Navigating Silicon Valley As A 'Woman Programmer'

Read Ellen Ullman's commentary, "How To Be A 'Woman Programmer'."

Prominent women such as Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer are proving that women are finding their place at the table. But in an op-ed for The New York Times, former programmer Ellen Ullman argues that women in the field today face "a new, more virile and virulent sexism."

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

Now, time for The Opinion Page. Prominent women such as Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer and Facebook's Sheryl Sandbook(ph) - Sandberg, are proving that women are finding their place at the table in Silicon Valley. But in an op-ed for The New York Times, former software engineer Ellen Ullman argues that women today face what she calls a new, more virile and virulent, sexism. If you're a female engineer, programmer or coder, tell us your experience in the industry.

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now is Ellen Ullman. She's a former software engineer and now a writer. Her latest book is called "By Blood," and it's available now. She joins us on the phone from her home in New York City. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ELLEN ULLMAN: Hello. I'm happy to be here.

LUDDEN: You write that you've broken to the ranks of computing in the early '80s when women were just starting to poke their shoulder pads through crowds of men, and you described some really blatant sexism. Can you tell a few things that happened to you?

ULLMAN: The first one is that I had a client I had to go visit in Cisco Systems, working in the company I was working in, and he sat there stroking my back. He was an unattractive man with pendulous earlobes, and I had to sit there and think, am I going to put a small software bomb in his system...

(LAUGHTER)

ULLMAN: ...or...

(LAUGHTER)

ULLMAN: ...or, you know, and then I decided no. What I took from that experience was that I cared much more about making good systems that worked than plotting revenge.

LUDDEN: But it wasn't just from clients, I mean your boss.

ULLMAN: My boss, yeah. I had a boss who said quite blatantly I hate to hire all you girls, but you're all so damn smart. Now, by all he meant three in a company of about, I think, about 60 at the time and - but that even then was very unusual because to find even one woman who was well placed, I mean, in a technical position - I don't mean sales or marketing - was very unusual. But I learned a great deal from him, and I had to over time understand that I would have to let his sexism surface and let it go away, literally lean to one side and let his nonsense flow over my shoulder...

LUDDEN: You said that in one meeting. I'm leaning to the side, so your nonsense will go over my shoulder, right?

ULLMAN: Absolutely. And it was at that time the right thing for me to do, to let it go on, not confront him, and he was a flawed man, but he was teaching me so much about technology, the lower reaches, relational database theory, operating systems. He opened a world for me and my - dealing with him as a human being rather than a screwed-up man really changed my technical life.

LUDDEN: And yet, you write that this whole thing put you at a remove from your colleagues, the general society of programmers. What do you mean?

ULLMAN: Well, there weren't enough women around, and I felt the women I knew who were involved were kind of more culturally integrated, you know, went to plays, had read Shakespeare, knew was what happening in politics, history. And many of the men I met during the mid-'80s were - had been trained as engineers and had a, what I found, a narrow view of life. I mean they were brilliant, and I won't say - this is a huge generalization.

LUDDEN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: I was just going to say you're confirming our stereotype of the guy.

ULLMAN: I mean it was like, OK, every one I ever met was like this.

(LAUGHTER)

ULLMAN: You know, I - the one thing I really want to add in here is that I learned a great deal from the men I worked with. My approach to being a self-taught programmer was to find out who was smart...

I learned a great deal from the men I work with. My approach to being a self-taught programmer was to find out who was smart and who would be helpful, and these were - these are both men and women. And without learning from my co-workers, I never could've gone on in the profession as long as I did.

LUDDEN: So, you know, it would be, you know, to talk about this in the '80s, maybe even in the early '90s, is one thing, but you say that women today face even more sexism. What do you mean?

ULLMAN: Well, I mean, first of all, about in the deeper reaches, I'm talking about algorithm design, computer science. Shafi Goldwasser, the pioneer on cryptography, just won the Turing Award, the Nobel Prize of technology. But there are very few women who are so rewarded. In some ways, her receiving the reward kind of reminds us, where are all the other women?

