Flesh out the narrative with small contributions
How did you get into tech? Did you do a computer science degree? Did you stumble into it? Or did you upskill in your own time and work your way up from the bottom? No matter which route you took, the likelihood is high that you had very little help along the way, and that the information you did receive was patchy at best.
For me, the journey into tech combined a childhood hobby (programming in BASIC and Pascal) with equal parts dumb luck and hard work. Part of the reason serendipity played such an important role for me entering the industry is that I had no clue where to get started. I didn’t know what jobs were available, which companies ‘did’ tech, how much money I should expect to make, or to whom I could speak to find answers to those questions.
Ironically, many peer groups do exist that cover almost every area of the industry. They come in the form of Slack groups, webinars, round tables, physical meetups with pizza and beer, and much more. But it is often only if you already know where to look that you can find them.
Whenever I meet people in the industry — whether a fresh bootcamp graduate or a seasoned tech lead — and I ask what groups they are members of, they almost always answer, ’none’. Many are not even aware that such groups exist.
Where are all the people?
The truth is that many people are simply too busy with commitments at home to expend the additional time and energy required to find and participate in out-of-hours peer groups. A healthy work-life balance is, after all, massively important to one’s wellbeing.
This has the unfortunate side-effect of ensuring that members of many groups overwhelmingly come from a rather narrow demographic. So when newcomers seek out groups to learn about the industry, the risk is very real that it will not be accurately represented to them.
That being said, I do not believe that those who happen to be young, affluent and without dependents (that is, those more likely to have the time and will to pursue professional networking out-of-hours) are necessarily doing a poor job of representing the industry. But they do provide only a limited view and understanding of it; biases in hiring flows may even limit the professions that are represented by these demographics.
Mixing it up
Getting those with experience (even those who are relative newcomers themselves) in front of those who are considering a career in tech therefore plays an important role in ensuring they can do so with a proper understanding of what lies ahead of them.
Exposing newcomers to as many different job roles, levels of seniority and educational backgrounds as possible promotes a sense of understanding of how each ‘side’ of tech (engineering, management, QA, etc.) fits into the big picture, and can increase resistance to tribalism and toxicity when they inevitably encounter it in the workplace (remember how you were told that testers are just failed developers, and project managers are all imbeciles?).
When aiming to participate in an extracurricular group, it is therefore helpful to consider the impact you can make by straying outside of your comfort zone; offering insight into your side of the industry to groups that may otherwise only know about it from unhelpful stereotypes.
‘Sounds good, but I really don’t have much time… what can I realistically do?’
If time is a precious commodity for you, there are still things you can do.
If you can only spare one evening once every year, that is fine! Your voice is unique, and every minute you spend talking about your job with school children, participating in mock interviews or answering technical questions from new coders is a minute that could literally change someone’s life.
I also don’t believe it is beneficial to become an event regular. I would even go so far as to say that it can be harmful: if the same voices are always present then their specialisations, misunderstandings and biases are all that attendees will take away. Like members of a Facebook Group sharing propaganda with one another to reinforce their own beliefs, the risk of ending up in an echo chamber is very real.
But, with smaller contributions from a larger variety of members, groups could have a far higher chance of being impartial, comprehensive and beneficial to all those in attendance. This kind of change won’t happen overnight, but you can contribute to it.
So where should you focus?
Meetup groups are an obvious choice as each session usually has a unique topic or theme — is there one where your insight would be particularly helpful? Or does your child’s school run a career day where you could talk about your job and answer the children’s questions? Or is there a mentorship programme you can join where you volunteer half an hour of your weekend a couple of times a month to talk through someone’s problems?
In the times before COVID-19, my preference was to engage with students while they are still in education, perhaps before they have even decided that they want a career in tech. As this has not been possible for most of 2020, I now focus on providing a mixture of formal and informal mentoring to individuals. It is a hugely rewarding activity, and if your organisation takes on juniors or interns you may even be able to do it on company time.
Most people are currently not active members of a peer group. Many prospective new techies have no clue where to find help, and those that do may unwittingly silo themselves when they venture out there.
Anyone with experience and an hour or two to spare (no matter how infrequently) can volunteer it with programmes like STEM Learning or codebar, or join Slack groups and physical meetups that maybe (just maybe) don’t specialise in exactly the area of expertise they’re used to.
Get ’em young, or show up in random places to challenge preconceptions about what you do.