There and Back Again

Or, how I quit programming and returned.

by Misty De Meo on March 17th, 2014

It was obvious from childhood I was destined to be in tech.

My family were early computer adopters. We had a PC in the house when I was about two years old, which was an opportunity a lot of people didn’t get. PCs around then were both incredibly expensive and pretty inflexible single-program devices, but one of the things they were really good at was word processing, and that was enough of a reason for my academic parents to drop $5000 on a state-of-the-art DOS 3 machine with a whopping 20MB hard drive. (The hard drive alone made up about half the cost.)

Since the PC was in the house anyway, I had plenty of chance to play with it. One of my favourite childhood toys was MS Paint in Windows 2.0, and some of my earliest memories are of tinkering. A lot of kids I knew had the stereotypical suburban dad with a garage or wood shop, but for my dad the family PC was the shop, and he spent a lot of my childhood puttering around with it and trying new software. A lot of what I learned came from watching and helping him.

As far as everyone was concerned, I was going to be a programmer when I grew up, and I believed it too. I spent a lot of time as a kid teaching myself to program (poorly) and making video games in Klik & Play. I spent most of my high school’s weird chimera of a computer class (half programming, half MS office) tinkering with awful code only tangentially related to classwork, and ended up graduating with the school’s computer science award.

Early interface of Klik and Play.

Around the same time, between high school and undergrad, two huge changes happened in my life: I suddenly pivoted away from computer science; and I came out as transgender. At the time these were completely separate events to me, but I’m not sure I believe that anymore.

The Usual Stereotypes

In retrospect, it’s really not surprising that I didn’t go into computer science in undergrad. I transitioned in between high school and university. I was looking for a clean break between the “old” and “new” me; I was desperate to prove to the world what I already knew I was. I started deliberately absorbing stereotypes from the world around me (spoken and unspoken, real and imagined) in the hopes it would make me more “real”.

While drafting this, I tried to think of female programmers I might have known as a kid that would have been counterexamples to the stereotypes. I’m ashamed to say it took me awhile to remember anyone – for awhile I just assumed I’d never known a woman programmer growing up. As much as I’d like to believe I’m immune to cultural stereotypes, I absorbed as many growing up as anyone else, despite being raised in a progressive household with forward-thinking parents.

I only explicitly remember one female programmer from when I was a kid. She worked at a small company I job-shadowed at for a day in junior high school. It was a multimedia shop; I went there because I wanted to learn about programming, but they also did 3D animation and audio. The office wasn’t especially gender-segregated, and at least one woman worked on code, but I remember being led around all day by the male staff who seemed perfectly glad to ignore their work in favour of Duke Nukem 3D matches or (occasionally) showing me the software they used to do their jobs. I didn’t actually get to see much of what the programmer did, mostly because she focused on her work while the guys joked about her having to make up the slack. At the time, I thought what I saw of the office was the coolest thing in the world.

In a career-preparation exercise from high school, the teacher gave out leaflets with little story blurbs about a typical day in the life for different careers. These were by necessity stereotyped, and were designed to try and give students a more realistic idea of various jobs – probably as much to disillusion students about jobs that seemed magical to them as to get them to think about jobs they might never realize they’d want. At the time my dream job was to make video games, so I jumped straight to the game programmer leaflet. It described a typical day in the life of an (implicitly male) coder sleeping under the desk and blearily experimenting with algorithms deep into the night. Not a terribly flattering image at the best of times.

I still remember the friendly bafflement of open source devs when I reported bugs. I was a big user of open-source software in high school. I didn’t really contribute code, but I was a prolific bug reporter. I was already presenting as female online, and in the pretty niche stuff I was playing around with it seemed like I was a novelty to devs. I got more than a few questions about how I was a girl – who liked computers! The tone was always friendly, but the undertone was clear: I was weird. I wasn’t necessarily unwelcome, but I was unexpected and there weren’t other people like me around.

