A Woman In Tech

I am a woman, and I work as a “software engineer”. I didn’t plan that, but looking back it should have been obvious that I’d really enjoy this. As far as I can remember I’ve always been interested in computers, as my parents were. But I had so many interests: art, music, writing, crafts, reading, science.

I remember when I was fifteen or so, my parents bought me a new computer for my birthday. They told me they went to the local computer shop (the kind that sell parts and always have faded paper signs), and bought the appropriate parts. The assistant asked if they’d like her to put it together for them, and my father replied that me getting to put it together was part of the present. And it was! I read all the instructions, and put it all together, and installed a fresh copy of Ubuntu.

In my second year of high school we were offered a special credit IT subject, which would run across three years. Excited I joined up, one of two girls. The class consisted of copying out a dry textbook on computer architecture, and practical classes in Microsoft Word and Excel. Almost everyone dropped it as soon as we could. In my fourth year of high school I took a programming subject (again, one of two girls), where I learnt the basics of Java. My teacher was very enthusiastic, but not very good; I and two other students bothered to do any of the work, the rest played Quake.

At home, I devoured forums and man pages, I learnt how to use makefiles, and how to write HTML.

I didn’t take any computer subjects for my final two years of high school, I’d given up. In my final year I took just four subjects: Chemistry, English, Japanese, and double Maths. I applied to study architecture at university. I got into architecture, but after a gap break, I decided to study Japanese instead. After six months of Japanese, I dropped it for… more maths.

As part of my maths degree I had to take an introductory programming subject.

And it was amazing.

So I took more. I added a major in Computer Science. But I still saw my future in maths, in a PhD in pure maths, and academia. It wasn’t until a few things happened in my third and fourth years that I reassessed that.

Firstly, I met someone doing a PhD in pure mathematics, and he told me how hard it was to get a ‘regular’ job with a PhD. I had to commit 100% to the academic life, if that was what I wanted. I had done some casual tutoring, which I found very draining: I didn’t want to be a lecturer. I also wasn’t sure I’d cut it, I was finding the courses a lot less interesting, and a lot harder to understand.

And then one of my programming lecturers offered me a summer job, making an update to some in-house software for another company he worked at. I didn’t know the language it was written in (PHP) or the framework. I’d never used a database, I’d never even written any SQL. But I realized: I was good at this, I was getting paid to be good at this, and it was fun.

I’ve often wondered why, for so long, I’d been able to imagine myself in careers to do with all my other interests. A jeweler, a painter, an author, a flautist, a singer, an essayist, a translator, an architect, a professor. But not a “computer-er”.

I guess it’s hard to imagine what you can’t see, and have never been taught about. I’d barely heard of programming as a career, and definitely not women coders. It’s doubly hard when school syllabuses for computing and programming are so rubbish. I really think, apart from computer literacy, if you’re not going (or able) to teach it well, better not to teach it at all.

I think programming is perhaps better taught to youngsters when they have a reason: to make a game, an app, fix an ebook, calculate something, make a nice graph, make a blog theme. And tell them that this is a great career choice.