Where’s my damn role model? by Troutgirl got me thinking about my own role models. I struggled early in my career as a woman in a male-dominated field. I loved writing software, but pursued it in college as a practical fall-back to my other love of studio art. I felt that I didn’t fit in and it took me a long time to acknowledge that I really did love the work. I was put off by the guys who would stay up all night configuring their X-windows settings. Despite doing well in my classes, it always seemed to come easier to the guys. In retrospect, I realized it was this alpha-geek thing to just act like was easy after solving the problem. All of my professors and most of the students in my classes were men. I was lucky to find myself starting a company straight out of school with a few of my best friends (all of them men). They never made me feel less capable because of my gender, but like an odd fish and I certainly didn’t have any female role models there.

As I transitioned from one job to the next, I found few women to work with. Even in my 20s, most of the women were less senior than I was or in less technical roles (program mangers, QA engineers, marketing). I became an evangelist for hiring women and gave talks to groups of women about becoming a software engineer. In the early days of the web, there was (and still is) tremendous opportunity to get into the field, even with little or no experience. I settled into a routine of being a female role model while never really having one.

Despite the scarcity, I relentlessly sought contact with women and generally was well-recieved. When Betsy Nelson became CFO of Macromedia and I was one of hundreds of engineers at the company, I asked her to lunch which she accepted without question. Even though her work was completely different from mine, it was great to hear her story of how she got to be where she was. I sought advice from Mary Furlong, founder and CEO of Third Age Media. I met Anita Borg at a SFWoW event. From these women and others, I learned that I should “just do it,” that success comes from pursuing what I am interested in, from writing about it and speaking about it. I learned to suspend disbelief. Like my love of jumping off high cliffs into water, I took on challenges despite my fear.

Since I didn’t find women engineers for role models, I picked men as mentors. Harry Chesley, a colleague at Apple and my first manager on the Shockwave project at Macromedia, taught me all about the Internet. He de-mystified the protocols and, through his story-telling, I learned more of the history of the net and computing. I learned that all of this technology that seems so rigid and official was just made up by a bunch of folks who were seeking to solve a specific problem and some of their choices were better than others, some well-thought-out, some based on strange techno-belief-systems, and some truly arbitrary. He also demonstrated a genuine love of writing software, but not to the exclusion of other parts of his life. I remember one Friday when we were at Apple and another engineer really wanted to Harry to add a specific feature and suggested that he just do it over the weekend, to which Harry responded by holding up a photograph and saying, “if I do that, it means that these two little girls won’t get to play with their daddy this weekend.” I don’t remember whether he actually added that feature, but I’m sure he spent at least part of the weekend playing with his daughters. There are no rules for work-life balance when you love your work and your family. Work-life balance is actually a bit of a misnomer when work is an important part of your life.

Later, I worked with Jonathan Gay, who is as famous for writing Dark Castle as for writing the Flash Player. Jon was, at that time, a Vice President at Macromedia, but he still wrote code now and then. From him I learned to stay grounded in technology. His familiarity with the source code and practical experience of new technology enabled his strong technical leadership. Later when I wondered about the security model of the Flash Player, I looked at the code to figure it out, instead of the standard manager response of asking an engineer on the team to provide an overview. This allowed me to be an active participant in the discussion. It reminded me of my high school teachers who required us to reference primary sources when writing a research paper. Jon also led me to question the corporate wisdom of consistently working to improve your weaknesses. Why do we require that of individuals? Why not just focus on what we do well? He also loved to code and create software. Jon used to keep a wonderful site called “software as art.” The pages aren’t there any more, but are happily archived. Despite written in 2000, I think the essay is still relevant. I hope he doesn’t mind me linking to it after all these years.

Even with plenty of success in my career and the opportunity to work with a number of great engineers and managers, I still felt isolated. As I became more senior, I was frequently the only woman in the room, and if there were other women, I was the most senior technical woman. I had gained confidence and no longer felt like I was jumping off a cliff every morning. However, I longed for a female role model whose passion for technical work mirrored my own. A friend of mine gave me a great book, which I still haven’t read all the way through, “Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries.” There in chapter 4, I read about Emmy Noether, who became and remains my favorite role model.

Emmy Noether was born in Gernmany in 1882, at a time when girls did not pursue higher education. It was in fact, not permitted for women to get credit or degrees from a university. She was one of two women auditors of nearly one thousand male students at Erlangen between 1900 and 1903. She pursued Mathematics because she loved it. Initially, she taught without pay under someone else’s name. She took on students and encouraged them to publish her ideas. Noether was one of the leading founders of abstract algebra. She worked closely with Einstein, providing mathematical formulations for several concepts in his general theory of relativity. Her biography shines light on a woman who pursued her passion without regard to what others expected of her. She ignored barriers and persisted despite lack of monetary compensation and with only the acknowledgement of her peers.

Thankfully I grew up in the latter part of the 20th century. I get paid for my work and relative to Emmy’s experience, there are many, many women in my field. With her as a role model, I stopped worrying about gender for a while and focused on pursuing my passion for the work.

If you’ve stuck it out and read this longer-than-usual blog entry, I’d love to know… who are your role models — famous or not, women or men? Who inspires you and why?