Ada Lovelace Day 2011

I had this in the back of my head all week, but never really put any deep thought into it. So this morning I was stumped. Writing about Mom and technology would take more time/energy than I have right now; I realized that I had exactly two female math or science teachers – 6th grade math, 7th grade computers – and while that 7th grade computer class was…interesting…I didn’t have much to say about her either. (As in: I don’t remember her name, even!)

One of the things keeping me busy today was preparing to be gone from work for a while, and one of the things I’m going to be gone for is the Pacific Northwest Drupal Summit. So as I was going over what I need to take from the office, I realized: webchick! (Angie Byron, but in the Drupal community, she’s pretty much always known as webchick.)

Even with that, I’m still a bit frantic to write anything terribly good. All I’m going to say right now is that I admire her a great deal as a programmer, a communicator, and a community leader, and frankly, as just a really nice person. So yay webchick!

Here’s her website, and here’s my crummy notes from her keynote at last year’s summit, which was fantastic. (Yes, she signed my copy of Using Drupal. So did Nathan Haug.)

the curmudgeons

Once again it took me a while to figure out who to write about for Ada Lovelace Day. I ended up musing on three women who I came to know through blogging who felt to me like a group of some kind. In my head (and on Twitter) I ended up with the label “curmudgeon.” But seriously, I mean that in a good way; they’re all hella smart and very clear-eyed about the world.

All three have been working in technology for quite a while, and have shifted their skills as the world shifted. I admire that ability to be flexible and to keep learning. All three have written about the wider world beyond the specifics of tech, and very eloquently. I have to say that they don’t necessarily make it look easy, but something about that is reassuring to me: the honesty of life’s struggles is worth showing.

Their blogging — and friendship-at-a-distance — has been a huge influence on me over the last 8 or 9 years. Oddly enough, none of them are blogging very frequently now, at least not at the venues where I originally found them. But they’re all still doing interesting things.

Shelley Powers – Shelley was one of the first bloggers I read regularly, and I got my sea legs in commenting through the interesting discussions on her blog. She’s an outstanding photographer, in addition to being a great experimenter with web technologies and a clear and engaging writer. She gave me my first opportunity to be a tech reviewer on her book Adding Ajax, and it was such a great experience that I’ve done it for four other books. (Actually, that reminds me: I have chapters of the upcoming JavaScript Cookbook to read through!) She’s been a thorn in the side of the HTML5 process, which in general strikes me as a good thing, among other things advocating for SVG & RDF. Shelley hasn’t been blogging much lately, but she’s still on Twitter quite a bit.

Dorothea Salo – I started reading Dorothea’s blog about the same time as Shelley’s. I think she was still a “conversion peasant” at the time, before going to library school. Actually, that’s one of the things I love about Dorothea: she has a way of coining exactly the right quirky word or phrase. See also: grunchy, repository rat, beating things with rocks. She’s had the boldness to go into what looks like a difficult corner of the academic library world, and to make a name for herself in it by saying difficult things that needed to be said. (I imagine she’d call it bullheadedness, but whatever.) Her blog, when she was writing it, took on all comers, and had a strength of voice that I still think fondly of. Watching her “beat things with rocks” has been a source of reassurance when I’ve encountered technical problems. I’ve learned about things that are way out of my usual areas of expertise, plus I’ve internet-met lots of fascinating librarians. On a personal level, she was very supportive when I was going through an incredibly difficult period of my life, and I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked her properly. She gave up her personal blog a while back, but she blogs about technology in research and libraries for ScienceBlogs at The Book of Trogool. She’s also active on Twitter and FriendFeed.

Dori Smith – Dori, like Shelley, has been a strong and consistent advocate for increasing the presence and visibility of women in technology. She’s also a great tech writer and speaker. Plus she’s written several books with her husband — a feat of collaboration that I admire. It’s definitely not easy working with the person you also live with! And Dori is the one of these three that I’ve met in person, which has been awesome. In 2008, we had this incredible long conversation at SXSW 2006, or rather, on the sidewalk in the middle of the night. In 2009, same thing, but in the hall in the middle of the afternoon, the kind of smart, thoughtful, engaged conversation as if we’d been friends for years, and a little bit like a big sister. (Oh, and I still owe a review of JavaScript & Ajax!) Dori still blogs every so often, and can also be found on Twitter.

