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Kimberly Blessing

My Nerd Story

8 min read

Rosie the Riveter reminds you that we can do it!These are cute totems. I have the Tesla doll.

A few days ago, I was directed to Crystal Beasley's Nerd Story post by Kirin Kalia, my Bryn Mawr College classmate. She asked me to share my own "nerd" story.

I hesitated. I hesitated because I saw that Crystal was prompted to write her story in response to one of the current sexism-in-tech spotlights. (I'm not trying to downplay whatever is going on currently -- I'm just not following it and can't speak much about it.) I hesitated because I know that my story is laden with the exact kind of privilege that is often attributed to white men in technology. I know that some women don't so much see me as a potential role model as part of the problem.

Still, I considered it. Then I went back to Crystal's post and read the comments that had been left and thought, "I don't need to deal with this shit." Crystal's post had brought out the trolls, haters, and real misogynists. While I've read my fair share of hate mail, I am past the point where I want to deal with online harassment because it wastes *my* time to have to handle it.

After thinking about it some more, I figure that if my story guides or inspires just one other person, or validates something going on in their brain (or heart), then any grief will be worth it. So, here goes.

I grew up in a middle class family that was extremely focused on education. My grandfather was an engineer in the midst of the CAD revolution; my dad and aunt were pharmacists dealing with the computerization of their field. Math, science, and tech geekiness ran in my family.

I started elementary school in 1980 and, from day one, got used to seeing a variety of TRS-80s in the building. Soon, I got used to using them on a regular basis, first through the gifted program, and later through a before and after school program, which I've written about before. BASIC was my first programming language. I wrote programs to make sounds, change the screen color, print text to screen, draw shapes -- all of which culminated in me programming a TRS-80 CoCo 2 to play the harmony to "Yesterday" by The Beatles, while I played the melody on the flute.

TRS-80 CoCo 1My TRS-80 CoCo 1, salvaged in 2008. I don't like getting rid of old tech.

Meanwhile, at home, we had Pong, then an Atari 2600. Playing games was fun, but I wanted to write programs. I got a Commodore 64; in the summer of 1983, after seeing War Games, I spent weeks trying to program my own "Joshua" artificial intelligence. Thankfully, no one ever discouraged me from working on that fruitless program. I don't think they even knew that building an AI wasn't possible. I sure as hell didn't.

The Commodore 64 eventually became a 128 and was a mainstay for everything from gaming to doing homework to getting online. In 1985 or 1986, my aunt purchased an Epson Equity PC (8088) and thus I was introduced to DOS (version 2.11, and all of the upgrades from there!). She was using it for basic word processing; I quickly figured out how to do mail merges for her, create spreadsheets, and other more "office-y" type things with it.

As I made my way into junior high and high school, my interaction with computers was limited to home and the library. Whereas every classroom in my elementary school had a TRS-80 or an Apple IIe, the only computers in the upper schools were in special computer rooms, which were mostly used by the "business prep" students. Honors/gifted students, apparently, didn't need to use computers. At home, with more and more homework to do, my computer use became much more practical -- checking math and typing papers. There wasn't time for programming.

In reality, I didn't make time for programming anymore. It wasn't in the classroom anymore, so I suppose I didn't see it as important anymore. Although I started seventh grade already knowing some trigonometry, I went back to algebra. Yawn. Science was still fun, at least, but my language and music teachers were much more encouraging of my work and progress. I turned my focus to where I got feedback and positive reinforcement. By the time I graduated high school, I had dropped out of calculus but took AP French. I had skipped the one and only programming class at my high school -- but when I saw the homework assignments, I yawned again. They would've been pretty repetitive for me.

Thanks to my grandfather, I started college with a brand-new Packard Bell 486/33, which came with 4 MB RAM, a 120 MB hard drive, a sound card, a 2400 baud modem, and Windows 3.1 -- better than my boyfriend's! In my single dorm room, I had plenty of time to noodle with my new tech. Word 6 and NCSA Mosaic had just been released. I had accounts on AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve but also quickly learned how to dial in to my college's UNIX server. That computer lasted me one year; I built a new computer the following year and upgraded it consistently, until I got to grad school and bought a fancy Dell machine with a Pentium processor.

At the same time, I was rocking my liberal arts education experience, with my intended romance languages major, until the reality of completing the quantitative (i.e. math) requirement reared its ugly head. I wanted to love calculus, but I struggled. Where to turn? Intro to computer science, of course. I figured it should be easier than suffering through more calculus. I didn't count on it changing my educational direction.

I wasn't a great student, that first CS class. Instead of really trying to learn something new, I relied on my existing knowledge and prior experience to get me through. But I guess it was clear that I "got" it enough to warrant the encouragement of the professor, my friend Deepak Kumar, to continue studying CS. So I did. It was as simple as someone saying, "Hey, you're good at this. Ever thought of majoring in it?"

