Girl & Computer
I wrote a version of this post in 2012. Nine years later, I have a seven-year-old son, my career has grown in ways I never could have imagined, grotesque income inequality is increasing at a staggering pace, and stupid internet fights about women in tech rage on. All of that has found me reflecting again, and in new ways, on the journey that got me to where I am today.
I got into computers when I was unequivocally a girl. It was 1982. I was five years old.
Back then, my dad made eyeglasses. My mom stayed at home with me and my year-old sister — which she’d continue to do until I was a teenager, when my brother finally entered kindergarten in 1990 or so. Their mortgage in 1982 was $79 ($219 in 2021 dollars), which was a good thing because my dad made about $13,000 a year.
We lived in Weedsport, New York, a small town in the middle of nowhere and about an hour’s drive north of Cornell University (a place, I’d later learn, that lots of people have heard of, fairly few of whom can point to it on a map).
We walked to the post office to get our mail. The farmers who lived just outside town were the rich people. In the winters the fire department filled a small depression behind the elementary school with water for a tiny skating rink. There were dish-to-pass suppers in the gym at church.
In 1982, Timex came out with the Timex Sinclair TS-1000, selling half a million of them in just six months. The computer, several times thicker than the original iPad but with about the same footprint if you set it on a table, sold for $99.95. When everyone else in town was getting cable, my parents decided that three channels were good enough for them (we still had a black-and-white TV) and bought the computer instead.
I remember tiny snippets of that time — playing kickball in my best friend Beth’s yard, getting in trouble for tricking my mother into giving us milk that we used to make mud pies, throwing sand in the face of my friend Nathan because I didn’t yet appreciate that it really sucks to get sand thrown in your face — but I vividly remember sitting in the living room of our house on Horton Street with my father, playing with the computer.
A cassette player nearly the size of a loaf of bread was our disk drive, and we had to set the volume just right in order to read anything off a cassette tape. There was some semblance of a flight simulator program that I’d play, after listening to the tape player screech for minutes on end. Eventually we upgraded the computer with a fist-sized brick of RAM that we plugged into the back of the computer, bumping our total capacity to something on the order of 34 kilobytes.
I wrote programs in BASIC, though for the life of me I can’t remember what any of them did. The programs that were the most fun, though, were the ones whose assembly I painstakingly transcribed, hunting and pecking with my tiny fingers, from the back of magazines — pages and pages of letters and numbers I didn’t understand on any level, and yet they made magic happen if I got every single one right.
When I was about 7, my dad lost his job. We moved to a town a couple of hours away, where he’d found another shop where he could keep making eyeglasses. We rented a duplex and I tried to make friends with the neighbor girls via my enthusiasm about the bugs in the back yard.
My parents bought a Coleco Adam. The computer came with a certificate redeemable for $500 upon my graduation from high school, but Coleco folded long before they could cash it in. We moved to a house, then another house. I made my first real money by typing a strange lady’s strange manuscript about strange food into an Apple IIe connected to the TV in the living room. My uncle and I spent almost the entirety of his visit from Oklahoma writing a game of Yahtzee!
In middle school, I started a school newspaper, and I think we used some very early version of Aldus PageMaker to lay it out on computers in the school library. When high school rolled around, I hand-crafted letters and lines and arrows in a technical drawing class just so I could take CAD classes and make the computer draw letters and lines and arrows for me. I quickly proceeded to out-CAD just about every boy in the class, a fact in which the teacher, Mr. Williams, clearly found some delight.
In the mornings I rode my bike around our neighborhood to deliver the newspaper. Every week, I’d go door-to-door collecting subscription fees, tearing off tiny paper tabs from each customer’s page in a special notebook, indicating that they’d paid.
In my senior year of high school, I oversaw the yearbook’s transition from laying out pages on paper to laying out pages with computers, this time the vaguely portable (it had a handle on the back!) Mac Classic. We used PageMaker again; the screen was black and white and 9", diagonally. We put black boxes where the pictures should go. The yearbook adviser sent me to detention because I decided to stop standing for the pledge of allegiance.
It was around then that my friend Marcus gave me a modem and — to his eventual chagrin, when he got the bill — access to his Delphi account, giving me my first taste of the whole Internet thing in the form of telnet, gopher, and IRC. When I went to college in 1993, I brought a computer with perhaps a 10 megabyte hard drive, and no mouse. I think it was a Tandy. Once again I found myself poring over magazines, now to discover URLs that I could enter to discover a whole new world of information.
In 1995, I spent the summer making my college newspaper’s web site, previewing it in Lynx. There wasn’t much to learn when there was so little difference between the markup and what I saw on the screen. I would go to the computer lab to use NCSA’s Mosaic browser on the powerful RISC 6000 workstations, because they had a mouse. I wandered the web using a new site called Yahoo!, which seemed like it might one day render those printed directories of URLs obsolete.
My friend Dave, who lived down the street from me, installed Windows 95 that summer and invited me over to get a glimpse.
It was amazing. We were living in the future.
