Jami Gibbs
Written by Jami Gibbs who lives and works in Chicago as a developer.   You should follow her on Twitter 👋

Learning to Code

What took you so long?

February 03, 2016

I’m in my 30’s and learning how to code. Compared to the 20-something VC funded startup founders, I feel downright ancient.

That’s not to say that I’m entirely new to the development community. I’ve been building WordPress themes for years but the honest truth is that the knowledge it takes to build a WordPress theme doesn’t necessarily translate into other skills outside of WordPress itself. Sure you pick up on a bit of PHP along the way but there’s a significant skill jump between that and say, building a weather application from JavaScript.

So I’ve been asking myself lately, “What took you so long”?

In the Beginning, There was DOS

As a child of the 80’s, I grew up with various PCs. The large, boxy, gray plastic encased type of PCs that only booted to a DOS prompt. I found them beyond fascinating. My uncle was studying computer science and he would bring by long sheets of dot matrix printed lines of code that, when entered into the computer exactly right, would play a game or something fun. I had no idea what I was typing but it felt like I was creating something.

We upgraded not long after to Windows 1.0 which absolutely blew my mind. I was hard wired to run programs from the command line and couldn’t quite grasp the concept of dragging windows around the screen. When I accidentally moved a screen beneath another one and couldn’t find it, I had to call my father in the help me because I thought I had broken it.

From there we progressed to AOL, Flight Simulator, and other programs that every American household had. It was an exciting time to be learning about computers!

The First Coding Class

In the mid-90’s, I was a sophomore in high school and the internet age was gearing up fast and furious. Nobody had cells phones yet but computers were beginning to be a part of most people’s lives in some way. Whether it was chat rooms at home or playing Oregon Trail when your typing teacher wasn’t looking, we all had a hand in it somehow.

I still had a passion for computers so when my high school offered a class on the BASIC language, I jumped at the opportunity. That’s not to say I didn’t have some anxiety. I was 15 years old and a bit insecure (as most high school girls are) but I remembered how much I loved messing around with my PC at home and how fun it was trying to get those dot matrix lines of code to work when I was younger.

On my first day of class, I was a little early (out of excitement, of course) and sat down at one of the 20 computer terminals arranged against each of the four walls of the room. With a big empty center space, I imagined that arrangement made it easier for the teacher to scan our work from behind.

As I watched students come in one-by-one, I started to realize that I was the only girl. That is, until a teacher walked in. Thank goodness! I felt immensely better then. She was actually our high school gym teacher moonlighting as a programmer. She admitted that she’d never programmed in BASIC before but she worked through the problems with much more ease than any of us could and explained things well enough.

Even though we were doing very simple logic, it felt very empowering and challenging.

I mostly kept to myself as did most of the other nerdy boys…. except for one. Midway through the course, things changed drastically. It started off innocent enough with long glances and his attempts to have a conversation. When I found out he played guitar too, I thought it would be a great chance to jam with someone, swap tablature sheets, and maybe start a band. He convinced me to take his bus back to his house after school one day so we could play guitar together. I didn’t know his parents wouldn’t be home and I didn’t know that playing guitar meant something different to him. I was throughly uninterested and quite honestly, a little freaked out by how aggressive he was.

Class turned into an uncomfortable steam room after that. He wasn’t very nice and his presence was a complete distraction. The class was getting to be much more difficult too and there wasn’t any Stack Overflow at the time. Our final project was a tic-tac-toe game that I was only able to finish because of the help from another boy in the class that was sweet and brilliant and kind.

By the end of the semester, I was entirely deflated and my confidence as a programmer had bottomed out. Could I have just ignored him and focused entirely on the material? Perhaps but it takes confidence in yourself to do that and high school is a tough place to find that mystical element.

Final Thoughts

It would be 10 years before I tried to program again. This time it would be with a (not so well known at the time) CMS called WordPress. And another 10 years after that to get the itch to move on from WordPress into the vast wilderness of JavaScript.

I don’t think my story is one that’s exclusive to women. Everyone has faced moments of insecurity that causes them to divert from a path. Could I have gone on to study programming after that class in high school? Even if I wasn’t bothered by that boy, I think that I probably wouldn’t have continued. He certainly didn’t help but in retrospect I can see that I needed more encouragement from my teachers and more opportunities to learn in order to gain the confidence I needed.

Fast forward to now and I’m in a position where I’m finally starting to feel comfortable in my skin and ready to take on more programming challenges. I’m ready to face the frustrations, rejections, and triumphs that take a whole lot of emotional gumption to process.

If you’ve read this far, maybe you’re willing to go a little further to help bring more computer science opportunities to girls and young students. There are lots of ways to help through code.org and if you’re not able to contribute there, then perhaps think of a young student that might need a little encouragement and be that inspiration for them.