Born for it

How the image of software developers came about

The stereotype of the socially-awkward, white, male programmer has been around for a long time. Although “diversity in tech” is a much discussed topic, the numbers have not been getting any better. On the contrary, a lot of people inside and outside of the IT industry still take it for granted that this stereotype is the natural norm, and this perception is one of the things that is standing in our way to make the profession more inclusive and inviting. So where does this image come from? Did the demographics of the world’s programmer population really evolve naturally, because “boys just like computers more”? What shaped our perception of programmers? This text is about some possible explanations I found when reading about the history of computing.

Coders

Nathan Ensmenger is a professor at Indiana University who has specialised in the social and historical aspects of computing. In his book “The Computer Boys Take Over”, he explores the origins of our profession, and how programmers were first hired and trained:

Little has yet been written about the silent majority of computer specialists, the vast armies of largely anonymous engineers, analysts, and programmers who designed and constructed the complex systems that make possible our increasingly computerized society.

The title of the book is a reference to where it all started: With the “Computer Girls”. The women programming the ENIAC — one of the very first electronic, general purpose, digital computers — are widely considered to be the first programmers. At the time, the word “programmer”, or the concept of a program, did not even exist yet. The six women (Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman) were hired to “setup” the ENIAC to perform “plans of computation”. More specifically, they were teaching the machine to calculate trajectories of weapons, to be used by soldiers in the field. The ENIAC women were recruited from the existing groups of women who up until then had been calculating these plans manually.

Source: Born for it

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