Tom Pittman's WebLog

(or something like that)

2004 October 15 -- Gender Bender

I always cringe when opening a trade magazine or journal and seeing an article on women in computing. More than any other skill, computer programmers work in a merit-based economy. Producing correct software is so hard and so much in demand, that anybody who can do a tolerably good job of it will be accepted and do well. There is no "Clubhouse" nor "glass ceiling" in computing.

While repeating ad nauseam the usual complaints about the dearth of women in this business and falsely blaming it on social hostility, the current article in Software Development actually touches on the real reason for it: women are well-rounded persons who want to go home and spend time with their families; the highest rank of geeks are just that: geeks. The reason all the technical leads are men is that the women want to go home and spend time with their families instead investing in the total immersion that excellence in this business requires. It's that simple.

It takes about two hours to get back up to speed after any interruption takes your mind off the complexities of the current project for more than a few minutes. In an 8-hour standard workday, that's two hours in the morning and two more after lunch -- completely wasted. The result is 50% productivity. Now look at the typical uber-geek hacker, on the hacker clock reported in Steven Levy's book (20 hours working, 15 hours off sleeping; I allow another hour or so in non-productive activities); in 36 hours the geek spends the same 2 hours ramping up, but now it's only 10% of the day. He not only gets 80% more useful work out of each average hour of work time, he also has more work time per week. The person who goes home at 5pm every day, five days a week, contributes 20 hours per week in productive results, compared to the geek on Levy's schedule, who produces usefully for 84 hours in the same week, more than four times the output.

OK, not that many of us really churn out 36-hour "days" -- but then, there aren't that many stellar programmers, either. I keep to a more or less 24-hour clock, with maybe 10 or 12 hours of productive time, six days per week. That's still three times what can be done on a 5-day, 8-hour schedule with an hour off for lunch and errands. It is noteworthy that the programming community has fewer elderly members than female, and they are typically viewed with the same disdain. Yet, even though I am twice the median age, I am generally accepted. Why? I spend the time and I deliver the code.

The ridicule this article reported male programmers have for women who try to join their ranks is not because they are women; it is solely because they are asking to be accepted on the basis of their gender, instead of for what they have contributed. The system really isn't sexist; the women complaining about the system are the sexists.