A Many Years Ago, When I Was Young and Charming…

or, 20 Years as a Woman in Tech

Twenty years ago this month, I landed my first tech job, quite by chance — and fell headfirst into a career I neither planned for nor expected, yet here I am, two decades later, enjoying my standing desk in a gleaming tower. The setting for this serendipitous accident was London, and London in January of 1996 was an exciting place to be. Britpop was in full force (even if many of the bands lumped into that category did not embrace the tag, often quite rightly), amazing comedy was all over television and live clubs, and the theatre was in fantastic shape, from the RSC to tiny pub venues. Keeping track of the wealth of culture on offer was the purview of Time Out, and even as a relatively poor grad student, especially one who was thrilled to discover student discounts on theatre tickets were much deeper in the UK compared to the US, I happily paid for a copy of the magazine each week to plan my leisure time — more on that in a moment.

Of course, I should not have had such extensive free time; I was busy studying for my MA at the Institute of Archaeology, with plans to go on for a PhD, and then to become a clubby and chummy academic in the JRR Tolkien or MR James mold — obviously, I fell at the first hurdle by never learning to use abbreviations, rather than my first name, or possibly by having two X chromosomes and not being born in the 19th century. Instead, I seemed to find ample opportunity to hang out at the British Museum (that totally counted as work, right?), see bands like David Devant and his Spirit Wife, catch Iain Glen and Judi Dench onstage, hit regular comedy nights and, just for fun, I learned to build websites.

My coding hobby began initially as a way to organize websites I liked for easy access — enormous shared desktop computers in a lab did not make bookmarking useful, but having my own hotlist (hotlists were a thing) gave me some portability and, oddly, kudos among my less-technical peers. Even in that now-distant era before web comments became an archive of discontent, I soon realized that my free webspace let me share my interests — and gave me a platform to complain about things. I believe the Spice Girls came in for a good deal of online umbrage from me in those early, pre-irony days, but as a cool indiekid, my online persona had to take against them. But I later turned this opportunity in a more positive direction by building sites for bands I liked — official versions were still some way in the future. There was also the instant gratification element missing from academic research — if I wanted to spin up a new webpage, it only took a few minutes to knock together some code, find an appropriately-’90s background image, and play around with fonts. A brief aside — I once had a turquoise and neon yellow tiled background that perfectly matched a cheap shirtdress I bought at C&A, or possibly Topshop — it is possible that I was cosplaying my own website before anyone discovered something so ridiculously meta was possible.

Then I realized you could get paid to do this.

One day while poking around on Time Out’s website — one of a very few covering London in any meaningful way at that point — I saw an ad for a web assistant. If memory serves (and it may not be as accurate as I believe it to be), it sounded slightly mournful — the site was getting bigger, but no one else had the requisite HTML skills to keep it updated. Could someone please apply and perhaps they would train them to do the work? ‘But I can do that right now,’ I thought — and I duly emailed off a copy of my resume and links to the pages I had built. I got a speedy reply and an invitation for an interview — the notion of attaching a resume as well as links to previous ‘work’ seemed to have been rather more than any other candidates had managed. Within a few days, I presented myself at Universal House, just a short walk down Tottenham Court Road from my UCL stomping grounds, and was hired immediately.

I discovered that in addition to the princely sum of £75/day (yes, really), I’d also be receiving a free copy of Time Out each week — two if I wanted them! Never having had a real job before, such an unexpected perk was especially welcome — my days of getting terrible free corporate art, snacks, software release t-shirts and on-site massages were still some way in the future. I’d get to hear about upcoming gigs in advance as I dropped them onto the website, and if something was missing, I could add a plug for a band I liked, as long as it matched the writing style of the rest of the site. I learned about an exciting new comedy group called the League of Gentlemen, who had yet to make their way to television. I got press kits from bands like My Life Story, and invitations to alcohol-soaked book launches. I discovered that there was a free drinks trolley that went around the office on certain afternoons. In short, there was not a better job for an overeducated 20 year-old with no real responsibilities.

But it wasn’t all just fun and games — I also got the chance to build on my skills. When my boss (the only full-time employee on the website for a very long time indeed) went out of town, I got to field all the questions about what we did, and generally run the show; when I came back after a week away, I was excited to learn that he’d tweaked the site to improve the layout with ‘a new thing — tables in HTML.’ With our nested tables (frames came later) and many, many carefully-sliced gifs, we could almost, but not entirely, get rid of imagemaps for the ‘graphics-heavy’ version of the site that was offered to people with faster dial-up connections. A second brief aside here: while I never liked the sound of a connecting modem, I do miss the Eudora ‘new email’ tone, which was an exciting thing to hear at the time. The office sounds fundamentally different today.

In many ways, that first job set the template for my career; if I wanted to try something novel on the site — Javascript, ASP or another ‘new’ technology — I was encouraged to experiment. If it worked, great, and if not, well, it was worth giving it a go, and it was never bad to add another technical string to one’s bow on company time; continuous learning was considered standard practice. I could dress as I liked, and my usual t-shirt-jeans-and-Doc Martens wardrobe was utterly unremarkable. Another plus: occasional-to-frequent free booze. That structure has served me well in the diverse directions my career has taken me since then — to Silicon Valley before the dot-com crash, where I worked at Women.com (an experience not unlike a triple-decker novel in many ways), Juniper Networks and Hewlett-Packard, to New York as a techie-in-non-tech companies (and ditto in Philadelphia), and back to the west coast, where I’m now an Amazonian in Seattle.

In those twenty years, I’ve only ever had to ‘dress up’ for work for the non-techie organizations (interestingly, it’s also only outside of tech-specific companies that I’ve experienced any overt sexism, though that’s another story) — it was delightful to donate all my ‘grownup’ work clothes when we moved back to the left coast, where I can wear my nerdy t-shirts, hoodies and DMs to work again without a second glance. Also back: occasional free booze, though as the tired parent of a tween and a toddler, I’m rarely out late — I need my sleep, so the ‘occasional’ aspect is really by choice these days.

If I have any work wisdom to impart as a ‘veteran’ tech nerd lady, it’s this: hire smart people, with diverse backgrounds and skillsets, and let them get on with solving tricky problems as a team in their own way — but set high expectations. Keep learning about new technology, languages and tools, even if you accept you can’t be an expert in everything; it’s especially important if your career evolution has taken you out of day-to-day development and into a leadership position. Volunteer for things — the non-profit world desperately needs your skills and experience, and you never know when your passionate hobby project may become your full-time concern. But most importantly, ensure that the ladders you used to find your way still exist — or build new ones if they do not. There is no single path into the tech world, but people from ‘outside’ are not always aware how transferable, and ultimately useful, their experiences might be for a technical team. A little coding knowledge on top of solid writing, communication and management skills can go a very long way, especially if you give someone the time and space to learn by doing. Beer helps, too.

And if there is a larger moral to my narrative, it is that procrastination can pay off in ways you never expected — just call it ‘learning’ and it becomes a virtue, rather than a vice!

This post originally appeared on LisaGrimm.com.