5 min read

Girls just want write Code

Women software developers continue to struggle in a male-dominated profession. Hopefully, as the economy picks up and employment prospects look better, an increasing number will chose to be programmersrn



The world of the software developer has been turned on its ear in the past couple of years.

The heady days of the dot-com boom, with its soaring paycheques and a market that absorbed pretty much every qualified (or semi-qualified) body available, are gone, replaced by an environment where the

available pool of qualified workers is up, salaries are down.

And work is coming back.

Kate Gregory, partner at Peterborough, Ont.-based Gregory Consulting, says that things are picking up. “”Projects that had been shelved are shaking themselves off again.””

Gregory, who is also a speaker and trainer in Microsoft .NET, C++, XML and other technologies, said that training requests are coming in again as well. “”Things are in a better place now.””

That’s good news for software developers, especially the women in their ranks, whose numbers continue to struggle in a male-dominated profession.

In Gregory’s company 80 per cent of the staff are women, but that’s very atypical. Statistics Canada says that less than a quarter of IT workers are women, representing about one and a half per cent of the entire Canadian labour force. Yet overall, women comprise just over half of the total labour force.

Catherine Leung, professor in the School of Computer Studies at Toronto’s Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, says she usually only sees five or six women out of 40 students in a typical programming class. This is down from when she first started teaching at Seneca during the boom.

Why? She isn’t sure, but speculated, “”Maybe girls are more practical. They might consider it if they think there’s employment.””

One thing she is sure of is that most of the women in her classes are not only as good as the men, they excel.

Gregory agrees. “”I do a lot of training, and teach a lot of different people. If there’s one generalization I might make, it’s if there’s going to be someone (in a class) who doesn’t get it and won’t say so, likely it’s a guy: the classic asking for directions stereotype.””

“”But,”” she added, “”it’s always difficult to generalize. Any individual can be stronger.””

Jacqui Krugel, vice-president of development at enterprise application platform developer Mobiam Solutions Inc. in Toronto, has two other women in her team of 20 developers, and has seen other differences. “”I’ve found that, from a management point of view, female developers tend to be far more thorough, with a far better understanding of business logic,”” she said. “”But guys are more interested in the latest technology.””

Kathy Dennis, Manager, Business Systems at Canadian Pacific Railways in Calgary has noticed the same phenomenon: “”The women seem to gravitate towards development, management and business roles as opposed to the pure technical and support,”” she observed.

But Jessica Escott, manager, DB2 Administration Tools at the IBM Toronto Software Lab, disagrees. In her code reviews she doesn’t notice significant differences between code produced by male and female developers.

This could, she acknowledged, be due in part to IBM’s defined structures and training, and in part because developers mentor each other to ensure software quality.

There are some areas of the development process in which women do excel, noted Lasha Dekker, director of the developer and platform group at Microsoft Canada and former manager at Microsoft Consulting. A major one, she said, is communication.

Defining the scope of the project, talking to people in various business units and determining the initial specifications, then setting customer expectations properly are things women do well.

“”They’re also very good at cross-group teaming, ensuring that the design and development teams are properly orchestrated,”” she said.

Gregory adds. “”As consultants, we sometimes verge on being therapists. And so I think anybody with empathetic personality traits does well in that circumstance, because your job is to say “”tell me where it hurts, what can I do to make it better””.

“”We don’t do that killer close thing, where we sell them $100,000 worth of software development. After we’ve found out what the problem is and convince them we can fix it for X dollars, they’re more than happy to pay X dollars to have their problem fixed, or else we don’t want to fix it. Solving people’s problems is a nice thing to want to do.””

In talking with these women the conversation shifted to how the technologies for solving those problems has altered.

Increasingly, more work is being done in Web services, observed Escott. “”At the end of my university study, we used C++, and had just started Java,”” she said. “”During my 16-month internship at IBM, I developed in C++; when I returned a year later, we used Java. Then we added SGML, and more recently XML.””

Krugel, too, has seen a change. Mobiam typically develops in Java but, she says, that decision is now being questioned by clients. “”I’ve noticed in the last year a lot of clients coming to ask why we’re not developing in .NET instead of Java. We’re having to justify Java. At my previous company, Java was “”it””, and no one questioned it.””

However, she isn’t worried. “”Once you have experienced developers, technology is the least of your concerns. Most skilled people can learn a new technology fairly quickly.””

Gregory, too, is seeing more interest in .NET technology, now that it’s been around for awhile. “”They’re starting to believe how quickly you can do some things (in .NET).””

But, she added, “”The majority of people come to us with a problem. They just want it fixed.””

“”People are looking for quick solutions,”” observed Krugel. “”We’re doing more building of high-level executive reporting systems. There’s definitely a demand these days for sizzle. The focus is on something that looks pretty — customers will forego some functionality as long as it looks pretty.””

“”We worry about functionality,”” she went on, “”but what they nitpick about is not that the numbers are incorrect, but that the font for the numbers is incorrect.””

“”From an ISV perspective, there is great opportunity in creating niche applications,”” said Dekker. “”I don’t know if that’s been explored and exploited to the point that it could be. I think there’s a great opportunity in a number of areas to create some very strong solutions for a particular niche, like financial or manufacturing.””

“”I would still encourage ISVs to look for those niche opportunities in the Canadian segment. I think there’s a lot of interest from the Canadian ISVs to do business in the U.S. but there’s still a lot of opportunity in Canada that hasn’t been taken advantage of.

“”I can understand why ISVs would do that, and if they are interested in doing business in the U.S., they should think about the differences between the Canadian market and the U.S. market, and how easily customizable is their application for the two countries.””

Judging from a recent IDC report, Dekker is on the right track. North American demand for application development and deployment (AD&D) software is expected to grow to $US27 billion by 2007, led by vertical markets such as business and financial services and discrete manufacturing, and it’s good news for developers.

“”To compete more effectively in the services industries, companies will need to achieve higher levels of automation and scalability in their IT systems, greater reliability, timeliness and integration of information flows, and optimal utilization of their digital assets,”” said Anna Toncheva, program manager in IDC’s Software and Systems Vertical Views program. “”These objectives will be met by continued investments in new applications, thereby creating significant opportunities for AD&D providers who can align their efforts to meet the spe