directions

I keep going back and forth on how focused I want this blog to be. On the one hand, it seems like blogs people actually pay attention to stay mostly on-topic; especially when it is a not very general-interest topic like software usability. On the other hand, I was wandering through the blogotubes the other day and read some things about women in computer science, and, being a woman in computer science, this is topic of some importance to me. One of the persistent problems women in technical fields encounter is “impostor syndrome,” or feeling like they are just faking their way through a field where they don’t really belong. I definitely have personal experience with this feeling, despite the fact that all the evidence from my classes is that I am, in fact, good at programming. And yet, I was not any kind of hacker nerd in high school, I don’t write code recreationally, I’m not a gamer, and I’m not one of the ridiculous whiz kids who can design and analyze an algorithm in their head in the middle of lecture. In fact, probably my weakest point is that I really need to play around with code (or math problems) before I can really get the underlying concepts.

And yes, reading that, I completely understand that that is a ridiculous “weakness” when a significant portion of the students I’ve been a TA for don’t understand the underlying concepts after an entire semester of working with code. And as for not being a proper geek, I taught myself HTML in 8th grade, and CSS in 11th! I was always poking through menus and options and discovering functionality in programs I was using, when most users never realize there are settings they can change. The first time I ever used one of those circular mice Apple thought it would be totally slick to produce, I hated it, and I still flip out over that completely idiotic design decision. People who are not nerds do not care about that.

In other words, it’s just that from the beginning, my geekiness has been design-oriented, not “thrill of coding” oriented. And that’s fine. It’s totally legitimate. But I didn’t feel it, and I still have trouble sometimes. I didn’t participate in any summer research until 2007, I never ran a goddamn internet business in my spare time (I once read a quote from a man responsible for hiring tech people talking about how he only wanted to hire the truly passionate and driven candidates, and that was honestly one of the examples he gave of the kinds of things he wanted to see on the resume, but I can’t find it now). I read posts like this post about the “two types of programmers” and, even though the author later says that the very act of reading a blog like his means you’re in that 20%, it really made me feel like the fact that most of my leisure activities have little or nothing to do with computer science meant I was basically an apathetic mediocre programmer.

Anyway I didn’t really mean for this post to turn into a bunch of stuff about my own insecurities, especially since I’ve been a lot more confident about the whole thing in the last year or two. It helps that I am pretty passionate about HCI and basically since the first time I learned about it I have deeply felt that this is a field where I belong. The point is, though, that I can be and am a talented, qualified (for graduate study at least) programmer. Even though I spend my free time doing things like crafting and cooking and reading novels about relationships and emotions instead of shiny tech and browsing blogs full of cute animals and feminist commentary and playing spider solitaire instead of creating my own toy games*. So, for the sake of all the other women out there who feel like having a life besides tech geek things means they just aren’t good enough, I will not restrict the topics I write about. As my (wonderful, and very aware of gender issues, and the general gap between people who “get” CS and those whose brains don’t follow the patterns of thought nearly as naturally) intro prof used to say, “There’s more to life than computer science.” Even for people who make a living in it. The personal is political!

There’s also the fact that, when it comes down to it, people will pay attention to this blog because of the quality of my thoughts and writing, not because I only ever write about one kind of thing. Maybe that’s part of the trouble. Imagine leaving my success up to my own skill!

* I did create a simple text-based blackjack program in high school, and that was fun. Also I tend to feel incredibly geeky playing spider solitaire because I think about my strategy in terms of algorithms. I’ve decided it’s definitely a game that requires a dynamic programming approach, because I have tried several greedy strategies that turn out to be sub-optimal. But this may just be me justifying my liberal use of the “undo move” button. Without that, the only strategies available are greedy. God, listen to me. I don’t have geek cred?