Bridging the Technical/Non-Technical Divide

SEP 1, 2016 • Written by Andrea Goulet

Eight years ago, I went to my high-school reunion. I had worked successfully in the field of sales and marketing since graduation. I had started my own consultancy when I was twenty-four which helped clients with sales and developing their “brand voice.” I was the human voice behind businesses large and small. At the time, I loved my job and had no plans on leaving my industry.

At the reunion, I looked around, and after the mandatory mingling that comes with being a social butterfly, I locked eyes with someone I recognized. He was leaning against the bar, drinking a soda, and looking utterly uncomfortable. Yep. That was none other than M. Scott Ford.

I walked over to him, flitting like he was a flower in my flight path. Even though we hadn’t talked since graduation, we’d always been close friends in school, and our conversations always revolved around one thing: technology.

In high school, some of my fondest memories were plopping myself down in front of him at lunch, stealing a French fry, and asking him “what’s up?”

Scott was the typical computer geek: the archetype from any given 80’s movie. He was president of the computer club. Skinny. Glasses. Braces. Super smart. I liked talking to Scott because he talked about things I thought were interesting. My parents had quit their corporate jobs when I was four, bought a Macintosh computer, and started a business out of our house doing desktop publishing. So I turned to Scott as someone who was into computers like I was.

We both, in very different ways, were involved in technology well before our peers.

But at the reunion, no one was surprised that the congenial social butterfly had ended up in sales.

And no one was surprised that the shy computer geek worked as a software developer.

But what has surprised me, is learning that we were pushed into these archetypes by our culture. The toys we played with, the media we consumed, the structure of our school curriculum, the norms at our workplaces, had molded us into an almost one-dimensional characterization of what society expected of us.

Breaking through your stereotype is often hard and scary, but it’s worth it. The shy computer guy can become a confident sales person, and the extroverted marketing girl can program software.

So back to the reunion. Standing at the bar that night, talking to Scott transported me right back to our conversations at the lunch room. I immediately felt at ease. After catching up for a few minutes, Scott admitted he had a confession. “I don’t want to be here.” He said.

“You don’t say,” I jabbed. “Then why did you come?”

“To talk to you.”

Immediately the teenage girl in me, the girl who had to ask over twenty guys to prom before someone finally said yes, felt awkward and uncomfortable.

“I have a business and want to get your advice.”

“Oh!” I sighed, probably sounding a little too relieved. “I’d be happy to help!”

I learned that for the past year, Scott had tried to build a business. He solved an interesting technical problem, put it up online, but hadn’t made a single sale. He asked if I would meet with him the next day so he could pick my brain about how to build his business.

“Sounds great!” I said.

Then a new song started playing, and I asked Scott if he wanted to dance.

“Nope.” He said. “I came here for what I wanted. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

As Scott left the reunion, I couldn’t help but feel like that girl in high school. Asking boys to dance and facing rejection. I quickly picked myself back up and flitted over to the next conversation on the dance floor.

The next day was a sunny September Sunday. The air was crisp, clear, and filled with possibilities. Scott and I met by the pool at my apartment complex. We talked for hours and I shared my ideas for how he could market his business. “It’s easy,” I said. “All you have to do is find a problem that everyone has and no one wants to do. That’s called product market fit. Then you need to understand the needs of your different customer segments and find the right way to communicate with them. Oh, and there’s pricing strategy… and distribution models… you can totally do this. You’re the most brilliant person I know. Go for it.”

He got quiet for a minute — contemplative. “Why don’t you help me build this. I can’t do it without you.”

He offered me 51% of his company if I would come on board as the CEO. Then, he asked me out on a date.

So technically, the business came first, dating and marriage came second.

Best pickup line ever.

Oh, and I said yes. To both questions.

Fast forward a few years. It’s 2014. We’re in the car, on the way to visit grandma for Thanksgiving. Our two-year old son is sleeping soundly in the back seat. Scott had recently been interviewed by a big industry podcast. We were super excited and blissfully happy. Our little business that we’d dreamed up together, Corgibytes, was starting to get noticed. We think it’s the perfect time to listen to it together.

The podcast went great. Scott explained the technical aspects of our business really well. I could hardly believe that this shy wallflower was starting to feel comfortable in a role that required so much communication and salesmanship. Then the host winds up the interview by asking about the Corgibytes origin story.

“So, Scott — your business partner, Andrea. She’s non-technical, right?”

“Yep.” Scott replied. “She does all the marketing and the business administration, but she’s non-technical.”

At this point, it was like someone had screeched a record and made time stop.

What did he say?

Non-technical? I heard that right, didn’t I?

Yep. There. He said it again.

I was livid. I had gotten this treatment from people all the time. Whenever I went to a user group, conference, or client meeting, it seemed to be the first question people asked me. I had expected it from them. But I had not expected it from the person I’d built my software company with.

“Non-technical? Seriously?” I asked with a lump in my throat. Tears started welling up, not in my eyes, but in my stomach. I was so hurt. But I would push them down, lest I be labeled “emotional”.

“I’ve spent six years as the CEO of a freaking software development company. How many years until you consider me to be technical? What do I have to do? Is there a class I need to take? A certification to earn? A freaking fairy godmother I need to manifest to wave a magic wand and poof I’m a technical like you?”

