How I Got Started Programming and My Thoughts on Women in Computer Science


Let me remind you to view my disclaimer if you haven’t already.  These are my thoughts as I sit here on a Tuesday evening watching T.V., and I reserve the right to change my mind on how I view things at any time.  Most likely, my thoughts will have changed by the time I get into work in the morning. <grins>



How I got involved in computers directly ties into my thoughts on women in computer science, so I’m posting both thoughts together here.



How I Got Involved with Computers and Programming



My parents got me a TI-99 4A Personal Home Computer when I was either 4 or 5.  It came with Hunt the Wumpus, a program which is sometimes used in Articfical Intelligence classes.  The TI version of the game freaked me out to the point of tears every time I died and the Wumpus appeared on the screen. 



I remember growing up with half educational games and half video games for the TI.  I especially remember the math-learning educational games.  I learned how to multiply in second grade by playing that math game.  In Mississippi, we didn’t learn how to multiply until very late in the 3rd grade.  I also remember being scolded by a teacher for being a “know-it-all” in the second grade for correcting her because she said that you couldn’t subtract a bigger number from a smaller number, like 7 – 20.  I told her that you could, and you would get negative 13.  That was the only negative memory I have of that teacher, so I think I just got her on a bad day (or I was really being a smartass).  I was the type of kid that would have the customer service desk at K-Mart page my parents saying that I was lost, just because I wanted to hear my name over the speakers. 



Somewhere around that time (read: I was either in 2nd or 3rd grade), my parents got me Return to Pirate’s Island, written by Scott Adams.  It was purely a text-based game.  In a sense, it was a computerized Choose your own adventure.  I loved the interaction with the computer.  I was really intrigued by typing in a command and watching the storyline change based upon what I typed. 



I don’t remember how old I was, but I was young enough that I had to get an adult to read at least one word per sentence in the game.  I remember reading the introduction to Return to Pirate’s Island and asking my mom what an “armchair pirate” was.  (The author wrote it in the context of stealing software).  It wasn’t until my Junior year in college that I looked up an emulator for “Return to Pirate’s Island” and finally got past those crocodiles, built the sailboat, and found the treasure. 



“Say YoHo, everything spins around, and suddenly, I’m elsewhere…”  Thanks Scott Adams for adding “safey sneakers“ and “pieces of eight“ to my vocabulary.  And thanks for the game!



Perhaps around the 3rd or 4th grade, someone in my family got me a book on video game programming for the TI-99 4A.  This book probably had the most significant contribution to getting me interested in computer science.  No one told me that I was being a geek for painfully typing in all of those lines of code.  In fact, my older cousins would take turns with me typing in the code.  (One video game took us over 9 hours to type in).  Just thinking back on those days makes me look at Visual Studio in a much different light.  We then used a cassette tape to store the video games (the source code that is) on, so we didn’t have to spend 9 hours retyping everything when we turned the TI off.  I definitely learned patience and how to pay attention to detail (no syntax errors back then) from all that typing, something a lot of people don’t have when they first try computer science or using a new application.



Sometime around junior high, my mom brought home some IBM computer that took 5 minutes to boot.  It had DOS 3.x installed.  I remember when my mom brought home a mouse for it, thinking that it was the coolest thing.  I studied by typing my notes into the word processor.  I also used it to print book reports.  Actually, now that I think about it, I never learned how to use a typewriter.



I got into Nintendo just like any other kid on the block, but I remember being the first to call up all my friends when I beat Metroid (the first game I ever beat), more because they “rolled the closing credits, just like in a movie” rather than Samus was a woman.   I’m just very easily amused.  My team’s head-ninja will attest to that.  The game that sold me on Nintendo, as in, I want to do this when I grow up and no one is getting in my way, was Final Fantasy II.  Shortly after I beat the game, I got a short-hair collie.  His name was Cecil, and he lived up to his namesake.  Most freakin’ loyal dog in the world.  He lived a very long life, 10+ years.  Image a storyline to a video game so intriguing that the producers got free advertisement for the game for 10 years through the name of a collie.  There’s something to that.



I went to a very small all-girls’ catholic high school, only about 250 students.  My sophomore year, I really wanted to take this “Intro to Pascal Programming” course, the only course on computer programming offered at the school.  But it conflicted with Algebra 2.  On a whim, I decided to devote a weekend to nothing but answering every question in every chapter of the book.  (at least I find constructive ways to deal with frustrations)   The one weekend turned into about 2 or 3 wekeends, but about the 5th week of school, I turned in the notebook with all the answers.  Then, I asked that I take a final exam and finally move to the pascal programming course.  I think the element of surprise worked in my favor, since the teacher didn’t know I was doing this (or only found out when I got to the last chapters).  I took the final exam and moved to the Pascal programming course immediately after. 



