Women, Tech and 20: Beginnings
It started with us, in different places and different times in our lives. For me, it was a bit of a fluke.
Friendship and Feminism
I read Susan Faludi’s ground-breaking book, Backlash in 1991, the year it came out. My dear friend, Cathy Whitmore, encouraged me to read it. It changed me.
Cathy was my first real mentor. I met Cathy in 1986, the year I dropped out of University of San Francisco. At 19, I was already disillusioned with college; I chose USF because of its liberal, Jesuit history and its intimate setting (not to mention being smack dab in the middle of the city and its nightlife). What I experienced my freshman year was a total disconnect from college life. I was surrounded by way too many entitled kids from all over the world; what attracted me as international soon felt elitist. It was intimate, but for me, it also felt very small-minded. One of my media professors, who many loved because he played The Breakfast Club one time in class, claimed soap operas were a cure-all for young adult angst. WTF?? On top of that, my unrequited love from high school, who ultimately lured me to USF, hooked up with a model, started an art band, and dropped out. KUSF could only lend so much solace. So I dropped out.
I fretted many a night — for many years — about this decision. Coming from a highly academic college town where most of my friends were attending some of the finest schools across the country, dropping out meant Failure. Laziness. Losing Sight. I did not want to disappoint anyone, particularly my parents. They too had dropped out after their freshman year at UC Davis when they learned they were pregnant with me; within a few years they had three kids and were taking shifts to both work and take care of us. Reclaiming college was not quite feasible for them, let alone a priority. I swore that I would make something of myself, with or without a college degree.
I met Cathy after I got hired as a hostess for a popular “sushi meets California Cuisine” restaurant on Union Street called Sugar’s. She worked the register and would ensure the owners and their friends got drunk, I would welcome patrons, take reservations, and try not to roll my eyes too much. Cathy was confident and incredibly kind to me, and we instantly became friends. We bonded over our disdain for Yuppies as well as a penchant for sneaking the occasional cup of sake while on the clock. She had a bitchin’ platinum, new-wave haircut, rode a scooter, snuck me into clubs (she was 26), and didn’t take shit from ANYONE. She later taught me how to use a computer — a Mac IIsi — which completely changed the course of my life.
Cathy is still one of my best friends. So are Macs. PCs suck.
By 1991, San Francisco was my home. Every neighborhood I ventured into by bus or bike was a treasure trove. I met all kinds of transients, each with their own spiritual and political perspective. I met many women who were smart, lyrical, hilarious and diverse (a lot of really awesome guys too). They became my city posse, my extended family. I had no TV, a nice, cheap apartment in Noe Valley, and lots of time to read books and write bad poetry. It was a given that we would be influenced by Susan Faludi and all the national narrative which followed. As it happened, one of my favorite films of all time had also come out in 1991. It had a similar impact on our culture, causing people all over the country — the world — to seriously re-examine how women were being portrayed in media, the workplace, EVERYWHERE. Turning notions of “having it all” upside down and giving “she should stay in the kitchen” the middle finger was totally liberating. This was still the national dialogue, remember! I took heart with developing my career. While I was still naive and not a particularly talented writer, I was responsible for my future, not any dude or power structure or peer pressure. Remaining unfulfilled in my personal and professional life was NOT an option.
With all those voices of empowerment and progressive self expression rallying around me, I was, at the time, reluctant to call myself a feminist. This was partially due to being raised by a wary, co-dependent mother. She often told me “I don’t understand them,” referring to the plethora of strong-willed women — some friendly, some not quite — who she regularly encountered while working as an admin at UC Davis. By the time I was on my own, I kinda took the stance Kim Deal did at that time. Labeling myself or anyone a feminist defeated the purpose of empowerment and encouraged stereotyping and sweeping generalizations I wanted to steer clear of. I didn’t prescribe to any dogma, this is how I felt. I had high regard for many of the 20th century feminist pioneers, but it wasn’t clear to me that their values my mother subconsciously ingrained into me were now becoming cultural — nay political — intellectual tiers of feminist infighting. I didn’t realize how threatening and polarizing it was becoming. And still is today. Many years later would I learn that labels can be empowering, as long as you can truly own them.
Today, I call myself a feminist.
