Yes, it happened to me. I was fired from a job. It happened about 6 years ago.
I was looking for a new job, but the job market wasn’t great at the time. The web industry was still recovering from the dot com crash. I snagged a couple of interviews that went nowhere. Then I got an interview with a little consulting company who was building a web application to help them collaborate with their clients.
I was to interview with the CEO and the lead, and until that point only, developer on the project. The CEO was late. I sat down with the lead developer and talked to him for less than 10 minutes when he concluded the interview and started to show me out of the office. My heart sunk – I didn’t know what had gone wrong.
The CEO showed up just then, exclaiming surprise that I was leaving the interview so early. He took me back into the office and asked if the developer had shown me the application. He hadn’t – there hadn’t been time to talk about much of anything.
So the CEO sat me back down and proceeded to demo the application while the lead developer sat hunched with his arms crossed. Clearly this guy didn’t want to hire me. But the CEO was friendly and enthusiastic. It was easy to see that the application had been built by a developer with little thought to the user experience. The CEO’s main beef was that there were several points where making a selection or checking a box resulted in a sudden and complete page refresh. He told me they were considering using Flash to get around this problem, but weren’t keen on the idea, and asked me if I had any other suggestions.
To me, the solution seemed so painfully obvious that I hesitantly said, “Well, have you thought of using Ajax?”
The CEO had obviously never heard the term before – he asked me to explain, and I did. He jumped out of his chair and started doing what could only be described as a celebration dance. “Ajax! Yes! That’s what we need! Why haven’t we tried it yet? Did you know about this?” he asked the lead developer.
The lead developer shot me a murderous look and spat out, “That’s new, isn’t it?”
“Well, no, not really. It’s been around for ages,” I said. “Just not used very much.”
I sent them off to a couple of websites that had Ajax demos set up and the CEO got more and more excited while the lead developer got more and more dour.
Despite the lead developer’s attitude problem, I left the interview on a cloud, certain that a job offer would be coming my way. And sure enough, one arrived in my inbox the very next morning.
When I first arrived at my new job, I had a series of meetings with the CEO. I was going to be working closely with him to redesign for the application. He asked me to start creating HTML mockups. At the end of each workday, I was to upload these to a development server where he could review them early the next morning over coffee.
No problem, right? All I needed was the server address and credentials. I was told to get those from the lead developer. But when I asked him, he refused to tell me. He told me to email him a zip file each day, and he would take care of putting them on the server. The lead developer worked at a separate office, so we didn’t get much chance to talk to him directly.
You can probably guess what happened next. Day after day of me getting phone calls from the CEO at 6am wanting to know why I wasn’t doing what he had asked. I was sending the zip files to the lead developer, but he wasn’t putting them on the server. The CEO couldn’t understand what the issue was, and the lead developer refused to give me access. Two weeks into the job I was on the verge of getting fired.
I finally reached out to one of our project managers to explain the situation. He interceded on my behalf and called the lead developer, who outright lied and said the reason he didn’t give me access to the server was because I had told him I didn’t know how to upload files.
I was outraged. I’d been building websites for 7 or 8 years at that point – how on earth would I have been doing that without knowing how to put files on a server? The project manager kept me calm, got me access, and explained it away as a misunderstanding.
After that initial drama, things calmed down for a bit. Four more developers were hired, all within a couple of weeks of me. I unfortunately need to mention that these were three men and one woman because that becomes important.
Things shifted and the lead developer had to come and work at the same office as the rest of us and it became obvious that this man simply did not want to work with women. As time went on, he got ruder and more blatant in expressing his distaste. He developed the shocking habit of stepping into the small office I shared with the other woman developer and telling us that his wife was at home, preparing his dinner, as she should be.
In a meeting one afternoon, the project managers requested a new feature for the application – the ability to sort search results on a certain field. “Not possible,” the lead developer said. This turned out to not be a new request. The lead developer had been telling them it was impossible from the beginning.
My fellow female developer spoke up. “Actually,” she said, “I think you could do it.”
“No, you can’t. It’s absolutely impossible,” the lead developer said.
“No, it is possible, ” she said. “You could just…” and she proceeded to explain a potential solution to the problem.
The CEO intervened. “Let’s move on to the next request. If this guy says it isn’t possible, then it isn’t possible.”
Not one to be deterred, that week the female developer branched the code and went to work. Within a couple hours, she had the requested feature working. At the next meeting with the project managers, she hooked her laptop up to the projector and showed off her work. The project managers were ecstatic.
The lead developer insisted that what he was seeing was impossible. That the requested feature just couldn’t be built. Never mind the fact that there it was, working, in front of everyone’s eyes.
“Well,” said the CEO to the female developer. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t work on that any more. It can’t be done and it’s a waste of time.”
How do you overcome prejudice like that?
Things got worse and worse. The more bad behavior the lead developer got away with, the worse he behaved. If either I or the other female developer checked in code with even a tiny bug in it, we’d be subjected to heated and nasty attacks, both verbally and via email. Suggestions we made were squashed without consideration and we were often subjected to ridicule.
Finally, impatient that he still had to share office space with us, the lead developer stepped up his efforts and started destroying the production site and then blaming me or the other female developer. He’d drop entire tables from the database. Or he’d open up one of my CSS files and randomly delete 100 lines or so from the middle of it. Then he’d check it back into source control and push it to production. The CEO would get phone calls from clients and he in turn would then call the lead developer. He would then simply revert his changes, and calmly tell the CEO that it was a problem with either my work or the work of the other female developer.
You might be thinking, “Wasn’t that all documented?” Yes, of course it was. The check-ins and reverts were right there in source control, plain as day, for anyone who cared to look. The problem was, nobody cared to look. Even when the female developer and I tried to show the CEO and Vice President what was going on, they refused to look at the commit history and simply told us, “Either you find a way to work with him, or we’ll find someone who can.”
As though we were the ones to blame.
Finally, I got a call from the office manager one afternoon, telling me they were letting me go. The other female developer got the same call a couple days later. It was crushing. And absolutely unfair. And ultimately, one of the best things that ever happened to me. I got a new job almost immediately, paying me about 30% more. The other female developer did, too. We talked on the phone a month later and wondered why we had stuck around so long, why we had put up with so much.
We were both stubborn. We both refused to give up in the face of injustice and discrimination. I can’t say that we won in the end and I can’t say we handled the situation the best possible way. But I don’t know what I might have done differently. Taking some kind of legal action seems unnecessarily drastic. Neither of us had any troubles getting new jobs or any other jobs since. In fact, about a month later, the project manager – the very one who helped me sort out the development server problem when I first started – called me and asked me to come back to work for them. He said he was calling on behalf of the CEO. But I already had my new position at that time, and with no desire to return to such an unfriendly environment, I turned him down.
Knowing as I do now that good front end developers are hard to find, and hard to keep, I’d like to think that karma took care of this for me, that they weren’t ever able to find someone to replace me. I don’t know what actually happened, so I comfort myself by thinking that ignorance robbed them of two of the smartest and best employees they ever could have hoped for.
What is the right way to handle blatant discrimination like that? We stood up for ourselves. We stuck around and weathered the storm. We spoke up and let people know what was happening. But nobody did anything. It was just allowed to continue. I think we’re all under the impression that all it takes is calling attention to what’s going on. But I know first hand, that doesn’t always work. What do you do when speaking up doesn’t fix the problem?