Now I’m not all I thought I’d be
I always stayed around
I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand
Frozen to the ground
I can’t stay here, and I’m scared to leave
So kiss me once, and then
I’ll go to hell, I might as well
Be whistlin’ down the wind.
— Tom Waits
I was hanging out with a friend of mine tonight here in Yakima, a young Latina, a single mother of four, and we were talking about how Yakima, and other places like it, are not like urban America. Most of the people who live in rural America these days are either trapped here by circumstance — getting married or pregnant early, or simply not having the money or the opportunity to move away — or because they reject the values of the big city. (It’s slightly more complicated than that, but, well, that’s a whole other blog post.)
I found myself recommending to her — as I have to several of my friends here who are young and at loose ends — that she learn to code, as a way to take hold of her own economic destiny, and that of her children.
New readers might think at this point “God, yet another fatuous tech bro telling people all their problems will be solved if they just learn to code.” But longtime readers, and anyone who knows me, will know that I am decidedly not one of those people at all. I have argued at great length that one of the great failings of the tech industry is the nonsense notion that it’s a simple meritocracy — that anybody can do what we do.
The thing is, I think that is true… but only in the most theoretical of theory. The reality is far different.
I have one of the most diverse socioeconomic backgrounds of anyone I’ve ever known, but go ahead and assume, for the moment, that as far as this discussion goes I’m an average sample of the tech industry: a straight white male raised in the middle class. I got my first computer from my grandfather, an electrical engineer, when I was five years old: a Commodore VIC-20, along with a book on BASIC programming. “Where are the games?” I asked him. “Write some,” he replied. So I did, crappy little text adventure games, with very simple if/then logic. Nothing to write home about. but not bad for a little kid in 1983. I was kind of a prodigy.
My family saw to it that I always had a computer growing up — not always the fastest or newest, but something. I got on BBSes when I got a modem in the late 80s; I started fucking around with Photoshop in 1993; I made my first HTML page in 1995; I wrote my first PHP code in 1999 or so. I’ve been doing it for money ever since — sometimes good money, often bad, but I’ve never really been out of work if I was willing to hustle to get it.
My friend? She was not so lucky. She’s had a hard life. She’s a first generation Mexican-American, a child of divorce, who got pregnant young. She’s never had money or access to resources or advanced education other than what she might get at the local community college.
Despite that, she’s incredibly brave and smart and curious. She’s perfectly capable of being a web developer. But the biggest difference between me and her is that nobody ever told her she could be a web developer. That was never an option that was put on the table for her, the same way that option is almost never put on the table for poor people in this country.
But here’s the secret I want to share with you: anybody really can be a coder in America. It requires, basically, four things:
- A computer. Not even a great computer; a used $200 laptop from a pawn shop will work perfectly well.
- An Internet connection, or regular access to one, at the library or a coffeeshop if you don’t have one at home.
- A certain amount of time each day to devote to learning.
- A willingness to bang your head against the knowledge you need until it makes sense.
Of course, most poor folks can’t afford either the enrollment fees or the time off work to attend such a bootcamp. But I would estimate that in six months, studying for two or three hours a day, five days a week, you can learn enough to get an entry-level position in tech. A gig at a hip San Francisco startup? Probably not, unless you’re middle class and know people. But here’s the great thing about tech: everybody needs it. The big employer in your small town needs somebody to write web apps, or at least maintain a WordPress site. Local businesses will pay for you to make them websites. That entry level gig won’t be sexy, but it will almost certainly pay more than minimum wage…and in a place like Yakima, where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is pretty huge, that’s a big deal. It’s a ladder leading upward.
One objection people often raise to me is: I’m not into that computer stuff. It’s boring. Yeah, it can be, especially at first. After a while, it’s not. After a while, you’re excited by the potential you have to make things that can a) make you decent money and b) maybe, possibly, perhaps, change the world. And more importantly: you know what’s more boring than looking at computer code all day? Working as a cashier at fucking Walmart for minimum wage for the rest of your life.
Would you rather have a job that was boring and paid you $75K a year or a job that was even more boring, except you’re taking home a third of that, and being treated like a disposable piece of garbage by your employer, and having to wear a stupid vest?
If you’ve never lived in a place like Yakima, it’s hard to really understand how limited your options are if you didn’t start out with money and you can’t run the hell away. Working as a Walmart stocker or a McDonald’s fry cook or cleaning motel rooms isn’t an afterschool thing for high school kids: it’s good, steady work. Career advancement? Sure, you might end up an assistant manager or shift supervisor. You might even take night classes at Yakima Valley College so you can get a job as a machinist or a nurse. Maybe. If you can find somebody to watch your kids…except babysitters cost money, and if you’re making $9 an hour, where’s that money coming from?
But you don’t need a degree to work in tech, not even an AA from a community college. Shit, I’m a high school dropout. I have a GED. I went to a semester of art school before I dropped out to write and code full time. Nobody fucking cares — and if they do, they’re probably douchebags, and not worth working for. I respect academic achievement, but in the tech industry, it’s not a requirement. Ability is what matters, very generally speaking.
And as much as I firmly believe the tech industry has a strong (if often oblivious and unintentional) streak of misogyny and racism running through it, I also believe that if you’re legitimately smart and good at what you do, you will always find a way to at least get your foot in the door… and once you’re in, you have the opportunity to be part of the solution, making things better for people like you.
I realize that sounds simplistic, but look: nothing will change in tech unless there are more people working within it who want change, who are willing to stand up and speak out and push for that change. And that means more people of color, more women, more people who aren’t middle class white and Asian dudes who went to Stanford or Berkeley. We know what the problem is; let’s work on getting people in the door who can fix it.
