How I Got Into Computer Science (The Happy Years)

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

A while back, I came across a post on Mark Guzdial’s blog about a new blog on women in computing. They were looking for stories about how women get into computer science.

This post is the second in an autobiographical series about how I got into (and then out of) computer science (the first is here). I think there are some bits in here that others might find useful.

I never planned to go into computer science. I never even considered it in high school. If anything, I was thoroughly anti-technology when I started university. I was going to major in Biology.

The first piece of computer equipment I used: a Decwriter (image source: media commons)

My first semester, I took Physics. One of our labs required us to run a crude (though not at the time) computer simulation of a spring with a weight on it.

It was the first time I had ever used a computer. I was fascinated. It was fun playing with that simulation. The following semester, I took my first programming course. It was a course for majors in the natural sciences (majoring in biology, remember?). The language was FORTRAN, with SPSS thrown in during the last few weeks for good measure.

A bunch of things all came together while taking that course that ended with my decision to consider going into computer science:

  • I had an excellent instructor with a good sense of humour. He made it seem easy, and we had a lot of fun getting there. (SO, many thanks to Bill Pulleyblank for making my first experience with programming a blast. And by the way, thanks for teaching me SPSS – it got me several programming jobs that helped get me through several years of school.)
  • I had a T.A. who took me under his wing and told me he thought I could be good at this. (Neal, I owe you a lot!)
  • That same T.A. also made me feel like I was really part of something for the first time in my life. He introduced me to his office mate (who is still a good friend to this day), let me leave my stuff in his office,  invited me to sit in the faculty coffee lounge (this turned out to be the most important class I ever had), and dragged me along to the departmental Friday night dinners.

Wait. What? Departmental dinners? Professors and grad students … with a freshman?

For me, there were two main reasons I got into computer science:

  1. The culture of the department I was in was open, fun, lively, and full of optimism for the future. It was exciting!
  2. I discovered that a big part of computer science was about sorting, making lists and organizing. I LOVE organizing and making lists. Perhaps a lot of women do. I’ve never understood why we don’t play up this aspect of CS more.

The first point is HUGE. I was totally welcomed. For the first time in my life there was a group of people who liked that I was smart and who weren’t all trying to get into my pants. OK, maybe a few of them were, but they were way closer to my age than my former boss Reg from the gas station, and they were all grad students, so, they all had bright futures. And the friendships didn’t change when I said no. That was also new for me.

It might have been the perfect time to get into CS. The future looked dazzlingly bright and by the way, I didn’t even realize there was money to be made in CS until well into 3rd year. I got into it because it was cool – being able to control millions of dollars worth of high tech machinery was one hell of a power trip.

The classes were small – by the time I got to 4th year, most of my classes had fewer than 20 people in them and we all knew each other (which means we also all knew who actually knew something, who made it on the backs of others, and who cheated). Not one of our professors had a degree in computer science. In hind sight, I think this was very important. CS was too young for anyone to have a PhD in it. That meant that all of our professors had been trained in some other discipline. They learned CS by doing it – some had worked for IBM, some had worked on early mainframes, and some had been involved with computers almost from the very beginning of computers. They had a perspective that most of today’s faculty can’t even imagine. They brought a richness to the class that no amount of academy research can match. These were all people who had used computers to do real things. CS is an applied discipline – how can someone who’s never applied what they do inspire anyone?

Back to the departmental culture. It was an amazing place. This department was a place where undergraduate and graduate students mixed socially with faculty, where students like me could sit in the faculty coffee lounge and listen to professors discuss everything from politics to computer science to gossip about who was doing who in the math department (really), where sometime each Friday a bottle of wine (or two) would appear in the coffee lounge fridge so that when people started to gather around 3 or 4 in the afternoon there’d be something for us all to drink. Of course, when the wine was done it was time to go for dinner. I never had the money, but sometimes someone else had enough spare money to invite me along.

I often say that Coffee Lounge 101 was my most important subject. In that room I learned more about computer science than in any other single class, and everything about what it was to be a computer scientist.

It was also a place that let undergrads teach labs. I taught my first CS lab when I was a second year student. This was a monumental thing for me. I was always one of those girls who was painfully shy in front of crowds – any time I had to give a lab report in biology, I would stutter, my hands would shake, my face got all read and my eyes would start to water. It was awful! And that was when I was allowed to sit at my lab bench and only had to present my report to 5 other people. All of a sudden here are people who think I can teach a class! I’m sure their confidence in me had a lot to do with my ultimately becoming a CS instructor, but for the time being I tried to remember that even though I didn’t know much, I DID know more than the people in the lab I was teaching, and I would do what I could to help them learn what I knew.

I’ve heard it said that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

I ended up finishing two degrees in CS and teaching as an instructor in the same department. My years as an undergrad and grad student there were terrific years and I spent 23 years trying to share that.

(I’ll post more on the culture of the department later. It’s an important part of what drew me into CS. Besides, it’s just too good a picture to let vanish into history, especially since that same department now isn’t even a cheap imitation of what it once was.)

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How I Got Into Computer Science (The Happy 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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