Programmer Legitimacy: Earned, Bought, or Borrowed?

Legitimacy as a programmer universally requires a stamp of approval from institutions with power and privilege over marginalized groups.

by Nikki Murray on June 29th, 2015

In tech, legitimacy is treated as a scarce resource. If it is scarce, you must hoard it for yourself. And if you can control not just your own legitimacy, but also control the flow of it to other people, you can make sure you always have more than anyone else.

It is in this way, through a series of rigged obstacle courses, that cis straight white men attempt to control the flow of legitimacy as developers and engineers to marginalized groups. And since legitimacy is used to determine access to opportunities, how much people are paid, and whether or not they get VC funding, limiting its flow to others can have real, material effects on their lives and livelihoods. It creates a clog in the pipeline, and if minorities cannot get through the pipeline, there will be no minorities on the other side to help people through.

Hands on monkey bars.

Photo CC-BY Elizabeth Albert, filtered.

The current avenues to legitimacy as a programmer almost universally require a stamp of approval from institutions with power and privilege over marginalized groups. The “valid” paths to engineering are to get a CS degree from a prestigious institution, or to be a (young, white, male) born-10x engineer. Of course, these routes are closed to minorities and underrepresented groups: women, people of color, trans people, queer people, people with disabilities and people at the intersections of these identities.

Yet with increasing pressure to fill the pipeline and diversify the industry, new routes to the tech industry have begun to emerge, or “traditional” routes open up. However, many of these paths remain fraught with pitfalls and traps, often leading to minorities dropping out or not succeeding. They are also full of hidden costs that add up, especially for someone in an underpaying industry, and triply so if you are historically underpaid in general. And, these new routes might not be changing the underlying rules of legitimacy keeping people out.

Double-Edged Swords: Legitimacy by Code School

Code schools are for-profit, non-accredited, student-as-consumer institutions. They typically claim to teach you all you need to know to be a full-stack developer in 10 – 12 weeks, for about $10,000 – $15,000.

There are many problems with this model. It might leave out huge swaths of coding best-practices (what do you mean, testing wasn’t covered?); it isn’t accredited, so low-income people who want to rely on Pell grants are out of luck; it is ultimately a tech start-up, and most likely run by people with large amounts of privilege who therefore hire people who look like them.

When it comes to coding schools, “Quit your job and learn to code!” sounds fun, thrilling, and exciting. In reality, rent still needs to be paid, and it cannot be paid in “following your passion” points. People of color historically have less access to wealth than white people. Every minority across the board is paid less than a cis straight able-bodied white man (no, this does not need a citation). This hampers the ability to “save up” to cover living expenses for however many months the class runs, plus however long unemployment is. Because these are non-accredited schools, subsidized loans and Pell grants can not be used to cover the cost, leaving students at the mercy of possibly predatory lenders. And when it comes to paying off loans, even after obtaining a coding job, minorities are still paid less, and therefore, have less to pay back the loans with. This literally means that legitimacy must be bought, and the price is higher for minorities.

Desks in a classroom.

Photo CC-BY Todd Binger, filtered.

Since code schools rely on current developers to contract as instructors, they are necessarily pulling from a pool that is overwhelmingly male, white, cis, and straight. Chances are high that the instructors will be all of the above. These people are likely not very well educated on the art and science of teaching. Did they receive any lessons on classroom management? Do they know how to handle class disruptors? The know-it-all thrives in programming, and the programmer who well, actually’s the most is usually the one paid the most in a startup environment. If the instructor is a Brogrammer, they will reward up-and-coming Brogrammers in the classroom, rather than shutting down the behaviors that inhibit learning process for the rest of the students. In this manner, legitimacy is bestowed by the majority, and he is most likely to give it to people who look like him.

Additionally, coding camps are not doing enough to bridge the bias and legitimacy gap their graduates will face in job searches. A ‘brogrammer’ just out of devcamp can talk about how quickly he is sure to pick up RSpec and still get the position. A queer woman will be looked at as if she is saying she doesn’t know how to open Terminal. Since they are hired on potential rather than achievements, a straight white cis man might get a pass in hiring, but minorities will not get this benefit of the doubt. Are coding camps working to combat this type of bias and discrimination? Is a 10-12 week course that teaches you to build a single working app good enough when minorities will be disproportionately expected to exhibit DRY, well-designed OOP, strong adherence to the SRP and other advanced skills just to get the same jobs?

The Creation and Maintenance of a Canon: Legitimacy via Inheritance

The other route to legitimacy is going “self-taught.” But as Anna highlights in a recent MVC article, minorities don’t get to be self-taught. A cis straight white man does not need legitimacy given to him, he has it already, and can vouch for himself when he says he is self-taught. If a minority wants to be self-taught, however, they need to prove they know “the canon.”

A stack of programming books, including Programming Python and The Ruby Way.

Photo CC-BY Mike McCune, filtered.

