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Girl and Computer: Reflecting on the journey that got me to where I am today (rmurphey.medium.com)
264 points by mpweiher 41 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 76 comments

Great article.

I can barely remember a time when computers weren’t a part of my life, but I know with certainty that that time existed, and that when computers first entered my life, they were exceptional and special.

I can distinctly remember the moment computers came into my life. It was around 1980. My school had just received a simple desktop computer which ran Basic (I forget the make/model).

I remember being dumbstruck that a machine, a machine, could understand what you were typing at the keyboard. What is barely noticed now was completely alien and futuristic then.

I think that was when I started really wanting to get into computing.

Lovely article indeed . I loved the attached photographs.

I probably predate you and the author by a decade, but growing up in the 70s in rural Michigan, I did not even know what a computer was until my late teens (and by a stroke of luck at that). When our town got a second TV, it was a huge deal and I still remember that day! I started documenting my journey at [0] but have not written follow ups in the last 2 months as I’ve had to deal with some health issues.

[0] https://romlane.substack.com/p/from-sawnwood-to-software

Really enjoyed this, thank you.

I can remember mine too. I was four years old and VERY interested in calculators. My dad, an engineer, had bought a new calculator-like device: a Radio Shack PC-1, a badge-engineered version of the Sharp PC-1211, which see:


He showed me how he wrote programs on it. One of them was a math quiz game.

Later that same year he bought a "real" computer: a TRS-80 Model 16, an absolute beast which could do high (for the time) resolution graphics and even, with a hard disk option, run Unix. He wrote a program in BASIC which plotted the mechanical advantage curve of a piston acting on a crankshaft while simultaneously displaying a crude, 0.5fps animation of the piston assembly. I was hooked. To keep my grubby mitts off his expensive machine, he got me a Commodore VIC-20 for my fifth birthday.

In the early 80s, my mom read in newspapers that computers were going to be the future. So she spent much of our meager savings on what was then a very expensive Apple IIe. Because she wanted opportunity for her children that she never had.

That was quite a bet.

Thanks Mom.

I don't know what compelled my dad to get our first PC in 1989 other than that it'd be cool, but he did it and plopped me behind it with a joystick and Paratrooper. I think he did a good there.

(he may have been involved with computers before, iirc he mentioned MSX and the like, but that was before my time)

Yeah, the U.K. saw what was happening across the pond and made the right call with the BBC Micro.

It's both sweet and sad to me to read this woman's account of her childhood where the best thing to come into her families living room was a $99 Timex Sinclair.

What a fortuitous decision her parents made while the rest of the neighborhood jumped on the cable TV bandwagon with their disposable income. (I suppose I should be sad for her neighbor kids instead.)

I guess what I really want is for every child to have the same access to opportunities that this one (only barely) realized.

On the other hand, it seems sad that UK (as well as continental Europe for that matter) software industry wages seem to pale in comparison to wages in the US. I'm not really sure why that would be, even after accounting for things like healthcare and other social services. A bummer for American software professionals who are interested in moving abroad.

I saw a lot of people in Europe with the mentality "I am not paying the cable guy that much money", even if the "cable guy" was a highly skilled software engineer that was building the core of the company. Europe is also more egalitarian, doctors are also paid less and progressive income taxes and other factors are shaming people into earning less.

This! Payscales are simply not as extreme, neither at the bottom nor the top.

As a US person looking abroad, there seems to be a huge difference in the effort required to present as a business. UK doesn't seem quite as bad as say France, but there's a shortage of stories about how a person or small group was working for company A and was fed up with how their ideas were ignored and left to start their own company which thrived.

Maybe people aren't having their ideas ignored in Europe. Maybe they're afraid to leave because there are inadequate social safety nets (wait). Maybe European ideas suck? Maybe it's too hard to start a business so lots of people don't; or they have an easier time leaving the country and starting a business in the US (which we'll call American success, even if it's founded and built by immigrants).

Anyway, if that path was more feasible, businesses would need to pay more to encourage people to stay instead of going alone.

I’m an immigrant to the US - in my view, America is best thought of as a machine for turning other flavors of humans into Americans - the place really is inclusive in a way that I’ve never seen or heard of in any other country in the world. So calling it “American success” is not unreasonable, the secret is that you’re “an american” as soon as you get here and think of yourself as american. Compare that to England where I was born and grew up but people would laugh at you if you claimed to be “English” because you were brown.

