Aunt CompSci wants YOU!

Can social media inspire more young women to explore computer science? It’s an idea Jocelyn Goldfein, a Director of Engineering at Facebook, discussed in an interview with the Seattle Times a few weeks ago. Bringing more visibility to the women who built popular features like the news feed and photo viewer could interest teenage girls in tech-related careers, she says.

I’ll admit that it’s a start, but I think it’s going to take much more than that.

Software engineering has a big strike against it right from the get-go: it’s still perceived as a guys’ world–one full of gadget-loving geeks whose idea of a good weekend is blasting their way through the latest shoot-em-up video game. Guys who are intelligent to the point of cockiness, but lacking somewhat in social awareness. Most teenage girls aren’t going to find the appeal in a world like that.

When I look back at my high-school self, I see someone who already knew what her career was going to be, and the only keyboarding involved would be writing up the news stories I’d been chasing all day. Journalism seemed like a great fit for me; I earned scholarships and assembled a good clip file. But as I learned more about the hours and workdays, the shine came off a bit. When I was a senior in college, I got interested in the potential of the World Wide Web thing–remember, this was the mid-90s, when it wasn’t the ubiquitous presence that it is today. Less than a year after I finished my Journalism degree, I was back in grad school studying computer science.

I’d like to claim that what changed my course was the foresight that we were on the edge of a paradigm shift, and I wanted to be in on the beginning. But in fact the only reason I even knew about the web was because some friends of mine had gotten me interested in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), one of the early chat networks, and people who were more tech-minded than me were starting to talk about this internet thing.

What draws people into the field that eventually becomes their career? For many of my female peers, it was because computers and programming were something they got into when they were young, and that appeal never went away entirely. But when it came time to choose a degree program, a lot of us looked elsewhere. Is that because that other career path simply seemed a better fit? Or did the idea of darkened rooms, flickering monitors, and the complete lack of a social life put us off?

These days, there are a lot more young women online than there were when I was growing up. But most of them are there to use the software, not to create it. Knowing how to use a computer isn’t anything special anymore; in fact, it’s more or less required in our day-to-day lives. And yet, the number of women studying software and systems is down from previous decades. Less than one in five computer science majors are women, says the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

To draw more women into the fields of computer science and engineering, the most important thing we need to do is change the perception that’s it’s a playground for “brogrammers.” And yes, maybe Goldfein’s idea of giving more visibility to female programmers will help with that. But I think it’s the wrong presentation. “Look at this woman who is a programmer!” is not going to do it; all it does is emphasize the rarity of women in the field. We have to get to “Look at this programmer who happens to be a woman,” before we can achieve that mental shift.



Back to geekland

On the last workday of April, I left my previous job. On the last workday of May, I was offered a new one. I’ve accepted it, and will start work next Monday, once again testing software, but at a different company than before.  I’m looking forward to getting back into the work world. Our house is in a wooded neighborhood a dozen miles from the nearest town, and can feel very isolated at times. On the other hand, there are a couple of things I think I’ll miss from this past month and a half.

Above all, I’ll miss being able to stay on top of the clutter. Before, when I was working, our evening routine went something like this: come home, make dinner, give Kiddo a bath if he needed it, put him to bed, and then collapse in front of the TV. It was hard to do a lot of cleaning up right after Kiddo’s gone to bed because his bedroom is close to the kitchen and living room, so loud noises like vacuuming or clattering pots being put away would keep him from falling asleep. Even harder was putting down the remote to do the chores once we’d been sucked into TV watching for the night. While at home these past weeks I’ve done what I could to get the house to a cleaner “base level” in the hopes it would make daily tidying less of a burden, but I don’t know how long we’ll be able to maintain it.

I’ll also miss having time to cook interesting dinners. We pick Kiddo up from daycare around 6:15 p.m. and our drive home from there usually takes half an hour or more. This means anything beyond quick-prep dinners pushed dinnertime (and consequently, bedtime) even later. It didn’t help that we often didn’t decide on that night’s dinner until right before leaving work. Whoever wasn’t on pickup duty was in charge of arranging for dinner, whether that meant shopping or just hitting the local Panera. But that also meant a delay in getting home and getting it started.

I’m a little bummed that I didn’t get to all the projects I wanted to do. I’ve found that I’m something of a structured procrastinator, so I have gotten a fair amount of other work done, but the basement is still a mess, the recipes never got organized, the software project I’d meant to work on with a friend hasn’t gotten further than the design stage. Writing a non-prioritized weekly to-do list helped a lot; the weekly deadline let me push things back a day without feeling like I’d failed to get everything done, and I could rearrange things as needed–for example, I couldn’t sweep the deck very well in the pouring rain, so that had to wait for a good-weather day.