Once I got into college, things were significantly easier for me to study computer science.  I had an excellent advisor nicknamed Momma Donna.  I got a lot of practice in what it means to lead without authority by serving two years as ACM chair for my college.  And I worked as a research assistant on WebTOP.  The “Laser” and “Reflection and Refraction” modules were mine.  Also, it was interesting how about half of the Computer Science Faculty at my college were women.  The chair of the CS department is a woman.  I never really felt “alone.”



My Thoughts on Women In Computer Science



I don’t like the “Laura Croft” games very much.  I have nothing against first person shooter games.  My coworkers will attest to my love of Halo.  But having to play a character that has the unrealistic perfect body is just too much for me.  Thankfully, when I was growing up, the graphics hardware wouldn’t allow for that many triangles; otherwise, I might have been discouraged from computers.  Kids are very impressionable, and if their first interactions with computers are in the form of video games protraying unrealistic expectations, it’s possible my theory could hold water.



If I didn’t do computer science, I might have become a commercial airline pilot.  I was big into G.I. Joe cartoons (Flint was the best), and all I ever wanted for Christmas was a G.I. Joe Sky-Striker. One day, I’ll find one on ebay that isn’t too outrageously priced.  Or maybe I would have become a rocket scientist (studying aerodynamics in college).  There was always the potential for me to do other things, but because of my early interest in Computer Science, I loved programming computers more than building or flying planes.



I remember my freshmen year in college that there were a good number of female students in the classroom, but I will never forget my first semester as a sophomore.  I was the only female in both of my CS classes, and we’re talking sophomore level.  I have no idea why.  I hated it whenever other students or the teacher would bring it to everyone’s attention that I was the only female student in the room.  Nothing like calling you out that makes you feel most “alone.”



Something I had never thought about before until the Channel 9 interview was the impact the Internet is having on everyone’s daily life.  Perhaps with the advent of the Internet in so many households, we’ll start to see the number of women involved in computer science increase.  If not, I might become convinced that it is a cultural thing.  For example, in so many movies, we see software engineers portrayed as geeks and dorks.  Or now with the Matrix trilogy (nothing against the Matrix, it rocks), you have to have the unrealistic perfect body to be considered cool as a software engineer. 



Yeah, tonight I’m blaming the decrease in women in computer science on movies and video games.  I might come up with a new theory tomorrow night – remember the disclaimer at the beginning.  But I’m also accrediting video games and movies (like Tron – v1.0) to my involvement in computer science.  Depending how they are used (and which ones are used), movies and games can be very powerful tools in getting kids (both girls and boys) interested in computer science.


Considering that it is free, my advice is this, “get paid to do something you love to do anyways.”

Comments (16)

  1. Jeff Donnici says:

    Sara,

    That was a great entry. Thanks for sharing… it’s interesting how we (despite our gender difference) had much the same experience growing up (geeking out with a TI (later a C64), doing the video games thing, typing in code from magazines/books, praying the tape recorder worked, etc) and ended up in the same profession — building software. I also thought it interesting that you considered aero engineering. There was a period where I was pursuing structural/civil engineering — I just wanted to BUILD.

    Part of me thinks that these similarities are because both of our families thought this was a cool way for us to spend time — so they supported it. More commendable for your family because it wasn’t necessarily a typical "girl" thing to do.

    Which leads me to the reason I’m commenting — I’ve got a daughter, Allie, who turned 4 in January. She’s reasonably bright (can mostly read already, add/subtract single digit numbers, plays checkers and other light strategy games) and loves to sit at the computer and play games (www.nickjr.com, etc). I encourage this as much as I can.

    She loves to build things with Legos (like me), but also loves to play Barbies for hours on end (she’s quite the dainty "girly girl"). We try to encourage all of her interests and not let her see anything as something "girls can’t do". One example is soccer, which I love (and anything Daddy loves is OK by her)… we have tickets to the local MLS team (all male players), but I try to seek out women’s games on television so she can see that it’s not just "something boys do".

    Despite all of that, I worry (a lot) about how to encourage her to do what she enjoys doing, what she finds mentally stimulating, etc — but without getting discouraged by some of the issues that you mention in your post (the body image stuff, the societal expectations of what a male/female career is). Granted, I’ve got some time before this stuff is a real issue, but I think a kids’ self-image and confidence are cemented pretty early in life.

    So I guess what I’m wondering is this — What steps do you suppose your family took to ensure that you got the support and encouragement you needed… despite showing interests in what may have been (or still are) perceived as "male" activities? Did your family take those steps consciously, or was that just their way? What might they have done differently?

    Anyway, I’ve rambled quite enough… I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on some of that while you’re thinking about these issues.

    Thanks again.

    Regards,

    Jeff

  2. Which VSCore head-ninja are you referring to? There are far too many ninja ::cough:: alex kipman ::cough:: types on our team for this ambiguity to work :-).

