15 Years: From Hacker to Developer

I’ve always considered myself as a bit of a non-conformist. I hit my peak around 8th grade when I wore black band tees and converse (but referred to them as Chuck Taylors), complained about the ‘preps’ at school on my Xanga, and listened to The Clash, Underoath, and the best local bands of Enid, Oklahoma. In case you were not aware of what kids were up to in the early-2000s, there were dozens of adolescents at any middle school with these traits. But I was different. I was mysterious and they were posers.

I’ve displayed this rebelliousness of mine as early as 5th grade. When assigned the task of creating a website through Matmice.com, my classmate and I scoured their directory and noticed a large number of fairy fan clubs. We hated fairies and found this trend absurd. So, we designed a website called the ‘Anti-Fairy Organization’. Our mission was to inform the world that these winged creatures known as fairies were NOT REAL. Complete with bold Comic Sans titles, animated italicized quotes that mockingly denounced fantasy, and clip art images we found using Yahoo, our anti-fairy html page was the first programming project in my portfolio.

Matmice allowed for comments on each site. So naturally, we trolled all the fairy loving websites and voiced our distaste. It goes without saying that our reputation on Matmice provoked many enemies. One day, my co-founder messaged me on MSN Messenger telling me that she had guessed the password of our arch nemeses’ popular fairy loving website. It was ‘ilovefaeries’. We immediately changed her password to ‘shaggydog’ (a sort of epithet I became known for after introducing the story to my friends). Then, updated her website to tell everyone that she had changed her mind and no longer believed in fairies after learning the fairy truth on our Anti-Fairy Organization website. Thus, at age 10, I began my career as a hacker.

The next 10 years of my Oklahoma public schooling was devoid of technology education. I studied Accounting at the University of Oklahoma because I enjoyed numbers and I wanted to make a lot of money. Middle-school Kelsey would have called 20 year-old Kelsey a sell-out to the corporate agenda, but by this time I was comfortable conforming to societal pressures. I needed to hack this system to fulfill my dreams of becoming rich and traveling the world. This time the password was a pencil skirt and heels (still black) and a business degree.

In the Price College of Business at OU, I was required to take an Information Systems course. I did well in this class so I added MIS as a second major to make myself more marketable. I was captivated by my first required course — Programming with Visual Basic. For the first time in my 20 years, I ignored my anti-social tendencies and sat at the front of the class and actually participated. The professor, a candid Sri Lankan man who lectured us on a variety of topics from cricket to GUI design to the Godfather, would award miniature Twix in exchange for correct answers to questions posed during class. I was eager to explain in front of my classmates how to loop through an array effectively and why a variable declared inside a sub procedure is not globally accessible. I received nearly perfect marks on my exams and projects, but more importantly I LOVED studying for my programming classes. It was satisfying for me to create something from nothing.

I was talented at programming, but idiotically I didn’t believe I was good enough to pursue a career doing it. I don’t recall being introduced to any female role models who programmed. To me, coding was for shy, awkward men who sat in dark cubicals during the week and played video games all weekend. I imagined a programming career to be working with a group of men who made Linux jokes and Adult Swim references. This did not excite me in the least. However, I still wanted to be involved in technology, so I pursued IT consulting roles. For the past 5 years I have been a Healthcare IT Consultant and have fulfilled my dream of traveling on a large corporation’s dime. I successfully hacked the business world and traveled across the country, racking up airline points and eating a lot of expensive, tasty food paid for by the company.

Weekly travel gets old after a while, and a year ago I decided to end the chapter on that phase of my life. I settled myself in Philadelphia with the goal of establishing a meaningful relationship with the city community I was working in. I found a non-profit called TechGirlz that is Philly-based and aims to close the gender gap in the tech field by hosting workshops to middle school girls. I’m now the instructor passing out Twix for a correct answer to questions like “What’s the difference between a web-based and native app?” and “What’s the name of the movie that just came out about women engineers at NASA in the 60s?”. I try to inspire girls to pursue technology by telling stories about my travels to interesting places like Alaska, and talking about how exciting an electronic medical record go-live at a hospital is. But I ache to be able to show them an app or website I’ve developed using the same technology they just learned.

I want to be the female coder role model I never met when I was younger. I want to be an entrepreneur and add value to society. I want to be involved in civic projects by contributing my relevant technical skills. I want to be an educator and share these skills with others, especially young girls who feel like they do not belong. I no longer want to hack into the systems created by people before me. I want to develop my own.