I know “immigrant thinks america is great and welcoming” doesn’t fit the “make you angry so you click and share” narrative currently present online with regards to immigration, but it certainly fits the lived experience of myself and many immigrants I know, both legal and illegal.

[edit: forgot to write, I agree with you about the difficulty of starting a business in Europe vs the US, as well as maybe the cultural pressure in favor of running businesses in the US vs general attitude of discouragement in the UK. ]

This was super encouraging to read. Thanks for sharing your experiences

It's a simple difference of market size. The US has 300M people, the UK has 60M people.

The UK market is not big enough to bear big successful companies (by HN and VC standards). The first thing a UK company has to do is extend to the US to be able to grow.

I don't think that's the whole difference.

If you were into video games in the 80s and 90s, there are lots of stories of developers starting their own thing; the barriers were quite low (a lot of people distributed floppies in ziplock bags going to stores talking to store managers); and you see that in UK and US, and sure there's more in the US because there's more people. But I can't think of any internet sites/products that started that way in the UK.

How does this work? We’re all participating in a global market (especially in the software world).

That was an enjoyable read.

The author got started on the US version of the British ZX81 computer. Horrible keyboard and version of Basic, but cutting all those corners to get the price down made an opportunity for a lot of people to get into computers at just the right moment!

It was the device I started on. I think the limitation was part of its value. At age 11 I felt like I mastered it. I remembered the manual front to back. I could write assembly by “POKE”ing the OpCodes directly into memory. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and a desire to keep learning computers at an early age.

Where to start and what to learn these days is almost overwhelming. It’s a good and a bad thing there is so much that is so accessible now.

Oh don't get me wrong; I got my start on that machine too.

I still have the manual on my bookshelf - and as a matter of fact I'm having this print framed at the moment: http://www.alisoneldred.com/john-harris/fine-art-prints-1/sc...

Just as you say, it feels as if I'd need another lifetime to get a comprehensive understanding of a single modern machine.

At least the US version had 2K of RAM.

My family never bought a programmable computer, but my high school bought a few Apple IIe's. I would spend every study hall, and any other time I could manage, teaching myself to write BASIC programs.

At night, I would write out BASIC programs in pencil in my school tablet, to type in the next day.

I tried writing a basketball program that would generate a court in ASCII, with X's and O's representing players. I typed in NBA stats from USA today, to model various players field goal percentages and other attributes.

I tried writing a fantasy game with a generated map. I remember drawing a meandering river, randomly plotting the direction of the next pixel within certain parameters.

Needless to say, I was hooked, and have been programming computers for decades since.

Similar experience, here.

I wonder what it's like for those born after 1990 or so. Is the opportunity for this type of magic still available? How do the younger generations develop our level of love and passion for computing without these experiences?

For sure. I was born in 1994 and the details are different but the magic is the same. I started fooling around on the family computer (some of my earliest "programming" was actually scripted PowerPoint). Eventually I got my own laptop and was off to the races. I wrote scripts to do everything, websites for fun, little games. I started making AIs to play bridge and loads of terminal games. That desire to make things has never stopped. Sure, sometimes I slow down and sometimes I speed up but I am constantly making these small fun projects that are 99% for my own enjoyment of the writing.

I don't think this will ever change. Creativity will always find a way out whether that is building in Minecraft or writing Minecraft mods in Java. Sure, it's a bit more "luxurious" with a computer at home or even a personal device and JavaScript rather than BASIC but at the end of the day nothing fundamental has changed.

> Is the opportunity for this type of magic still available?

Totally! The landscape was/is definitely different since there have been so many abstraction layers placed on top of the hardware, but even web programming is a fun first experience that creates that “woah I made that happen??” feeling.

Personally my first real exposure to programming was playing with Atmel microcontrollers after watching some youtube tutorials and writing video game cheats after seeing a friend use one and wondering how the heck it worked. There was a lot of stuff to figure out, but each time you conquer some new detail of the overall system you’re immediately hungry for more.

It’s actually assuring to hear folks older than myself ask these questions, because I find myself looking at the increasingly locked down computing tech of today and wonder new folks are going to get into this wonderful hobby if there’s no ability to mess around with it.

