The Myth of the Pipeline Problem

The “Pipeline Problem” has been widely cited as a key reason for the dearth of women working in STEM fields, particularly as computer programmers. Fewer girls than boys are exposed to the opportunities that exist in STEM fields, girls have fewer adult role models in STEM fields, gendered toys may discourage girls from learning about problem solving and the joy of building. Women make up less than 20% of computer science college grads, etc.

My Path Through The Traditional “Pipeline”

The Reality of the “Pipeline” in the Corporate World

What I found was a bunch of regular people. Hardworking, smart people, but from a surprising variety of both traditional and non-traditional backgrounds. More than half of them hadn’t even majored in computer science. There was the principal engineer who had majored in drama 25 years ago, the principal engineer who boasted about getting a marketing degree from a community college because it was “cheaper than a real college”, and a whole slew of talented coders who didn’t even have degrees at all, who happened upon computer programming as a hobby that turned into a real job during the late 90s DotCom Boom. These guys figured it out as they went along and became quite good at it. There were other recent grads like me who actually majored in computer science at what recruiters would call a “name brand university”, but we were a minority.

In all the subsequent jobs I’ve had as a software engineer over the past 11 years I have seen this demographic: more than half of my software engineer coworkers have been self-taught. When I consider the three most productive colleagues I’ve ever worked with, one majored in design, another linguistics, and another was a college dropout. None of them knew about computer science as kids, they weren’t identified by their grade schools and high schools as particularly talented in math or science. They just fell into computer programming as adults because they found it interesting, and discovered it happened to be something you could get paid to do. All of them managed to get programming jobs before they were even particularly adept at programming, and they learned on the job.

What is the Actual Path to Success in Software Engineering?

But this brings me back to the “Pipeline Problem”- if such a great many talented software engineers get into engineering from nontechnical backgrounds and unrelated majors, why are 95% of them men? The “Pipeline Problem” does not explain this. In my work experience, I’ve seen men from all different backgrounds discover software engineering as a possible career option, and get jobs even before they have all the skills they need to be successful. They are able to learn on the job, and are supported while they are learning on the job. In a very short number of years, they are usually able to declare themselves “experts” in their chosen technical specialization.

In many big cities you’ll hear recruiters talk about “The War For Talent”- there are so many great software engineering jobs, and not enough talent to fill them! I think the real Pipeline Problem isn’t gender-specific: there is a real lack of experienced software engineering talent across all identity demographics. Because of our society’s identity biases, I think this leads to more white men getting hired into programming jobs based on potential despite lack of experience because they “fit the profile”, while white women and all people of color are expected to meet the higher standard of coming through the traditional “Pipeline.” I also think corporate environments aren’t aware that most of the engineers they employ are actually learning on the job.

What Corporations Can Do

Part of this is getting better at interviewing: learning how to assess potential, instead of hiring people who “seem reasonable” when you are short on candidates who truly meet your company’s hiring standards. Part of this is just good people management: you need to invest in your people by making sure they have mentors, support networks, opportunities to grow their skill sets on the job, and opportunities to go to conferences and training programs.

The Cost of Not Addressing the Problem

Surprisingly, the freeloaders are rarely laid off or even disciplined, because most companies have a shortage of engineers and balk at the possibility of reducing headcount. This is an expensive problem, and a persistent confounding variable in software estimation and project management. Hiring for potential when it’s necessary, and providing real support to people learning on the job will increase the number of talented employees at your company and in the job market, and make it harder and harder for freeloaders to keep coasting on your company’s dime.



Mission-driven tech exec, CTO, formerly senior advisor SBA, CTO MoveOn

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