Growing up, I’d say that I was pretty lucky. My parents raised me that I could do whatever I set my mind to, regardless of my gender. Sometimes I wonder how life would be different if my parents had had a son and a daughter instead of daughters, but that’s a moot point now. I never once heard someone say “computers aren’t for girls”.
My dad and one of his computer-savvy friends claim that when I was five or six, I would watch them try to debug computer issues and somehow know what to do, but they would spend hours cursing at it and didn’t really appreciate having a six-year-old girl telling two grown men what to do! So I guess you could say that I’ve loved computers from an early age.
One of my uncles was in graphic design. At some family event when I was six, I was bored, so he gave me a copy of his HTML editor on a floppy disk and showed me how to make HTML pages. After that, I was hooked on my GeoCities page. Back then, we had dial-up internet, which meant that I could only work on my webpage outside of normal phone-call-receiving hours, namely before 7 am. Yes, at six years old, I would naturally wake up at 5-6 am so I could spend an hour or two on the internet.
By the time I was about thirteen or fourteen, plain old HTML pages were getting boring. I was fairly well-versed in CSS at that point and the next step was PHP includes, which would, of course, make changing my webpage’s layout much, much easier! (You might cringe at my mention of PHP, but you know what? It was instrumental in my development as a budding computer scientist. So shush.) The summer between grades nine and ten, I taught myself PHP (and basic programming skills) by writing a web app.
In grade ten, I took the first year of the IB Computer Science course, where we learned to program in C++. The class was after school a few days a week, from 3-4:30. That’s right, at seven, I was getting up early to work on my webpage and at fifteen, I was staying at school late to learn how to program. I think I was the only girl in the class, but I don’t remember, because somehow at that point, it didn’t matter. In the computer lab, we were all just people who were interested in computers (or at least, that’s what I thought.) Most of my classmates enjoyed nerdy things like playing computer games and role-playing card games, but many of them had never programmed before. I, on the other hand, knew what variables, if statements, for loops, while loops, and functions were! This put me in the role of the guys looking like idiots because a girl knew how to program better than they did. Between the class being after school and it being way more difficult than they had thought, we went from 30 students to 2 by the beginning of the second year. (That means that I can claim that my high school computer programming class had a 50% male-to-female ratio!)
I liked computers. I liked programming. I liked solving problems. Somehow, I still didn’t dream it possible that I could have a career doing those things. That might have something to do with the fact that I liked other things too, such as Calculus and French. I took all the necessary courses to get into any good engineering school in grade twelve. One of my guidance counselors felt that the Faculty of Arts would be a good fit for me since it offered a varied selection of programs. I liked that you didn’t have to choose your major until later! My physics teacher thought I would be a good engineer. My math teacher thought I would be a good mathematician. At fourteen, I had decided that I was going to the University of Waterloo. Since I liked computers, my first choice for an engineering program was Computer Engineering.
Computer Engineering was a bad fit for me. It turned out that I wasn’t actually all that interested in physics, circuits, etc. Thankfully, I figured this out partway through the first semester, while consulting the course list for the second and subsequent semesters. I switched to Computer Science fairly smoothly, minus the social re-adjustments that go along with switching faculties.
Early in second year, I also declared a major in French. Pretty much every school term after that, I considered switching my primary major from Computer Science to French. The CS courses just didn’t enthuse me as much as they used to anymore, while I was passionate about my French courses. What kept me going was my co-op jobs, as I loved working as a software developer, particularly during my last two co-op terms (the middle two were not very motivating). I’m glad I stuck it out, but I really wish that I could somehow help younger women in Computer Science who struggle with similar issues because I’m sure there are many who choose the other route.
I didn’t love every aspect of my Computer Science courses, nor do I love absolutely every aspect of my job, but who does? There are just some days that life sucks. But I enjoy what I do most of the time and on the bad days, I can remind myself of the good ones. And until the bad days outweigh the good, I’m on the correct career path.
Tara Clark is a Software Development Engineer at Amazon.com in Seattle, Washington, working in the Kindle group. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and French from the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. She is passionate about linguistics, bilingualism, and women in computer science. She is an avid curler. She blogs about technology, linguistics, careers, and travel.
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