“I’m WAY more technical than a lot of people. Sure. I might not be as much of a coding ninja as you, but I know my way around a computer and I’m constantly trying to learn more. Tell me, Scott, when you come from marketing, communications, and other “non-technical” industries, when EXACTLY do you earn the right to call yourself technical?”

After my rant, Scott got quiet for a minute — contemplative. He took a deep breath.

“Andrea… I used the exact words you used to describe yourself at a client meeting yesterday. When you start calling yourself technical, I will too.”

I was numb. Confused. But I knew, deep down, that he was right. I felt comfortable calling myself non-technical. The person holding me back wasn’t Scott. It was me.

We continued the drive to grandma’s house in silence. I think best when I have space, and Scott knows me well enough to recognize this. I thought about what he said. “When you call yourself technical, I will too.” How would I do that? It didn’t feel right. My whole life I’d been told that there was a technical and non-technical divide. How would I cross that chasm?

I started by changing my bio. “Don’t be fooled by her decade of marketing experience, Andrea can sling some solid code.” That felt authentic, or at least it didn’t feel like lying.

I started reading and researching. I learned how, as a woman, the deck had been stacked against me since birth and I didn’t even know it. When I grew up in the 80s, computers were only marketed to boys as video games. Loads of male developers reminisce fondly about learning to code while writing BASIC programs on their Commodore 64. Girls? They weren’t “allowed” to play with their brother’s toys.

Meanwhile, the toy I remember playing with was Teen Talk Barbie. For hours, she’d repeat “Math is hard. Shopping is fun! Do you have a crush on anyone?”

No wonder I went into marketing and tried to hide my smart side. Barbie told me boys wouldn’t like it.

This message was reinforced when a third grade bully told me there was no way I could be good at math because I was a girl. I went home crying and my parents said my grades in math went from A’s to C’s almost overnight. My confidence as a technologist never rose because I bought into a cultural stereotype that held me, and countless other women back for decades.

Luckily, times are changing. Technology is more accessible than ever. Software is no longer built by a single person coding in their basement. Software is now developed in real time, not in long release cycles. The teams that are winning are collaborating, socializing, and understanding their customers. People with more technical backgrounds like Scott are having to learn about customers, user experience, marketing, personas. And those of us from communication, design, and sales backgrounds are learning that if we can’t adopt coding as a required skill for the workforce, we’ll be left behind. These days, it can be tough to see where the marketing department ends and the engineering department begins.

But yet, we’re still pushed into boxes. One of my staff members who is a woman said in her interview that she was really excited about being able to code again. “You have a Computer Science degree from Notre Dame. Your last title was Software Developer. What do you mean ‘code again?’”

She explained to me how, at her last job, they pushed her into project management because she was “the only one who could talk to customers”. Even though she WANTED to be technical, she was fighting against a culture that made it incredibly difficult.

A few months after our ride in the car, Scott and I attended another meeting with a potential client. I led the meeting and explained highly technical concepts about software. At the end of the meeting, he looked at me like he was seeing a strange creature in a zoo, trying to figure out where it belonged. When we got to the elevators, he paused and said “I’m sorry. I just have to ask you. Do you code?”

This time I replied “Yes.”

“Hmm.” He said. “Well, you sure don’t look like a software developer. Thanks for your time.”

My lips pursed. I took a deep breath. And somehow I managed to let the elevator doors close without punching him in the face.

When I got down to the lobby, I could feel the tears welling in my stomach again. But this time I refused to let an ignorant bully define what I could or couldn’t do. So I did one of the most Richmond things I could think of. I got a tattoo. It’s a piece of code, a JavaScript function, that translates into “I can be whatever I want. No one defines me.” I put it on my dominant hand so it’s visible whenever anyone shakes my hand.

Since then, no one has asked me if I know how to code. In fact, I’ve been invited to keynote at four software conferences since I got it. But I don’t think it’s the tattoo. I think it’s that people can see my confidence finally starting to shine.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, 1.4 million positions will be open in computing with only 400,000 computer science graduates available to fill them. Does that mean there will be a shortage of a million programmers? Some people think so.

But I don’t. Because there are people like me, and probably you. The non-technicals of the world. Those of us who thought our whole lives that we’d never be good at software only to understand that we have a critical place in it. We’ll read the research about how teams with diverse thinking perform better than those that are homogenous. We’ll let it sink in that recent studies show “no correlation between having a college degree and being a good software engineer.” We’ll scour the web for resources and stumble on apps like Mimo and FreeCodeCamp that are designed to teach people like us how to code. We’ll do what we do best: communicate and socialize. We’ll share our knowledge and encourage others that yes – they too, the musician, the accountant, the consultant, the human resources professional, the college professor, the graphic designer, the student, the marketer – that they absolutely can learn how to develop software. We’ll start to appreciate that the act of engineering in itself is a creative endeavor that requires BOTH technical and non-technical skills.

And the next time we’re asked whether we’re technical or non-technical, we’ll challenge the assumption that you have to be one or the other.

“I’m both.” Will be our reply.

“How about you?”