* In looking up the “curmudgeon = frustrated idealist” idea that I got from Joe Clark (2nd to last paragraph of that post) aeons ago, I found a comment quoting the same on Shelley’s blog. From 2007…referencing a post of mine from 2003. Crazy.

** I just looked up last year’s post…and noticed that I mentioned Shelley, Dorothea & Dori as people I’d been thinking about writing about! I guess if the idea stuck for a whole year, it was definitely worth acting on. I guess that means next year I write about Mom? (Actually, I’m thinking about Webgrrls/Digital Eve.)

Ada Lovelace Day

I’ve had this pledge in the back of my head for a while now, and been hopelessly indecisive about how to handle it.

Do I write about an early influence: Mom, who went back to school to learn laser technology or the teacher of my 7th grade “computer” class? (TRS-80 programming FTW!)

Someone famous? Everybody and their cousin is likely to write about Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, Heddy Lamar, etc.

One of the blogger women who I admire so? I stand in awe of the fierce voices of Dorothea Salo, Shelley Powers, and Dori Smith in particular…and these three women have also been wonderful internet friends.

But I find myself gravitating towards someone who taught me probably the most important lessons I ever learned about computers — and who I wouldn’t mind finding again, should she ever happen to Google her name: Mona Janson.

My first full-time job was at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma. I started as a work-study, and then stayed on full time for about a year after graduation. It was the first place where I ever worked with computers, and working there taught me two important things: don’t be afraid, and always be learning.

One of my co-workers was a middle-aged woman who’d been at the museum I think since it was founded or shortly thereafter. Mona had a high school education, three teenage sons, and an amazing artistic gift. No, she was not a technologist, but she was always learning, and she was pretty damn fearless about it.

I learned Access one summer, just by sitting and reading the manual, because she wanted to try replacing her paper class reservation booking system. It didn’t quite work out the way either of us wanted, but she was game to try it out, and to tell me what might work better.

We both taught ourselves Publisher at about the same time, to make little fliers and mailers; I ended up working on the museum’s newsletter, which was my first big foray into graphic design. (Why yes, I was that secretary with Publisher who thought she could design. It was the start of a fantastic learning journey.) I think Mona helped teach me Dorothea’s “beat it with rocks” philosophy: just keep trying stuff until something works.

And she was part of one of my early horrific computer disasters, which was its own excellent learning experience.

The museum was moving to a new location: right next door, as it happened. We all worked like crazy, until we were pretty much wiped out. Mona and I were setting up the office computers — we’d gone from one old box with Windows 3.11 to two or three computers, including IIRC one with the OMG new! Windows 95 — and we were getting the last one in at the reception desk in the basement office. The desk had one of those holes for routing the power cables, and it was not quite big enough. So Mona went to get the drill, and I fired it up, and both of us had forgotten that the machine was still hooked up to the power.

Yeah. Smoke, sparks, and the computer didn’t start again. I was mortified. After all, it’s not like the museum had a lot of money or computers. (This also followed the great ampersand disaster, in which I learned my lesson about replace all.) But Mona, along with everybody else, had a great sense of humor about it, and the dead computer went off with the nickname “Sparky.”

(Years later, I learned that C had ended up with the computer, via a friend who worked with me, and it wasn’t as much of a lost case as we’d thought. He said it was a sturdy little 486.)

Mona & I stayed friends for a while after I left the museum; for a few years, she played D&D with me, C, 2 of her kids, and one of their friends. It was great fun, especially the nights when we played in the museum after hours. She left the museum eventually too, and moved to Canada, and I haven’t heard from her in years. But I still feel inspired by her curiosity, energy and perseverance.