Crystal Beasley recently wrote her nerd origin story in response to Paul Graham’s bullshit sexism regarding women in tech. A lot of people are following suit.
Here is my nerd story.
The first computering I can remember was around the sixth or seventh grade. I know that we did some kind of programming but I couldn’t tell you what it was. Basic maybe? I don’t know. The games we played to improve our typing where you had to type the words before they crashed down on you, made a much bigger impression on me. And more importantly, made me the fairly decent typist I am today.
When I got to high school, I was enrolled in a program for advanced students. Part of the deal was that we got the use of a Macintosh computer for the entire four years of high school. We also had all the same core classes together, so if you didn’t like someone in the group, too bad.
I didn’t do much with that computer besides write papers with it. The Internet wasn’t a thing yet. And I had to give it back when I graduated. When I went to college, my mom hooked me up with one of these bad boys:
Yup, that’s a TRS–80 Portable Computer. You better believe I was the coolest kid in the dorm. Naturally I used it for really cool things like–writing papers. I printed them out on my roommate’s Brother printer which sounded like being under fire in enemy territory, and might actually get you killed by your dorm mates if you waited till the last minute and had to print before your 8am morning class.
I dropped out of college after two and a half years, due to a combination of home sickness and lack of funds. I didn’t really know what I was doing–I went because I didn’t have a better idea.
I moved back home, got a job and put up with about six years of questioning from my family about when I was going back to school.
“When I figure out something I want to learn that will actually make me money,” I usually replied.
Meanwhile, I worked at Starbucks for several years with an awful lot of college graduates.
In 2006 I was working as a project manager at a tiny start up marketing agency that mostly produced junk mail, but also did a few web projects. I remember asking one of the developers what CSS was, and he told me, but I didn’t understand the answer.
The owners were both difficult to work for, but I had jumped the sinking ship of Kinkos, which had just been bought by Fedex and was becoming more corporate and stifling by the day. I didn’t feel I had a lot of options.
One day, I had a meeting with one of our contract programmers. He sauntered into the office wearing a jaunty little cap. For some reason, the cap has always stayed with me. The office was empty except for the two of us. I don’t remember what our meeting was about, but it lasted about 30 minutes.
When he left, I had what you might call, an ‘AHA!’ moment. A few things struck me about his circumstance compared to mine:
- I was pretty sure he was making at least three times what I was making, and, at the time, I was making the best money I had ever earned.
- He worked from his home office, and he was his own boss. He had sauntered in and sauntered out, and now he would return to his peaceful office. One where he didn’t have to worry about the mood swings of an unpredictable boss in the next room.
- He was completely portable. The streets weren’t exactly paved with WiFi back then, but it wasn’t that hard to setup. He could have been anywhere, doing what he was doing.
- Though he had showed up during normal business hours to meet with me, he had the flexibility to work anytime that suited him, as long as he met his deadlines.
I left the conference room, went back to my office and pulled up the website for Portland Community College. I checked out the programming classes and saw that I could get a 2 year Associates degree in Web Development & Design. I called that minute and spoke to a counselor who gave me information on how to enroll.
That same week, I learned that there was a bunch of strife between the two owners of the business. One was trying to force the other to sell out her half of the business, and trying to move to Texas without telling anyone. If that wasn’t a sign that I needed a backup plan, I don’t know what was.
Eventually they did me the huge favor of laying me off, which allowed me to get unemployment and go to school.
I started taking classes at PCC. Some were computer specific and some were just basic requirements like math. Now I don’t consider myself a ‘math person.’ My natural tendencies and talents lean towards words and everything to do with them. I’d much prefer to write than to analyze statistics, but I know some people LOVE that stuff. Good for them. However, it’s important to note that I didn’t buy into the bullshit math-is-for-boys trope that so dominates our society.
It turned out that when I applied myself and practiced, I could understand math just fine. In fact, I had gotten into a class that covered two terms worth of information in three terms because my roommate had raved about the teacher (he was amazing) but I found the pace to be too slow. A week into the second term, I went to the person teaching the third term and begged him to let me into his class, promising I would make up the difference.
Thankfully, he agreed and I kept my end of the deal. He was also an excellent teacher. And I actually became someone who my classmates came to for help because I could explain math ‘in English’ in a way they understood.
Several weeks before the end of that class, my mom died from stage 4 colon cancer.
A few days after her funeral, I went in to take my math final and scored 107%.
I tell you this for two reasons:
First, the tech industry likes to promote the idea that programming is some kind of magic ability that you have to have practiced from the time you left the womb in order to do well. This is not true. In fact, my only regret in not changing careers sooner is that my mom would have been unbelievably happy and proud to see the state of my career now, in which I have my own business, have spoken at conferences and directly help people with my work, and I wish she could have seen that while she was alive.
Second, you will face obstacles on your way to changing careers, learning new things and accomplishing your goals. You can use those obstacles as an excuse to quit, or you can do what you have to do to keep moving in the direction you want to go.
My mom lived long enough for me to tell her that I was in the process of applying for a scholarship I had learned about from the Ford Family Foundation. Although I had started with the goal of getting a two year degree, a Ford scholarship pays for 90% of unmet need towards any accredited school in Oregon.
I won the scholarship and that opened up my options considerably. At the time, the industry was pretty firmly divided into developers and designers. I decided to enroll in the Art Institute of Portland’s Web Design & Development program, because it gave me the opportunity to learn both.
There were times during my school career that I honestly wondered if I was ever going to ‘get it’. I vented my frustration to my favorite teacher, and he told me that it would come, just keep at it.
And he was right. Eventually I ended up working as a tutor and helping other people through those frustrating and sometimes steep beginning learning curves.
Oh and I learned what CSS was, and how to use it.
I started an internship at a local agency at the beginning of my senior year and ended up working there part time until graduation. I graduated with honors in September of 2011.
I continued working at the agency for another year and then in January 2013, I started my own business for all the reasons people do such things. Being able to work at home, usually with my trusty purr programming companions, has been immensely helpful for my general mental health, happiness and job satisfaction. I find dealing with the challenges of being my own boss far preferable to dealing the daily microaggressions of working in an office setting in an industry so dominated by white men. I also don’t have to worry about what I say for fear of getting fired.
Here are some other commonly nerdy things I’m into:
- Star Trek: TOS, TNG, DS9, Voyager
- Video Games: Anything original arcade from my youth: Donkey Kong, Frogger, Tetris etc. I will kick your ass at Ms Pac-man.
- Buffy, Angel, Xena (stop laughing), Firefly, Battlestar Galactica
- Everything I know about Dungeons and Dragons I learned from Wil Wheaton.
- I’ve never seen a single episode of Doctor Who.
I tell you this all in fun. After all, I’ve got nothing to prove.
- Pro-tip: If you’re in school, you can receive unemployment without having to search for jobs all the time–but you do have to report your grades. ↩
- I did the extra credit. ↩
- I learned fairly quickly that I don’t enjoy visual design but I’m still glad that my education included it. ↩
- No one cares about your grades. I know this. I probably could have slacked and gotten a lot more sleep, but it’s not in my nature. ↩
This post is part of the thread: Tech Journey – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.