I am a woman in IT. I don't have a four year degree. I have never been enrolled in a CS program. I had a blue-collar upbringing. I've had to fight for fairness and equal pay in the workplace.
The reason I got into IT was partially because of the IT guy who serviced the computers at the walk-in clinic where I worked in 1999. He was one of those IT guys who acts like he has this expanse of knowledge that you couldn't possibly understand, so he wouldn't deign to explain to me what he was doing to the PCs or why. His condescending nature really irritated me, so I did some research to see what he really had to know to get a job like that. Turns out, the only prerequisite for his job was an A+ or CNA certification.
The local vocational school had night class program for the A+, Net+ and Cisco Networking Academy. After wondering if I'd maybe bitten off more than I could chew, I went to a meet the teacher event at OCPS to see what the school offered. Mr. Vanderpool was exactly what I needed to get started. He has a very calm demeanor, explains the subjects thoroughly and has an extreme amount of patience with all of his students. Whenever I'm back in Orlando, I make a point of stopping in to say hello! He was instrumental in setting me off on the right foot. At the time, I had a Windows 98 home grown PC (built for me by a dear friend). Its power supply was going bad and I was running the PC with the case off to keep it from overheating. After a few weeks of night school, I was confident enough to swap out the power supply without fear that I might break something else in the process. It was my only computer and I didn't want to destroy it by hooking up something incorrectly.
My parents left a lot to be desired when it comes to educational/life guidance, exposure to new ideas or financial assistance. Recently, Keith Parsons posted a link on FB to an Economist article titled "Parenting in America: Choose your parents wisely". The article got me to thinking about my own upbringing and how I've turned out. My dad ran the machine press at Western Electric, making the Model 500DD plastic telephone parts. My mother was a hairdresser at a nearby retirement home. Neither of them had a High School diploma, let alone a graduate degree. Going by the data in the article, the one thing my mother did right was reading to me at a very young age.
I've read dozens of articles lamenting the lack of women in CS degree programs at four year universities. The problem with the statistics in these articles is they're only looking at four year universities. There are many paths that can lead into a career in IT. Enrollment in a four year university CS program is only one way. Those statistics are misleading because so many other viable paths to an IT career are not considered in the studies. At least one manager at Microsoft is trying to set the story straight.
I have negotiated for pay raises and stood up for myself when blame was being tossed around the workplace, but I have never been subjected to the sexism that would appear to be rampant throughout the coder, hacker, gamer and tech startup communities. Perhaps the crowd at Cisco Live is a bit older, perhaps the desire to avoid career limiting moves or maybe I've not been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In conclusion: Don't let people tell you what you can or can't be based upon how you grew up or which social class you come from. A four year CS degree is not an absolute must. If you love what you do and continue to grow your professional skill set, it can lead to good things. The biggest thing keeping you from being the best you can be is you telling yourself that they're right, or that you'll start that career change tomorrow. There are dozens of people (probably quite a few that you haven't met yet) who want to see you succeed. Believe in yourself and hit the books. Statistics be damned!
Related to this post, I was interviewed by Josh O'Brien for his WhoIs series. I touched on some of these subjects in that interview, but felt it was finally time to put my thoughts into writing.