• Monday , 27 May 2019

A daughter of Silicon Valley shares her 'nerd' story

Code Canyon

Back in 2014, my colleague Crystal Beasley started a thread of women in tech/hackers posting their “nerd stories” in response to some comments out there on the Internet about the lack of women in tech. This is my nerd story, shared with you because I do believe in role models, and I do believe that there are many paths one can take to a satisfying challenging career and a life that helps one fulfill their goals.

Growing up with computers

I am, among other things, a daughter of Silicon Valley. Mine is not a story of arriving at tech from the sidelines, or of dedication from childhood. It is more a story of how exposure shapes you—of the power of being marinated in a culture, if you will. This is not the story of a straight path or a clear dedication from childhood to one goal. It is a story of intense privilege, I am aware.

I was born in Manhattan, but we lived in New Jersey while my dad was working on a PhD in computer science at Rutgers on the GI Bill. When I was four, someone at school asked me what my dad did for a living and I said, “He watches TV and hunts for bugs, but I never seen ’em.” He had a dumb terminal at home, presumably for his job at Bolt Beranek Newman working on the artificial intelligence aspects of the early Internet. I was watching.

I did not get to play with dad’s bug hunting TV, but I was steeped in tech from an early age, and I value the gift of that early exposure. Early exposure is one of the things we must give to the future nerds—take time to talk to the kids you know about what you do!


My dad’s terminal was similar, if not identical, to this one. CC BY-SA 4.0

When I was six, we moved to California. Dad was taking a job at Xerox PARC. I remember thinking that the city would be full of bears, because there was a bear on the flag. In 1979, Palo Alto was a college town and still had orchards and open space.

After a year of public school in Palo Alto, my sisters and I were sent to Peninsula School, a “democratic model” school that shaped me deeply. Curiosity and creativity were considered central curriculum values, and education was led substantively by group decisions of the students ourselves. We rarely saw anything one would call a computer at school, but home was another story.

After his days at Xerox PARC, dad went to Apple, where he worked on and brought home the first computers I played with: the Apple II and the LISA. My dad was on the original LISA development team, and I vividly remember that he made us “play” the mousing tutorial over and over because he wanted my 3 year-old sister to be comfortable with it… and she was.


Our LISA computer pretty much looked like this. See the mouse? CC BY-SA 4.0

At the same time in school, while I was great at conceptual math, I floundered in basic computation. One teacher at my first school told my parents, and me, that I was bad at math and “stupid.” While I excelled in our “regular” math program, understanding logical puzzles beyond what one expects of a 7 year-old, I could not successfully complete the math “drills” we had to do at the beginning of each day. She called me stupid, and I didn’t forget it. I didn’t get back to believing in my own logical and algorithmic mental capabilities for more than 10 years after that. Do not underestimate the power of the words you say to children.

Years of playing with dad’s computers followed. He went from Apple to EA to SGI, and I played with all his machines. This led to us having what we thought was the coolest house in town, because we had an SGI machine on which to play Doom in our garage. I didn’t code much at all, but what I got from those years, I see now, was a measure of fearlessness about trying out new technologies. At the same time, my mom, whose background was literature and education, became a technical writer and showed me both that careers can change and that it is possible to manage a technical career and motherhood together. I would not say that was easy for her, but she made it look easy to me. You’d think that all of this early exposure might send me straight into a technical degree and career. It did not.

Undergrad years

I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, and I enrolled at Mills College with every intention of doing that. Instead, I moved toward women’s studies and later theology, primarily driven by one of my great desires in life: to understand human motivation and work for a better world.

At the same time, I was for the first time being exposed to the full power of the Internet. In 1991, it was a very heady thing to have your own unix shell account and a world of people to talk to. I learned a lot from just “playing” online, and more from having people around willing to answer my many questions. It turned out that these same explorations led me down my career path at least as much as any formal academic education. All information is useful. I do not think it is any accident that this critical period of learning and exposure happened at a women’s college where a brilliant woman ran the CS department. We were not just allowed, but encouraged to explore many paths in that rarified atmosphere of empowerment (we had access to lots and lots of technology and to smart people who wanted to help), and I did. I’ve always been grateful for it. It was also where I learned about geek culture.

I went to grad school to study feminist theology, but technology was in my blood by then. When I realized I didn’t want to be a professor or an academic ethicist, I left academia and came home with a lot of school debt and not a lot of ideas.

