My Computer Science Education through Rose-Colored Lenses
A snapshot years around polite goths, paper clips and the ultimate cheesy poof.
One late afternoon long, long ago I put on my coat and headed to my on-campus job at the computer lab. The campus of my state school was out in semi-suburbia close to Princeton. To be honest it was bucolic and bit boring; people were always taking the train to New York or Philadephia on weekends, including me. While on my way to work I saw two figures in the distance and knew immediately that they were two of my co-workers. I never knew what to expect from the two trench-coated guys in heavy black boots, and instead of passing me with a wave this one time they stopped. One of them politely tipped his top hat towards me, while the other gave a very formal bow. Then they walked away.
My job at the lab was technically a rotation between one of 3 labs in the computer science building: the Mac lab, the Sun lab, and the mulit-tiered hodgepodge of a lab that was always nice and dark, the way teens and young adults like dark and cozy places.
I remember the campus job interview. I was majoring in English at the time, but when I saw the flier or whatever it was that drew me to try and get the job I was drawn by the idea of sitting and doing homework while getting paid to occasionally answer questions. I told the guys interviewing me that I knew UNIX and that basically got me the job without too much else asked.
The lab station I sat at had a box of paper clips solely for the purpose of ejecting disks from the Mac computers manually (the eject command never seemed to work). In 1999 I thought Macs were temperamental, odd and irritating. My macbook now is such an amazing improvement over what I remember it makes me truly believe that evolution is an amazing thing.
The Sun machines were our reminder that out in California the geeks of Silicon Valley were working away on new and innovative things. The computers were weird to outsiders and nobody except the computer science majors would use them so it felt like a safe space with no windows to be loud and turn all the lights off and code in Java until midnight while talking, eating chips and occasionally browsing Netscape to search for answers.
I switched to computer science as a result of two events that confluenced into a decision to back out of English. During the middle of my freshman year the faculty of the English department decided to have a gathering for us called “What can you do with an English degree”. Apparently not too much, from what I recall of the stories shared at the time. You’ll never make much money was the gist of it, which for someone like me that had a dream of living in New York City after graduation and paying for my own apartment didn’t sound too good. But it wasn’t the stories so much as the sentiment, I felt that the particular group was just negative and bitter. At nearly the same time, I had numerous friends in the computer labs telling me to switch to computer science. “You’ll love it”, and “It’s fun”, and “We need more females and you’re already interested”.
One of the classic points of knowing you’re headed down the path of being technical is what I like to call the won’t give up mentality. In the beginning, it’s very tempting to ask someone why something isn’t compiling or working properly to immediately ask for help. After awhile, you RTFM. You have other people peer in at your work and tell you that you forgot a semi-colon but then push them away and say I’ve got it and repeat and repeat until it feels just right. You stay up all night and realize you’re stuck and ask someone else to look at what you’ve done.
I felt in the computer science department when I was there studying and working. I don’t remember anyone talking about making big bucks at a tech company. There was a young woman in my department that got an internship at NASA. The professor that taught cryptography switched from music while studying at Carnegie Mellon. My senior advisor encouraged me and my partner to pursue clustered computing.
I struggled with linear algebra and calculus after not concentrating on math at all in high school. I was encouraged. I felt like I was getting somewhere, a somewhere that would lead to graduating and getting paid work; I’d be independent. I remember one small group that was in the compilers and interpreters class left a poster in the corner of the Sun lab. It was labeled “The Ultimate Cheesy Poof.” I suppose I’m writing all this to say that I was fortunate that I was surrounded by female mentors and young male colleagues that didn’t harass me and encouraged me to learn.