One of the things I’d like to do here in Yakima — one of the things that would make living out here in almost total social and cultural isolation worth it for me — would be to set up free basic Web development classes that would be open to the public. Anyone could attend, but I’d focus my outreach specifically on the Hispanic migrant worker population and the Native Americans on the reservation, who are the poorest and most marginalized groups here.
Poverty begets poverty; marginalization begets marginalization. The institutional treatment of Hispanics and Natives in Eastern Washington ranges from paternal to patronizing to frankly barbaric. The city of Yakima has been embroiled in a suit with the ACLU over redistricting that would give Hispanics a better chance to get on the city council and be involved in running a community in which, depending on the season, they may actually be the majority. No one has given any reasonable explanation I have found for why the city would fight the redistricting, except that Yakima is a city that’s always been run by the rich white people who own the vineyards and orchards and fruit packing companies, where Latinos are routinely regarded by the Anglo community as little more than gangsters and drug dealers and ignorant laborers.
And I don’t know much about the situation of the Natives on the Yakama Nation reservation that borders the city, but the little I do know about — like the old boarding schools where Native children were given “white” names and converted to Christianity, a practice which continued until 1978 — does not lead me to suspect everything is coming up roses out there, either.
For the majority of the Hispanics who come here, success is defined as earning enough money to feed their families here and send money to those who were left back home, and maybe to open a small business of their own some day like an auto repair shop or a carniceria. The idea that their children might become startup CEOs or CTOs is as ridiculous and inconceivable an idea as the idea that they’ll grow up to wrangle unicorns for a living. Tech is a gringo thing. So they don’t encourage their kids to pursue those dreams, and neither does anybody else, the same way nobody encourages a black kid living in the projects in inner-city Los Angeles or Chicago or Queens to be a coder. Better to be realistic, right?
The pathway to getting there isn’t hidden, exactly; aside from a few red-pill shitbags, nobody’s actively trying to keep people of color or women out of the tech industry. But nobody’s going out of their way to shine a beacon to draw them in or make them feel welcome, either. Hell, most tech folks wouldn’t know which way to point such a beacon if they did.
This is where the tech industry’s image of itself as a meritocracy fails, in my opinion, because most people within it have no concept of what the world outside of their middle-class upbringing is really like. They think anybody can win the game if they play hard enough. But to win a game, you first have to be aware that a game even exists…and that you, too, can sit at the table and play.
To me, this is one of the most important things we in the tech industry can work to accomplish. If I could figure a way to do it full-time here and still earn a living, I would, but I don’t even know how to go about that. I am considering donating my time to teaching such classes, at least as soon as I’m on a little more stable ground, financially, than I have been this past year. (That too is a whole other blog post, but if you don’t know me, you probably don’t care.)
But maybe even more importantly, my goal would be to hammer home the idea that yes, this is totally something they can do, just like rich Anglos. (If you’re in the tech industry and don’t think of yourself as “rich”, keep in mind that for a lot of the people I’m talking about, anyone who makes more than, say, $75K a year is rich.) The trick is that there is no trick; the lie they’ve been taught, explicitly or implicitly, is that there’s some barrier to entry that you can’t cross. There isn’t; they can do this.
Would this solve all the problems the migrant workers and Natives here face, or bring about a sea change in the tech industry’s attitudes? Of course not. I’m not that naive. But hell, if we could help foster even the possibility of bringing these marginalized communities into the tech industry, it would be worth it, I think.
Can you imagine it? That’s what I asked my friend tonight. Can you imagine making enough money that you didn’t run out at the end of the month? Having enough to put more than you make right now into your savings account, each and every month? Never worrying about whether you’re going to be able to put food on the table or pay rent, or handle the medical bills if your children get sick? Knowing that your boys would be able to go to any college they wanted, that when you were gone they wouldn’t be left with nothing? Wouldn’t that be worth the effort to learn this boring shit, how to make web pages and program them?
For most of the people who enter the tech industry, this isn’t something they can only imagine — it’s the default condition of existence. Hardship, for most tech industry people, means having to move home to live with your parents in their basement because your startup ran out of funding, not moving into a homeless shelter or having two families in a two bedroom apartment. Hardship means having to share a car with your spouse, not riding a shitty public bus ten miles each way to and from work. Fear is not being successful, not getting rich or powerful or living up to your potential, of being ordinary.
It’s not the fear that comes with seeing roaches crawl across your child’s bedroom floor when you turn on the lights, and knowing that it will never get any easier than this, never get any better, no matter how hard you work; that you’ll never own a home, that you’ll leave nothing when you die except medical debts. It’s not the terror of looking out the window of your shitty one-bedroom apartment and seeing your preteen son hanging down on the corner with the dealers, and knowing that if he isn’t slinging for them already, he will be soon.
And why not? The dealers are the only people he’s ever seen who drive Escalades and have money to spare. Who else has he got as a role model? You? Working your ten hour shift at Jack In The Box and coming home bone weary in your paper hat to sit in the shitty folding chair at the shitty Formica table you bought at the thrift store, choking down another fabulous meal of leftover Sourdough Jacks and stale curly fries — the only real benefit your employer offers you, as you never get scheduled quite enough hours to qualify for insurance. Rich white motherfuckers on Fox News can blather on about the value of hard work until they’re blue in the face, but even a little kid can see that hard work isn’t getting you any fucking place at all but an early grave.
Start what up? Chief technical what? In the words of Senator Clay Davis on The Wire: sheeeeeeit.
Hope is not a destination; it’s a doorway. If it’s closed to you, you can’t even guess what lies on the other side. But what if we could open that door for all those terrified, hopeless people, all those apple-pickers and corner boys and trailer trash, living and dying in the corners of this sprawling, beautiful, terrible nation of ours? Just open the door, just a crack; that’s how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen says.
It’s not an answer, but fucking hell, y’all, it’s as good a place to start as any.