thread, and all the participants therein, were assiduously avoiding this practice.

Now, of course, nothing on Twitter is private. Anyone who says something mean about someone else must know that their words will eventually get back to the person they are talking about. So I can’t imagine that the author really wanted long term privacy. I think what the author really wanted was momentum. It is difficult to defend yourself against a frothy mob.

The gist of this author’s thread is that I am a misogynist; and that I should not be taken seriously in any regard. I understand that efforts have been made to have me excluded from conferences, and to boycott the publisher of my books, etc.

I am not a misogynist. I do not hate women. I do not think women are less capable than men. I do not think women are less able to program than men. I am a 64 year old white male who grew up with Bewitched, Father Knows Best, and Petticoat Junction and this has certainly colored my sense of humor and outlook. I am working on that. But, more importantly, I am in no way opposed to women becoming programmers and leaders.

I don’t engage in character assasination. I don’t try to undercut people simply becuase I disagree with them. I don’t drive twitter slur campaigns. I’d have a tough time looking myself in the mirror if I did.

Is character assasination really the strategy that is most likely to help women in tech? I don’t think so.