Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Nerd Story - Revised for 2016

[My then-Mozilla colleague Crystal Beasley started this thread of women in tech/hackers posting our stories, in response to some comments out there.... This is my nerd story, shared with you because I do believe in role models, and I do believe that there are many paths one can take.]

I am, among other things, a daughter of Silicon Valley.  Mine is not a story of arriving at tech from the sidelines, or of dedication from childhood. it is more a story of how exposure shapes you, how marinades work, if you will. This is not the story of a straight path, or a clear dedication from childhood to one goal. It is a story of intense privilege, I am aware.

I was born in Manhattan, but we lived in New Jersey while my dad was working on a pHD at Rutgers in Computer Science. When I was four, someone at school asked me what my dad did for a living and I said "he watches tv and hunts for bugs, but I never seen em". He had a dumb terminal at home, presumably by then for his job at BBN.  I was watching. I did not get to play with dad's bug hunting TV, but I was steeped in tech from an early age, and I value the gift of that early exposure. Early exposure is one of the things we must give to the future nerds... take time to talk to the kids you know (it takes a village to raise a child) about what you do!

Similar, if not identical, to this one.

When I was six, we moved to California, dad was taking a job at Xerox Parc. I went to school in Palo Alto, where, after a year of public school, my sisters and I were sent to Peninsula School... at school, we rarely saw anything one would call a computer, in the early to mid 80s. I do remember cranking the mimeograph machine. Home was another story. Following his days at Xerox Parc dad went to Apple, where he worked on and brought home the first computers I played with.... to wit the Apple II and the LISA. I remember that he made us "play" the mousing tutorial over and over - he wanted my 3 year old sister to be comfortable with it.... and she was.  Maybe it was a bit like...

OK maybe not quite like that. But close.

At the same time, in school, while I was great at conceptual math, I floundered in basic computation. One teacher told my parents I was bad at math because while I excelled in our "regular" math program, understanding logical puzzles beyond what one expects of a seven year old, I could not successfully complete the math "drills" we had to do at the beginning of each day. She called me stupid, and I didn't forget it. My parents quickly moved me to another school (lucky us, with the resources for private school) where that did not happen again...

Years of playing with dad's computers followed. He went from Apple to EA to SGI, and I played with all his machines. Eventually this led to us having what we thought was the coolest house in town, because we had an SGI machine on which to play Doom, in our garage. I didn't code much at all... what I got from those years, I see now, was a measure of fearlessness about trying out new technologies. At the same time, my mom, whose background was literature and education, became a technical writer, showing me both that careers can change, and that it is possible to manage a technical career and motherhood together. She was leaning in way before it was hip. It might follow that all of this early exposure might send me straight into a technical degree and career. It did not.

I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, and I enrolled at Mills College with every intention of doing that, and instead was moved toward Women's Studies and later theology, primarily driven by one of my great desires in life - to understand human motivation, and another, to work for a better world.  At the same time, I was for the first time being exposed to the full power of the internet, in 1991 a very heady thing, to have your own unix shell account and a world of people to talk to. I learned a lot from just "playing" online, and more from having people around willing to answer my many questions, and it turned out that these same explorations led me down my career path at least as much as any formal academic education. All information is useful. I do not think it is *any* accident that this critical period of learning and exposure happened at a women's college, where a brilliant woman ran the CS department. We were not just allowed but encouraged to explore many paths in that rarified atmosphere of empowerment (we had access to lots and lots of technology and to smart people who wanted to help), and I did. I've always been grateful for it. It was also where I learned about geek culture...

I went to grad school in feminist theology, but technology was in my blood by then, and when I realized I didn't want to be a professor or an academic ethicist, I left academic life and came home, with a lot of school debt and not a lot of ideas. I was stunned, in 1995, at the power I saw in the world wide web, to connect people and share thoughts and information (I still am stunned by it).  I wanted in on it.  It occurred to me that I could go into the "family business" but not really *how*. I started working as a temporary contractor, at offices in the valley, and I tried a few things (writing very basic databases on semiconductor data, pre-press work for technical manuals, filing payroll stubs) before I landed my first "real" tech job, at Sun Microsystems (a very exciting place to be... we were, after all, "the dot in dot-com" heh)...

