Learn to code, get a job as an engineer? It’s not that simple

GUEST BLOG: In this guest post, Amy Franz, software engineer at DirectlyApply, talks about her journey into software engineering, and that often touted alternative routes into tech are not as simple as they seem. 

I grew up coding. My dad is an engineer, so I guess it came with the territory. By the time I was a teenager, I had racked up hundreds if not thousands of hours in front of the computer, and I soon found myself at the top of my IT class. It probably seemed to everyone around me that getting a job as a software engineer would be the next logical step. But my path wasn’t nearly as straightforward as you might think.

Over the past 10 years or so, there have been innumerable news stories on the value of coding, many of them arguing that we need more software developers in order to thrive in an increasingly digital world. We hear all the time about the “digital skills gap”, and there’s even an “everyone should code” movement, as well as an argument that coding should be considered a basic life skill. Though there’s some occasional skepticism (“Should everyone really learn to code?” asks WIRED) the message has always come across loud and clear: coding = good.

The “typical” coder

But there are obstacles to becoming a professional programmer. For one, outside the industry, harmful stereotypes remain. Engineers are often seen as introverted, antisocial and (you guessed it) male. As a teenager who wasn’t any of those things, I was put off. And I know there are many others now who are just like I was then. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I didn’t want a job that, at first glance, appeared to isolate me from other people in some form of employed solitary confinement. So, it was with this thought in mind that I stepped away from engineering to instead embark on a career in marketing.

A catch-22

Fortuitously my father happened to work in the same building as my new company, so before and after work I would spend time sitting in his office.  By observing him and his team, I quickly discovered that working in software development was not an isolating role, but rather a much more collaborative and sociable endeavour.  I realised then and there that I had to get back into engineering, so started to teach myself JavaScript and embarked on two bootcamps to kickstart my career in software development.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered that finding a job wasn’t as simple as getting a ‘bootcamp’ qualification and sending off hopeful applications. Although employers were seemingly happy to hire junior developers, the big stipulation was they had to have experience. It was a catch-22.  

Thankfully my current employer, DirectlyApply, was less interested in my work experience and more interested in seeing the way in which I approached their coding test.  They also loved that I had committed hundreds of little side projects to my GitHub—even though half of them were unfinished! 

Girls who code

Having landed my first job as a software engineer, I decided to volunteer at Code First: Girls, and teach evening classes to women who were thinking of getting started in the industry.   Speaking with my students, it quickly became clear that there’s a problem of self-belief amongst female developers which has deep roots. Many of my students previously believed they were not ‘smart enough to code’ and a larger number only felt they could apply for jobs if they felt 100% qualified for the role.

These barriers to entry are a problem for anyone who values digital skills. And they can often affect women disproportionately. In the tech space, some amazing work is being done to bring these barriers down. But we may all need to challenge our assumptions to improve outcomes for talented engineers for the long term.

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