By the time the Yuppies moved on to Julie’s Supper Club and South of Market became the new hub of hip in the early 90's (Sugar’s eventually closed down), Cathy had set me up with two photographers who needed some light bookkeeping and office management. One had his studio on Bryant and 2nd, in the burgeoning SOMA district. It was near this cute little park with a couple nice restaurants, a cafe, and some questionable mom and pop shops. I liked the location; it was still industrial and didn’t feel like it was becoming gentrified. Yet.
My journalistic opportunities had waned, and I was eager to find a new outlet. A couple years before, I started writing a bit for Victor Miller, founder and editor of the North Mission News (later renamed the New Mission News). He agreed I could write for him — for free of course — even though I had no experience whatsoever. We constantly bickered, he frustrated the hell out of me, and I adored him. He was an eccentric curmudgeon who would buy me a dinner every now and then when I turned my stories in on time; most of all, he was deeply, deeply passionate about preserving the diversity of the Mission District. He was my second mentor and one of the best editors I ever met.
But I couldn’t get gigs with any of the weeklies, and frankly, I was too insecure to push for the opportunity. I found the Bay Guardian too intimidating and the SF Weekly too cool. I pissed off the editor at BAM one time when I wrote fake letters to him over a questionable live music review (he published both, I then admitted they were mine…it was not pretty). I suppose my lack of journalistic integrity kinda nailed that coffin.
I was getting bored working as an office manager and bookkeeper. The allure of working with photographers and using a computer was becoming a bit Meh. One day, upon my way to the bank (to deposit money that was not my own of course), I ran into my former North Beach Pizza waitress comrade, Amy. She was exhausted and exalted. She explained she was helping start up a new magazine and they were desperate for help; would I be interested in coming to help out for a while? A magazine? Hell yes! I was thrilled. She set me up with an interview and I was hired within a couple days. I said goodbye to my photographers.
Finally, I would be working for a magazine. Without a college degree.
I joined Wired Magazine in June 1993. I think I was probably hire #20. Amy had set up an interview with Wired’s co-founder Jane Metcalfe. I recall meeting in her office and was struck by Jane’s poise and confidence (she seemed so young and that also threw me off). She also had very good enunciation, something which to this day I totally lack. Her partner, co-founder Louis Rossetto, was equally intriguing, though with far less regard for fashion and polish.
Amy gave me a tour of the office, at that time a cheaply rented, third floor loft with lousy air ventilation on 2nd Street and South Park. It was a mess; dirty dishes in the sink, papers and magazines and newspapers everywhere, bins of mail, discarded CDs scattered around the stereo (which I gave high marks for because they had set it up in the middle of the room). The freight elevator was a nice touch. I’m pretty sure Gris Gris, Eugene’s infamous cockatoo and office mascot, was there somewhere giving me the stink eye. This place was heaven. They were making a magazine! I had no clue — NONE — what the digital highway was about or the Bengali typhoon that was about to hit us.
My job initially was to process magazine subscription cards. I was paid $5 an hour, under the table. The subscription cards would come carried in those USPS bins daily, by the hundreds. I sometimes felt like I was Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, you know as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. As soon as we got the pile down to 50, another 200 would come in. I worked with 2–3 raver kids at any given time. We entered the subs into a simple Filemaker Pro database; it was a miracle how far we pushed that system. But my role evolved; I got my first email account (firstname.lastname@example.org, it no longer works so don’t bother emailing me there) as well as an AOL email account (email@example.com). I learned what chat rooms were all about. Will Kreth was so patient with me because I asked a load of dumb questions. I packed and mailed “limited!” Otaku t-shirts and Timbuk2 messenger bags with the famous Wired logo stitched into them. It was tiring and I was often annoyed at the pace and the low wages, but I learned a ton. Best of all, I met some of the most talented, creative and ambitious people in my career. Wired (and soon, Hotwired) became a magnet for the curious, those who inevitably became the darlings of the digital revolution.
“At that point, Wired was doing some interesting things intellectually as far as ‘the future is here and we gotta be a part in creating it’. More often than not, some really interesting people made it to our door, thinking ‘Wired’s doing something. I want to be a part of it.’ But there was no prior publishing model like it. Before it was all academic in terms of the Web. We were always looking for people who were thinking outside of the box and pushing the boundaries of the media we were working with. We didn’t know what it could do.
