The Double Negative (Programmer)

The first day of school (and my first week in The Netherlands) I remember waiting in the lobby to be called to class. I saw a wide variety of men and woman and was thinking, "Aha I am not the only woman here, this is fine." But the teacher came and called all the design class students. In a few seconds all the women stood up and walked away. I looked around and realized was the last remaining woman in the room. Next I realized I was the only foreigner (Yes it was that obvious, a room full of Dutch stereotypical tall and blonde males). I remember thinking "what I am I doing here? I can't be the only woman in this class?!"

We have all been there. You're just a kid, how do you pick what you're going to do for the rest of your life? It can be pretty daunting, there is so much to choose from. You probably changed your mind quite a few times while others already knew what they wanted to do, and nothing could change their minds. Well, the latter wasn't me.

I was born on Aruba, an small island in the Caribbean. Living over there made it especially hard to choose what you wanted to do. Unlike there is in the Netherlands, there isn't any open day where you can explore all the different classes a school has to offer. We had a few books that listed some schools and the programs they offer. How was I supposed to plan the rest of my life from reading a few information leaflets?

Technology was a big part of my life when I was a kid. Ranging from getting that first Game Boy and playing Pokémon Yellow (until my battery died without saving, uh oh, I didn't know that…) to seeing your friend get her first cell phone and learning it had snake and space invaders (YOU HAVE GAMES ON YOUR PHONE?!?). I remember back when I opened up my first Myspace account, and I figured out you could style your own profile page by writing HTML and CSS. Looking back I realize that it was my first introduction to programming. I know what you are thinking; HTML and CSS aren't technically programming languages, but let's not start that discussion. Let's leave it at that my childhood life was heavily influenced by technology.

But what made me choose to study IT? I'm not 100% sure, it was either my interest in tearing apart old computers with my friend and trying to put it back together, or that time that my mom told me "But you're good at computers, why don't you go study computers?" What a naïve girl I was, to make the choice "I'm just going to study the computer." What does that even mean? I had no idea, but the next day I went to school and looked it up. I found an "Embedded systems engineering" class, and thought yes, this is what I want.

Before moving to the Netherlands I was preparing myself mentally to get the "foreigner" label. Dutch not being my first language was my first challenge. But being born on an island, I never realized that a typical IT classroom was mostly made up of men. I knew a lot of women were turned off computing in the 80's because computers and gaming systems were sold as toys for the boys. So I did expect more men than women, but I didn't what know the extent of it was and it never occurred to me to do research beforehand. So, I also got the "woman" label and had yet another challenge to face. I felt like an outsider, but I was extra determined to succeed at this. 

I felt like an outsider, but I was extra determined to succeed at this.

Would I still have chosen this class if I knew I was going to be the only woman? I had two challenges to face, follow a class full time in my non-native language and overcoming the stereotype that IT was for men. It was certainly hard at times, having a double disadvantage during my entire study. The language barrier was hard, having to always sit at the front of the class and still barely following the class because the teacher was talking way to fast and using words I didn't understand. Being a woman I had to always go that extra mile to prove I was just as good as my fellow classmates. Unlike some of my classmates, I didn't have any prior programming experience. I didn't feel that this was a disadvantage at the time because I was there taking classes and learning how to code just like everyone else. All the doubts and comments I got from my fellow classmates and teachers, they still made you think that if you didn't dream in code that you didn't belong or were not capable of being there.

After a few months, I made the switch to follow the Informatics class. And that is where it happened. There was another woman in my class. I wouldn't say we instantly became friends, but it was nice having something in common with someone else in your class. She had a newborn kid so we used to always go to her house to study together. First cooking and eating together, afterwards sitting by the giant stuffed animal she had with coffee in our hands. We faced all these challenges together. Even that one time where only three people got a passing grade on a test, and yes we were two of them. You should have seen the look on that teachers face. He was certainly speechless.

After getting my degree, I was looking around for a job and that is where for the first time I felt like I had the upper hand. When applying for a job, you are always trying to stand out in a way, so you don't get lost between all the other applicants. So I wrote my CV and sent it out to some recruiters. I was really surprised to get such an surprising amounts of calls for job offers. Programmers were very scarce, but I was feeling pretty special between all the male developers. I was even offered a private car to come and pick me up to take me to the interview, but I turned it down because I didn't want to commute to work. While looking for a job I soon realized that companies are looking for a diverse mix of people, having my "double negative" has certainly turned into something positive.

Working as a programmer at Perplex is not about sitting in a cubicle all day behind your desk and pushing code. You  work in a team where everyone has a specific set of skills and you need to work together to translate the clients ideas into an end product. You are never working alone, but together with your colleagues because there is a lot of work that goes into building a product. Coding is just one of the tools needed to achieve that. Having the diverse set of hard and soft skills in a team like this, makes a product that everyone is proud of!

If I could go back in time and would tell that naïve island girl that programming was not for girls and to choose something else, should she have listened? I wish I knew sooner that the double-negative is not such a bad thing after all.

Natasha de Canha

Natasha de Canha is a back end Umbraco developer at Perplex Digital based in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She is small island girl living in the Netherlands who has a passion for programming, gaming, traveling, cooking and playing with her bunny Chip.

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