In one of my earliest memories, you are showing my little sister and me a game you are building for a computer science course. Your assignment was to create a game in C++. Being a computer science student, but also a mom, you decided to develop a spelling game that we could play together. Little letters would flash across the screen and the player had to click them quickly to spell out a word before they disappeared across the screen. It was fun!
This was the first time I realized it was possible to build things on the computer—and that my mom knew how. I grew up thinking programming was something cool that Mom does. Dad puts on ties and drives to work. Mom types on her computer to make us fun games.
We were there with you as you made your way through school. I caught little glimpses into the world of computer science. As a Ph.D. student, you were a TA for some classes. I remember one day every childcare option must have fallen through because you did what countless working moms have done before and brought my sister and me with you to work.
We were supposed to quietly draw in the back of the lecture hall. However, it was kind of cool seeing mom at the front of a classroom. I watched as you drew an interesting looking tree on the board, so I drew one too. It wouldn’t be until a decade later that I realized you were talking about data structures—treemaps to be specific.
Over time I realized how few moms—actually how few women—were programming. By the time high school rolled around, I knew my mom was different. Most of my friends’ moms had chosen not to have careers, with the majority working outside the STEM field.
During my junior year of high school, you pushed me to take a computer science course learning to code in Java. I was hesitant, to say the least. The cool kids did not take programming courses. However, by this time you were a computer science professor and you loved your job with a passion I had not seen in any other adult.
College was just around the corner and I wanted to find something I could be passionate about like you.
I was in for a nasty shock. The first day of computer science class was the most confused I have ever been. I was one of two girls. The boys all knew each other from a previous programming course, and they all played video games together after school. I stood out like a sore thumb, and I knew the least of anyone. The teacher started our first class assuming all the students knew what an “if” statement was and how to create a “for” loop.
When he discovered I had none of this knowledge, he asked, “At least you can tell me what a boolean is… right?”
Panic set in. I am the only girl in this class, and I am the dumbest person here. What is the teacher talking about now? Methods? Classes? Everyone can tell I don’t belong.
This should have been the day I quit programming forever. I went home in tears, ready to drop the course. When I got home you were in your typical spot at your desk in the living room, typing away on your computer, doing what you love.
I was ashamed, but I told you everything. I was ready for you to be completely disappointed in me. Instead, you were a little angry. Angry at the teacher, in fact!
You calmly looked me in the eyes and told me I was not dumb. The other boys had already taken a programming course. All the things they knew, I was perfectly capable of learning—and you were going to explain them to me.
We sat down at our kitchen table and went over the basics. This is how an “if” statement works, “for” loops are easy, booleans are just true or false! Everything was logical, and it could not have been more simple.
Things got better after that. I was still behind, I was still one of the only girls, but now I understood that the boys were not smarter than I was. They just had knowledge I did not, but I was going to catch up.
I learned quickly. I loved programming; it just made sense. I could spend hours on the computer working on a homework assignment and actually having fun. If I got stuck and did not feel comfortable going to the teacher, I could just ask you for help.
After the year was over, you helped me find a summer job at your university in the computer science department. I loved taking the train into Chicago walking across the city to my job working with technology. I felt like the coolest and smartest kid alive. I knew I wanted to go into a STEM field and have a job like this as a career.
Fast forward several years, after college, after my first job. I majored in mechanical engineering. While school was fascinating, work after graduation was a massive disappointment. In my first job, I dealt with sexism and sexual harassment on a daily basis. No wonder so many women quit engineering. Beyond that non-trivial issue, I was unhappy with the work I was doing. It was boring and not as technical as I had expected.
I had grown up seeing what it means to love your job, to spend your weekends working because you loved it so much. You had set the bar pretty high! So, not wanting to settle, I quit to find the thing I would truly love.
I started to remember how much I loved programming. I decided to attend a coding boot camp. I remember calling you to talk through this decision and how incredibly excited you were for me. This is how everything came full circle.
Today I’m a software engineer, and I love my career. I would not have ended up here without you as my role model. You have encouraged me, propped me up, helped me find internships and jobs, taught me, and most importantly showed me what a career in software engineering can look like for a woman and a mom.
Thank you for being my role model and showing me how it’s done.