So, I’ve been thinking a bit about how to keep some of my at-home work to continue into the summer and beyond. Planning meals and shopping on the weekends might save us a little time in the evenings, and perhaps we could do some prep for the next night’s dinner after the boy has gone to bed. Chopping onions isn’t as noisy as washing dishes, after all. We might also be able to streamline our getting-out-of-the-house routine in the morning, in the hopes that leaving for work earlier means coming home earlier as well.

Could we do some of the noisy chores like vacuuming right after getting home from work? Maybe, if Kiddo were a little older. Right now he loves being underfoot while we’re cooking, which often means whoever’s not cooking is on distraction detail. In the past, I’ve asked my husband to take care of the vacuuming before he left for work (he generally went in later than we did) but that would cut into his worktime, meaning he had to either stay later at the office, or bring work home. Maybe it’s time to dust off and empty out that Roomba — or just get a quieter vacuum cleaner.

Having the weekly list in a visible place could also be helpful. I’ve found that when I have a visual reminder of what needs to be done, it’s a little easier to find the time to do small chores, and I can budget time for big ones. And it will help my husband as well, who has reminded me countless times that his psychic powers are very weak. This way we’ll be in sync about what needs to get done that week.

I don’t know about those projects, though. The obvious time to do them would be on weekends, but during the summer we rarely have a weekend free. Perhaps they’ll just have to wait until this fall, when we might have to find a new way to fill Sunday afternoons.


You can take the Mama out of the Geek world…

It’s been nearly twelve years that I’ve worked for my current employer, a software company that I suspect most of you are all too familiar with.  Earlier this month, spurred in part by the seizures and in part by a few personal factors, I decided it was time to leave.  I’m fortunate in many ways; I have the full support of my husband and family in doing this, and we have the means (and medical insurance) such that I can afford to take a couple weeks of down time before jumping back in to the workforce.  It was not an easy decision to make, but from the way I’ve been feeling since putting in my notice, I can’t help but be convinced that this was the right choice to make for now.

Many years ago, when my  previous husband and I were divorcing and I had to start breaking the news to people, I did so with expectations that people would be disappointed in me for not being able to make it work. Instead, I received almost unanimous support from family, friends and co-workers. I thought I was going to hear things like “Have you tried [something else]?” or be told that I was giving up, not trying as hard as I should have.  Instead, I heard things like “I’m so glad! You deserve to be happy,” and “Kudos for making a tough decision!”

This past week, as I’ve been telling my friends and co-workers that I’m ending my working relationship, I’ve realized that I had similar expectations about their reactions.  I worried that people would question my decision, or ask whether I had done everything I could to make things work out. And once again, I’ve realized that I haven’t been giving them enough credit.  Once again, I’m hearing nothing but supportive comments.  My friends and family know I’ve been unhappy here for quite a while, long enough that it’s worn me down physically and emotionally. They probably also know that I’ve stubborn and hate to admit defeat, so it’s not too surprising that it took something drastic to make me realize what was happening. Walking away from a decent salary and a prime slate of benefits seems a little crazy, especially in this economy.  Working here was right for me for many years, and it was through my job that I met many of those friends (one who later became my husband).  But even good relationships can go sour under certain circumstances.  Sometimes it’s possible to put things right.  Other times, the price of staying outweighs the benefits.

I’m an engineer at heart, so I have to analyze. In looking at the similarities between the two “breakups,” I’ve been trying to understand why my first instinct is to brace for criticism and disapproval.  The best I’ve come up with is that it’s the criticism and disapproval that I feel myself. Is this really the right decision? Could I have found a way to make it work if I’d just looked a little harder or put more effort into it?  Clearly I’ve failed somehow, and surely it must be my own fault.  After all, hundreds of other woman, mothers of young children, are able to pull off the necessary balance of effort needed to succeed in the workforce, and even in this high-intensity company.  If they can do it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t have been able to as well.

But frankly, if I’m going to send my Kiddo off to the care of someone else five days a week, it really should be so that I can do something I love and find fulfilling, rather than something that’s going to drag me down or even leave me in tears at the end of a too-long workday.  The people who care about me are able to see that, and I can certainly stand behind it when it applies to other people. I just don’t do as well acknowledging it for myself.

The support and love I’ve gotten from the people close to me as I’ve made this decision has been more than I expected.  As my husband loves to remind me, I am more than just my job title.  Yes, it’s been an integral part of my identity for a very long time, but just as I’m more than a mom, more than a wife, more than a puzzle solver or a blog writer, I’m also more than what’s on my business card. I’m greater than the sum of my many hats–and now, it’s time to try on a new one.


Step 1: Make a list.

I’m just going to come out with it here.  I’ve found something that helps me cope with my hectic days and too-short weeks.  It’s becoming something I rely on–perhaps even depend on.  I’m lost without it.

