By Douglas MacMillan on March 01, 2012
Danilo Stern-Sapad writes code for a living, but don’t call him a geek. He wears sunglasses and blasts 2Pac while programming. He enjoys playing Battle Shots—like the board game Battleship, but with liquor—at the office. He and his fellow coders at Los Angeles startup BetterWorks are lavished with attention by tech industry recruiters desperate for engineering talent. “We got invited to a party in Malibu where there were naked women in the hot tub,” says Stern-Sapad, 25. “We’re the cool programmers.”
Tech’s latest boom has generated a new, more testosterone-fueled breed of coder. Sure, the job still requires enormous brainpower, but today’s engineers are drawn from diverse backgrounds, and many eschew the laboratory intellectualism that prevailed when semiconductors ruled Silicon Valley. “I don’t need to wear a pocket protector to be a programmer,” says John Manoogian III, a software engineer and entrepreneur.
At some startups the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that it’s given rise to a new “title”: brogrammer. A portmanteau of the frathouse moniker “bro” and “programmer,” the term has become the subject of a Facebook group joined by over 21,000 people; the name of a series of hacker get-togethers in Austin, Tex.; the punch line for online ads; and the topic of a humorous discussion on question-and-answer site Quora titled “How does a programmer become a brogrammer?” (One pointer: Drink Red Bull, beer, and “brotein” shakes.) “There’s a rising group of developers who are much more sociable and like to go out and have fun, and I think brogramming speaks to that audience,” says Gagan Biyani, co-founder and president of Udemy, a startup that offers coding lessons on the Web.
There’s also an audience that feels left out of the joke. Women made up 21 percent of all programmers in 2010, down from 24 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Anything that encourages the perception of tech as being male-dominated is likely to contribute to this decline, says Sara Chipps, founder of Girl Develop It, a series of software development workshops. “This brogramming thing would definitely turn off a lot of women from working” at startups, says Chipps.
A poster recently displayed at a Stanford University career fair by Klout, a social media analytics company, tried to woo computer science graduates by asking: “Want to bro down and crush code? Klout is hiring.” Says Chipps: “No. I don’t want to bro down. I can’t imagine that a girl would see that and say ‘I totally want to do that, it sounds awesome.’ ” Klout CEO Joe Fernandez says the sign was just a joke and “definitely not meant to be an exclusionary thing,” and that the company hired a female programmer at the fair. At the University of Pennsylvania, a computer science club had to back down from plans to wear T-shirts saying “Brogrammer” to a school festival when female members objected to it.
In business, the brogramming culture seems to be confined to smaller outfits, says Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan, the first female engineer at mobile ad startup AdMob. When the company was bought by Google (GOOG) in 2010 she was surrounded by a more diverse team of programmers. “The frat boy mentality among engineering men is a little more pronounced in the startup world than in the more mature organizations,” she says.
While a few startups like BetterWorks (engineer population: 14 men, one woman) may be overrun by bros, at most others the trend is confined to a few. At Santa Monica (Calif.)-based Gravity, engineering director Jim Plush is referred to as the “resident brogrammer” and has affixed his computer monitor to a treadmill so he can exercise two to three hours a day while programming. At Justin.tv, in San Francisco, co-founder Justin Kan rides a motorcycle to work and listens to Swedish dubstep music on his headphones. “It’s not like a frat house,” says Kan. “My desk is the brogramming lounge.”
The bottom line: The fratty “brogramming” meme is on the rise, but some female computer scientists feel the phenomenon is sexist and it alienates them.
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