Lessons from the Middle Earth: Why I’m Still Here

By Blakeley H. Payne, a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab.

Preface

Often, I get asked, “How did you get into computer science?” As an active advocate for increased diversity in computing, I’m usually asked with the extra subtext of, “How did you get into computer science as a girl?”

But the thing is — the story of how I got into computer science is boring. Yep, boring. Like many other women in computer science I know, I ended up here mostly by chance. Simply put, I was a senior in high school who needed an extra class to take. My choices for second period were AP Computer Science or AP Physics C. It was known that the computer science teacher was exceptional and my feelings towards physics at the time were mostly… bleh. So I signed up for AP CS, liked it, and that was that.

And while the “how I got here” question might be interesting from a statistical perspective, I’ve always felt like it fails to capture the part where I actually do the work to self-identify as a computer scientist. Yes, computing faces a “pipeline problem” when it comes to diversity, but we also know that women leave. Thus, now, with all the qualifications a year-old bachelor’s degree can afford me, I want to address a more interesting question: why have I stayed in computing?

Cue the Shire music, please.

Chapter 1: A Long-expected Party

Seriously, I think I have no less than 5 early-career blog posts with the title “Computer science is magic.

The Gandalf days of my career are still sharp in my mind. I enrolled in AP Computer Science in August 2012, the same year I would apply for college. It was in AP CS that I wrote my first lines of code. And, in the beginning, I struggled with everything. My seasoned classmates — you know, the boys who had been programming games on their TI-89 calculators since sophomore year — kept telling me to “just print things.” At that point in time, I had no idea what the broken copy machine had to do with the curriculum. But as a senior in high school, top of my class, and confident, I carried on with the struggle.

Victory eventually overcame me when I finally made triangles of asterisks appear in my Eclipse console: I had defeated the recursion beast! Then I was on to programming GUIs, small games like hangman, and GridWorld (may it rest in peace).

Almost a year had passed, and I had become absolutely, totally enchanted. Coding was magic. I was Gandalf, creating and altering the universe with language. Even better — I was Gandalf with language and math.

I entered college as a (perhaps, overly) prepared computer science major. With AP CS, AP Calculus, and a digital electronics course under my belt, my freshman year was a breeze. I knew the material, and I often expected to be the only female student in the lecture hall. I was Blakeley Hoffman, algorithmic warrior princess.

Chapter 2: Mount Doom

Me, circa fall 2014. Also me, circa… often.

And then… there was sophomore year. The year doubt crept in, the year it became really, really hard to be a computer scientist. It was a perfect storm: I was taking my first “real” software engineering course, I was learning to write rigorous mathematical proofs for the first time, and I was slowly realizing the subtle face of unconscious bias (Oh? Really? Y’all just want me to write the paper for the group project and none of the code?). The work itself was becoming more difficult, but impostor syndrome compounded with increasing amounts of stereotype threat made for a poisonous internal concoction.

I thought about changing majors. I had always loved reading and writing, maybe I was destined to be an English major after all.

And truthfully, even today, I sometimes think about leaving. I often find myself asking: why should I stay?

Why should I stay in a field where I repeatedly get called by the wrong name? As often as I’ve been called “Blakeley” by professors and peers, I’ve been called “Maribeth” or “Judy” (the names of “the other” women in my academic programs).

Why should I stick around when it is so hard to find a role model whose story reflects my own aspirations? As an ambitious researcher, it worries me that I don’t know any female CS faculty who had children before interviewing for a tenure-track faculty position. Often, it makes me wonder — are my personal and career goals irreconcilable? Is all of this work — academic and emotional — worth it?

In the fall of 2014, I was in the midst of my “sophomore slumps.” I felt like Frodo, at the base of Mount Doom. I can’t go on, Sam. What are we holding on to, Sam?

Chapter 3: Look! The Eagles Are Coming!

“I DON’T CARE IF YOU THINK YOU’RE QUALIFIED BUT I’M SURE AS HELL GOING TO TELL YOU TO APPLY ANYWAYS! “ — my friends, family, and mentors all day, every day. Thank you.

For those of you who are familiar with Lord of the Rings, you know how this story ends (and if you don’t, Fellowship of the Ring is on Netflix — ahem — right now).

Frodo completes his journey not because it is imperative that he must. Rather, Frodo completes his journey because he is backed with the love and support of his friends, the Fellowship, and of course, Sean Astin as the lovable Samwise Gamgee.

Here is my secret to staying in computer science: first, have great perseverance. Second, have great friends.

It was during the second semester of my sophomore year when I began to find my own Fellowship: two best friends (also officers of our Women in Computing organization), an often grumpy but encouraging software engineering professor, an algorithms professor who shared his love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a bit too readily, and later that year, I met the man who would become my husband.

These are the people who would remind me that no exam defined me, that I would likely never feel 100% qualified for that dream gig (so just go ahead and apply anyway!), that yes, I can actually do fancy mathematics, and that I was actually cut out for, and am in the midst of, an epic adventure.

I entered computer science to be like Gandalf, to articulate things into existence. Crazily enough, I’ve done just that, both in English and in JavaScript. Crazily enough, it’s been worth the struggles. I’ve brought into existence dancing robots, cooperative algorithms, tools to measure and counter bias in artificial intelligence systems. And though it’s not quite the same as saving the world, I think I know how Frodo felt when the One Ring was cast into the Fiery Pits of Mount Doom.

Fulfilled. And grateful.

Epilogue:

I have a challenge for you.

If you’re new to computing, if you sometimes feel small or different, find yourself a Sam, a Gandalf, an Aragorn. Don’t be afraid to meet new people in your classes, they might become your biggest cheerleaders (or bridesmaids at your wedding!). Go to your teachers’ or professors’ office hours and ask them questions about their interests. Find support staff on campus — guidance counselors, career advisors, grant writers — and confide in them your goals. Your journey will be easier, but better than that, it’ll feel full. No one you admire has done this alone — neither do you.

And if you know someone who might be facing their own trials as a new student, a minority, or otherwise: be a Sam, be a Gandalf, be an Aragorn. Offer time, help, advice, mentorship, resources, community, support — because everyone deserves to go on an adventure.

* Cue more Shire music and credits *

Blakeley H. Payne is a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab where she studies the behavior of artificial intelligence systems. She holds a degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of South Carolina and has seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy more times than she cares to admit.