Hi, I’m Jessica, and I’m a Listmaker.

Bah, you say.  Everyone makes lists.  Everyone knows that making a task list can help keep you on track.  I agree.  However, earlier this week I went a couple of days without making my standard to-do list, and felt totally at sea by the afternoon.  What was I doing just now?  It was so easy to get sidetracked.  Perhaps I’ve become addicted to my list board.

The list board is a small whiteboard on my desk at work.  It’s about the size of a standard piece of paper.  I’ve got a set of four whiteboard markers next to it, the same ones my whole company uses on the large wall whiteboards in conference rooms.  Every day before I leave the office, I erase the contents (writing them in a small notebook for posterity and to use in my weekly status reports) and then I make a new list of what I know I’ll need to do the next day.  I use the large markers because I’m not trying to summarize the task, just keep track of it, and if it takes me more than three or four words to capture it then perhaps it needs to be broken into smaller steps.  “Meet w/ George” “Test plan feedback” “Code review for E” were some of yesterday’s items–just a couple of words per item, enough to trigger my memory .  The whiteboard isn’t to document the details of the task.  It’s mainly a way to keep my work items in front of me throughout the day.  Its small size, combined with the thick-tipped markers, help keep my workload at a do-able level.  If I was able to write as small as I can on a pad of paper, it would be really easy to fill the board with a set of tasks that I couldn’t realistically complete in a day.  And on the rare day that I do finish everything on the whiteboard, there’s a “Future To-Do” list in the notebook with extra tasks to work on.

I also color-code my tasks.  Black ones are work-related ones, blue ones are personal ones like “Dentist appt.”  I check off the completed ones with green marker, and mark the ones that are blocked or postponed with red.  (Not coincidentally, these are the four colors available in the company office supply rooms.)  I tried crossing off items as I completed them, but that was getting the tip of my green marker all messy.  It also made the items hard to read at the end of the day.

I used to use a spiral notebook for tasks, and I’ve long been known to jot notes on whatever scrap of paper I can find when I need to remember something.  That worked, but the little whiteboard has been really helping me narrow my focus so that I can get through just today’s tasks without being overwhelmed or stressed out about the things I need to do next week.  Those items are documented in emails and on my calendar, so as long as I’m checking it regularly (or, um, obsessively) I don’t forget about them.  But one source of stress for me has been getting too focused on the big-picture glob of things to do, to the point where it’s hard for me to stay on track working on a single small piece of that glob.  The whiteboard has another advantage that paper lists don’t: at the end of the day, it’s so satisfying to literally wipe the slate clean and start anew.

Keeping the whiteboard list on my desk has helped me a lot over the past few weeks.  I haven’t yet carried the practice home for evening and weekend productivity, but that’s because I keep coming up with other things to do that are more important than fixing our whiteboard so that it hangs properly, or rounding up a set of markers.  One of these days I’ll remember to do those things.  Hey!  Maybe I should put them on a list!


Becoming (Silver)enlightened, Part 1

We’re in a sort of in-between time at work, so I’ve decided to learn Silverlight programming.  I’ve got programming experience but I wouldn’t call myself an experienced developer by any stretch.  It’s kind of like being just fluent enough in a foreign language that I can read or listen to it and get the gist of the conversation, but if I had to jump in to add my own thoughts, I’d be stumbling a lot and needing help with some of the translations.  I understand programming concepts backwards and forwards, I just need a little help at times converting them from the theoretical to the practical.

I have a project in mind that I’ve been toying with for a while, and decided to take a shot at programming it myself, rather than relying on someone else to implement my ideas.  While I do have some friends who could probably teach me, I’m going to see how far I get trying to learn it on my own.  I thought it might be fun to document the process as I go.

My first step was to hit the Internet.  I launched Bing and typed “learn silverlight” into the window.  Voila, a bunch of handy resources, the first of which was Learn : The Official Microsoft Silverlight Site.  Right in the middle of the screen was a handy box that said “New to Silverlight?  Visit the Get Started section to get up and running quickly.” Hey-o, and away we go!  I had already installed Visual Studio 2010, but needed to install the Silverlight 4 Tools for Visual Studio.  For some reason this didn’t go smoothly the first couple times.  The first time I had to cancel the installation altogether.  The second time, the installation completed, but reported errors.  Third time was the charm and I was good to go.  I started up the video.  Got partway in, and realized I’d learn this best if I worked on it along with the video.

