Women in code series: Laura Porter

The Computer Weekly Developer Network and Open Source Insider team want to talk code and coding. 

But more than that, we want to talk coding across the diversity spectrum… so let’s get the tough part out of the way and talk about the problem.

If all were fair and good in the world, it wouldn’t be an issue of needing to promote the interests of women who code — instead, it should and would be a question of promoting the interests of people who code, some of whom are women.

However, as we stand two decades after the millennium, there is still a gender imbalance in terms of people already working as software engineers and in terms of those going into the profession. So then, we’re going to talk about it and interview a selection of women who are driving forward in the industry.

 Laura Porter

Laura Porter lists her job title, quite simply, as developer. Porter works for dxw digital, a company that specialises in focusing on the public sector to research, design, build and operate services that make life better for people.

CWDN: What inspired you to get into software development in the first place?

Porter: It was actually something of an accident. I went to the University of Kent in 1996 to study film, having just completed a foundation year in art at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design. I didn’t really have any career ambitions beyond wanting to be ‘an artist’ of some kind. The University of Kent was at the time (and I imagine still is) a very computing-oriented university, and one of the courses I was able to pick in my first year was an “Introduction to Web Publishing”. I learned basic HTML, CSS and JavaScript on this course.

Over the rest of my university career I got into Usenet and IRC in a big way, and by the end of my film degree I was relatively confident in basic web skills and had even started learning some TCL for writing my own IRC bots. I was also doing temp work over the holidays as a secretary/admin, and had good Office skills (and an impressive typing speed!).

When I graduated in 1999, the dot.com boom was in full swing so I decided I’d look for two different types of jobs: junior web development, or admin in the film or TV industry. I was interviewing for both types of jobs, and it just happened that I landed a junior web developer position first. This was back when basic HTML and CSS could get you a job!

CWDN: When did you realise that this was going to be a full-blown career choice for you?

Porter: From 1999-2003 I hopped around various junior developer jobs but I still felt like I was missing out by not being in the film or TV industries. So when I was 26 I quit my developer job and went to work for a film production company as a junior editor/occasional web developer. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out – after 3 months I realised I missed coding,  but more importantly I missed the money (my salary dropped from £24,000 to £16,000) so after my 3-months’ probation period I decided to part ways with that company and go back to development.

It just happened that the next job I got was doing development for a Soho advertising agency so in some ways I was still in the media industry. I think I realised at that point that development allowed me to be creative enough to scratch my artistic itch, and also paid enough to allow me to live the London life I wanted.

CWDN: What languages, platforms and tools have you gravitated towards and why?

Poter: I didn’t make any conscious decisions about the languages and platforms I used until 2014. Up until then I was just glad to be able to get a job, and I did whatever they needed me to do. I started using XSLT in 2000/2001 and by 2006 I was doing XML/XSLT almost exclusively for a start-up that provided documentation tools to local authorities. By 2008 I had gravitated back to doing front end again, as XSLT roles were hard to come by.

In 2012 I joined Nature (now SpringerNature) as a front end developer and worked mostly on the company’s legacy publishing platform. However in 2014 a position on the firm’s Ruby team opened up. I didn’t know any Ruby but I was bored of front end by this stage, and I knew this team was the cutting-edge ‘rock star’ team of the department, so I decided to apply for the role. My reasoning was that while I didn’t know Ruby, I knew the platform, the product and the company, and I was a competent coder who would learn fast. They agreed and I was taken on.

CWDN: How important do you think it is for us to have diversity (not just gender, but all forms) in software teams in terms of cultivating a collective mindset that is capable of solving diversified problems?

Porter: I think it’s really important. Developing technology that works for users is all about having empathy and understanding of the user, and if the developers are all cisgender white men, that’s not going to be representative of the eventual user base.

There was a story a couple of years ago about an automatic soap dispenser that doesn’t recognise darker skin, and facial recognition software that can’t differentiate between different people of Chinese heritage. These are the very real repercussions of having development teams which aren’t diverse enough.

