What would you tell your 14 year old self if it wouldn’t break the universe?

Hacker News LinkedIn Facebook Twitter by Abby Fichtner

From Ask Me Anything (ask your question here!) — What would you tell 14 year old Abby about being a girl/future woman working in Tech? (You won’t cross your own timeline and break the universe)

Okay, well as long as I won’t break the universe.

Never tell a 14 year old girl what to do

Okay, so first off. My 14 year old self was not going to be a programmer.

My Dad taught me to code when I was 8 on our Atari 800 (48K RAM!).

Atari 800

It was fun. I’d write little games. When I got to programming class in High School (okay, side rant – this was in the 80’s people – HTF did they teach programming in the 80s in grade school but not today?!), my teacher literally called up my parents to tell them that I had to go into programming because I was so good at it.

Okay. Right there. Never tell a 14 year old girl what she has to do.

But, it didn’t matter. Programming was something that my brother and my Dad did.

I was an independent woman. I was going to do my own thing. I was going to be a huge fabulous success. I was going to be…

manager.

Seriously, if you picked all of the possible occupations that I could have, I’m not sure that you could pick one I’m less suited to.

The list

When I was 14 the real world was completely incomprehensible to me. I had no idea what I should be aiming or hoping for. I’d just latch on to what I heard other people say. I think I had a list:

  1. Be rich – I needed $1 Million because, duh, that was the gateway into “rich”
  2. Be successful  – I needed to be a manager, because if you were successful, then they made you a manager
  3. I don’t know but I’m sure it had something to do with boys. Cuz, 14.
  4. again, something with boys
  5. most definitely more things having to do with boys

Honestly, the only thing I knew that I wanted when I was 14 were boys. Very cute boys.

John Stamos

Suspending disbelief…

Okay, but for the purposes of this post, we’re going to suspend disbelief and just pretend that my 14 year old self would have listened to a single word that came out of the mouth of an adult. I mean, adults are so dumb. I thought Logan’s Run was actually a pretty good idea.

There is excitement in the unknown

Your life has not been defined for you. There’s not some black & white version where you’re either rich and successful or you’re a failure. You don’t have to be a manager to be successful. You don’t have to be rich to be happy. You don’t have to know what you want right now, and even if you do know what you want right at this moment, it’s okay for that thing to change over time.

In fact, it’s actually like totally awesome to just follow your curiosity and let life unfold before you rather than having some specific set things that you have to reach (manager – check, $1M – check…) like a robot.

AND. Bonus. Following your curiosity rather than the “path you’re supposed to take” will very likely piss off the adults and the boring, normal people. Whereas, becoming the stereotype of success pretty much guarantees you’ll become one of those boring, normal adults. Like, gag me with a metrobus.

Being the only girl in the room… can be badass

I know everybody is all “oh, there’s not enough girls in programming” and I’m definitely going to piss some people off with this. But, let me be clear. Being the only girl in a very male field was never a deterrent to me getting into the field.

In fact, it was a bonus.

It was really important for me to be my own person. And… that I was. In 15 years of programming jobs, there was never a single other female developer on any of the projects I worked on. Sure, there were other women – as managers or designers or testers. But never another female coder.

I felt like a total bad ass.

I definitely had to adapt. But that’s not a bad thing. I learned very early on that people wouldn’t consider me a real programmer if I didn’t prove myself. I actually had a boss who would not talk directly to me (I kid you not) because I was literally the only girl on the entire floor who wasn’t a secretary and I guess little twenty-year old me fresh out of college was a threat to his manlihood. Or, something. I don’t know.

And I’d get the occasional “you’re a programmer? funny, you don’t look like a programmer” comment. Yeah, go ahead, you can be indignant. Personally, I loved it.

I wasn’t going to fit into anyone’s mold of what could or couldn’t be and if you were so ignorant as to have such a narrow world view then I was thrilled to put a crack in it.

But, it also became clear that I better be the best damn programmer in the room if I was going to be taken seriously. If I was standing around with a bunch of devs (obviously all guys) then unless I could keep up with every one of them, it would pretty much be assumed that I was in one of those other roles. I made it a point to make sure I had the biggest geek cred in the room from what I knew and what I was working on.

I made sure that I worked on the hardest, most bad ass projects that I could find. Which ended up being really cool because it got me building bleeding edge tech for a bunch of startups. Building things that nobody else had been able to figure out how to do before. And I loved it. I still love that!

Model your heroes, but ultimately be YOU

The downside to all of this was that I was forever trying to live up to some standard of what I thought other people thought was bad ass.

I think maybe… maybe that’s not a terrible thing when you’re just starting off your career. People keep telling students to “follow your passion.” What passion? When I was a teenager my passion was kissing cute boys. I don’t think that would have led anywhere good.

My senior year of college I became fascinated with Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. With these programmers who were able to build things nobody had ever built before. I started hanging out with really hard-core programmers and thought they were So. Cool. And as I got further in my career, I got super inspired by people who were figuring out how we could develop software better – people like Jim McCarthy and Bob Martin and – OH MY GOD (screaming fan!!) – Kathy Sierra (shhh! she’s another grrrl who codes).

I think everyone should have heroes. They inspire us to be more than we are today, to do more than we even realized was possible. And I think they help us to figure out what we are passionate about and what we’re so excited jump-out-of-bed-first-thing-in-the-morning to work on.

But, I think what we have to realize is that we also bring beauty and knowledge and greatness to what we do. And until we allow ourselves to be our own version of what we love, then we’re never truly living for ourselves. And we’re never being all that we were put on this planet to be.

So find your heroes, be inspired by them, imitate them. But ultimately, find your own voice.

Josie and the Pussycats

  • Adam Crossland

    This is wonderful, Abby. I’m going to share it with my 14-year-old daughter who enjoys coding in Python. Also, I’m gratified to see that we were both shaped to some extent by Atari home computers (I had the 400 — that membrane keyboard nearly robbed me of my love of coding, but I still managed to spend all Summer writing 6502 assembly) and high school programming classes. The day that I learned to write QuickSort in Pascal on my high school’s VAX was one of the most important days of my life.

    • Oh that’s awesome! Both your daughter and – wow – the 400. That’s serious! And see – high school programming class, right? Do they have those at your daughter’s school?

      • Adam Crossland

        The high school does have programming classes, but not at AP level, which is disappointing. My high school (Acton-Boxboro) did, and it made a tremendous difference in my life. No idea if she will have any interest in a software engineering career, but programming are indispensable in any STEM-related career these days.