This is Ada Lovelace Day. I got the best possible reminder of that, this morning, from my dear friend Catherine Tuxbury. The folks who organize and promote this celebration encourage all of us to post today “about a woman in science, technology, engineering or maths whose achievements you admire.” And Cathy chose me for her contribution this year. I am flattered beyond belief.
This got me thinking about my own technology mentors and realizing that none of them were female.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly have had strong female role models in my life including my mom, Elizabeth Gunn. And I have learned many lessons from the women with whom I have worked over the years.
But when it comes to mentors in the field of technology, the most influential ones happen to have been men.
Lee Holtz taught my drafting class when I was a senior in high school. He was a fun and encouraging teacher. It wasn’t until many years later that he admitted to me I was the very first female student he had ever had. I would never have guessed. He made me welcome in class and even on the big multi-day field trip we all took to Havre, just like I was a regular person.
Darryl Hagan was my second boss out of college. (Pity the poor first boss, for whom I lasted a total of three weeks.) I was back in Montana, trying to figure out what to do with myself. I wanted to try being a short-order cook; the aura of controlled chaos really appealed to me. Hagan managed a group of programmers at the Montana Highway Department. Some friend of his at the Department of Workforce Services sent him my resume and Hagan sweet-talked me into working for him as a programmer. I didn’t like working for a state agency; I did like working for Hagan, who was smart and funny and a straight shooter who always did his best for each person working for him. And he gave me my very first opportunity to work on a big database design project. I probably owe it to him that I have spent my whole adult life in the software industry.
But my most important technical mentor and role model has been my good friend Tom Lahey.
I first got to know Tom when I worked at DTSS, one of the pioneer computer timesharing companies. I was the junior tech support person, working the phones in New Hampshire. Tom was the veteran Fortran developer, living in California, with sons almost my age. The customer was a subsidiary of the French telephone monopoly. They were rolling out the pilot deployment of a consumer-focused video and information sharing service that foreshadowed the world wide web but predated it by a full decade. We all worked together, but remotely, off and on for months trying to diagnose and correct some serious but intermittent performance problems. Tom had a brave, honest approach to technical problem solving: Don’t waste time and energy pointing fingers. Keep trying. Own the problem and assume the defect is in your own part of the system until proved otherwise. Keep on trying. Laugh once in a while. This approach has paid dividends for me in every year of my career, on problems technical and not.
Tom’s also been a huge role model for me as a software developer and entrepreneur. He spotted and took seriously the emerging personal computer trend much earlier than a lot of mainframe developers did. He bet his very small company on publishing the first Fortran compiler for the IBM PC. His company got much bigger after that. And he generously shared parts of the whole remarkable journey with a group of friends and advisors in which I was included.
I truly support the aim of Ada Lovelace Day. We should, indeed, give our heroines the credit they deserve. We should, indeed, do what we can to build up the next generation of heroines.
But I do want to point out that mentors and role models come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. And so do their mentees. The gifts my mentors gave me:
- taking me seriously when it would have been easy not to,
- seeing the potential for work and achievement I had not yet begun to consider, and
- putting in the effort to be demanding and hard-nosed when it would have been easier to let things slide
need to be passed along generously and evenhandedly. As potential mentors, we need to make sure aren’t just looking for the young ones who look or seem like us. Thank goodness my mentors did not.