Where Does Your Pipeline Lead?

A pipeine in the forest, leading who knows where.

Note: There’s an amazing #talkpay conversation happening on Twitter today, inspired by International Worker’s Day and Lauren Voswinkle’s recent Model View Culture article about pay inequality, specifically in the tech industry. This post has been percolating for a while and today seems a particularly appropriate time to send it out into the world. I’m writing and posting this from 30,000 feet up on my way to a real vacation so responses may be sparse for a while. (THE FUTURE!)

There was a distinct lightbulb moment when I decided to become a developer. In sales, there’s a concept called featured story benefits. Instead of talking about what you’re going to do, you talk about how your customer’s life will be better after you do it.

In my case, I saw someone who was making a lot more money than I was, who could work out of his home and had no boss other than the client–who he could fire and get a new one if he didn’t like them.

The revelation of the lifestyle and freedom that were possible sent me running to community college weeks later with the dream of one day becoming a freelance developer.

That was 2006. (Holy crap!) Now I find myself on the cusp of moving from freelancer to business owner and creating the life I saw the possibility of nine years ago. It doesn’t look like I thought it would and of course, it’s a TON of work. But work I enjoy, and with the cutest coworkers you could ask for.

I’m fortunate that I enjoy coding but I was always clear that my pursuit of a technology career is a tool to create the kind of life I want to have.

In the midst of all the excitement and possibility I feel about my own business, I’m watching other people who are traditionally marginalized in the tech industry struggle with how toxic and unfair the industry is for those who fall outside the narrow stereotypes of white male developers.

It’s one thing to read in tech articles about 50% of women leaving tech at the 10 year mark. It’s another thing to watch it playing out before my eyes in back channels among my peer group. It’s so clear how systemic the problem is, as I watch them complain about the same terrible hiring processes, being patronized during interviews, called in (or even flown across the country!) for all day interviews and then told there’s no job after all. Or if they’re lucky enough to have a job, constantly dealing with micro-aggressions and being asked to do ‘second-shift’ work.

Simultaneously, I watch the copious numbers of ‘women in tech’ groups, coding schools and initiatives, bringing new people into the terrible pipeline with big hopes.

Learn to code! Get a job! Live happily ever after… oh wait.

A pipeline leading to sewage
© Copyright John Collins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A friend flipped the table and rage quit her job recently. I and a bunch of other women cheered her on, knowing how the job was wearing on her mentally and physically. Listening to the way she talked after going home reminded me of the euphoria that set in after I was fired from my agency job and realized I didn’t have to go back there.

I haven’t looked back.

In the past two years, my views about coding have changed. When I started, I was focused on making websites for clients. Now I’m focused on solving business problems for clients. The result still involves a website, but the mindset, focus, pricing, and results are vastly different. As I’ve changed my focus to helping people, I still use code to solve problems, but I personally code much less. I leverage systems and frameworks to accomplish my client’s goals more efficiently and use custom code when necessary.

Using technology to solve problems is a path that is open to many more people than just programmers, in many configurations other than ’work for a shitty startup company. That opens up many avenues for people besides the pipeline to the sewage plant.

In 10k Bootcamp, they teach us that the secret to getting higher paying projects is to do high value work. Writing code is just one of a vast array of valuable tech skills. There are so many other things that contribute to the tech industry and marketing on the web:

  • Data nerds can learn Google Analytics and help people monitor how well their marketing efforts are translating into website visitors and new customers and suggest changes based on the data.
  • People with solid business backgrounds and systems thinking skills can help companies systemize their processes to make their business run more efficiently.

For those who are good with the written word, there are even more options:

  • Word lovers can write copy for the web – a distinct skill that is probably one of the most important factors in successfully moving website visitors to action.
  • Good communicators with a skill or knowledge to share can start a professional blog or write for an established blog.
  • People who love social media can manage social media accounts for companies.

Learning to code well takes years of effort and often thousands of dollars, even for a ‘quick’ 4 or 6-month code school. I went the traditional route and earned a bachelor’s degree. Even with scholarships, I have about $60k in student loans to pay off.

In the ‘learn to code’ conversation, I don’t often see space and recognition for the people who are technical even though they may not be programmers.

  • The person who starts a blog and ends up tinkering under the hood to get it to look the way they want.
  • The employee who gets stuck updating the website because everyone else is afraid to touch it and ends up enjoying it.

Someone who is technical could leverage the power of WordPress to make simple but effective sites for small businesses and solopreneurs and add a few thousand dollars a month to their income. That’s an amount that could make a huge difference to someone working part time, stay at home parents, high school and college students. It’s an income that many people would be thrilled to have as their full-time income.

I see some of my peers with good jobs and large salaries occasionally look longingly over to my side of the fence, but they wonder if they could really make it work.

When I first started working for myself, my income dropped drastically. I went into it unprepared[1], without savings. I was lucky to have access to a great unemployment program that gave me the six months of cushion I needed to get my business off the ground. I’m lucky to have a supportive partner with a steady income and health insurance benefits. All these things made it less scary. But I think I would have found a way no matter what.

Even when I didn’t know if I was going to make rent the next month, there was one revelation I just couldn’t get over. I kept saying it randomly to anyone who would listen:

The freedom from being told when and where you have to be (even though most technology professionals can work anywhere, and often work better remotely). The freedom from daily microagressions from even the well meaning coworkers. The freedom from having to prove yourself constantly and fight for opportunities that are given freely to others.

If I had any idea what I was missing all these years, I would have started so much sooner!

If you’re thinking about getting into the tech industry or wondering how to stay in the tech industry in the face of pervasive toxic environments, I encourage you to broaden your horizons about what ‘being in tech’ can look like. What is your goal? If you want to use technology to make a better life for yourself, think carefully about the pipeline you enter and where you want it to lead.

As much as I love work, my business is means to an end. It’s a way for me to live life the way I want it.
~ Ashley at Little Leaf Design

Learning to code and using technology to make a living are just two small overlapping sections in the huge venn diagram that is the tech industry. If you can find a way to provide value to people who need your skills and your knowledge on your own terms–you might come out in a much better place.

Resources

Want to start your own thing but don’t know where to start? Start by finding people who have the kind of success you’re looking for and then try to learn how they got where they are. Lots of successful people are happy to share all their secrets (some even make a living at it). Here’s a few links to get you started.

Have more resources? Leave a comment below.


  1. Fired for culture fit! It still boggles my mind that someone would say that out loud.  ↩

This post is part of the thread: Tech Journey – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

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