How I Survived Nearly 40 Years in Silicon Valley as a Woman in Tech
On a rainy night in December 1983, I drove to the mall in Columbia, Maryland. On the way home, the cold rain turned to freezing rain, and the roads became ice rinks. I almost slid off the road multiple times and passed numerous car accidents. Eventually, I decided to park close to a ditch and walk home before I hit a tree or worse. Icicles hung from my hair, and I could barely feel my feet. That was the night I decided to move West.
It wasn’t just the freezing rain, sleet, and snow. Lately, I had begun to get bored with my career developing and maintaining nonprofit accounting and membership packages on an IBM midsize computer. I had been working on the same types of hardware and software systems for years, doing the same kind of programming over and over. I needed more challenges and opportunities to learn and improve my technical skills. I considered moving to one of the tech hubs at the time, but Massachusetts also had awful winters, and North Carolina was too far south of the Mason-Dixon line. Even then, Silicon Valley was one of the most expensive places to live in the country, but the weather was perfect.
I felt fortunate to have chosen a career as a software developer. My high school offered a computer class when almost no one knew what a computer was. I had found my destiny. Work never felt a job, but more like solving puzzles, something I loved to do as a kid. Just the tools to solve them were different. I also have a knack for learning languages, giving me an edge to increase my skills.
There were times when Marty, the president of the company I was about to leave, would call me into his office and give me opportunities to learn the latest IBM system. He would promise potential clients we could deliver a product when no one in the office had any idea how to use the new equipment, trusting that I would figure it out. But the time had come when I wanted to get away from the world of IBM.
In January, I called a recruiter and set up some interview appointments for the next month. I stayed with my childhood friend in San Francisco. My winter coat hung in her closet as I watched the evening weather wearing a T-shirt, feeling sorry for the people shoveling six feet of snow in New York.
By the time I returned to the East Coast, I had a few promising offers from Silicon Valley corporations. It took me a few more months to decide on which one I should accept, then I gave notice at my current job, rented out my condo, and moved in with my friend in San Francisco in November 1984, preferring the city lifestyle over the barrenness of the expensive, sprawling, single-family homes and two-story industrial buildings of Santa Clara.
When I arrived in Silicon Valley, desktop computers were still a rarity, but in hardware and software companies they were beginning to become as familiar as typewriters. My first job in Silicon Valley was with Convergent Technologies, a small computer company founded by a few folks who had fled Xerox PARC and Intel. The company’s newly developed computer had multiple processors, allowing programs to run simultaneously. I was on a quality assurance team testing the MegaFrame, a multiprocessor computer running their proprietary version UNIX software, writing benchmark and test programs in UNIX and C.
A few months after my arrival, I moved into my own apartment in San Francisco, still preferring to commute to Silicon Valley rather than live there. In the evenings at my kitchen table, I used my IBM PC to communicate with other techies to discuss ideas using a Bulletin Board System (BBS) — a precursor of the internet. Most discussions were not about our daytime jobs, but about side projects, and about which systems we were using to develop our personal applications.
My philosophy for the last 20 years has been that you could work on the moon and no one would know it.
Most programmers back East had been women. I wasn’t an anomaly. But by the time I arrived in Silicon Valley, the tech world was dominated by men. Their home computers became boy’s toys, loaded with violent games. University computer labs were dominated by boys and women felt intimidated, changing their majors from computer science to another discipline. All around me I saw women getting married and staying home with children. These were women who had begun in the computer field when I did. But, when they were ready to go back to work, there were new technologies that they didn’t understand, making it more difficult to compete with experienced men.
Men dominated Silicon Valley. They were taken more seriously, made more money, and were promoted before women were. You’ve probably seen one of those “Women in Computer Science” graphs like the one below. For some people, it’s hard to believe that women weren’t always such a significant minority in tech. We’ve always been here. It’s just that sometimes we’ve been forced to take different paths. For me, this meant starting my own company. I didn’t want to be an employee and likely have to report to someone who would not treat me as an equal to my co-workers.
By 1986 I had enough experience to leave my job and start a software consulting business. I worked between 60 and 80 hours a week. I had clients not just in Silicon Valley, but in every county of the Bay Area. I wasn’t just a programmer but a business owner, giving me a different status than if I were an employee.
