Valentine’s day is not a romantic event in Finland. Instead, we call it a “friend’s day”. And what a better way to celebrate friendship than to get 500 junior or aspiring developers under the same roof to share their experiences, be inspired and do some networking – or “make new friends” as I instead tend to call it.
I got a chance to speak at the Finnish “Mimmit koodaa” (“Women code”) 2020 spring launch event on the 14th of February. We have a massive shortage of developers in Finland, and one of the purposes of the Mimmit koodaa initiative is to bring more workforce to the industry from a pool of people which is currently not that well utilized: women. The audience consisted of 500 Finnish (mostly female) developers who were still early on their journey or considering starting it.
I think a lot of women can’t envision themselves as developers, because they haven’t seen anyone else who even slightly resembles them do the same. They are rarely encouraged by their parents, friends, relatives or teachers to do follow this path. If I can encourage them or even serve as a role model for young women, I’m more than happy to do it. It would be such a shame if someone were to miss out on their dream job just because they don’t realize it is an option. Don’t you agree?
I wanted to encourage and inspire my younger peers. Convince them that they can do this job if they wish to, prepare them for what is to come, and give some food for thought. I had a strict time limit, so I needed to consider what I wanted to say and how, carefully. I ended up offering a brief look at my career so far: what a developer’s long-term career can look like in practice. And then, I gave the audience my top 3 tips when it comes to working as a developer.
Tip 1: Don’t be afraid
This tip is multifaceted. First of all, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”. We can’t know everything; there’s just too much information. We can only know the things we’ve studied or worked with in the past. However, that “I don’t know” needs to be followed by “but I’ll figure it out”. That makes it acceptable. It shows that we are ready to take control and do the extra work to learn so that we can deliver.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. There is strength in co-operation. Together, we can achieve so much more and get so much further than alone. Often – especially in classroom situations – people are afraid that they will get classified as stupid if they need to ask someone to explain something, possibly several times. But that doesn’t mean that you are dumb. It only means that you are genuinely interested in the topic and want to learn.
The following is probably the most important facet of all: don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Humans make mistakes, it is normal. Our customers, our bosses, everyone does it. If we are scared of making mistakes, we don’t take any risks. And when we don’t take any risks, we just get stuck where we are.
When you make a mistake (and this is definitely when not if) don’t beat yourself up about it. Try to be positive: we learn better from our mistakes than from our successes. You know the saying “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me?” Based on that, we have a permission to fail once. But when we do, we must learn from it so that we don’t repeat the same mistake twice. You are allowed to fail as long as you learn from it.
And don’t be afraid to tell the people around you about the mistakes you’ve made. Or say that you were wrong. It is a lot better to come forth proactively than wait for someone else to find out. For example, if a bug somehow makes its way to production, tell about it to your customer. When you do this, your customer learns that you have a grip and can open your mouth even about the most unpleasant things. They might be upset at the time, but after the storm has passed, they learn to appreciate your honesty, and it takes the customer relationship to a whole new level.
This kind of transparency is great to have within your own company as well: everyone is just that much happier to work with you if they know they can trust you – to deliver or to say that you need help. A workplace needs to be a safe place for its employees to fail. Only when it is like that, we can take significant enough risks to improve and thrive.
Tip 2: Share your knowledge
Based on my experience, only positive things come from you sharing your knowledge. Probably the most apparent benefit of needing to explain something to another person is how you end up improving your competence while doing so.
When you need to organize the knowledge into a very understandable format, you end up understanding the topic more clearly yourself. Sometimes you also get questions popping into your head while doing it. And as you look for the answers, you end up learning more about the subject.
You should share your knowledge both at the workplace and publicly. Sometimes you see people who intentionally avoid sharing their knowledge with others. They want to make themselves irreplaceable and are afraid that if someone else learns to do the work they do; they’ll be out of a job. But the only thing they end up doing is getting stuck performing the same work forever.
When you share your knowledge, someone else will be able to do the work that you already know how to do, which leaves you more time to learn new things and improve your expertise. And when you share your discoveries with your colleagues, you show an example, and they will most likely also want to share their findings with you.
You should also share your work publicly. When you do that, you demonstrate your expertise, and people will get to know you as an expert on those topics. After that, they are not interested in your CV or other pieces of paper. You can be exceptionally good at software development, but if you have no internet presence, no one will know you even exist.
You should share information in the most natural way to you because it takes a lot of time. It should be fun. Otherwise, you’ll burn out. Luckily, there are many options. You can write blogs, make videos, speak at conferences or meetup groups, contribute to open-source projects, answer people’s questions on forums, and so on. Whatever you decide to do, start as early as possible – no excuses! When I started blogging, only good things have come from it, so I regret not starting it sooner.
Also, when you share your knowledge, you automatically document your journey. Retain the material and glance through it now and then. You’ll realize how much progress you’ve made, and it will encourage you to continue.
Tip 3: Don’t think about your gender
The tip “don’t think about your gender” comes from me sometimes wondering, has working in the IT industry been so easy for me because I’ve never stopped to think about my gender. Or well, at least I didn’t before I went to speak at international conferences, started seeing “Women in tech” tracks everywhere, and my attention was drawn to the thought that working as a woman in IT was somehow abnormal. But anyway, I have not allowed it to limit me. What I’ve always thought primarily is that I’m a developer amongst developers. We are the same, men and women alike. And if we want to somehow differentiate ourselves from the “developer mass” then it should be done through attitude and competence, nothing else.
The people who work in IT (at least in Finland) are generally brilliant. They don’t seem to think twice about your gender when they start working with you. However, if you consciously and continuously think about the fact that you are a female developer, it will get reflected in your behaviour. Through that, you will also draw other people’s attention to it instead of the things that matter when it comes to performing your day job. Whether you are in a classroom or a member of a project team, the situation would be no different if you were a man. Being a developer needs to be normal to ourselves first before it can become normal to others. Change always begins with us.
Even though I generally work with smart people, I’ve also had my share of encounters where my expertise has been questioned due to one reason or another – especially when I was younger. The comments have come from new customers in different industries than IT, where perhaps working with young, technically qualified women is not that common. It might have been their first time working with a female developer, they might have doubted my expertise because of my age, or they simply don’t trust new consultants before they’ve proven their skills (which is fine by the way and can also happen to men). There is always one thing you can and should do anyway: focus on the matter at hand.
Just do your job as exceptionally as you usually do. Accept the fact that the customer needs a bit of time to get to know you. It might take a couple of emails, a meeting, but after they’ve seen what you are capable of, they will probably not want to work with anyone else in the future. Sometimes people don’t even realize that they possess a subconscious stereotype that affects how they interact with people. It is your chance to break that stereotype. In the end, it seems like everyone needs their own personal experience for that to happen. It doesn’t happen by merely preaching about it. That is why it is so crucial for all of us to lead by example.
From Zero to Hero
These three tips are not your shortcut to happiness. Becoming an outstanding developer takes a lot of time and effort. Luckily, it is not a sprint but a marathon. No one expects you to know “everything” by tomorrow. Give yourself time. Only by continuous practice, gaining experience, and by always aiming to do exceptional work you can become one of the best. And if you genuinely enjoy the work you do, you look forward to going to work every day.
Enjoy the journey. I wish you all the best,
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