When you tell someone you are learning Ruby, they will always ask how. You had better answer with at least two of the following: Hartl’s Ruby on Rails Tutorial, Learn Ruby the Hard Way, and Rails for Zombies. There are other ways to learn Ruby, but if you don’t mention at least two of those, you won’t be taken seriously. The first two are books available for free online, paid in print. Hartles currently strongly encourages the use of Cloud9 browser-based IDE, which is free if you just have one project, paid for more: unclear if he is profiting from people signing up, but Cloud9 certainly is. Zombies is part of Code School, a subscription-based video coding school. While the authors of the books may not directly profit from people using their free online version, they are still making money off of their status as “canon.” This status as canon grants them de-facto speaker slots at conferences, reputation and social capital enough to have sponsors for their blogs or other endeavors. Code School, and other online learn-to-code sites, are definitely making money.

After you leave the beginner or introductory stage, you start reading the Professional Ruby series. The pinnacle of the series is “Practical Object Oriented Design in Ruby” by Sandi Metz, the only woman to write for the series. Funny how the majority of the cannon is created by white men, and lives on and benefits their platforms. So who is predominantly benefiting from the existence of this canon, it’s use as a shortcut to identify if someone is “legitimately” learning programming?

Legitimacy By Community

In many ways an alternative to a white-male led canon, we’ve seen the emergence of minority-lead, community-structured initiatives such as Rails Girls. These organizations host meetups and weekend-long workshops. Important entry points, they come with a built-in support system, tend to be focused specifically on marginalized groups, and have very little hierarchal oppression.

Still, these community-driven efforts face numerous challenges. In order to keep it open to everyone, these meetups and workshops tend to stay very novice in nature. They work as an introduction, but require that intermediate and advanced topics be outsourced, or covered in small groups at a “lab hours” like meetup. This relies on unpaid or very lightly compensated (ex: free pizza) for the mentors and instructors, and also puts the burden of welcoming minorities into tech on the minorities already in tech. While big companies and startups might donate or sponsor some of these events, how many alumni have they hired?

The legitimacy problem here is that you are often relying on a collective of people who are not seen as inherently legitimate, to bestow legitimacy. If women in tech aren’t seen as inherently legitimate programmers, can groups of women successfully vouch for the the legitimacy of another woman programmer?

Legitimacy is Infinite

A ring in the shape of the infinity symbol.

Photo CC-BY matheuslotero, filtered.

This is the sort of set up – where minorities can’t win – that comes from a legitimacy-as-a-scarcity model. It leads to White Straight Cis Men teaching the White Straight Cis Man way of coding (which, by the way, is extremely inefficient and error-prone and full of worst-practices). It results in attempts to “fix” the pipeline by putting minorities into code schools full of structural barriers, or telling them to just teach themselves… all resulting in White Straight Cis Men (or the company they run) profiting more in community, credibility and profitability, stabilizing their role as the gatekeepers of legitimacy. Meanwhile, alternative models that are minority run are often underfunded, prone to burnout and given almost no legitimacy. This is what happens when legitimacy is a scarce resource that needs to be hoarded.

Except, legitimacy shouldn’t be a scarce resource, just like rights aren’t a scarce resource. We need to stop relying on other people vouching for someone’s code when it comes to minorities, and assuming the inherent quality of code when it comes from a White Straight Cis Man. We need to find new ways of making hiring decisions and take different approaches when picking speakers for conferences. And if the only way we can value minorities who want to get into tech is in how we can profit off of them, we need to change our approach to teaching and reassess the ways we value people.

We could start by creating more environments for learning code and expanding skill sets. Recurse has a great model that could be built upon and replicated. As they say on their site, “our retreat is free for everyone, and we offer need-based living-expense grants of up to $7,000 to women and people from groups traditionally underrepresented in programming.” Having financial aid available in any capacity greatly opens the doors to people who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend, and allows for greater diversity. Since the retreat is self-guided, it eliminates the problems of dealing with classroom management issues, and with brogrammers as instructors. Offering grants to defray the cost of not having employment is a huge step forward for making it even more accessible for people who might not have months worth of savings available. My addendum suggestion to Recurse, or anyone trying to replicate, would be to add childcare and health insurance options for people receive those benefits from a current full time job they might step away from.

If a “self taught canon” we must have, we should strive to make it diverse. While many in the Ruby community accept “Practical Object Oriented Design in Ruby” by Sandi Metz as canon, we need more representation in that canon. Professional publishers should seek out diverse voices when putting together textbook series, and we should look to creating alternatives to the traditional publishing agencies for creating articles, zines, and books on best practices in coding. Is it possible to create a quarterly tech journal for articles on best practices in any language, with novice, beginner, intermediate, and advanced topics accepted, and primarily accept those articles from a diverse population of developers? Could that journal be provided in such a manner that it is accessible to people, while still paying the contributors for their work?

By making education accessible, you create true legitimacy that comes from truly equal opportunity. Legitimacy gained because you were the only one able to afford it is not a true legitimacy. By making the ability to teach accessible and sustainable, we widen the amount of people able to “bestow” legitimacy. Eventually, legitimacy could become accepted as an infinite resource, and we could value people not just for how much legitimacy they have, but for the true potential, talents and skills they can bring to a project or company.