So if I can just mention dxw, where I work now. Our company produces digital solutions for the public sector, and that means we have the most diverse user base going – anyone who uses public services! We can’t afford to leave anyone behind when we develop our products. So it’s very important that we have a strong diversity and inclusion element in our staff so we can empathise with our customer base (and often our customer base is ourselves, as we all use public services).

CWDN: What has been your greatest software application development challenge and how have you overcome it?

Porter: Either getting into the industry in the first place, or switching from legacy front end work to Ruby. In both cases I’ve overcome challenges by refusing to believe there was no place for me. I am quite forward by nature and like to speak my mind, so the idea that there was no place for me in either situation – despite not having the right experience! – never occurred to me. I do look back now and think “Wow, I had a lot of guts!” I was very brave when I was younger!

CWDN: Are we on the road to a 50:50 gender balance in software engineering, or will there always be a mismatch?

Porter: When I entered the industry in 1999 I think the gender balance was better than it was in the late 2000s. I feel like over the last 20 years, women’s’ participation in software development has gone down but is now coming back up.

Whether or not there will ever be parity is a very hard question. Back in the days of programming via punch cards, it was seen as clerical work and therefore (wrongly) in the domain of women. Reading into the reasons why programming moved from “feminine” to “masculine” is interesting, and goes into all kinds of rabbit-holes on why some jobs are less valued than others despite being equally skilled.

The one thing I do hope is that if we reach gender parity or female dominance, we don’t end up with the work being devalued simply because more women do it than men. You see this in “pink collar” jobs like nursing or teaching, and it’s maddening. Jobs like those are just as skilled as development – in fact often more so – but valued less because they’re coded as “female” jobs. Absolutely infuriating.

CWDN: What role can men take in terms of helping to promote women’s interests in the industry?

Porter: For one thing, they can get involved in diversity and inclusion work. So often in my career so far, I’ve been expected to take a lead in, or at least take part in, diversity work. Why does it always seem to be women and minorities driving this work? Why are women at technology conferences so often asked to talk about “being a woman in tech” instead of actually talking about tech?

CWDN: If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then what languages or methodologies separate the two (basic) sexes?

Porter: Honestly I really hate the idea of men being from Mars and women from Venus. Men and women really aren’t that different (and I don’t believe there are only two genders, either).

But if we’re going to imagine there are two genders for a moment, there is a cliché that men are more drawn towards back-end development or infrastructure, while women are more on the front end or design side of things. I believe there is an idea that front end and design are ‘softer’ or ‘easier’ skills, but honestly that is not the case. I quit front end mostly because I was finding it very hard to keep up, and I find Ruby simpler because the pace of change is so much slower.

There is also a cliché that women are better at the client or ‘people’ side of tech and I dispute that too. Anyone who has worked with me will know I have really struggled with the transition of tech roles from the ‘backroom’ to being more people-oriented. Sometimes I really miss the days when developers were shoved in a corner and never seen!

CWDN: If you could give your 21-year old self one piece of advice for success, what would it be?

Porter: I think 21 year old me was a lot more ballsy than 42 year old me is, so I think it could be the other way round! I was much more inclined to take chances back then, these days I am very happy in my job but not inclined to shimmy up the career ladder, in favour of going home at 5.30pm and forgetting about work.

I would probably tell myself that becoming well-known in your chosen industry isn’t the only definition of “success”. I consider myself successful now because I enjoy my job and earn good money, but back then I wanted to be a “leader” (I had dreams of writing my own Wrox-imprint book).

I would definitely tell myself to make time for my artistic endeavours, as I have let those fall by the wayside. Work isn’t everything. If you earn enough to live well, and don’t dread work in the mornings, you are successful.

dxw digital’s Porter: We must be representationally diverse in [software] development, just like real world user bases!

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