How I Got Into Computer Science (The Early Years)

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

A while back, I came across a post on Mark Guzdial’s blog about a new blog on women in computing.

Among other things, they were looking for contributions from people in computing that talk about their experiences in IT. I’ve been thinking about putting some of this down ‘on paper’ for a while, so I thought, why not add my experiences. I’ve been in the ‘biz’ for over 30 years. I’ve had good times and really, really (I mean REALLY) horrible ones. So here goes.

If you’re looking for inspiration, DON’T read this post; read the second one – it has the happy, inspirational part. This post takes you to my first computer course in university and explains why I’ve never really felt like ‘one of the girls’.

Also, don’t read any of the “why I got out of CS” posts (to come later) if you’re looking for good news about women in computing, ’cause my story is not an optimistic one.

The summer before grade 11 (I was 14).

I graduated from high school in 1975. I was 16. Needless to say, my school experiences were not typical ones. I started out loving school (like many kids). I was younger than most when I started and got accelerated in grade 2 – I ended up doing grade 2, 3, and 4 in 2 years. I was part of an ‘experimental’ group of 6 girls. I have no idea what the other 5 are doing these days – we moved when I was in grade 5 and I never saw them again. I know it seems I’m going a long way back but this set up a significant situation for me that lasted until I finished high school – I was a full 2 years younger than most of my classmates and as a result I was perceived as different: ‘the smart kid’, a label I often tried to live down.

I grew up when I Dream of Jeanie and Bewitched contained the stereotypical female role models. I chose Emma Peel from The Avengers instead. Maybe that tells you something. I also avoided learning how to type. When I was in high school, typing classes prepared you for being a secretary, and I wanted to make sure I would never be qualified to be a secretary.

For as long as I can remember, my passion was animals. I now have a farm, but that’s a different story. Where all this intersects with this story is that by the time I was a senior in high school, I HATED school, had almost no friends, and had absolutely NO interest in anything technological – not exactly someone you’d expect to end up making a career in computer science. I was going to follow in Jane Goodall‘s footsteps, only I wanted to study wolves.

After graduating from high school (barely), I took some time off and worked. My first job was at the local Animal Shelter. That job ended up with my having to quit because I helped to get my bosses charged with cruelty to animals and the judge let them off, apparently not believing that these two guys could have done the things we claimed they did. They actually did do what we said they did. Welcome to the grown-up world. If you’re really good at lying and are able to terrify the people who work for you, you sometimes get away with it. That too is another story (maybe later).

After quitting the humane society I worked at a gas station (got fired for not sleeping with my boss – no big surprise there – I was 17 and he was 50ish, short and sleazy – YUK!), a sporting goods store, and a women’s clothing store. After a year and a half of working in a mall, it was time to go back to school. I was going to major in biology, of course. I started half-way through the year during the winter semester – I was still working part-time at the mall.

Unlike high school, university agreed with me. I really liked it. Remember though, it was 1977 and for the most part the only people who went to university were the people who actually wanted to go to university. At that time it was still possible to make a good life by starting to work after high school.

After scraping through high school and working retail for a year and a half, university was also quite a shock. My first 3 courses were Calculus, Physics, and Biology. I was thrilled just to survive. I got ‘adopted’ early on by another freshman who decided I should be her friend and study partner. To be honest I’m not sure if I would have made it had it not been for her and her group of friends. They were a group of about a dozen East Indians, largely from Uganda and Kenya. I’m pretty white. I have NO idea why they thought I’d make a good addition to their group, but they were friendly, kind, and generous. I learned a lot and it was exactly what I needed to get started in school. We lost touch during the summer but I will be forever grateful to them.

It was during the next year – my first full year as a student – that I took my first computer science course: “Programming for the Natural Sciences”. I recall that it was required for my biology degree.

[read on for part two…]

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How I Got Into Computer Science (The Early Years) — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Being a Woman in Computer Science – A Cautionary Tale, Part 1 of 3, The Student Years | The Becker Blog

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