Women in Technology

Hear us Roar

Proud to be a "Geekette"

by Julia Lerman

Julia Lerman is the leading independent authority on the Entity Framework and has been using and teaching the technology since its inception two years ago. She is well known in the .NET community as a Microsoft MVP, ASPInsider and INETA Speaker. She is a prolific blogger, a frequent presenter at technical conferences around the world, including DevConnections and TechEd and she writes articles for many well-known technical publications.

I recently received a shipment of t-shirts to distribute to the Vermont.NET User group from third party developer tool vendor, telerik. On top of the pile of t's, was a handful of powder-puff blue shirts that said "Geekette" on them (in pink letters) with an image of a little white kitten. Even the cut of the shirt was feminine, not the typical big, baggy men's t-shirt.

A few years ago, I would have probably said something very grown-up like "Oh Barf!" and dug around for something "black and baggy." Instead, I immediately took off the shirt I was wearing, put on this very girly shirt (in a medium, no less, which was definitely not baggy), ran into the kitchen to show my husband and declared, "Look honey, I'm a Geekette!"

I have been thinking about this t-shirt moment and realized that, in a funny way, it reflects that "I've come a long way, baby!" in my 20+ year career as a female software developer.

Although I did take one Basic class in college in the early '80s (a woman's college, so the entire class was female) and discovered a knack for figuring out how to make Lotus 1-2-3 turn me into a hero in the eyes of the corporate comptroller at a job in 1984, my programming career didn't really begin until a few years later when I was working for a small company where someone had left behind a copy of "dBase III PLUS: Advanced Applications for Nonprogrammers." The book encouraged and guided me to start writing code that interacted with data—something that helped me do my current job much more effectively. Little had I known that there was a data geek in me just waiting for such an opportunity to be let loose.

Over the years, I evolved up the XBase path from dBase III to dBase IV to Clipper and then to FoxPro 2.0 when it first appeared in 1991. Until that time, I was on my own as a completely self-taught programmer, had left my last full time job, and was consulting full-time. FoxPro not only brought us Rushmore technology, it introduced me to a whole community of programmers. A very interesting phenomenon here was that a small number of women had risen to the top as mentors and mavens to this community. These women were Pat Adams, Tamar Granor, and Ceil Silver. While Pat was a little intimidating (but still very kind to me), Tamar and Ceil really took me under their wings. Tamar was the editor of FoxPro advisor and even printed my very first article those many years ago. Tamar and Ceil are still prominent leaders in the FoxPro world, and we continue to keep tabs on each other and share our experiences.

Part of the FoxPro community revolved around user group meetings. Developers today, regardless of what tools they use, owe a lot to this community for all of the lessons that have been brought into the developer communities that exist today.

There was one drawback for me at these meetings, however. I was a youngish, single girl living in NYC. I was pretty stylish (those of you who know me today are now doubled over with laughter) and foolishly spent most of my earnings on anything that came from the London clothing designers. I wore heels; I wore skirts; I even wore stockings! I had been interviewed twice by Helen Gurley Brown for their annual article on "what the cosmopolitan girl is up to today" and I could have competed with Carrie Bradshaw with my penchant for expensive shoes. But I was a programmer first.

While I certainly didn't dress up for the user group meetings, I was still an anomaly in the room filled with mostly geeky men. Since this was my first real experience with getting together with a bunch of geeks who had this common interest, I was always excited when someone would come up to chat with me after a meeting. But inevitably, the chat turned from geeky pursuits to an invitation to go on what was very obviously a date.

In an effort to be taken more seriously, it didn't take long for my wardrobe to evolve. I have dressed in baggy t-shirts and jeans for the past 20 years. Fortunately, my interest in cycling got me out of the baggy clothes and into something more flattering long enough to catch the eye of a particular cycler who I eventually married.

I moved to Vermont with my new husband just as .NET came on the horizon. I had transitioned to Visual Basic years prior to this, so .NET was the next obvious step for me. MSDN's Russ Fustino, who worked out of the Boston area office at the time, encouraged me to start a user group in Burlington. (Apparently, he had spotted my "infectious community spirit" that I had brought from my FoxPro experience.) Soon after I started Vermont.NET, I learned about the newly-formed INETA and knew I could help even more developers by working with these other user group leaders. My work with INETA led me to the first conference that I had ever attended where I nearly accosted everyone that I met with my not-so-shy ways. One thing led to another and I started getting to know user group leaders and developers all over the country and then all over the world.

All this, while I was still in my baggy beige and black clothes.

And then I discovered DataGridGirl.com. It was pink. PINK! The whole site declared, "I'm a geek AND I'm a girl. Live with it!" It was run by Marcie Jones (who now has the equally pink site GridViewGirl.com). I was astonished that this new generation of women software programmers were free from the weight of covering up their figures and femininity in exchange for respect as a coder. I attended more conferences and started noticing that there were a lot of brainy women there who were dressed in hip, trendy, and feminine-looking clothes.

In the years since then, I have spent a lot of time talking with a many other women developers—from teens to mothers of teens who have been in the industry long enough to have also experienced feeling the need to cover up their bodies, their giggles, and anything else that might indicate "female." Being too old for "girl" and always way too young for "lady," I have embraced "chick" as my favorite way of referring to myself. I have frequently brought women in IT together at conferences and reveled in watching those who had never had a chance to meet other women developers talk to each other. I also have found some amazing women mentors in the .NET community, and I've tried to be the same for others as well as plenty of guys, too!

And my wardrobe has evolved. I noticed, on a recent trip to speak at a few .NET User Groups in Michigan, that most of the shirts in my suitcase ranged from lavender to purple. I have finally traded in the men's Carhartt workpants I wore for years for some "curvy" low-rider jeans from the Gap, which I actually wear when I'm presenting at conferences—conferences where I get a lot of respect and am taken quite seriously!

While the favorite joke about the advantage of being a woman in IT is that it means shorter bathroom lines at conferences, I do sometimes wonder if I bring something different to the table specifically because I am a woman. I have realized that there is, in fact, an advantage to being different in some noticeable way, as long as I am not exaggerating that difference. Besides enabling me to stand out in a crowd, I admit that I've even played the "hey, don't you need a chick on that speaker list?" card once or twice. While that may help to open a door, proving yourself is what will keep that door open. After so many years of trying to blend in with all of the men in this industry, I finally discovered that having the confidence just to be myself was all that I had needed all along.

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