In 2012, Ellen Lapham, Carol Muller, and Kathy Richardson set out to memorialize the spirit of inspiration that their close friend Anita Borg brought to their lives. The original project, a community blog known as Anita’s Quilt, showcased the array of people whose lives Anita influenced and energized. This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Systers—the online community that Anita Borg founded to support women in tech—by republishing some of our favorite Anita’s Quilt stories.
A version of this post was published on Anita’s Quilt on September 5, 2014.
The first and last time I cried over a computer was in the fall of 1996. It was toward the end of the semester, during my junior year at the University of Maryland. I was a recent computer science convert who had dashed away from mechanical engineering in search of better fortune.
Even though I had a passion for code, I didn’t know it was possible to pursue a degree in computer science. I spent much of my childhood tinkering with computers, attending computer camp, and writing countless infinite loops in BASIC that sprayed “Hi Mom” over the black-and-white monitor. But I had always believed that programming was simply a tool used by engineers to get the “real work” done.
I found myself complaining to a good friend about how miserable I was as an ME major. He suggested that I try his major, computer science. “You like computers, right?” he asked. “Why don’t you try that? Plus it’s way easier than engineering.”
Those words were like music to my ears and the next day I found myself apologizing to my engineering advisor and hugging my new CS advisor as I signed up for this new world in computing. My friend’s statement of “easier” was quickly proven very wrong.
I found myself toiling during many nights in computer labs, sitting in study groups, and playing catchup to younger counterparts who started off as computer science majors. (Apparently, they already knew it existed.) It was on one of those long evenings, when sleep was a mere privilege and not a requirement, that I had broken down. My final semester project, written in C++, had decided that the only way it would run successfully was if there were strategically placed debug statements printing in the code. To even the casual programmer these were completely unnecessary statements that printed out a basic comment such as “Line 1”. But they needed to be in the code at certain places in order for it to run successfully. If I removed them, the program crashed.
My assignment was already 36 hours late and time was creeping towards the final deadline of 48 hours, after which I would receive an F in the course. Now most would think, okay, were your grades so in the weeds that by missing this project you’d get an F? Not at all! I wasn’t the best student, but I definitely wasn’t failing. However, at the time Maryland had a policy that all projects needed to be turned in or else the student received an automatic failure for the entire class. (“Easier than engineering,” you say?)
So there I sat, looking at a program that refused to work without printing countless lines of unnecessary debug. Exhausted, confused, and defeated, I began to cry. I cried over the imminent doom of receiving the first failing grade of my life. I wanted so badly to be successful in this newfound career! Even though I felt defeated by this particular project, I didn’t want it predicting the path of my life. Computer science was the one thing that made sense to me. I absolutely loved programming, and my career path was very clear. Even in my moment of despair, I still felt passionate about the ability to create in this medium. And despite my tears, I knew that this was where I needed to be and where I wanted my life to go.
Finally I decided to give myself 3 minutes to cry. Then I wiped my tears and realized that I needed to take control of my destiny and fight for my passions. I knew I was not meant to succumb to the system and fall through the cracks.
I saved my program, marched down to the CS department, and showed the professor my dilemma. After my program worked its way up the tenured faculty chain, it reached the dean. After reviewing my code in depth, the dean decided he had no clue why those print statements couldn’t be removed. I was allowed to submit my program as operational, a mere hours away from the deadline.
And never again would I cry over code. Never again did I look at these boxes we call computers and think that they were something I couldn’t control. And from that day on, I realized that the power of my passion and determination was more than enough to carry me over the low moments, and to propel me past things that seemed like insurmountable obstacles. It was a lesson that helped me to never settle for anything less than what I am passionate about, and a lesson translated to a larger lesson for navigating my career.
Fast forward 12 years. I find myself working successfully as a consultant, facing new roadblocks in my progress. Budget cuts and a shrinking marketplace for Java-based projects in Maryland forced my company to place me on a project that — although it had all the promises of upward mobility towards management — touched on none of the areas I was passionate about. For a few years, I started to feel behind the technology curve. Even though I voiced my concerns to management, there was no real effort to provide the training or the opportunities I needed to be successful. I knew I was reaching a crossroad.
The need to conquer code seemed long forgotten. At this point, I had worked on many successful projects and delivered countless applications and enhancements. But now the battleground had shifted from fighting for my degree to fighting for the direction of my career. Would I follow the current and coast towards a potential place in management, leaving my passion to code behind? Or would I go against the grain, fearlessly navigate the waters, and fight to work in the areas that I fell in love with so long ago?
My decision was made when reading an article about Spring Framework and Hibernate. It was 2008, and I had never heard of either, yet they were mainstays in the Java world. I felt just as lost as I did with that program back in college. But instead of shrinking back and accepting that my time had passed, I decided that my time had actually come.
Now I am living out one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The choice to step out to find a simple developer position was risky, and — to some of my colleagues — crazy, considering the poor job market. It was seen as a huge risk, especially since a lot of my skills were lagging behind those of other candidates. But once I showed my passion for code, my determination to be successful, and my willingness to learn, I was able to attract a company that wanted to invest in me as much as I wanted to invest in myself. When one company dropped the ball, I was more than happy to allow another one to pick it up and run with it. And now, 5 years later, I am happier than ever doing the thing that I cried about, more than 17 years ago.
My mantra, then as now, is to never settle for anything that stands between you and your goals, your dreams, and your aspirations. Don’t blindly follow a path just because there’s a perception of what you should do next. If it takes you against the current or drives you towards the wind take the chance. The great news is that it’s your career! Do with it what you will. Allow nothing to stand in your way of your passion. Never settle for anything less than that.
Do you have a story of persistence that honors Anita’s legacy? Share it with us for a chance to be featured here.