Why I Learned to Code
Giving access to a tool as powerful as code creates social change and spurs economic mobility for those who have not shared equally in the rewards of the technological renaissance.
When I start tutoring a new coder, I ask: “Why do you want to learn to code?” Often it’s because they want a career that is fun and rewarding, or they want to build awesome applications for a business they’re starting. These are great reasons to learn to code, but my reason for coding is that I want to help as many underserved people learn to code as possible. Giving access to a tool as powerful as code creates social change and spurs economic mobility for those who have not shared equally in the rewards of the technological renaissance.
The privilege that coding provides is tremendous, yet the reason behind it is very simple: people need coders; being in demand allows you to take control and dictate who you associate with.
Coding can give trans people choice and freedom they are rarely given. I’m a woman who happens to be transgender. Being transgender, a demographic that faces high levels of discrimination in work and personal life, coding has given me refuge from hostile environments, capital to support the costs that come with being trans and the autonomy to live my life solely for me.
Photo CC-BY John Ward, filtered.
I had always wanted to learn to code, but I was told throughout my schooling that I was not the “science and math type,” so I assumed a career path as a designer of sorts. During my junior and senior years of high school, I dabbled in making sites with WordPress. As I became more comfortable, I ventured to the raw code. It was exhilarating for the entire look and feel of a website to change based on small altering of values written in plain text!
It was not until my first semester in college that I made a decision that would change the trajectory of my life forever. One night I sat alone in my dorm room, and as other freshmen socialized, I grappled with a stark incongruence in my gender identity. This was a daily struggle for me and I longed for a day when I could remove the shackles that continually weighed me down. However, that night was different: I made a very important decision: I decided that I would learn to code and commit my time and energy to helping other underserved individuals to do the same. I hoped that code would expedite my coming out process, giving me the freedom and autonomy that financial security brings. From that point forward, as I struggled in school and with my life constantly in flux, code was a source of stability. Nothing was going right, but I could always open up my laptop and learn some code.
After several months of independent learning, I started a software development internship at a large corporate company with a conservative culture. Treating this opportunity as indispensable to furthering my coding skills, I further denied my true identity. At the end of the summer I was invited to work remotely as a junior software developer at the same company as I continued school – a great opportunity, but I feared I would never be able to come out due to the company’s conservative culture.
Beginning the Fall 2013 Semester with a nice apartment and a stable income, I became severely depressed because I was still not able to live my life as a woman. I spent the majority of my time in my apartment, remotely working for my job when I was mentally able and skipping all of my college classes. Eventually I officially dropped out of college. I told my boss that I needed to take a leave of absence.
Photo CC-BY Klara Kopf, filtered.
During the months of December and January, using money I had gotten from my job, I visited San Francisco multiple times. My trips to San Francisco were amazing: I was able to be myself. Yet, I was convinced by my father, who to my knowledge was unaware of my struggles being trans, to come live with him in Wisconsin as I figured things out. I was fortunate to get a job at Best Buy, as a Geek Squad Consultation Agent. About a month into the job, I was again unable to deal with living untrue to myself and I admitted myself to a hospital due to suicidal ideation. After I was released, I attended group therapy where other participants spoke of their regrets and how they wished they took action earlier. Not wishing to speak of such regret at a later point in my life, I decided to finally come out as trans. I told my family and it went much better than I would have guessed. However, telling my boss at Best Buy, which is a company listed as an LGBTQ inclusive company by the HRC, didn’t go as well.
I came into work the day after I told my father, ready to tell my boss the news. When I told him I got the invasive response: “So are you going to get ‘the surgery?’”, setting the tone of how the conversation would proceed. I was told I could not use my preferred name and would be unable to be myself in front of customers. I was shocked that the management of a known pro-LGBTQ company was acting this way, yet I should have assumed as much: The T in LGBTQ is often forgotten.
I suffered through that shift and pondered what I should do. I was finally ready to live my life as intended, but I was unable, forced backward by the fact I needed this job to support myself. Often, a trans person would be forced to continue working a job under these terrible conditions, but knowing I could rely on my ability to code to support myself, I quit my job. I knew there was a place and people that would support me. In April 2014, I found that refuge in the city of Chicago, with the wonderful organizations such as Girl Develop It, Chicago Women Developers and TransTech Social Enterprises that gave me the sense of community that I had always wanted.
Time Goes On
Photo CC-BY Janet Ramsden, filtered.
It’s been nearly a year since I left my job at Best Buy and began living my life to its fullest. I could never have imagined the amazing opportunities I have been given, the people I have come to know, and the happiness I have felt. I’ve surrounded myself with caring, accepting people, all while getting paid to share my knowledge of code. I’m currently the founder of my own company called Women of Code, which seeks to make tech accessible and inclusive for all women, through education, collaboration and code. In addition, I am the technical advisor for multiple organizations such as TransTech Social Enterprises, a creative services firm with an apprenticeship for trans individuals to help them learn tech skills. Of course, this year hasn’t been without difficulties, but knowing code has greatly lessened my troubles.
Even though I’ve had recent success, it required me to forge my own path, avoiding traditional employment. The harsh experiences with employers I’d faced in the past wasn’t something I could go through again. When I did begin an interview process, things often went well at first, but when I disclosed that I was transgender, I often didn’t hear back. I do enjoy the freedom of self-employment, yet trans individuals should be given fair access to employment in a field said to have a “talent shortage” of qualified individuals.
There is a great hypocrisy when companies spend countless dollars on recruiting “rockstar” programmers, yet completely ignore a population that has such diverse experiences and skills. As a result, tech lacks diversity, with the common demographic being male whiteness. When a trans person does not fit that description, things such as class, race and gender increase the exclusion and lack of support.
Changes must occur. The harsh daily realities of being trans makes seemingly simple tasks and opportunities more difficult. A concerted effort to reach out to trans individuals can make a world of difference. Offering mentorship and access to resources such as computers and safe and inclusive spaces to work can increase the likelihood of success for trans individuals in tech. With a partnership between my company, Women of Code, and TransTech Social Enterprises, we offer those services and encourage others to do the same. Feel free to email me at ellie -at- womenofcode.com if you would like learn more.
I often wonder how long and difficult it would have been for me to get to where I am today if I had not found the community and people I know now. I imagine the lost opportunities of not taking the leap to come out and be myself, and I know code helped make it all possible. The next step is to enable others to learn code, so that they share in the wealth that this knowledge brings.