My Nerd Story

Rosie the Riveter reminds you that we can do it! These are cute totems. I have the Tesla doll.
A few days ago, I was directed to Crystal Beasley’s Nerd Story post by Kirin Kalia, my Bryn Mawr College classmate. She asked me to share my own “nerd” story.

I hesitated. I hesitated because I saw that Crystal was prompted to write her story in response to one of the current sexism-in-tech spotlights. (I’m not trying to downplay whatever is going on currently — I’m just not following it and can’t speak much about it.) I hesitated because I know that my story is laden with the exact kind of privilege that is often attributed to white men in technology. I know that some women don’t so much see me as a potential role model as part of the problem.

Still, I considered it. Then I went back to Crystal’s post and read the comments that had been left and thought, “I don’t need to deal with this shit.” Crystal’s post had brought out the trolls, haters, and real misogynists. While I’ve read my fair share of hate mail, I am past the point where I want to deal with online harassment because it wastes *my* time to have to handle it.

After thinking about it some more, I figure that if my story guides or inspires just one other person, or validates something going on in their brain (or heart), then any grief will be worth it. So, here goes.


I grew up in a middle class family that was extremely focused on education. My grandfather was an engineer in the midst of the CAD revolution; my dad and aunt were pharmacists dealing with the computerization of their field. Math, science, and tech geekiness ran in my family.

I started elementary school in 1980 and, from day one, got used to seeing a variety of TRS-80s in the building. Soon, I got used to using them on a regular basis, first through the gifted program, and later through a before and after school program, which I’ve written about before. BASIC was my first programming language. I wrote programs to make sounds, change the screen color, print text to screen, draw shapes — all of which culminated in me programming a TRS-80 CoCo 2 to play the harmony to “Yesterday” by The Beatles, while I played the melody on the flute.

TRS-80 CoCo 1 My TRS-80 CoCo 1, salvaged in 2008. I don’t like getting rid of old tech.

Meanwhile, at home, we had Pong, then an Atari 2600. Playing games was fun, but I wanted to write programs. I got a Commodore 64; in the summer of 1983, after seeing War Games, I spent weeks trying to program my own “Joshua” artificial intelligence. Thankfully, no one ever discouraged me from working on that fruitless program. I don’t think they even knew that building an AI wasn’t possible. I sure as hell didn’t.

The Commodore 64 eventually became a 128 and was a mainstay for everything from gaming to doing homework to getting online. In 1985 or 1986, my aunt purchased an Epson Equity PC (8088) and thus I was introduced to DOS (version 2.11, and all of the upgrades from there!). She was using it for basic word processing; I quickly figured out how to do mail merges for her, create spreadsheets, and other more “office-y” type things with it.

As I made my way into junior high and high school, my interaction with computers was limited to home and the library. Whereas every classroom in my elementary school had a TRS-80 or an Apple IIe, the only computers in the upper schools were in special computer rooms, which were mostly used by the “business prep” students. Honors/gifted students, apparently, didn’t need to use computers. At home, with more and more homework to do, my computer use became much more practical — checking math and typing papers. There wasn’t time for programming.

In reality, I didn’t make time for programming anymore. It wasn’t in the classroom anymore, so I suppose I didn’t see it as important anymore. Although I started seventh grade already knowing some trigonometry, I went back to algebra. Yawn. Science was still fun, at least, but my language and music teachers were much more encouraging of my work and progress. I turned my focus to where I got feedback and positive reinforcement. By the time I graduated high school, I had dropped out of calculus but took AP French. I had skipped the one and only programming class at my high school — but when I saw the homework assignments, I yawned again. They would’ve been pretty repetitive for me.

Thanks to my grandfather, I started college with a brand-new Packard Bell 486/33, which came with 4 MB RAM, a 120 MB hard drive, a sound card, a 2400 baud modem, and Windows 3.1 — better than my boyfriend’s! In my single dorm room, I had plenty of time to noodle with my new tech. Word 6 and NCSA Mosaic had just been released. I had accounts on AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve but also quickly learned how to dial in to my college’s UNIX server. That computer lasted me one year; I built a new computer the following year and upgraded it consistently, until I got to grad school and bought a fancy Dell machine with a Pentium processor.

At the same time, I was rocking my liberal arts education experience, with my intended romance languages major, until the reality of completing the quantitative (i.e. math) requirement reared its ugly head. I wanted to love calculus, but I struggled. Where to turn? Intro to computer science, of course. I figured it should be easier than suffering through more calculus. I didn’t count on it changing my educational direction.

I wasn’t a great student, that first CS class. Instead of really trying to learn something new, I relied on my existing knowledge and prior experience to get me through. But I guess it was clear that I “got” it enough to warrant the encouragement of the professor, my friend Deepak Kumar, to continue studying CS. So I did. It was as simple as someone saying, “Hey, you’re good at this. Ever thought of majoring in it?”

Me in college with an X-Terminal In the X-Term lab. I think Sarah and I were writing a program to play Konani.

Being a major in computer science at a women’s liberal arts college with only one CS professor wasn’t easy. I had to lobby the school to be a CS major, and I had to take classes at other colleges and universities in order to complete my CS requirements. I remember taking computer organization (my favorite subject) at Carnegie Mellon University, and being one of about four women in the hall of perhaps 200 people. It’s only strikingly odd to me now; at the time, I knew I was a rarity, but it didn’t really faze me. (Later, in grad school, the ratio was a bit better because the classes were smaller.)

I made friends with Sarah Hacker (yes, her real name) who had already decided on a CS major; she worked for campus IT services and helped me get a job. Because I knew UNIX, I made an extra 25 cents an hour! Sarah introduced me to HTML (and helped me fix my first markup bug) and I started cranking out websites on Deepak’s server. Other members of the team taught me everything I know about software and hardware support. It was a perfect storm of interest, opportunity, and encouragement. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, after 20 years of experience in large internet/tech companies (AOL, PayPal, and Comcast) and other organizations, I head up the web development team and growing technology consulting practice at Think Brownstone. I’ve architected and built some of the coolest publishing systems and web sites in the history of the internet — and I still get excited when I’m presented with a challenge that requires strategic thinking, technical know-how, and organizational savvy. I’ve been able to take my experience and turn it into book contributions, conference presentations, and a for-credit CS class at my alma mater. I’m still a technology junkie, but as a manager and leader, I get the biggest kick out of coaching younger talent and helping them grow their skills.


Disney's Kim Possible

The moral of my story is: discouraging a young mind can stop its progress, but encouragement can help get things moving again. If you’re an adult, figure out who you can encourage today. If you’re a young adult, avoid the discouragers (as much as you can) and find the encouragers.

Write your own Nerd Story — don’t let it be written for you.

Comments (0)

Recent Posts

Articles and Presentations

What Development Teams Can Learn From Experience Designers

I’m speaking at Philadelphia’s Emerging Technologies in the Enterprise conference on April 22, 2014 — Philadelphia’s “Day of the Developer”! In this talk, I share what I’ve learned from the Experience Designers at Think Brownstone for the technical audience that’s interested in making things awesome. (abstract, slides)