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?

12 thoughts on “role models

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Really nice real story about your role model.


  2. For some deep (and probably dark) psychological reason, I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of being a role model. I prefer to think we’re all the same but some know more about some things than others. And that information is like a toy: you should play nice and share.

    In this particular case, one of the (many) reasons I hired you to work on Shockwave was because you knew much more than I did about graphics (obviously an important topic in that case), and I wanted to learn from you. I knew from our previous time working together at Apple that you liked to play nice. I think that was true of everyone working on Shockwave, and was one of the reason it’s perhaps my favorite project ever.

  3. came here after i went through openlaszlo. when i saw a woman’s name in the creators section i became curious. never actually saw a ‘woman programmer’ this close.

    nice place you have. and great work.

    trust me. people like you inspire me to learn more.

    thank you.

  4. One of my role models is my father, Walter Thompson. He did not have access to much formal education, he had to leave school at age 12. He always stress the need to get the most out of school as possible. His stories of his struggles to get the little education he got and his love for school touched me and made me cherish school and learning.

  5. in my art exhibitions in paris, on the future of modeling, i said that it would not be enough anymore for models to just be objects of beauty. i said in the future they would become fully integrated beings of body mind and spirit and become role models to the younger generations ripping their pics out of the magazine and putting them on the wall to emulate. the role of supermodel is a very important role in society, as it is often the first contact many women have with female icons. i like to use my visibility as a model to give a posotive influence not only to other women, but of the power of the human spirit.

    great article!

  6. Hi Sarah,

    I really liked this piece. It’s definitely a big help to have good role models. When I was getting my ms in computer science it was the notion of being like some crazy haired scientist from a b-movie with a strange accent who gets to build robots and travel in minature submarines through a person’s body that helped motivate me during the tough points.

    My four big role models have been my mother, my father, Harvey Pekar and one of my grandmothers.

    My mother taught me how to be a workahaulic. My father taught me how to relax and waste time properly. Harvey Pekar taught me how you can do something great in your free time, regardless of what the job of the day is. And my gram taught me how to just see life as one big entertaining story, where peoples strenths and weaknesses are all just a part of the big joke.

    I’m still a bit confused on the whole work life, personal life balance thing, partly as a result of being in this industry and partly because I’m just that way. Life is good though. Thank you for your story.

  7. Hi, Sarah
    When I’m surfing for something wonderful in laszlosystem.com, I found your article. Your story and your feeling(esp. the beginning part)are exactly what I have now as a novice female programmer in China. I fell in IT world by accident, but soon I found that I really like coding and somehow be good at it. But when I took it as my major in Master study, headache appeared. Doubts intruded in my life as my first team project was assigned. Conventional beliving like “girls cannot code”, “girls will delay” or “girls never know software spirit” killed me everytime a team work assignment was set. I’ve never thought of how hard it would be to join a team as a developer rather than a tester or a document writer. These doubts grow so strong when people gossip about what a black-sheep role some girl played in some well-known scientific lab. Stories about how a girl makes ridiculous dead-loop or how girls cried after they made a big mess when they deal with complicated algorithm entertained almost every IT insiders, students and professors.(Worst of all, when the entertained students growed to be professors, they take these to amuse their students too, which makes these story believable and classic tale!) These poor anonymous, maybe also fictitious, girls together set a huge villain model for female IT players in China.

    When I started a real job as intern, I finally learned what they say about “the doubt became real and tangible”, especially doubts from bosses. According to a national wide investication, feeling being under-estimated and ill-treated are the most common sense of female programmers all over China. But there is nothing to complain. On the contrary, I feel lucky to be in IT. Because in this world, the advantage is relatively describable and comparable(I think this point is what coding over art). All I need to do is make the advantage prominent enough. So I took part in national programming competitions, expecting something good can be given upon the good ideas and hardworks. Now I have reliables partners who were my former colleagues and classmates. Although they have doubts too, I’m so grateful to the trust they give me so that we can fight together.

    Career is supposed to be the flask, in which one can finally distill her best. Role models? Yes, they tell you what you may expect from the distilling, but not simplify or guarantee this in any way. It takes long to form a role models. Succesful stories are good donation to accelerate this process. Hope we won the national prize! So that I can donate a bit myself too. Btw, guess what tech we take? Surely Laszlo! :)

  8. Alexandra,

    Thanks for taking the time to share your story. I’m glad you have found reliable partners who trust you. I wish you success in the programming competition! Even if you don’t win, you will learn a lot by taking the initiative and completing the project. I agree that having role models does not guarantee success, but I do believe it simplifies my thinking when I can learn from someone else’s success. There is no substitue for believing it is possible. Hang in there at work and keep at it.

    All my best,

  9. Hey Sarah,
    We know each other from our time at Brown together; me struggling to manage Andy’s correspondence, etc., and you TAing for CS11. Hello again!

    I really enjoyed your discussion about role models. I’ve yearned for role models of any kind. As a teenager of the 70s with a mom and dad caught up in rapidly changing times, and as the youngest of four, I was neglected; Any role models that entered my world would have to work hard to break the dispassioned and insecure shell I created to survive it. I’ve struggled and still struggle today.

    However, today, my mom is my role model. I marvel at her courage. In 1997 my father died, and my mom became a matriarch. She did so with grace, grace and more grace. I’m so pleased to finally get to this place in my relationship with her.

    In my heart of hearts I’m an artist, and so added to my list is Judy Silvan, a longtime friend. She has created a home full of color and style for herself and son and she generously shares it with her friends. Together she and I create buckwheat hull pillows for sale. I love this project creating beautiful art. I learn from her all the time.

    Anybody that demonstrates courage is my role model. Frank McCourt author of Angela’s Ashes became an instant hero for me.

    Thank you Sarah for creating this venue to become acquainted with you again. May you continue to be blessed.

  10. Tina,

    So, wonderful to hear from my long lost friend. When I wrote this, I was focused on role models in the context of work and technology. It is good to hear about your role models for other parts of your life.

    One of my role models as a mother and just as an all around human being is my husband’s mom, Isabel Allen. She created around herself an amazing extended family, readily adopting the best friends and loved ones of her children. When Bruce and I got married, she said she was delighted to have another daughter.

    Thanks for finding me and sharing your stories. I look forward to getting back in touch.


  11. Thank you for you story. It is crucial for people to hear and tell stories, to share complex information on an emotional level. We are wired to learn from stories and this capacity is under-utlilized in teaching and learning. As an instructional designer I’m always looking for a good story to share with others, hook them in, and get them thinking on deeper levels. This is especially crucial in e-learning.

    To quote Kipling –
    “If history were taught in the form of stories it would never be forgotten”

    …and, I think, neither would complex or technical information.


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