Women programmers were, anyway, a minority of the coders I saw, and weren’t something the people I encountered expected to see. The usual stereotypes informed the way I saw the world and the places I saw for women in that space.

So. Computer science: out. Pants: out. (I didn’t wear pants for at least a few years.) On the internet, I made a point of writing ~improbably girly~ and I dressed as femme as humanly possible. In retrospect, the fact I dressed girlier than most women probably did not help me pass as cis, but I was performing gender so artificially I don’t know it matters. I was out to prove I was a woman in the face of a world that was set up not to believe me; I was acting, not being genuine. It took me years to start dropping the persona, and only when I was passing on my own. (I would keep some of those things, but on my own terms. What I grew out of was the need to define some things as exclusively female or male and silo them.)

So I didn’t go into comp sci. I didn’t give up computers; being a nerd was a little too integral to me even then. But I was embarrassed being nerdy socially, and I abandoned studying for a career in programming. I spent a few years drifting through an English degree, bouncing between courses without developing any kind of specialty. At one point I vaguely considered becoming a technical writer; I have trouble trying to understand my own reasoning at the time, but I assume it was a more gender-appropriate way of getting into tech in a less-technical support role. I really didn’t have a plan.

A Career In Archives and Open Source

Archives were a lucky accident. It was the summer after the first year of undergrad, I needed a job, and I found one at the university archives posted at the library. I didn’t know anything about archives, but I liked books, and libraries and archives are basically the same thing, right?

I worked there one summer, and then another summer, and then I took my master’s in archives. I was hooked.

It was archives that brought me back into programming. For most of my career I’ve focused on digital archives, and a few years ago I took a turn into digital preservation. There’s no actual expectation that digital archivists can program, but it didn’t take me long to realize that a lot of my analysis work could be sped up if I could just learn to automate it. So I taught myself some basic Ruby scripting, caught the bug, and gradually taught myself more.

By that time I was universally passing, so I didn’t have the stress of the first few years hanging over me. When I no longer had to police my own identity to avoid ridicule and to be read as what I was, I didn’t care about stereotyping myself as much. I started to open myself back up to all the options I’d been cutting myself off from. (I bought my first pair of pants in years when doing my master’s. Toronto was cold that year.)

I got involved in the open source software community mostly as a user with an itch to scratch. I’m easily obsessed and enjoy tackling weird problems, though, which turns out to make me a good open-source citizen. I started out as a contributor to the Mac package manager Homebrew, and eventually ended up on the core development team. Now, I work for a company that develops open source software for archives. Officially, my title is “developer” – for the first time in my professional life, I’m not technically an archivist.

Somehow I found my way into tech anyway.

Early interface of Microsoft Paint, showing simple colors and large shapes being made.

Looking Back, and Forward

I don’t regret the choices I’ve made and where I am in life. But I do wonder where I’d be if things had been different. If I were cis male, would I be an archivist? My detour away from computer science has a lot to do with gender, and I doubt I would have explored a career outside of tech had I not felt pushed. I can’t picture where I’d be now, but I’m sure I wouldn’t be where I am now.

If I were cis female, would I have gotten into tech in the first place? It’s hard for me to predict that particular alternate history. My family were always supportive of non-stereotypical interests; they bought me the toys I wanted regardless of whether they were stereotypically gendered male or female, and let me pursue the activities I liked without judgment. (For that matter, they tolerated my obsessive interest in computers and video games even when they clearly thought, not without reason, I was overdoing it.) But it’s hard for me to say whether the outside world’s stereotypes would have won out if I hadn’t felt the (internal, external) pressure to conform that came from transitioning.

For a long time, I thought of being trans as just this unfortunate medical condition – a bump down the road to a normal life. I couldn’t conceive of it as an “identity”. But the more I look back on my life, the more I realize it really has shaped me. I’m as much a product of my socialization, before I asserted my identity, as I am of the transition itself. I keep developing, and I keep finding myself; I’m ready to start asserting those moments of discovery, those in-between places, that make me who I am.