When you’re a publisher, you think ‘OK, so how is this going to translate on the Web?’ There were massive questions about what that meant. What was ironic was from the start we decided to put the magazine on the web with only the logo and the stories in HTML text — and do all our publishing experimenting with HotWired…which was both a blessing and a curse.”
— Barbara Kuhr, co-founder Wired Magazine, Hotwired
“I was very interested in emerging technology. What was most exciting to me was that the Web was a very democratic place to share information freely…it felt like a way of equalizing the playing field of knowledge and power.
I got very excited when I heard what Wired was doing on the digital side. They had a series of online products…they were at the forefront of what was happening on the Web.
It was not early on in my career, but I applied as an intern, a production/front end development intern. I called them almost every day until they were willing to give me a job. I knew nothing about front end code. Before my interview, I went to the bookstore and got a book on HTML and coached myself to say the right things to not sound completely stupid. I got a job finally after calling them for two months.”
— Wendy Owen, Hotwired
“I graduated from college in ‘93. I was figuring it out…I was living at home and working for my Dad. I remember when Wired came out, we were all sorta blown away by it. I knew I wanted to work in digital publishing; my major was printing and publishing…I went to Rochester Institute of Technology and I had a degree in printing. But my focus was electronic publishing. I made it up because they didn’t have that. I was the only one talking about printing to the screen and not to paper. It made a lot of people nervous because most of the people in the printing program are sons of fathers who owned huge, enormous printing presses. They were intimidated by it.
One of my good friends from preschool, Chris Miller, and his friend Dave Thau, we were all very good friends. I helped them start that whole Bianca website and we all knew HTML and coding pages. We thought it was the greatest thing. I would make little web pages about anything, like “Weird Things My Mom Said.” Just anything! Whatever, because we could.
One day Chris emailed me and he’s like, ‘Oh my god, Wired is hiring. They are going to expand their e-newsletter. You should apply.’ I was like, YES! I made this stupid little interactive resume and I mailed it to Wired on a floppy disk and they called. And they said, ‘You are really weird. We like you, but you don’t live here. Sorry. If you decide to move to San Francisco, look us up.’ So I had some American frequent flyer miles, got a ticket and two weeks later arrived and said ‘I’m here!’ I interviewed with Louis and Julie Peterson. I’ll never forget walking into that weird office. Julie was wearing a black cape with a hood and I think her hair was probably purple. She had a skull candle on her desk and those pink wires everywhere! I’m like, “ARE YOU KIDDING? This is just like being back in Chris and Dave’s crummy apartment! I love it!”
— Jill Atkinson, Hotwired (‘94–‘97)
“I was working as a data librarian for the RAND corporation. RAND being associated with the DoD had DARPA access. One day, Mosaic showed up and I thought, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I want to do this.’ Like everyone else, I taught myself HTML and slowly got myself a job with Universal Studios. And they had more money than they knew what to do with. I worked in the basement in a building on the Universal Studio lot for a beta music site. It was a hoot!
I soon realized I’m not an engineer and not a visual designer, my skill set laid somewhere else. But this skill set [user experience] had not yet been defined and would not be for the next 10 years. I could code well enough…but that’s not what really thrilled me. I didn’t have the aptitude for visual design…I was more interested in what came in from my librarian background. People were looking for information or trying to find something, so how do we start the conversation about what they want? How do we present this information to them? What were the visual metaphors that would compel someone to stay longer on a site? To dig in? It wasn’t a magazine metaphor…the medium was so new, we were all trying to figure it out.
I found upon Wired while I was at Universal and thought, ‘what the hell, I’m going to change my career.’ I applied for a job as producer with Wired Online. I interviewed with Mark Frauenfelder who was from the LA area and was also making that commute. Surprisingly, I got the job.”
— Mary Lukanuski, Hotwired (‘96–‘98)
We were on a ride, one which could never be replicated ever again into the digital future. I somehow managed to not fall off the boat. And with that, more to share in my next installment…for there is MUCH more to share. : )
Next: Lessons in leadership.