Today, I will tell you what now seems like an impossible story, but it's a true story. It starts out like "This one time, I was at band camp…" only, it wasn't band camp; it was "computer camp." Summer 1984, I entered an unpopular girl and I left the Belle of the Ball.
In the high desert pines of Mingus Mountain, there was a summer camp—only this one had a few buildings filled with Apple ][es and camp counselors trained to teach programming in BASIC. I scheduled the trip with my Arizona friends, the girls I spent my summers with. Most of them didn't seem to like me much, but it's what we had. I felt like I got ditched in ditchem way more often than the other girls did. We played in the woods a lot and did a lot of rock climbing. Sometimes my cousin would come up and hang out with me. He was the closest friend I had in Arizona.
But he and I used to argue. I liked BASIC; he liked Assembly. He insisted that Assembly was easier. I told him that couldn't be true because it's not even human readable. It was totally normal family drama. We used to play Tunnels & Trolls because unlike Dungeons & Dragons, it had single player rules. At the end of the summer, when we went home, we could still play—even if it was just Choose Your Own Adventure with dice rolls and character sheets. We didn't know anyone else who wanted to play. I was not a popular child.
I was 12 the year I went to summer camp. I was happy that they had Apple ][es. I was happy that they had advanced classes so I might learn something. I was happy that programming had suddenly become the cool thing with my summer friends and we scheduled to go to camp together, 4 or 5 of the girls and 1 of the boys. I used to get in arguments with that boy about who had the better computer—keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak. We carpooled up to the camp, where they assessed our computer knowledge to make sure we were put in the right level of class.
It wasn't my first class. There was a program back home where kids could take programming classes like the ones taught at the university. The first class was in a room with desks in a U shape. To get to the mainframe, you had to type a command to tell the modem what speed to use. No one could figure out how I always got one of the limited number of 400 BAUD modems, since the teacher had a way of blocking computers that logged in before she said "go." I had a secret though. I typed the command in advance, so when she said "go" all I had to do was hit enter while I listened to them furiously typing, groaning when they had to switch commands to take the slower 300 BAUD connections.
I took Intro, then Advanced, then Animation. There were 7 people in the Animation in BASIC class. I was the only girl. It was the only place where boys were nice to me. It was the only place where I felt like someday my prince would come. I did well but I typed slow. We typed in a BASIC program that created LOGO and then we made the turtle move. At home, I programmed Choose Your Own Duran Duran fanfic. Before that, my friends and I had to write our Duran Duran fanfic by hand and pass it around to each other on notebook paper. This was the olden days, remember.
So when I went to computer camp and took the placement test, I placed out of all the classes. It was me and one boy, off in the corner animating with blocks while the rest of the students learned about variables and loops. I don't remember his name. He had brown hair. He was probably a year older than me. They didn't know what to do with us so they just let us do whatever we wanted. What we wanted was to make games.
I still felt out of place. I'd gone to computer camp hoping that I would find people like me to be friends with, even if they were in the wrong state. But they weren't there. They must be somewhere. Parts of the day, I would hang out with the rest of the girls in my age group, including most of my Arizona friends. We never hung out with the boys. We whispered about the boys though, gossiping about which ones were cute.
The last night that we were there, there was a coed dance. All the campers came together for the party, boys and girls of all ages. I'd been to a dance before but the only person who asked me to dance was my dad. As I said, I was not a popular child. I wasn't very pretty either; I was slightly chubby but probably cute. I didn't expect to be asked to dance.
The older boys came in and stood around talking to each other, looking over towards the group of girls. Finally, one broke off from the pack and headed to me. He asked me to dance. I gave a surprised "sure" and then we were the only people dancing.
He said "You're the girl who knows more than the teachers, right?" I said yes. He said "everyone's been talking about you all week, wanting to meet the smartest girl here. I've been wanting to talk to you for days." He was tall. I remember he was tall. I don't remember at all what he looked like, only that my eyeballs were at chest level and I was suddenly happy that I'd been trained to waltz. At the end of the song, he stepped away, and the guy who had walked up next to us took his place. We chatted and when the song ended, the next guy took his place.
