My first tech job was doing dial-up ISP tech support at a company in Austin called teleNetwork. I helped frustrated, nerve-rattled people across the southeastern US get online. (Side note: single-phone-line homes made this particularly challenging because customers would have to get instructions from me, then hang up to try it out on their own, and then call back if it didn’t work.)
One of the most shocking aspects of that job, that I had blocked out of memory until only recently was this: probably 1 out of 20 callers expressed surprise, disbelief, or even offense when they heard a female voice on the other end of the line.
Their responses ranged from, “Sorry, I was calling tech support. Did I press the wrong number?” to “Golly gee, I didn’t expect to talk to a *girl*!” to the more direct “I’d really prefer to speak to a man.” This was in 1998. But the idea that a woman would be providing technical guidance to the man of the house was such a foreign concept at that time that these customers’ very manlihood was threatened upon hearing my voice. Rather than being discouraged or pissed off, I actually took great joy in proving them wrong.
I learned a lot in that job — I eventually avoided taking support calls by learning to produce HTML training content (in Textpad, because I was a badass and Frontpage was for the weak) and even developed a real knack for crimping RJ-45 cable so that I had freedom to roam around the office. I also learned about internet culture, and a group of creative, smart guys who went on to create Red vs. Blue took me in as a friend and exposed me to life in Austin off of the UT campus. The main thing I learned in that job was that I loved technology, wanted to make it my career, and got great joy out of surprising people by solving their problems. It led to the internship that led to the internship that led to the job that led to grad school and onto other jobs and now Twitter today.
Today, I’m lucky to work with a lot of women (3 of the 9 engineers on one of my products right now!) and we all have our own stories like this. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten a comment along those lines, but I’m sure I haven’t heard my last. We still have a long way to go before it stops being surprising to discover an engineer, or even a product manager, is a woman. But here’s the upside - the women who do choose this line of work are invariably resilient, funny, and vivacious, in part because of the struggle. And we all like proving people wrong.