How to Quit the Field of Computer Science

Me at 19 in 1994.

Part One

Last night I spent 3 hours blissfully designing in an uninterrupted flow. It reminded me just how much I love my escape valve into the arts from CS and Engineering. As of late, my exhaustion with some of the nastier parts of my field have left me asking why I do this again. This has sparked me thinking about the ping pong relationship I have with the sciences.

Sadly, the tales in this series will get more and more depressing and noxious as I go. These posts are going to be dark. I’m not going to sugar coat the reality of my industry. I hope to document some of what I have been though to offer some solace to others going through it. I have no answers.

If you are a man and you ask me, with completely good intent, “How do we get more women into the field?” my answer is this. Stop what is happening to me from happening over and over again to woman after woman. Why are you asking me this when you’re the one with the power to change the system? Take responsibility.

When you hear a man say sexist things, do not argue, “But he’s a nice guy. He doesn’t mean anything by it.” Yes he does. Stop him and tell him he’s being inappropriate. Refuse his company and shun him. He means to harm. If you’re in a position of power, fire him. He and others like him are why you have so few women on your team.

The first time I left the field was in college. I was proceeding down the narrow path I had been set upon by my grades. While I also had perfect mark in the arts, when my guidance councilor saw my ACT scores and the fact I had the highest grade you could get in my physics AP class, I was encouraged into Math and Science credits. I was informed, much to my horror, I didn’t even need to take any humanities classes because I’d completed all the ones I would need in high school if I did a Science degree. He completely disregard the fact I had an interest in drama, art and had spend all but one year of my schooling learning to play instruments. I had been the editor of the literary magazine and this was reflected on my transcript as a special honor. Why would you encourage a smart person into the humanities? Those classes were for the dumb kids, right?

I started off exploring. Astronomy, which I’d always fostered a childhood passion for, was my first stop. Taught by a man who they pulled out of a crypt to teach, it was so boring I often wished the red shift would begin. I almost failed geology out of total lack of interest even though the professor was a nice guy. My stats class was sleep inducing and led by a man with voice so bland all the words sounded exactly the same. I honestly went to class every single day like this cat.

None of these classes presented their material connected to the reality I lived in. No one gave me interesting problems to solve. More importantly, I had so many friends I could count them on one hand. I had met one cool woman in Astronomy and two nice Math post grads. Three friends! This was the rocking college experience right here!

Next up on the atlas of exploration was Computer Science. I had loved programing throughout childhood and had written computer games and graphics in my free time. This was my jam! I walked into the door knowing how to deal with memory issues, display graphics, animate and make games. I had learned Basic as a kid and poked at Assembly. We were trying to learn C, a language I now teach and love. I was the only girl in the room. The teacher was a women. I was so psyched. She had no idea how much power she held over me in that hour being the only women I had had as a professor. Unfortunately, this would be the first time I encountered how deeply awkward a situation like this can be. She called on me constantly. Having been in classes where I was completely ignored, now the polar opposite was the case. The class was terrifying and I spent the entire hour as alert as possible to not be humiliated for not knowing answers. Maybe she was preparing me? Maybe she was warning me? Maybe she was trying to make me feel welcome? I do not know. All I remember was just being scared for an entire class once a week.

Because I couldn’t afford a computer, I worked on my homework in the labs. Late at night after I got of work they were just terrifying. Most of the time I’d leave alone after being in a atmosphere where guys eyed me like candy clutching my pepper spray on my walk home. I could of honestly not come up with a more uncomfortable atmosphere if I had tried. About half way through the class, my friend from Astronomy took pity on me and lent her laptop so I could pass the class. The problem? It didn’t run Unix and there was no support for how to compile on other platforms in my class. This was 1993— information online was very scare and searching was a slow, laborious process. There was no Google.

I went from having a 3.8 in high school to scraping a 2.0 over night. I started to write for the school paper and I threw myself into it. Any chance at all to be connected to reality in any way was a welcome reprieve. Also, as a result of trying to figure out how to compile for windows, I began in to get deeply involved in this emerging technology called the net no one ever talked about. I spent hours playing games and talking to people in the UK and CA about music. I started to teach myself the technology behind these systems and what would be a life long process of being into tech so new I had to figure it out on my own began.

Finally, I hit my breaking point of dullness around the middle of year 2. I went to take a class I didn’t even need to take. I took something I’d loved as a kid, European Drama. It was a revolution. There were women on the other side of the campus. They were nice! I was greeted by fellow students at the doors. People talked about the material outside of class and how it connected to our lives. I fell in love instantly. Plays about Surveillance, crime, poverty and rebellion had my imagination completely. This prompted me to start my own city cable access show and I began making short videos using equipment owned by the city. I started trading tapes with creators I was meeting online and following groups where I was chatting with people like Miranda July and Chris Gore.

That was the first time I promptly exited STEM stage right.

Professor, CS PhD researcher, game company owner, artist, programmer, game designer, activist + lunatic extraordinaire.

Professor, CS PhD researcher, game company owner, artist, programmer, game designer, activist + lunatic extraordinaire.