Thoughts on being a second generation geek

>> Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When I was in Toronto for our last work week,  I mentioned to one of my colleagues that I was a second generation geek.  He replied something to the effect of "There are families that have been fishing lobster for eight generations but not many second generation geeks."

I'm a second generation geek thanks to the influence of my Dad.  My sister also works in the software industry, as a technical writer.   My parents both had a tremendous influence on us.  If it wasn't for their support and encouragement, I doubt that we would be where we are today.

My Dad's first technology job was working at Burroughs  in Vancouver, BC as a field service technician and manager.  He would travel to customer sites to fix their computers, usually at banks,  insurance companies or government.  Back then computers were very large, not very common, and they had a longer lifecycle than we see today.  He had a briefcase full of tools to fix them,  given that most problems were mechanical or electrical in nature, as opposed to software.

About a decade later,  our family moved across the country and he started working as a technical services manager at a small software and services firm in Halifax, NS. This was the dawn of the PC era, and he brought home a succession of computers for him to learn about, as well as the rest of our family.  Dad would bring home stacks of computer magazines and manuals to read at nights on weekends, which I started to read as well.  We had many spirited discussions about technology, and what the future would hold.

In addition to having a wealth of technical knowledge, my Dad is also an accomplished woodworker  and builds beautiful furniture.  He bought my sister and I hammers so we could work along with him in the workshop.  There was also an abundance of Lego,  his old Meccano kit,  and stacks of science fiction books.  Christmas meant the inevitable gifts of conference swag in stockings, or a Linux book under the tree. 

Over the years, I have returned the favour and given my parents a lot of the swag I've received at work.  I'm sure they have the finest collection of Eclipse wear in Nova Scotia.  But this year begins a new tradition.


My Dad loves Firefox too

I've noticed that many of my (female) friends who work in software had a parent who worked in the industry and thus were a source of influence for their choice in career.  I learned from both my parents was to work very hard.  From my Dad, I learned that
1) Change in this industry is constant and it makes things interesting.
2) Continuous learning is essential.  Take courses, read voraciously,  break things and fix them.
3) STEM careers are for women.

Thanks Dad!

This past weekend, I asked him if there were ever any women at tech conferences when he attended them in the 1980s or 90s.  He replied that there was usually one or two, but that was all.

He then proceeded to tell me a story about a technical sales manager who he worked with for many years named Eli.  She had worked in an administrative capacity at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), but wanted to become a salesperson.  She was told that there was absolutely no way that she could be become a salesperson and represent DEC to customers because she was a woman.

In those days, computers were sold from OEMs (original equipment manufacturers like DEC) or VARs (valued added resellers).  The company where my Dad worked at was a VAR and had agreements with various OEMs, including DEC.  They would package hardware and software from several companies, along with installation and support services into sales proposals to meet customer requirements.  The funny thing was that VARs and OEMs would often compete for the same customers since they both sold the same branded hardware.  The VARs weren't limited to selling to a single vendor, but the OEMs had more flexibility in pricing in margins since they were the manufacturer.   Sales margins on hardware were quite high compared to what they are today, and thus a job as a salesperson could be quite financially lucrative if you were good.

Eli left DEC to work as a sales manager at the same office where my Dad worked.  She proceeded to outsell all the salesmen at her her previous employer who had refused to let her be a salesperson because of her gender, and won many sales awards.  So awesome!

I was always was a bit intimidated by Eli.  She was tough as nails, with a wicked sense of humour.  I can imagine that it wasn't always an easy path she had to walk, given that being a professional woman and working in technology was not common at the time, especially is socially conservative Nova Scotia.  But she did it, and proved that she could rise above her detractors.

A second thanks to women who have blazed trails in the past :-)  Who inspired you to choose your career in STEM?

4 comments:

scoheb 11:49 AM  

Great article!

kbsalazar 7:03 AM  

Geekdom didn't start with the PC. It's a mindset extending back in time, with techfolk chasing other technologies prior to the spread of the personal computer.

My daughters are fourth generation. My grandfather was a ham radio guy and die-hard Jules Verne fan; my dad was an early pioneer in "big iron" computing who gave me my first SF book when I was 7. I'm a proposal writer specializing in robotics, high end routing, and other nerdy things; and they're happy little geeklings, pursuing programming/engineering, and science journalism.

I cheer for your dad, my dad, and fathers (and mothers) everywhere who recognize that apples don't fall far from trees, and encourage their like-minded daughters to pursue STEM careers.

Kim Moir 1:27 PM  

thanks scoheb!

Wow, thanks kbsalazar, what a fantastic story. Thanks for bringing that perspective from before the PC era. I really enjoyed your comments. Also, I <3 Jules Verne too, a man ahead of his time. Apples don't fall from the tree, that's true!

Lisa 12:01 PM  

My dad the engineer inspired me to pursue a career in STEM, of course! From him:

* I learned early on that computers had a great future (he bought me one at age 12 in 1984).
* I learned that STEM careers involve solving problems in an incredibly creative way.
* I learned that there were STEM careers that involved working in teams and collaborating, not just lone-programmer jobs.
* I got a summer job in an earth sciences lab

We finally had a great discussion about whether to go into music or engineering, when I was 18, which we decided by agreeing that I would have more opportunities for interesting problem-solving, day-to-day, as an engineer than as a concert musician.

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