Me in college with an X-TerminalIn the X-Term lab. I think Sarah and I were writing a program to play Konani.

Being a major in computer science at a women's liberal arts college with only one CS professor wasn't easy. I had to lobby the school to be a CS major, and I had to take classes at other colleges and universities in order to complete my CS requirements. I remember taking computer organization (my favorite subject) at Carnegie Mellon University, and being one of about four women in the hall of perhaps 200 people. It's only strikingly odd to me now; at the time, I knew I was a rarity, but it didn't really faze me. (Later, in grad school, the ratio was a bit better because the classes were smaller.)

I made friends with Sarah Hacker (yes, her real name) who had already decided on a CS major; she worked for campus IT services and helped me get a job. Because I knew UNIX, I made an extra 25 cents an hour! Sarah introduced me to HTML (and helped me fix my first markup bug) and I started cranking out websites on Deepak's server. Other members of the team taught me everything I know about software and hardware support. It was a perfect storm of interest, opportunity, and encouragement. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, after 20 years of experience in large internet/tech companies (AOL, PayPal, and Comcast) and other organizations, I head up the web development team and growing technology consulting practice at Think Brownstone. I've architected and built some of the coolest publishing systems and web sites in the history of the internet -- and I still get excited when I'm presented with a challenge that requires strategic thinking, technical know-how, and organizational savvy. I've been able to take my experience and turn it into book contributions, conference presentations, and a for-credit CS class at my alma mater. I'm still a technology junkie, but as a manager and leader, I get the biggest kick out of coaching younger talent and helping them grow their skills.

Disney's Kim Possible

The moral of my story is: discouraging a young mind can stop its progress, but encouragement can help get things moving again. If you're an adult, figure out who you can encourage today. If you're a young adult, avoid the discouragers (as much as you can) and find the encouragers.

Write your own Nerd Story -- don't let it be written for you.

Kimberly Blessing

They Told Me I Was Smart

3 min read

A great post over at Wired, Why Do Some People Learn Faster?, included a pretty comprehensive explanation of some research done by Stanford psychology professor Carol Weck. From the article:

Her most famous study, conducted in twelve different New York City schools along with Claudia Mueller, involved giving more than 400 fifth graders a relatively easy test consisting of nonverbal puzzles. After the children finished the test, the researchers told the students their score, and provided them with a single line of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence. “You must be smart at this,” the researcher said. The other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

The students were then allowed to choose between two different subsequent tests. The first choice was described as a more difficult set of puzzles, but the kids were told that they’d learn a lot from attempting it. The other option was an easy test, similar to the test they’d just taken.

When Dweck was designing the experiment, she expected the different forms of praise to have a rather modest effect. After all, it was just one sentence. But it soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth graders dramatically affected their choice of tests. When kids were praised for their effort, nearly 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. However, when kids were praised for their intelligence, most of them went for the easier test. What explains this difference? According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.

Growing up, I was always being told that I was smart -- by my family, by my teachers, and even by fellow students. I wore it as a badge of pride. And now I realize that was the worst thing for me -- because I realize that back then -- but even today -- I make safe choices so that I avoid making mistakes and thus potentially looking stupid.

I need to print this out and carry it around with me, perhaps on the back of something that reads It's OK to make mistakes!:

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence.

Kimberly Blessing

Now we are 36

4 min read

Another year has passed. Now I am 36.

I wanted to have a party this year. I wanted to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my 16th birthday. To me, this sounded like the perfect way of acknowledging how I feel -- older in reality, but still celebrating my youth. But I've just been too busy to make it happen. And there have been more important things for me to worry about than a party for myself.

So instead I'm celebrating by writing this post.

What have I learned this past year?

I've finally realized that overcommitting myself does me no good. A year ago I would've acknowledged that it didn't do anyone else any good, but finally I can see that it does ME no good. I already said no to one opportunity that came my way recently, and it was really hard. But I need to keep saying no to doing for others. I need to keep saying yes to myself. Being selfish is okay.

I also learned that it's easy to get back into good habits, like working out every day -- but it's even easier to let yourself break those good habits because you think you'll go right back to them. I did lose about 8 pounds this year, but I've also gained it back. Once I establish a goal and a set of habits around the goal, I need to stick with it. (Part of that whole "it's okay to be selfish" thing.)

I think I've finally gotten the hang of not needing "stuff". I got rid of one of my cars right before my last birthday, and since July my other car has been in storage. I've been to conferences where I don't take the swag. I've been taking more books out from the library (and realizing that many of them just weren't that interesting). I took about a quarter of my clothes to Goodwill last year and now I'm looking at my closet and thinking about getting rid of half of what's in there. I take more digital pictures of things that are cute or visually appealing, rather than buy them to hang on to. Most significant, perhaps, is that I haven't been able to write a "want list" of any kind. I've learned that I have everything I need. I probably don't need everything I have.