With the popularity of PCs a couple of years later, people were looking to buy themselves a cheap home computer. Back at my last job in Maryland, Marty bought one of the first IBM PCs. He wasn’t in the office when it was delivered. I pulled the guy next to me into Marty’s office. We opened the box to check out the PC. By the time Marty returned, we had taken the computer totally apart. He said if it had been anyone but us, he would have been pissed. Then he told us to put it back together and left his office.
I never forgot that day that I took apart a PC and put it back together again. With this knowledge of how to build a PC, my sister and I took advantage of living in Silicon Valley. In response to the demand for inexpensive desktop computers, we bought the components needed to build PC clones. Then we built, sold, and delivered them ourselves. Our competition was CompUSA and Fry’s Electronics, but they didn’t set up their customer’s equipment or train them on how to use it like we did.
Customers often requested software installation and training. We also bought laptops to rent to customers while they traveled as they were considerably more expensive than desktop computers at the time. I spent most of my time developing, installing, and maintaining software systems while my sister built and delivered hardware.
Silicon Valley in the ‘90s
In the early to mid-1990s, the internet became a household word. PCs were in demand. People were experienced with setting up and using computers. We couldn’t compete with the large chains anymore. My sister and I closed our company, and she joined my consulting company. Data was now the main commodity in Silicon Valley. We spent most of the time creating, maintaining, and optimizing databases, manipulating and retrieving data, and delivering management reports for companies throughout the Bay Area. Now living in Oakland, just over the bridge from San Francisco, my life partner and I formed a business to make a business’s data work for them. We collected raw data from paper or interviewed people, keyed the information into our computer system, and delivered the data back to them in a format that they could use in their own systems.
Solving the Y2K conundrum
As we approached the end of the century, companies realized that their software wouldn’t function after the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999. For decades, no one used the century part of the date to compute elapsed time. This issue meant that invoices and statements would be wrong, banks would not calculate interest correctly, and payments would not be applied successfully. The century part of the date (19 for the 20th century, 20 for the 21st century) had never been a problem.
During the 20th century, the computer stored or manipulated dates in the format YYMMDD.
Assume today is November 22, 1999. Calculate 30 days from today.
991122 + 30 days = 991222 (December 22, 1999).
Assume today is December 22, 1999. Calculate 30 days from today.
991222 + 30 days = January 21, 0000.
The solution was to store or manipulate dates in the format CCYYMMDD, and all programs had to be modified to adjust for the change. The process took years. Every company’s computer systems required major changes. I had more work than I could handle and had clients from San Jose to Petaluma, north of San Francisco.
One of my fears was that we might forget to modify one or more programs and we’d be getting a phone call from an irate customer on January 2, 2000. Or maybe someone would accidentally overwrite the new programs with old code. But the biggest problem we did run into was that one customer did not have their source code for some modules. Luckily, they had printouts of the programs so we had to key in programs from scratch from the printouts. As the century was about to change, I watched the ball in Times Square drop and waited for my phone to ring. It never did.
Silicon Valley in the 21st century
The beginning of January 2000 meant the beginning of the end for both the consulting and data processing businesses. Companies became global. Businesses requiring developers began hiring staff from other countries, making it impossible for us to compete. My partner and I had just adopted a little boy. We decided that I would continue working, and she would stay home.
The dot-com explosion was just beginning. My skills were still valuable, but when I stepped into the offices of the startups for an interview, I felt like I was at least as old as the parents of the person interviewing me. There were no cubicles or privacy around any desks. Everyone worked at communal tables. Ping-Pong tables, mini basketball hoops, and other games provided entertainment when workers needed a break.
Other hubs of technology popped up around the world, and people eventually began working remotely, especially if they had to attend meetings with people in Japan or Ireland at 4 a.m. or 11 p.m. Pacific Time. Before the 21st century, not everyone had the ability to connect to their office at a decent speed nor did every company have a secure firewall. My philosophy for the last 20 years has been that you could work on the moon and no one would know it. The internet had changed the way the world did business.
I fit in with more established, traditional companies. I appreciated medical, vacation, and other benefits once I had a family. I even got an MBA online. But days after I turned 64, I received a call from my manager that my job was eliminated as of that day. I was stunned and angry but not surprised. The company I had worked at for eight years had an unwritten policy to let go of people who would become too expensive to insure. I later found out that they had hired a younger person from another country who lived in Chicago, another obvious financial decision.
I am retired now, spending my time writing my memoir and blogging, and building and maintaining websites. I am also learning new programming languages, just to keep my options open in case Silicon Valley calls me again.