I think the - also now that the definition of success is having your own startup, which I think is unfortunate for other reasons. But I'll go on from there. And there is - you hear VCs, venture capitalists, say quite blatantly they're looking for a couple of guys who can complete an app over a weekend. And I like to find who to credit here who said that they are looking for young men who look like Mark Zuckerberg.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: No kids.

ULLMAN: No kids...

LUDDEN: And no spouse.

ULLMAN: ...no responsibilities, hang around over a weekend with a couple of guys, you know, and come up with an app. And I - if I have any advice - and as I am not doing that sort of work right now, but I've met young women and know people on both sides of the aisle, that is, and people who control money and people who are looking for money. It is that I think you will find someone like that boss who taught me, who could see under that and - with whom I could make a connection. And just not to be just discouraged. That person will be there eventually.

LUDDEN: Let's bring a caller in on the line. Melissa is in St. Petersburg, Florida. Welcome to the program.

MELISSA: Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: Good.

MELISSA: I teach computer science, and I was also a software engineer in the early '80s, so it's interesting to hear some parallels. But what's been dismaying to me is in working with organizations like the National Center for Women & Information Technology, we haven't come further than we are. Here we are 30 years later and women are a smaller proportion of software engineers and programmers and computer scientists than they were back when I was doing it in the early '80s.

And one of the things I see in my classroom - first of all, it's nice for my girls to have a role model and my saying, you can do this. You're good at this. But I find that the girls need to hear that. They need to have someone say, you can do this. You're good at this. Because their perception, a lot of times, is that they're - this is not something they're good at, or that they have talent for, because the boys tend to be much louder, more aggressive, hey, I can do this. And they don't know what they're talking about, but they talk big without knowing that...

(LAUGHTER)

MELISSA: They have no idea what they're saying. But to a girl who doesn't have that experience, feeling, ooh, I don't know as much as this other person. This must not be my thing. And I think we - it's - there's a gender difference there where boys will fearlessly just, you know, shoot their mouths off about - and they really don't know what they're talking about. But...

(LAUGHTER)

MELISSA: ...it's still - and you know what I'm saying, I'm sure. And - but it's still intimidating to the girls. And I've had so many girls of mine who are now pursuing computer science post-high school simply because I went over to them and I said, wow, you're really good at this. And they're like, really? I'm like, yes.

And - but girls need to be told that at an earlier stage because it's something challenging and different. They've never had - and our really talented girls have never had anything that challenging and different. So since they're not immediately successful, a lot of times they think, ooh, this must not be my thing. When, in fact, it might very well be their thing.

LUDDEN: All right. Melissa, thank you so much.

MELISSA: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: Ellen Ullman, I mean, would you advice young women today to go into the field?

ULLMAN: Yeah. Yes. I did not study computer science, to my regret. But I've known great computer scientists and engineers, both men and women. And I am actually dismayed by the callers saying that the number of women is actually smaller than when she started or when we started. That really is dismaying.

LUDDEN: There is larger research showing women in a number of industries that the proportion actually has been shrinking in recent years, yes.

ULLMAN: Well, you know, I think women who are working in the computing world kind of gets stuck at a level of customer service, writing Web scripts, quality assurance. Now, this is nothing against it. I came up through customer service. I mean, technical customer service. It's great. And I would encourage women who are doing that, telling them, you're going to learn a lot this way. You learn when systems fail.

You see what customers can't understand, which makes - will make you a better system designer than a bunch of guys who are sure they know what they're doing, as the caller said. We need to design systems with the understanding of failure built into them and security and customer know-how.

And so I really want to encourage women who are doing that sort of work and may not consider being programmers or software engineers to - encourage them to say, you really are learning systems here, and learning something more valuable than if you had not come through this route.

LUDDEN: All right. Rochelle is in Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Rochelle.

ROCHELLE: Thank you very much. I think your speaker has a lot of great points to be made regarding women having a lot of other skill sets that can come to the industry. My own story is that I've been in hardware engineering for 30 years, a much different space, in my opinion, than even software - much tougher on women. And I'm currently, for example, in an organization of over 60 men and only three women.

