There and Back Again
I can’t remember a time without a computer in my house.
When I was three, I’d sit in my mom’s office and watch her work with an early version of WordPerfect — so early that there were markup codes in the text, so early that one needed to render a print-preview to see bold or italic. I don’t think I was allowed to touch the computer, then, but a few years later — certainly by six — I was hard to tear away from it. I played all the classic DOS edutainment games — Math Rescue, Reader Rabbit, Carmen Sandiego — and routinely crashed Mom’s poor PS/2 by setting overly-ambitious complexity parameters in a fractal-generation art program.
My parents bought another computer, a few years later: the Quadra 610, the Mac built for dual-booting DOS/Windows. They bought a few compendia of random CD-ROMs, and a bunch of For Dummies books — which I’d read and re-read voriaciously, as the only technical material I had — but until high school I never programmed anything more programming-y than HyperCard stacks, because they never bought me a compiler.
I always wanted more. I never got more; my family was well-off, but thrifty, and my brothers’ disabilities cost money.
Still, what I got was more than so many.
learning to write
The summer before high school, my family finally got dial-up. My mother had been scared of the internet. She was sure that we would all be recruited by sexual predators. When she finally conceded that we probably needed it for school, she delivered us a lecture on never talking to anyone ever.
I ignored it, and promptly dove into the brave new world of Harry Potter fan fiction.
It saved my life, and then it taught me to write, and so it kept saving my life.
learning to fly
When I got to high school, I learned to program, the hard way and the right way. I went to the Montgomery Blair STEM Magnet Program, and the first-year computer science curriculum was a tour of various coding-related topics (computer simulation programming, complex Boolean algebra, circuit design). The fourth quarter began with a five-minute tour of Scheme syntax, a brief explanation of recursion, and then being thrown into the deep end and told to implement a Fibonacci algorithm. Tenth grade was proper C++ from the ground up, sort algorithms, data structures, the like. After that there were exciting electives, like Game Design and Fundamentals of AI.
I didn’t want to be a programmer. I wanted to be a physicist: as theoretical a one as possible, because I had grumpy thoughts about the inherent fuzzy qualities of statistics. I was a good programmer, though — even if I did have a tendency to get overambitious with my C and get teacher-bewildering segfaults.
wading through mud
I got a great education at Blair. But, at the same time: there was the math teacher who sexually harassed a girl so badly that she ran crying out of the room, and dropped out of magnet math. There was the creepy science teacher. There were the usual petty rounds of teenage boys with Opinions about girls — how we weren’t real engineers, and the like, and were just on the robotics team to get boyfriends.
I internalized half their bullshit, as a coping mechanism, but I couldn’t internalize it all. In the end, it all boiled down to one thing:
Maybe I can deal, I thought. But I shouldn’t have to. I don’t want to.
12th grade was the worst year of my life, and I won’t trivialize the cluster of personal, institutional, and brain-chemical failures that together made it that by reducing them to a few sentences suitable for the internet’s consumption. It is not entirely fair to say that I was pushed away from STEM by my peers’ and my teachers’ active and passive sexism. But it would deny reality to pretend that it didn’t affect my decision to leave tech after high school.
I stayed on the internet, though.
Got a great, if accidental, education in HTML and CSS and the fascinating distributed community politics enabled by social media.
When I was in seventh or eighth grade or so, I programmed with my uncle. He was one of the coders on an early GPS system — we’d drive through my neighborhood sometimes, laptop open, testing it out. He’d explain how the system worked, and I think I remember adding a line or two somewhere.
Uncle Tony gave me a C++ book, one bundled with a copy of CodeWarrior to play with. I never used it. We didn’t have a computer that could run it. I don’t remember whether I asked for one, and was refused, or whether I didn’t ask in the assumption of a refusal.
Plenty of people — boys especially — started off, at my high school, knowing how to program already. Just basic little messes, in BASIC. I could have been one of them. That might have changed my story, might have made me more confident in the dysfunctional love I bore for computers.
But, I mean, I was plenty privileged already.
I came back to technology from a lack of other options.
I’d been doing technical theater for a few years; it was physically demanding work, full of back pain and all-nighters. I needed to get out.
I looked for a job near tech. Code was too many bad memories; I didn’t want it, and so I applied for design jobs, and community management, on the cusp of the 2008 recession. I blew a bunch of interviews by saying that even though I had code experience, I didn’t want to use it. Eventually I gave up and got a job that was one-third tech support, one-third front-end dev, and one-third Perl.
I decided to learn more about code, since I had no other choice. I threw in with the OTW, because they were explicitly women-friendly and I had so many good memories of writing fanfic in high school. A few hours after I sent in my recruiting form, Naomi Novik — one of their founders, and one of my favorite fantasy authors — emailed me. She sat with me that night, in Campfire, holding my hand through the headaches of setting up a dev environment & providing reassurance when MySQL decided that it hated me.
They were using Ruby, and I fell back in love with coding.
It’s been five years, now. The love’s still there.
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