At Sun, I stuck my neck out, trying as many new things as I could... I worked first hand-htmling (what, it's a word) white papers, then hacking basic surveying tools (perl, mostly) for beta programs, then became a program manager for Solaris beta programs, and at last, got my first whiff of open source in running beta programs for Open Solaris. The biggest thing I did was learn. I found it to be an atmosphere where engineering and education were both valued, and where my questions were not "stupid", and I was lucky in my choices of mentors and friends. I took every class I could, read every book I could, and tried to give myself the technical, business, and project management skillsets I hadn't obtained in school, before deciding to take the oft-discussed "mommy break" to prepare for the birth of my second child. When I was ready to go back to work Sun was no longer a viable place to go, so I gathered my contacts (networking is your friend) and my consulting skills and ended up with a rather long term contract release managing a web "portal" (in 2005, everything was a portal) and exposing myself to everything I could about CRMs, release methodology, localization, networking, and more. I explain all of this background, mostly because my biggest lesson was that the education I got was in what I tried, and in what I failed to do, as much as in what I succeeded at... and I think we need role models for that, too. In many respects, the entire first part of my career was my technical education. It was a different time and place - I worked on supporting women in the organization, and other underrepresented minorities, but it was not as overtly difficult, to be a woman in tech, then. Maybe (certainly) we were less aware, but I also saw less direct misogyny and racism in the industry then than I do now.

After all of this, I still did not see myself as a role model, or as highly technical. I was quite shocked when a geek friend encouraged me to apply for a job as product manager at a very obscure seeming and highly technical nonprofit open source infrastructure shop (Internet Systems Consortium, makers of BIND, the widely deployed open source DNS nameserver, and operators of one of the 13 root nameservers). For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why they hired me! I knew very little about DNS, infrastructure, or protocol development, but I found my mentors again, and I found that I flourished, traveling, working on critical processes, figuring out how to work with highly international teams, solving hairy problems, and most of all, embracing open source and the vibrant community that loved and supported our efforts so very much. I learned most of all again, by making mistakes. I learned what it takes to build a vision for a product, and how building things in the open and in community takes all sorts of specific skills, talent, and patience, but how much value it brings.

It was while I was at ISC that, through the amazing TechWomen program (which brings technical women from the Middle East and North Africa to Silicon Valley for mentoring), that I got hooked on mentoring other women in tech, and mentoring in general, and supporting women in tech, particularly  in open source and open culture. It was really when I started mentoring, that I started believing in my own abilities, too. That was a long lesson to learn.  When I first read the advert for TechWomen mentors, I didn't think they would even want to talk to me! My impostor syndrome was so strong. I was so shocked when I was asked to mentor the first cohort, and that I've continued to be asked every time for six years, and when that led me to leadership positions on the TechWomen Alumna Board and the WAKE board... but I am learning to believe that I earned these things.

In the end,  I had to leave my job at ISC for reasons to do with the leadership there at the time. Luckily, my work and my values brought me to Mozilla, where I've been both perseverant and lucky enough to have several meaningful roles, following my passion for empowering people to find meaningful ways to contribute to the internet I believe the world needs, an expansion of the one that excited me so long ago, (and changing open source culture in ways that it needs) and I get to see a lot of the world while I do it. Now I work full time on building a more diverse and inclusive Mozilla, standing on the shoulders of giants who did the same before me, and in partnership with many of the smartest and kindest people I know. It's a new challenge every day, and I guess that's what I love most about working in tech and in particular on the open web. The very pluralistic nature of the web that first drew me in is the same possibility I still seek - a world where there actually is opportunity for all and where there are resources for them and role models and mentors and resources. This is not too much to seek, if we do it together.