Women in Technology

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My Fabulous Geek Career

by Carla Schroder

Carla Schroder is a self-taught Linux and Windows sysadmin and the author of the Linux Cookbook.

I consider myself to be a born geek. Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to do cool geek things: woodworking, auto mechanics, gunsmithing, electronics—you name it; if it involved building things or taking them apart and putting them back together, that was my heart's desire. I drooled over Shopsmiths, Heathkits, and all the neat stuff in Radio Shack. The most fun in the world to me is understanding how things work and then changing or fixing them.

I didn't become interested in computers until the mid-1990s. My first experience with a computer of any kind was an electronic typewriter. I thought it was the coolest thing there was; it had a little LCD screen that had enough memory for a line of type, so you could type out a line and preview it before it actually hit the paper. That was so inspirational that I started looking at "real" word processors, and I ended up with a Brother machine with a 5" screen that took some weird kind of proprietary removable diskette and that stored files in a proprietary format. I didn't understand then about these issues; I was just tickled to type and preview a whole paragraph before printing it and saving files on disk.

I got a Macintosh LC II from a friend who needed a place to store it, so for a few months it was my Fun New Toy. It was so much fun that I started buying magazines and finding other computer users and learning all that I could. For whatever reason, I never warmed up to the Apple way of doing things, so for my 37th birthday I treated myself to a slightly-used Tandy PC. I had all these Brother disks and files and couldn't use them with my new PC, which was a valuable lesson. (First off, 4 MBs RAM was just plain pitiful, so my first task as a budding PC mechanic was to add more RAM.) I spent a lot of time tearing it apart and learning about all the individual components. I also spent a lot of time marveling at Windows 3.1. (It was a piece of work, and I don't mean that in a good way.) I liked being able to get under the hood and into DOS. I spend most of my time in DOS anyway, because trying to run applications in Windows 3.1 was futile, due to its habit of keeling over and crashing at every opportunity. But DOS was fun—remember gorilla.bas, the DOSSHELL, and Xtree Gold?

Then I discovered the Internet. Getting connected meant installing Trumpet Winsock and cussing your modem into working. We had the cool stuff such as real shell accounts, Bulletin Board Services (BBS), and Multi-User Domains (MUDs) all full of fun online games such as Legend of the Red Dragon, Planets, Dungeons & Dragons, Zork, Rogue, and DragonMUD. It was cool and amazing to talk to people from all over the world on Usenet.

I soon drifted into becoming a freelance computer guru. Whenever people heard that I could make Windows obey—more or less— I was drafted into repairing and helping them with their computers. I probably under-charged for my services, but it was fun. Being a compulsive writer and incurable enthusiast, I started writing about my computer adventures. My very first computer column appeared in Computerbits Magazine, a regional publication based in Forest Grove, Oregon. The magazine has long since ended, but the Internet Archive has preserved my very first article published in September 1995. If you want to embarrass me, read some of those early efforts. (I was also working as a massage therapist then, so those first columns are about computer-related health issues.)

Somewhere around 1997, I discovered Red Hat Linux. If I remember correctly, it was Red Hat 5.0 on a number of diskettes. I was foiled at installing it because it did not recognize my super-duper high-speed Promise Ultra ATA 66 controller. (High speed. Haha. We were so innocent then.) But somehow I got it working, and it was a whole new playground. Then in 1998 I went to work for ZDNet's Anchordesk, and suddenly had access to all of the latest greatest software and gadgets, including newfangled "friendly" Linuxes such as Caldera, Corel, and Mandrake.

I wasn't making much money writing for Computerbits (a whole $75 per article) so my "real" jobs were massage therapist, a short stint as a Microsoft permatemp, then Anchordesk, a couple more years temping for various tech companies, and my consulting work on the side. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get hired on as an IT staffer, even though I was far more knowledgeable and skilled than the men they did hire. If I had a dollar for every time I clued-in the desktop support dude how to fix my work computers, I could retire now.

Even though Computerbits didn't pay all that much in money, it paid off handsomely in visibility and credibility, my writing skills got exercised and improved, and it was fun. We did a weekly radio show that I got to appear on; I switched from health-related issues to Windows and Linux system administration, and somewhere along the way discovered Linux User Groups (LUGS) and a whole worldwide online Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community. I "met" a lot of wonderful people, and also a fair number of world-class jerks. Most of the time I was the only woman in sight; there may have been others, but they weren't telling!

I got tired of trying to get hired as a tech person and once again struck out on my own. I got a big break in 2002. An editor at a large online publication put out a call for authors on one of the Linux lists I visited, so I called him posthaste and forthwith. He was offering enough money to make it quite worthwhile, and he liked my writing, so that was the beginning of a happy partnership. (To this day, we work together, and it is a very good thing.) This led to other writing opportunities, plus some side jobs such as webcasts and playing editor while the real editors were away on vacation. Somewhere in there I also sandwiched in two Linux books for O'Reilly—the Linux Cookbook, and the Linux Networking Cookbook.

It was not always easy; you definitely need a thick skin in the FOSS world. It's a self-selected group, so it's chock-full of mavericks, the socially-inept, just plain trolls, and all manner of folks who don't understand the importance of courtesy and respect. But these are not representative of the excellent people who really do things. The best FOSS people are polite and pleasant. I do not believe that anyone is so invaluable and indispensable that they can be excused from common courtesy. The world itself is full of mean people, and there is no remedy other than learning how to deal with it. Girls are still often raised to be passive doormats, and they are not taught how to set and achieve goals, or that they are even worthy of going after what they really want. There are no shortcuts; all we can do is dig in, do our best, and not allow the naysayers to derail us.

A lifesaver for me was somewhere around 2001 or so when I discovered Linuxchix.org, a worldwide community for supporting women in tech, with only two rules: be polite and be helpful. It's still the most civilized online community there is, and it's a great resource for any women interested in tech. Communities, such as Linuxchix, are invaluable for pep talks, support, making contacts, and learning how to be brave and handle difficult situations. There is power in numbers—don't go it alone! It's too hard and it's unnecessary.

My heartfelt thanks to Paul Heinlein, Michael Hall, Michael Loukides, and the Linuxchix for opening doors and giving me grand opportunities.

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