I'm right on the border of "younger generation" but I got my start when I discovered my parents' computer had Visual Basic 6 and found a bunch of tutorials online from making simple games like tic-tac-toe, progressing to word processors and networked chat programs. There's something to be said about how easy it was in Visual Studio to put a GUI together... Kids get grounded and less outdoor play time for punishment--I got Visual Studio uninstalled.

On the simpler side, plenty of my friends got started in the early 2000's with Texas Instruments graphing calculator Basic. I'm glad to see the ticalc.org scene is still alive, but recall that the really magical stuff was almost always intimidatingly written in assembly!

Edit: ...And perhaps not surprisingly, I went to ticalc.org to see that TI is locking down their ecosystem as well and removing native code execution. Obviously today's world has more out there for learning and tinkering despite all these walled gardens, but the flipside is that each microcosm is relative obscure compared to the past when there were a handful of mainstream ways to learn to hack and each was just as welcoming or intimidating as the other.

> Kids get grounded and less outdoor play time for punishment--I got Visual Studio uninstalled.

"z2, we are very disappointed in your behavior, and there needs to be a consequence. So I'm afraid you really leave us no choice...YOU ARE GOING TO GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY WITH YOUR FRIENDS!"

Yeah, I was similar. Reading comic books or other geeky pursuits, and my Dad asking me to go outside and play catch with him. :)

I had an odd experience with my past computing memories about 7 years ago.

We’d just hired a new guy after his masters. I guess I am older than him by say 5 years.

I grew up on command line dos, hacking around on config.sys and similar to reconfigure the “extended memory” (above 640 kB) to get say, Tie fighter to run with gouraud shading and stereo sound, little tasks like that kept me burrowed into manuals and using the dos shell as a kid, just before the Win 3.1 era. After becoming a teenager I ended up not touching a computer for maybe 10 years, so the dos shell was always this thing I hacked around on as a kid.

Fast forward to seven years ago, and our new hire has never seen the dos shell (cmnd prompt/whatever) So I am explaining how to navigate, commands to issue etc. and it’s the weirdest thing, reaching into my childhood to tell this guy about some work related particulars here and now. It kind of did feel like he missed out on something good. Then again he was probably hacking together a website at similar age and wonders what in the world we did growing up a few years before.

>gouraud shading

The fact that I think you're a philistine going with Gourad over Phong shading is something totally incomprehensible to that person that came five years after you.

I feel like my relationship to computers vs. newer generation is very much like my parent generations relationships with cars vs my own. My father in law can tell me about every car he's owned, upgrades made to it, etc. Similarly, I can recall every PC I've built, as well as all of the incremental upgrades along the way.

At this point in my career, I've directly managed close to 100 different software engineers, and only a handful are terribly interested in the inner workings of the machines they use. For them, they're tools, some better than others, for doing the job.

1998 here.

Had a programming class in high school in which the teacher gave us a lot of free time to work on whatever interested us. I made dozens of games in Java during that time, mostly pretty simple ones, but by senior year I had written a sort-of advanced ray casting engine (Think Wolfenstein 3D but with textured floors and a fully-rendered ceiling layer) and I worked with two of my friends to develop it into a sci-fi RPG that we entered into a Game Development competition.

There was a definite moment in high school where I realized that I liked programming, and not just making games with it, and decided that I'd study computer science at university.

I don't think my experience is typical for my demographic, however.

I made a "driving" game on my trs-80 when I was maybe 11 or 12. It would accept joystick input and draw the road accordingly. It ran at about 1 FPS. If I would have had better mentors, I might have been able to make a career of computing a lot earlier than I eventually did. I look at so many of the things I learned on my own and how if I just had access to even a tiny bit more knowledge things could have been so different.

But I am extremely happy with my capabilities today. I build incredible things. And I got to experience moore's law from pong to today.

I used to have dreams of setting breakpoints in my children, to figure out their objectionable behavior. Very strange.

My junior year in college, I had a semester from hell where I took AI, Distributed Programming, Operating Systems, and a 400-level Math class all together. One morning as I washed my hair in the shower, still in a state of sleep-deprivation from a long night in the lab, I kept thinking to myself that if I didn't setq my hair (or was it setf?), then it wouldn't really stay washed.

When I finally woke up and came to, it was a mix of laughter at how out of it I was and worry that I was slowly going mad.

Similar, but after a long week building a parser. I dreamt I was sitting under a tree, and falling asleep such that first my torso fell asleep, then my limbs and head, then my fingers/toes/ears etc. etc. Woke up laughing uncontrollably.