  3. Randy H. says:

    Sara,

    I can’t believe there is another Microsoft person that is from MS that attended MSU. Very cool. I’m from Columbus originally, how about you?

  4. sara ford says:

    Chris: Thanks!

    Jeff: I’m going to need a couple of days to think about my response to make sure it is acurate. By the way, i had practically every lego set on the market. Just last year i put together the 3000 piece Imperial Star Destroyer ship. I’ll explain when i comment later how all of computer science to me really is just a big lego set.

    Aaron: I was too lazy to type out "VS Core IDE QA Head Ninja". Now you know who i’m talking about. We’re all little qa ninjas.

    Randy: There’s another MSU grad who escaped from the stark-patch the same time I did and is working at Microsoft. Actually, the first developer i ever tested code for graduated from MSU. Let’s talk offline. Momma Donna is the best, isn’t she?

    My family is from New Orleans, but i grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The coast is a totally different world then the rest of Mississippi. Believe me, i went into culture shock the first time i drove to MSU (to move into the dorms) and i saw 3 people riding on horseback on the side of HWY 45. Yep, and the 1987 MS Road Construction – Moving Mississippi Ahead signs are still up and the roads were still not completed as of 2002….

  5. I taught my daughter subtraction and negative numbers before she started school and the same thing happened to her! I drew a "ruler" that had the number 0 in the middle and we would count up and down the ruler.

    She also knew the alphabet before she started school. The TV show Wheel of Fortune helped a lot with the alphabet – back in the 80’s Vanna would turn the letters herself (I think now it’s all done by computer) – anyway, the contestant would say the letter, then Pat Zajak would say the letter and then Vanna would turn the letter – she learned by the repetition.

  6. Saurabh Jain says:

    To add diversity to the mix, I propose that we start categorizing people as ninjas, pirates, elfs and dwarfs, as mentioned on the following site.

    http://www.plasticbag.org/archives/2004/03/from_pirate_dwarves_to_ninja_elves.shtml



    Saurabh

    PS: – Doesn’t head ninja prefers to be called samurai?

  7. My wife (Olga) works in VS Core team as a dev. She graduated from the same university, in the same specialy: applied mathematics. We had plenty of women (my guess is about 40%). However, few of them were interested in *computer science*, i.e. programming per se. They were interested in science and if it requred programming, fine. Olga started work in biomechanics when she built math models of veins and atreria during hypertension. She only ended up doing pure programming when financing of scientific research in Russia significantly diminished.

    However, she does not like Matrix much and neither she likes cyberpunk novels. Neither do I, btw. I tried to read Gibson, didn’t like it. Matrix I is OK, sequels are so-so, IMHO.

  8. Joel Silvey says:

    Me too! I got my start in programming on the TI99/4a playing the text-based game by Scott Adams "Return to Pirates Island". This was sometime around 1983 and 1984. I had almost forgotten the whole experience. How much fun it has been for me to remember. Great story, thanks for sharing it. Many thanks.

    Joel Silvey

  9. Jeff Atwood says:

    Hey, wow, I had almost the same TI 99/4a experience with Hunt the Wumpus (and I even played Return to Pirates Island from cassette, though I quickly learned that text adventures just aren’t my thing– no patience!)

    To quote Fight Club, the Wumpus is my "spirit animal":

    http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/files/wumpus_origin.htm

  10. Will Barns says:

    A couple of comments Sarah,

    <i>I don’t like the “Laura Croft” games very much … But having to play a character that has the unrealistic perfect body is just too much for me. Thankfully, when I was growing up, the graphics hardware wouldn’t allow for that many triangles; otherwise, I might have been discouraged from computers. Kids are very impressionable, and if their first interactions with computers are in the form of video games protraying unrealistic expectations, it’s possible my theory could hold water.</i>

    Interesting how men and women differ on these feelings. Most of the male geeks out there don’t have the same body type as the males portrayed in video games, but (in my opinion) they willing accept those temporary body types and perhaps even gain a ‘bit of strength’ from them instead of being bothered by them.

    <i>If I didn’t do computer science, I might have become a commercial airline pilot. I was big into G.I. Joe cartoons (Flint was the best), and all I ever wanted for Christmas was a G.I. Joe Sky-Striker. One day, I’ll find one on ebay that isn’t too outrageously priced. Or maybe I would have become a rocket scientist (studying aerodynamics in college). There was always the potential for me to do other things, but because of my early interest in Computer Science, I loved programming computers more than building or flying planes</i>

    A friend of mine in Dallas collects G.I. Joe stuff (as well as other character oriented toys.) I’ll send him an email to see if he owns one and is willing to sell.

    Will

  11. Channel 9 says:

    I’ve written a blog entry going into more detail about growing up with computers at an early age to my current thoughts on Women in Computer Science.

  12. Channel 9 says:

    I’ve written a blog entry going into more detail about growing up with computers at an early age to my current thoughts on Women in Computer Science.