In the spring of 1996, I took an internship at a community newspaper in Washington, D.C., not realizing that you actually had to be rich to take a barely-paid internship in D.C. Within a few months, I didn’t really have a reliable place to spend the night. I spent a lot of time at 24-hour diners and riding the Metro to the end of the line and back. One day I was on the bus and I got confused about where my stop was and I asked a fellow passenger. We got to talking: she was from near where my family lived, and she was driving home the following weekend. She’d be happy to let me tag along.
I came home, a de facto college dropout. For a while I worked at Video King, a local video rental chain that competed with Blockbuster by offering some less-than-family-friendly fare on a shelf in the back. To my great relief, I soon landed a job as a copy editor and page designer at my hometown newspaper, owned by Gannett. I was pretty sure I’d do something related to journalism for the rest of my life.
I stayed in touch with Marcus. He had gone to California after also dropping out of college, and was making what seemed to be boatloads of money, working on … well, I didn’t really know what it was, but it had something to do with the internet. He tried to get me to come out and join him: I could sleep on his couch, and soon enough I’d be making as much money as he was, doing programming things.
I was unpersuadable about the moving part — I had been on exactly two trips that required air travel, and going to college four whole hours away from where I grew up had seemed adventurous—but Marcus stayed on my case about the programming, plying me with a copy of Learning Perl, Second Edition and late-night lessons in vim.
I didn’t see how this had any bearing on my job until one day, around 1999 or 2000, the newspaper decided it should start putting its stories on the internet.
I was on the team that sent film negatives down to the pressroom on a dumbwaiter by 11:10 every night so they could create the metal plates that would receive the ink and transfer it to newsprint on a printing press that dated to the 1940s. Now, we were also the team that would be responsible for publishing the stories to the web before we ended our night. The process was tedious and error-prone: we had to get the files from one system into another, rename them, and then move them into individual directories so they’d end up in the right position on the web site. Completing the task took tens of minutes at the end of a shift that started at 5:30pm and ended at 1:30am if we were lucky.
“Why don’t you write a program to do it?”
I started by writing the program out on paper. Marcus and I worked together over the course of the next couple of weeks, and probably wrote at most a few dozen very terrible lines of code, but when we were done, I had used code to solve an actual problem, and it was a powerful feeling.
The people I worked with didn’t exactly understand what I had done, except that now it took just a couple of clicks to accomplish the task that stood between them and the end of their long day. During lulls in my work, I’d open up the code and read it over and over and over.
I left the newspaper on July 4, 2001. I wore a shirt with a sparkly American flag on it to celebrate my independence: I didn’t have another job lined up. I bartended. I waited tables. I tried and failed to piece together freelance desktop publishing work, using my teal blue iMac with a hockey puck mouse.
I sold my car and rode my bicycle to North Carolina. I did some desktop publishing gigs and worked at an ad agency for a bit. The boss’s daughter’s boyfriend got to do any coding work that came our way. I listened to him and his friend puzzle over the task of paginating a list. I wrote a tool for myself, using the text editor in what must have been Dojo 0.1, to create formatted email newsletters for one of the agency’s clients. I made Wordpress websites for friends in the evenings.
It wouldn’t be until 2006 that I got a job writing code full time. By then, rounds of layoffs had eviscerated the newspaper. Many of the folks I’d spent my evenings with for five years would soon be out of a job, if they weren’t already.
I can barely remember a time when computers weren’t a part of my life, but I know with certainty that that time existed, and that when computers first entered my life, they were exceptional and special. These days, of course, they’re ubiquitous. There’s a staggering quantity of computing power in a bin in my closet. When I’m sufficiently tired, I swipe at the pages of a printed book, and wonder why they don’t turn.
There is nothing special about computers for my seven-year-old. “Computer” describes just a few of the many unexceptional computing devices that litter the house. He doesn’t painstakingly type assembly from the back of a magazine. He’s caught off guard every time he can’t access the internet on his iPad when we’re driving in the car. To the extent that he’s intermittently interested in coding, it’s because he knows that it is part of my job, like I might have been interested in how eyeglasses get made when I was 7.
In 2020, I brought home more in a month than I earned in my first year at the newspaper, adjusted for inflation. I didn’t work particularly harder in 2020 than I did in say, 1997, and in so many ways the work I did—making there be a local newspaper, full of local news, every day, no matter what—was so much more important than the work I did to, uh, increase the velocity and quality of frontend development at <insert company here>.
When I reflect on the path that’s gotten me to where I am today, it’s hard not to contemplate all the ends I might have found myself at instead. The life I get to live now is embarrassing in its riches, and this present was entirely un-obvious when I was spending the night in a D.C. diner, or pulling still-warm copies of tomorrow’s newspaper off the dumbwaiter, or tipping out the hostess at the end of a night waiting tables, or even saying yes to that first coding job where mostly they made Flash banner ads. My gut is punched, viscerally, by the remarkable impact of the choices that were made, the opportunities that were offered, the doors that were held open, the $99.95 that was spent now decades ago.