My 17 year old daughter is a sophomore in college, studying computer science. She is one of <5% in the major who are women, and he loves the work but her male peers make her wildly uncomfortable. She shared an NPR story with me (go listen!) that got me thinking about my own start in the field.
I graduated from high school in 1981. We had a computer area in the student lounge with a couple of TRS-80s. Only a few socially awkward boys used them. That was the era when the computer field was transitioning from a relative balance in genders, including pioneering women, to male domination. (Read or listen to the NPR story for why–it is not that women aren't good at it). I had no interest in computers at that time.
I have two men to thank for changing my mind.
Between my freshman and sophomore years in college I worked as a girl friday (yes, we still had those then) at a small architectural firm called Peter Woll Architects. It was in NYC, across from the Brooklyn Bridge on Dover Street, near the Fulton Fish Market. This is what it looked like then. Drafting was all done by hand still and the firm was a very early adopter of CAD. Peter Woll gave me the job of implementing the system. The most difficult, and fun, part of the project was physically connecting the necessary pieces of technology–one might call it networking, but not in any way we'd recognize today. I spent many hours at Cables & Chips, which I am trilled to discover still exists! At that time, it was located on the second floor of a tiny building in the fish market (get the pun?). I'd walk up the steps, slippery with fish scales, and have a long conversation with someone who would hand solder whatever I needed. It usually took a few times before the component would work properly. In retrospect, I don't know if Peter figured that there was minimal risk in giving me this assignment since I wasn't earning much or whether he had some intuition that I'd be good at it. Regardless, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity and for the perspective that early experience gave me: the best way to approach new technology is to try it. I gained a level of comfort and confidence in dealing with technical unknowns which has been invaluable, particularly as a non-technical person in the field. Thank you Peter.
The second thank you goes to Dr. Jonathan Baron. In my sophomore year in college, I took a cognitive psychology course with him. Dr. Baron was doing work related to that of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversy, who were pioneering behavioral economics. I was fascinated by the coursework and did very well, and Dr. Baron gave me a job as a research assistant. There were Commodore 64s in his lab, and I taught myself to program, consolidating data from a very large study of Alzheimer's Disease using cassette tapes as storage medium. I loaded the data into the University's DEC VAX and taught myself SAS from a manual so I could run multivariate regression analyses. This all seemed natural at the time, but after listening to the NPR story, I realize that it is extraordinary that Dr. Baron gave me, a girl, this project.
Flash forward 30 years, and I have had a successful career in technology, the last 20 at the helms of a series tech companies, a role that is held <5% of the time by a woman. I don't think any of that would have happened without Peter Woll and Jonathan Baron. I hope that there are many men like them today, assuming that a girl or young woman can do it, and giving them the shot.
p.s. My 14 year old daughter, after reading this, said " Wow Mom, you sure did get a lot of lucky breaks in your career." Yep.
I've started and/or run too many venture capital-backed software companies, plus one ill-fated food startup.