I practice a meditation technique where one "scans" the body from toe upwards to put the various parts to sleep sequentially. If I'm tired, I'm usually asleep by the time I get to the head.

Wow, that's an awesome concept for a story/film!

Inside Out comes close, I think.

I immediately think of Westworld, specifically how the engineers interact with the hosts in the service areas.

I used to have dreams of setting breakpoints in my children, to figure out their objectionable behavior.

Dolores, bring yourself back online. Analysis.

"In 2020, I brought home more in a month than I earned in my first year at the newspaper, adjusted for inflation. I didn’t work particularly harder in 2020 than I did in say, 1997, and in so many ways the work I did—making there be a local newspaper, full of local news, every day, no matter what—was so much more important than the work I did to, uh, increase the velocity and quality of frontend development at <insert company here>."

This is so important, as we seem to have become a society engineered by technology, rather than a society that engineers technology

> This is so important, as we seem to have become a society engineered by technology, rather than a society that engineers technology

I would rather say that we're a society that is engineered by the market, and that the market is engineered by lobbyists. And one particular consequence is that the price of our work is determined largely by its value to those whom the lobbyists serve.

The verbiage evokes a sense of conspiracy theory, but I think it's not only true but perhaps even eminently intuitive.

How we value things and our priorities as a nation are impacted.

Frankly, there is no need for conspiracy implications. Deliberate policy steps were taken down this road to where we are now.

The simple truth is the outcome does not match needs, many legitimate expectations.

We can also take a no blame, no shame path to a better overall scenario and should.

you could say the same of many industries.

mathematicians fall to wall street. Artists to Advertising. Engineers to silicon valley. and even in nice jobs, all of us succumb to the pace.

Was it really more important? A lot of local news, and news in general, really is clickbait aimed at attention-grabbing or paid pieces.

> This is so important, as we seem to have become a society engineered by technology, rather than a society that engineers technology

It's still people behind tech. It's just that they can reach much farther today than they ever did. But phrasing it like that sounds like yet another attempt of the humanities to demonize something they can't understand (or control). Like regimes pushing for internet censorship.

Now that GP is gone, you mean.

What a beautiful story. I’m a decade younger than the author, but still, I was flooded with nostalgia. Please do give this a read, if you’re unsure what to expect based on the title.

The author mentions a 2012 version of this post. It was discussed here:

Girls and Computers - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3757796 - March 2012 (84 comments)

and is at https://web.archive.org/web/20120328175728/http://rmurphey.c...

I thought this was going to be about the sexism she had faced in the software industry. I was very pleasantly surprised. I had a very similar background (bartending and all!) and it put me in awe to think of my own path. We need more positive stories like this.

>"...I swipe at the pages of a printed book, and wonder why they don’t turn..."

I once got into elevator, pressed wrong floor and then found myself staring at the rows of buttons looking for the one marked "Esc". I was overworked at the time.

I was looking at a building, wondering when it was built, and thought that I should click on Help/About and look for the copyright date...

Often when I make a mistake on a whiteboard or on paper I have an instinctive urge to Cmd-Z.

Pinch and zoom physical book/papers. I do it regularly.

i've sometimes absentmindedly expected to use a search interface to find stuff in my home, both physical stuff and (non-digital) content.

Ctrl-f glasses!

I also have sometimes wished I could use an Internet Archive-like interface to see places at different times in the past, before buildings were torn down/new ones built/etc. Google Street View does this to an extent, but limited by what could be seen from a camera driving by.

The is a really nice reflective article. We need more of these on HN.

Good read, paints a clear picture in the mind.

I think my moment of awakening was in 1995 when I watched someone send an email from Liverpool to their son working in Africa. Just couldn't get my head around it.

I recall my wonder that emails were delivered overnight, which was typical at the time.

Internet killed the (ham) radio star....

This strikes close to home - in a good way. While details are a bit different (excluding the college drop out part) I guess the best investment my parents made was when they bought me an i386... it sure took me places and then some. Being 40 soon computers had been a part of my life for well over 1/2 of it and I still enjoy the grind :)

We're certainly the heroes of our own stories, this demonstrates.

What a cute story and great writing! <3 Thank you for sharing

Thanks for a nice read. It has been an amazing journey!

I myself typed stuff on a machine in the early 80's and was hooked.

Good times.

A somewhat unrelated question- what is an Engineering Manager? is it a glorious title for a team leader?

