too many words by laura lemay

Happy Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, where we honor women in technology. Research has shown that women need mentors and role models, more than men do, to succeed. But because there are so few women in tech to start with, it can be exceptionally hard for women to find the role models that they need. Suw Charman-Anderson{.broken_link} created Ada Lovelace Day as an international day of blogging where we talk about our role models, the women in science and technology who have inspired us. (you don’t have to be female to contribute)

I hadn’t been planning to contribute to ALD, just because my blogging has been totally moribund over the last year (twitter: addicting). But I woke up today and read a few posts was so inspired that I suddenly felt compelled to write anyhow. I’m not precisely following the theme, but I hope that can be forgiven.

My first job right out of college in the late 80’s was at Sun Microsystems. It’s hard to imagine it now, but at the time Sun was one of the top companies in Silicon Valley, one of the best places to work, and where there was huge amounts of innovation in both hardware and software. When I mentioned to my friends that I worked at Sun, they all said “oh, that’s so cool.” I felt very lucky to have ended up there.

After drifting through a few projects and after a few reorgs at Sun, I settled into a small division called SunPICS, which stood for Printing and Imaging and two other things that I’ve forgotten. We wrote the software for Sun’s printer, which was actually harder than it sounds, because with Sun’s printers the PostScript rendering engine was on the computer and not in the printer (there were advantages to this at the time). We also did fonts, color management, printer device drivers, multi-user and multi-system printer queue management — all kinds of things are are boring now because they’re built into any computer or printer in the world and completely hidden from view, but at the time they were all new.

SunPICS was not a sexy group at Sun. We were not developing SPARC processors, creating high-end UNIX workstations, working on the guts of UNIX itself or writing an X11 windows server. We didn’t get much attention in the news, or make zillions of dollars for the company. We did printers. But we were kind of unique within the company because we had lots of women engineers. Even within Sun, which was known for being a good place for women to work, we were special. We were a magnet for women. In the group I worked directly with there were five women and just one guy. In the larger division we were more than half women. We were an extremely close group; we were smart and technical and we got stuff done. We shipped product. We did good work. Even ten years after the group disbanded we were still getting together for reunion lunches.

Because I was young, and so inexperienced, I didn’t realize how special this was at the time. I thought it was totally normal to be working right in the epicenter of the high tech universe, and to be surrounded by outstanding women of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds.

I’ve often wondered if the experience of working in this group was one of the reasons I had the confidence, after I left Sun, to strike out on my own, to write books, to do consulting, to teach web tech to others. Because of Sun, because of the SunPICS group, being a woman in technology, being a smart geek woman just wasn’t all that unusual. For a long time I simply couldn’t comprehend questions people asked me about how I overcame the barriers or discrimination of being a woman in tech. Barriers? There are barriers?

It was only later, after I moved onto other companies, that I realized how unique this situation was. Most of the time today I am the *only* woman in the engineering groups I work with. I see the barriers for women in tech now, and I think there are more barriers — if only the barrier of being so much more alone. There are fewer women in tech now to begin with, and fewer big tech company environments where a group of women can comfortably organically build the way it did for me at Sun. I feel tremendously honored to have had that opportunity.

So for Ada Lovelace Day, I salute my SunPICS co-workers, for helping make me into the woman I am today. To Liane, Frances, Lorraine, Penny, Leila, Pan, Margaret, Brenda, Deborah, and any of you I may have forgotten. Thank you.