Happy Ada Lovelace day! Technically that's in about half an hour as I write this in the UK but as I'm speaking at FOWA tomorrow morning, I will post this now before I get distracted. Ada Lovelace day is a day of celebrating women in science and technology, and one of the best ways to celebrate those women is to tell their stories. Every year, many woman will tell the story of a woman who has inspired them - you can find more stories on the FindingAda site.
This is a post in celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, recognising women in science and technology. Last year I wrote about Kathy Sierra for Ada Lovelace Day; this year my subject is someone much closer to my own life.
I'd like to write about someone who influenced me greatly - in my choice of study and in my attitude to the gender imbalance in that area and in the industry in which I now work. Mrs Maginnis taught me advanced maths when I was 16-18, and making decisions about my next move. I was educated at an all-girls grammar school, which in some ways was an advantage. The experience of those all-female maths classes taught me a lot about how different women are when they meet their individual challenges in the company of one another.
The classes were very tough academically (as they should be!), and I did struggle during the course. At the start of the summer holiday, Mrs Maginnis handed me a textbook with a list of questions to try, and her phone number. All summer I wrestled those questions, with the occassional phone call for help. I went back to school, completed the year, and left the following summer with two A grades in A-level maths - undoubtedly because of the help and support I had been given by this one teacher. Those two A grades landed me my first choice of university place - I thanked her and off I went.
However, the strong influence of this character has stayed with me long since the memorable day I opened the results envelope. I was headed for a course in Electronic Engineering and Mrs Maginnis had been a Mechanical Engineer herself and I think had a good idea of what lay in store for me. The thing is - I was educated entirely with women ... I genuinely did not know that there were subjects that girls just don't do. So when I arrived at university with my academic grades from the all-girls school, I was confronted by a course that was 95% male and contained mostly people with grades at least as good as mine and usually including more practical subjects such as Electronics, which I hadn't had the opportunity to study. So it was a struggle from that point of view.
The teacher who had, on paper, taught me maths, had in fact taught me so much more. Even now I sometimes remember stories, anecdotes, and advice that all drifted across the classroom along with the hyperbolic functions and calculus (which is a much more distant memory now). She had been an engineer herself, and through her stories she showed us all how it would be done, something on what to expect and some tips on how to handle it. Even now I don't think I've had a stronger female role model for industry - and she managed all this from academia, when I was a teenager. So - I raise my glass to Mrs Maginnis. Thankyou for all you taught me.
In honour of Ada Lovelace Day, this is a blog post about a woman I admire in technology: Kathy Sierra.
I've been a big fan of Kathy's site for a number of years, hers was the first site I saw where eloquent prose was wrapped around technical and relevant content. I've widened my reading list since that day but it made a big impression then, and re-reading the articles now it is clear I still have plenty to learn from them. Kathy's blog Creating Passionate Users is stuffed full of great articles, and I prescribe all of them as good reading if you have the time. There are some gems in there though, that have completely shaped my own attitude to my profession and learning - its tough to pick favourites, but I would like to give mention to Angry/Negative people can be bad for your brain, the true but unchangeable When only the glib win, we all lose and of course Code like a girl.
A while after I started reading the blog, I started to hear more about Kathy Sierra herself and some of the things she's done in her career - and its pretty impressive reading. She started her career in the fitness industry but with a strong interest in how the brain processes information she moved over into writing games. As a master trainer at Sun (wow!) she developed more ideas about learning and went on to co-found the Head First books. These are technical books with a very visual style, different from the drier offerings we usually see on software topics. Kathy also founded JavaRanch and is now a popular speaker across the technical conference circuit, inspiring many.
From the article so far, you can see why I name Kathy Sierra as an influence for me as a woman in technology - she has achieved so much and shared knowledge with so many. However, there's another reason I hold Kathy in my mind. Almost exactly two years ago, she cancelled a speaking engagement at ETech following her reciept of threats of violence (including sexual violence). Her blog hasn't had another post since her post regarding that episode. There was a virtual storm when it happened, with some very strong opinions on both sides of the fence - I even blogged about it myself at the time. Two years on, no more inspirational blog posts for me to read and my sense of injustice is as strong now as it was then. I also have this dark sense of vulnerability. I'm a woman in IT; I speak, I blog. I'm visible and one day I hope I'll be successful - and of course I'll always get comments made to me that are inappropriate, offensive and intended to hurt. That's the price of being female and visible online, and the "pix pls" thing comes with the territory. But to be simultaneously female, popular, and successful in an online field ... lets just say I've had my eyes opened to the dangers if I ever manage more than one of those.
I'll wrap up by thanking Kathy for all her excellent writings, hopefully one day I will see her speak but already I've been educated and inspired. I wish I hadn't also learned the darker things from her experience, but they're definitely secondary and came along helpfully early in my career. Kathy Sierra is my inspirational woman in Technology - who is yours?