Tangent: I’ve heard there are different types of learners: visual learners who need to see things written out to understand them best, auditory learners who grasp concepts more quickly when they hear them explained, tactile learners who need that hands-on experience to really take it in, and logical learners for whom the “why we do it this way” is equally as vital as the “how to do it” itself.  (In parallel with that, there are different types of teachers, and it’s not uncommon for a person’s learning style and teaching style to be different.  But I’ll save that discussion for another post.)  I feel that I’m primarily a hands-on learner, but at the same time I like to have someone explaining things so that I know I’m hands-on-ing correctly.  So doing this on my own without a guiding authority is something a little outside my comfort zone.

However, this video was playing right to my preferred learning styles because it was telling me, showing me, and letting me get some hands-on time by working right alongside it.  Oh, wait.  Did I say “alongside?”  Actually no; I was trying to watch the video and walk through the tutorials on the same computer.  Flipping back and forth between them wasn’t working out for me.  I tried installing Visual Studio 2010 on my laptop, thinking that I’d want it there anyway so that I could take my work home, but the installer doesn’t seem to be working right.  (In fact, it’s trying again even as I type this, but the progress bar isn’t showing even a single pixel of advancement.)  As a final resort I copied the video to the laptop so that I could run it from there while doing the tutorial on my desktop computer.

Once I got everything set up for smooth productivity, I re-started the video and got to coding.  When you create a new Silverlight application, it automatically give you a working mockup, so you can run it like a real web page right out of the box.  I ran into a few confusing steps where what was shown in the tutorial didn’t quite match what I was actually seeing in Visual Studio, but that’s likely because something had changed since the tutorial was published — not an uncommon occurrence in the software world.  I was able to follow along and create my little Hello World web page and application, even if I did have to stop and rewind a couple times to make sure I’d typed things correctly.  Oh, and I kept trying to scroll around inside the video itself.  Kind of like trying to interact with a TV show from the couch side of the screen.  Yeah, good one, me.

The tutorial doesn’t just show how to lay out buttons and text fields and get them to interact with each other.  It even includes a demo for connecting your web application to a database on a web server.  I didn’t try coding that part because I’d neglected to download the sample database, but it looked straightforward enough that I think I’ll be able to finish it out later (with help from the video again, I’m sure.)  For the moment, I feel like I now have the skills to lay out the user interface for the project I’ve got in mind and possibly get started on hooking up the various elements to each other.

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I’m not entirely sure why I’m starting this blog.  Do I have something to say that I think the world would be interested in?  Do I have some specialized niche knowledge that others are looking for?  Do I have nifty hobbies that photograph well?  Not really, nope.

I’m just a mom, and a software geek, and a wife, and a woman.  I have the same daily struggles that I’m sure many others do: what are we going to make for dinner tonight?  Will there be time to finish this project before I have to leave for daycare pickup?  Does my new boss have expectations that I’m not sure I can meet?

Apparently I’m also an Asker of Many Questions.

I grew up in Montana and studied journalism, eventually completing my degree in 1995.  I like to put words together in just the right way.  After graduating, I took a good look around at the opportunities available and realized that hey, this is a pretty competitive field, and I’m not sure I really want to be a reporter after all.  What I really wanted to be was an editor.  Proper grammar and spelling make me happy.  Words have meanings, y’know!  Funny thing, there aren’t a lot of entry-level postions for editors. 

However, this was in the mid-1990s, and there was something huge on the horizon: the World Wide Web.  The summer after I graduated was when URLs first started showing up in television commercials.  I had the luxury of a little time to play with, and decided what the heck, I’ll take some nondegree graduate courses in computer science.  Next thing I know, the department head was strongly encouraging me to turn that into an actual graduate degree.  Me?  The girl with the journalism degree?  Yeah, me. 

I didn’t set out to become a software tester.  I sort of fell into it when I didn’t quite fit the other disciplines for which I was interviewed.  In 1999 when I entered the real world, I was convinced that I’d been miscategorized and after a year or two I’d steer myself into where I through I really belonged.  Except something happened.  I discovered that a lot of the editing skills I’d polished in J-School could also be applied to software.  In a way, I’m an editor of not just text, but of how you, the customer, interact with an application.  The same gut feeling that told me that an article was clunky and difficult to understand can also be used to tell me that a program is uninviting and non-intuitive to work with.  The nit-pickiness that helped me place commas correctly also helps me line up buttons and pixels according to standards.

Meanwhile, my life outside work was going through some changes.  I divorced one husband and eventually married another.  As often happens, that marriage of two people morphed into a family of three people.  Now I have a toddler whose smile can light up my morning as well as a partner whose hugs can round out my evenings.

I also have a messy house.  I’m told this happens with toddlers.  And husbands.

I want to talk about the challenges of dealing with managing a family and a full-time job.  I like to write, and while I have other outlets for sharing with close friends, there’s something in me craving a more public audience.  So, here I am and here I go.  Still not entirely sure what I’m about, but open to the challenge of figuring that out as we go.