This all seemed prearranged and still, no one else was dancing. I counted the boys in the group. I wanted to see how long the line was before they broke off and asked the other girls to dance. That's what I expected them to do. But at the end of the queue, the song ended and the first one came back for a dance.
We talked about programming and school and where I was from. They all wanted to get to know me. I felt like all of the other girls were invisible. Those girls, my friends, who boys had always liked better—it was like they didn't even exist. I was finally a princess, Princess of the Nerds.
I don't remember their names. I'm really bad with names and it was 30 years ago. But I remember they liked me because I was smart, because I was like them. I remember that they made me feel special for who I actually was. I will always remember the night that I was the most popular girl in the room, the one who had so many dance partners that she couldn't sit down, the one with a group that had prearranged a First In First Out queue.
I went home and played Tunnels & Trolls by myself but I smiled.
When I moved to Silicon Valley, I was dating a programmer here. I tried to make it clear to him that I wasn't moving here to be with him. I was moving here because the job market was so much better for programmers, because there are more female programmers here so I wouldn't have so many jobs where guys insisted that I be fired because "girls suck at computers" then secretly come to me for technical help when they couldn't figure out how to do something in code. What I didn't say was that I was moving to the Land of Single Geeky Men. I was moving to the land where I assumed that First In First Out queue had moved. I moved to The Meritocracy.
That illusion has long since been dispelled. I ran for manager of the user group for my programming language and won by a landslide. I'd won because I went up in front of the group and gave them my credentials: I had public speaking experience. I'd written part of a programming book and an article for Sys-Con. I'd managed a radio station and I knew best practices for keeping an audience. I'd lectured before. I was active on the mailing list already and had reigned in several heated debates. My opponent got up after me and pontificated about how much the group had helped him and now he wanted to give back. That was his "qualifications." When people asked followup questions, he politely allowed "Ladies first" then "what she said."
One-third of the regulars stopped coming. I heard one grumble on the way out that I'd stolen the election somehow. One of them made it clear to me that he wouldn't come anymore because "the quality of the group would decline under the leadership of a woman. Women aren't cut out for computer work." I was told by another that eventually, people would realize that I was a fraud and unseat me. At a focus group prior to the launch of a similar programming language, I sat next to one of the members who left. When the company rep asked me what I thought of their proposal, I said that the language seemed to be copying some of the concepts from my existing language and why I thought that those were good concepts to copy: better human readability, common features included as core functionality, less code for more work.
The rep was stunned that I'd figured out what they were doing. They wanted to speak to me afterwards. Then they turned to the guy on my left, who turned to me and took his few minutes to lecture about how stupid women are, how incapable women are with computers, how illogical the female brain inherently is, how they shouldn't listen to anything that I say because woman woman woman woman woman. Then they moved on to the next person.
They apologized to me on his behalf afterwards in the hallway, when I talked to them some more about what I liked and didn't like in their proposal. I gave them some suggestions on other features to include and said that I hoped that parts of it were incorporated into my language so that we could use it too.
I founded the first user group for that language.
I wonder sometimes, where did those guys go? Where are those polite nerds, the ones who saw a smart girl and arranged a queue? Did they turn into the man who complained about me taking over the group two years after I did so? Were they in the room, sitting idly by, appalled? Do they even remember me? I expected them to be here. I counted on them to still exist.
Instead, I get guys who deny that I can be smart or capable; guys who like how smart I am but try to get me fired if I won't go out with them; guys who refuse to interview me for jobs that I'm overqualified for and push me towards jobs that are more typical for women; guys who dangle new language carrots in front of me until a guy comes along to give it to; guys who make it clear in my interviews that they felt that they needed to interview at least one woman; guys who test me on my video game knowledge in interviews; guys who call me a fake geek girl; guys who tell me that I shouldn't be allowed to wear that shirt with that famous programmer who knows who I am; guys telling me that it's impossible for me to be a nerd because I didn't pay my dues by being friendless except for my D&D buddies.
I thought I would be the Belle of the Ball but apparently, I look like The Help.
Where did you go, my precious FIFO queue, my Stack, my Nerd Princes? What happened to you? If you're locked away in a tower, I'll come for you. But I don't think you are. I think you're here somewhere and I hope you're try saving the Princess.
I still have my Apple ][e. I no longer have the delusion of meritocracy.