The responsibilities vary significantly across companies of different sizes. What follows is typical responsibilities of EMs in Amazon/Uber/Google type of orgs.

1. Project manage your team's deliverables.

2. Interface with other teams/EMs to unblock your team's progress.

3. Interface with product manager/owner to plan for the upcoming quarter/half.

4. Represent/sell/market your team in appropriate forums so that you keep getting high impacting projects/work.

5. Keep an eye on inter-person dynamics within the team. Address them early.

6. Hiring. For your and other teams.

7. Plan for your team member's career growth within the org. Promoting someone takes active participation of the manager with a plan in place.

8. Keep abreast of the tech-architecture that team owns. You don't want to accumulate too much of tech debt.

Typically, a "team leader" works mostly within the team; infrequently interfacing with other tams; I'd say it's 80-20 split between within team outside team focus.

EM on there other hand spend about 60-70% of their time interfacing and interacting with people outside of their team.

Of course, exceptions exist but this is how it's been in my experience.

As an Engineering Manager vs. team lead or Principal Engineer, the main difference is your #7 (growth and performance). That's the thing I list as #1 in terms of what an Engineering Manager does. You'll play a big role in all of the others as you progress in seniority, but if you don't love the growth and planning, it's hard to success as a Manager. Related, you're also the one that has to make the hard decision when it's time to part ways with someone who's not working out.

I answer this question a lot. For me, a summary version of my model is as follows:

EM is a technical role in the sense it includes managing technical projects. However, it is not an engineering role. I hold Engineering Managers accountable for the following three things:

1. People Management. You are the line manager. You must deal with hiring and firing. You should know the intrinsic motivations of everyone on your team and be able to feed those motivations. There are rote parts of the job as well, such as signing expense reports, vacation requests, and performance reviews.

2. Project Management. You are responsible for your team's delivery. If the team is blocked by something external, you need to resolve that.

3. Program Management. You should "own" your area. You should understand why the company is investing in your area and you have an opinion and a view for how your area can best accomplish the company's goals. You should understand your users/customers as well as or better than anyone.

Even if you can code, as an Engineering Manager you should not take work items for your team. If you need to switch your focus to interviewing a candidate, or a valuable team member is getting poached, or you need to talk to a customer, etc... your team needs you to take care of these things. If you have to make a choice between doing your EM job and keeping your team unblocked by delivering code, you messed up.

That's a very brief overview of how I treat the role. I know many folks disagree, so YMMV.

Job titles are all a bit fuzzy in general, but generally I would expect a "team leader" to be someone who manages a small team and is also part of that team as an individual contributor and may way be lead technically too.

An engineering manager is not an engineer at all (although they may have been in the past): they only do management (of a team of engineers). The idea being that they remove that burden from the rest of the team. A team with an engineering manager would usually have a separate tech lead who lead on technical decisions.

>An engineering manager is not an engineer at all //

I thought the "ing" made the role specifically one for engineers.

The idea being that engineers could continue to work doing engineering whilst moving into management. An engineering manager would be a senior engineer who also manages people: particularly those people's engineering activity.

But, I don't have much experience of this, so I might be wrong.

Generally not the case (and where it is, it’s probably a title or an employee being abused).

Engineering is being used here as a categorical rather than descriptive adjective. This person is a manager; the category of people they’re managing is engineering.

If they were happy and you described them as a smiling engineering manager, smiling is descriptive (and used as you were surmising) and engineering is categorical.

In my experience this role is referred to as a TLM, a tech lead/manager.

My plainspoken definition:

An engineering manager manages engineers. They understand the technical work about as well as the people they manage, so that they can give relevant coaching. They also understand management principles that make engineering projects successful (WIP counts, release process pros and cons, etc). In other words they know how to structure work flows.

So you have an Engineering team or group, and there is this manager(s) who oversees the engineering things that they do..

> team or group

There's a big difference there, managing a few people is what I know as a Team Lead while managing a group means managing a few teams with their team leads.

I said team or group to highlight there could be multiple engineering managers, typically, yes, with a team of 8-12 (perhaps 15 in some orgs/companies) members..

Yes, everywhere I've worked (UK), the EM manages a group of teams, each with their own team lead.

Team lead(er) always seems to me like the attempt to make a manager look unimportant.

There is no definition for it, in every company that uses this name it has their own meaning.

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