A new beginning

I was stunned, in 1995, at the power I saw in the World Wide Web to connect people and share thoughts and information (I still am). I wanted in on it. It occurred to me that I could go into the “family business,” but not really how. I started working as a temporary contractor at offices in the valley and tried a few things (writing very basic databases on semiconductor data, pre-press work for technical manuals, filing payroll stubs) before I landed my first “real” tech job at Sun Microsystems. It was a very exciting place to be. (We were, after all, “the dot in dot-com.”)

At Sun, I stuck my neck out, trying as many new things as I could. I worked firsthand at HTMLing (What? It’s a word!) white papers, then hacking basic surveying tools (Perl, mostly) for beta programs. Then I became a program manager for Solaris beta programs, and at last got my first whiff of open source in running beta programs for Open Solaris.

The biggest thing I did was learn. I found it to be an atmosphere where engineering and education were both valued, and where my questions were not “stupid.” I was lucky in my choices of mentors and friends. I took every class I could, read every book I could, and tried to give myself the technical, business, and project management skill sets I hadn’t obtained in school before deciding to take the oft-discussed “mommy break” to prepare for the birth of my second child.

Getting back to work

When I was ready to go back to work, Sun was no longer a viable place to go. So, I gathered my contacts (networking is your friend) and my consulting skills and ended up with a rather long-term contract release managing a web “portal” (in 2005, everything was a portal) and exposing myself to everything I could about CRMs, release methodology, localization, networking, and more. I explain all of this background mostly because my biggest lesson was that the education I got was in what I tried and in what I failed to do, as much as in what I succeeded at. I think we need role models for that, too.

In many respects, the entire first part of my career was my technical education. It was a different time and place—I worked on supporting women and other underrepresented minorities in the organization, but it was not as overtly difficult to be a woman in tech then. I was undoubtedly blind to some issues at the time, but there’s also a case to be made that our industry has become more misogynistic, not less.

After all of this, I still did not see myself as a role model, or as highly technical. I was quite shocked when a geek friend I knew from parenting circles encouraged me to apply for a job as product manager at a very obscure seeming and highly technical nonprofit open source infrastructure shop (Internet Systems Consortium, makers of BIND, the widely deployed open source DNS nameserver, and operators of one of the 13 root nameservers). For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why they hired me! I knew very little about DNS, infrastructure, or protocol development, but I found my mentors again and flourished. I spent my time traveling, working on critical processes, figuring out how to work with highly international teams, solving hairy problems, and most of all, embracing open source and the vibrant community that loved and supported our efforts so very much. I learned most of all, again, by making mistakes. I learned what it takes to build a vision for a product, and how building things in the open and in community takes all sorts of specific skills, talent, and patience, but adds so much value.

Becoming a mentor

It was while I was at ISC that, through the amazing TechWomen program (which brings technical women from the Middle East and North Africa to Silicon Valley for mentoring), I got hooked on mentoring and supporting other women in tech, particularly in open source and open culture. It was when I started mentoring that I started believing in my own abilities, too. That was a long lesson to learn.

When I first read the advert for TechWomen mentors, I didn’t think they would even want to talk to me! My impostor syndrome was so strong. I was so shocked when I was asked to mentor the first cohort (and every one after that for six years), but I am learning to believe that I earned these things. Impostor Syndrome is real, but over time it can be overcome.

Today

In the end, I had to leave my job at ISC. Luckily, my work and my values brought me to Mozilla, where I’ve been both perseverant and lucky enough to have several meaningful roles. Today, I’m the senior program manager of diversity and inclusion. I work full-time on building a more diverse and inclusive Mozilla, standing on the shoulders of giants who did the same before me and in partnership with many of the smartest and kindest people I know. I’ve followed my passion for empowering people to find meaningful ways to contribute to the Internet I believe the world needs: an expansion of the one that excited me so long ago. And I get to see a lot of the world while I do it!

Taking a new approach to changing culture through organizational and behavioral interventions is such an incredible way to connect my entire trajectory—from my early academics through my career to now. It’s a new challenge every day, and I guess that’s what I love most about working in tech and in particular on the open web. The very pluralistic nature of the web that first drew me in is the same possibility I still seek—a world where there is opportunity for all and where there are resources for people no matter their backgrounds. Role models, mentors, resources, and, above all, respect are essential components of evolving tech and open source culture to be all that I believe it can be—including access and opportunity for all of us.


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