And I think that speaks for itself, what culture has presented us. And I never was on mommy track or anything like that, and yet with my advanced degree and things like that, I have found I still work twice as hard to get half the recognition, that I have to take on double the workload to get half recognition.

And, in fact, recently, I had all of my really hard-earned work of the last two years taken away from me and handed over to somebody who didn't have my background and qualifications for this particular product. And now, I'm basically being told to pick up scraps from other people and yet, I have a real particular skill set that's very highly regarded.

LUDDEN: Do you speak up, Rochelle? Do you...

ROCHELLE: Oh, yes. Oh, I do. And that's probably the problem, is that I will actually speak up regarding the quality of my work. I will speak up regarding the importance of my work and where it fits into the business model and where it fits into the bottom line. And it's one of those things that because I actually work on things before they become a problem, that there's - there is a perception that she must not do very much because there are no problems on her products.

ULLMAN: May I just interject? I have a friend...

LUDDEN: Let me just - what does your mind - listeners, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Go right ahead.

ULLMAN: I have a friend who has just the same problem on the software end. She is really good at keeping the pieces together and actually overseeing programmers, which is a very, very difficult task. And her company believes that they give her more and more work and they think her work is lesser because she has fewer problems. All these other systems that these guys put together in a minute around her are full of problems and messes that she winds up having to clean up.

And I really want to say how much I understand what the caller is saying. And my friend is also someone who started in the '80s and I think being an older woman, actually, doubles the penalty.

LUDDEN: Huh. Rochelle, thank you so much for your call.

ROCHELLE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: So, Ellen, what - you said that sometimes you just let this roll over your shoulder, but you write in op-ed that sometimes you did lash out and it didn't work out so well.

ULLMAN: Well, sometimes it did. But it usually meant I had to leave.

LUDDEN: Really?

ULLMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, lash out. I mean, I, you know, I'm writing about my personal experience here. You know, The Times really wanted me to have a personal experience and as I say there, I wasn't looking for organizational power. And I've led a pretty peripatetic life. And when the project was done or there was a new thing along, I went with it. So I doubt will be said as a background.

And I - what I'm talking about in the piece is somehow maintaining an angry dignity, which took me years to learn. I sometimes just went, you know, I had a bad temper, yeah, and I will not be able to say the words on the radio that I would say.

LUDDEN: To colleagues.

ULLMAN: Yeah. To colleagues, you know? And that was a very bad idea, in general. I mean...

LUDDEN: So an...

ULLMAN: Lashing out in the moment is what I'm talking about.

LUDDEN: But an angry dignity that you say is a good idea. What does that mean?

ULLMAN: Well, I think all people who face prejudice have this terrible, terrible and cruel discipline imposed upon them, that if you lash back, you will lose your authority and position. But you cannot get rid of the anger. So there is this, as I say, a cruel burden that forces you to structure your anger, organize your anger internally and then with that angry dignity, proceed for - I mean, proceed.

LUDDEN: We've had so many stories in the news this year about Sheryl Sanberg at Facebook, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, who took a lot of flak for ending work at home at Yahoo. Do you think - what do you make of all the attention to these two women at or so near the top there, and it, you know, does it make any difference to the industry?

ULLMAN: Well, the fact that we're saying, oh, there are two women, and it may be three with Meg Whitman, there are three women. Count them, three. It tells you what you need to know that, you know, I was known as a woman programmer, you know? And they are known as women CEOs, COOs and they are visible because there are very few.

LUDDEN: So you don't really see their presence kind of filtering down to the ranks where you work and making a difference.

ULLMAN: Well, I can say I don't know. I worked at - the concern I have is more like the caller who teaches computer science, that women go down into the lower reaches where the future of technology is determined. However, it is also determined by the leadership of the top. So I would encourage women to rise through the ranks, but I had no ambition for that. And think it'd be better off going to Sheryl Sanberg for those lessons.

LUDDEN: All right. Ellen Ullman joined us on the phone from her home in New York City. She's a former software engineer, now a writer. Her latest book is titled "By Blood." You can find a link to her New York Times op-ed, "How to Be a 'Woman Programmer.'" It's on our website. Ellen, thank you so very much.

ULLMAN: My pleasure.

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

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