Finally, in the past few months I have come to realize how incredible hard it is to take care of another person. It's a huge mental drain, even when it's not physically draining (which it often is). And managing other people's expectations when it comes to caretaking is probably the hardest part of the whole thing. I've always been a supporter of assisted suicide for the terminally ill, but I think we need to have more conversations about allowing the elderly to choose to leave this Earth in a dignified manner of their choosing.

What have I achieved in the past year?

One goal that I've stuck with for a few years is getting out of debt. When I got laid off in 2008 I established a set of financial habits that I have successfully maintained. I won't give specific numbers, but I will say that I now have more money saved as an emergency fund than I owe on all of my credit cards. In fact, I will be out of credit card debt by October! I check the numbers carefully every month (actually, daily), because part of me still can't believe it will happen -- but the other half of me doesn't quite know what to do with the free time I'll have soon, once I'm done obsessing about getting out of debt! I hope I can channel it towards my health goals.

Other "achievements" from this past year have weighed heavily on me, because I was giving too much of myself to make those things happen. So, in my mind, I've only achieved stressing myself out, which isn't all that great of an achievement.

Favorite experiences from the past year

  • Finding my old friend, Rose, and being able to tell her how much she influenced my life
  • Seeing the re-formed (reformed?) Revolting Cocks perform in Chicago
  • Running 5 kilometers with no pain, and actually enjoying the run
  • Waking up to my cat pawing me (her new-ish thing, so that I get up early to feed her)
  • Getting up early on a Sunday morning to drive to the shore for pancakes with Scott

What I'm looking forward to in the year ahead

  • Getting out of debt!
  • Completing two back-to-back terms on the Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Association Executive Board
  • Losing 10 pounds
  • Figuring out what I want to do when I grow up

I think that's pretty good for one year. Happy birthday to me.

Kimberly Blessing

Craftmanship can change the world

2 min read

Most mornings, I hit the Starbucks near work for a double tall non-fat no-whip cinnamon dolce latte. Yes, it's a mouthful to say. And apparently it's a really tough drink to get right... at least for the morning crew at this particular Starbucks. Despite seeing the same crew regularly, I almost always have to correct them on some aspect of my drink that they've screwed up (espresso shots sat too long, wrong milk, wrong size drink, scorched milk, etc.). When I do point something out, rather than get an apology, I'm usually given some excuse as to why it's not right. I'm starting to suspect that either they're making my drink wrong on purpose or they just don't care about their craft -- but in either case, they send a clear signal: a job's a job, and they don't care about theirs all that much.

Web developers can't have this attitude. We absolutely must care about our craft and continually ensure that our work is demonstrative of best practices (both industry and our own signature practices). Sloppy execution of our work leads to cross-browser problems, inaccessible features, confusing user interactions, and time lost refactoring code in the future. We don't get to give excuses to our customers -- if it doesn't work, end users don't use the site, and clients don't pay. Messy code shows that we don't care about leaving something our fellow developers can learn from, and it demonstrates that we don't care to take the time get our code right.

I shudder to think about the kind of code the baristas at the local Starbucks would write, were they developers. If only they could be more like so many of the awesome developers/craftspeople I know... then I'd be happily caffeinated each morning. And if fewer developers wrote code the way those baristas make drinks? Well, the Web might just explode from all that awesomeness.

Kimberly Blessing

The Seventh Grade

3 min read

While reading another story about the lack of diversity in STEM I was newly struck by the following statement, which I've heard in various forms over the years (emphasis mine):

"I think science is seen as a man's world by a lot of people," said Candy DeBerry, associate professor of biology at Washington & Jefferson College. "All the studies show that somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, girls start losing their interest in science but might be equally interested in it in the third or fourth grade."

For me, sixth grade was spent in elementary school. I had one teacher, unless you counted the music, art, or gym teachers. We almost always had one computer (a TRS-80 or an Apple II/IIe) in our classroom, which the teacher actually knew something about and which we kids would typically fight over using. Even the few kids who had computers at home (like me) wanted to use the computer at school, and we'd rush to finish an assignment so we could get in some computer time.

Seventh grade was the start of junior high school for me, and thus began the hourly switching of subjects, teachers, and classrooms. In none of these classrooms did we have a computer, and I don't ever remember my teachers mentioning computers. In junior high, the only computers I can recall were in the library, and they weren't the sort that you "played" with. In addition, all of the extra-curricular activities I was starting took away from potential computer time at home.

So when I keep hearing about this crucial sixth/seventh grade time period for young girls, I can't help but think back to my own experience around these grades. I didn't lose interest in computers (or science or math) in seventh grade, but I was certainly separated from them. As time went on, I had less time to pursue those interests myself, and in some cases I was discouraged from pursuing them.

Sure, times have changed, but as the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Thus I'm inclined to assume that my experience may not really be that different from what kids experience today. Kids can't stay in the elementary school environment forever, but with middle schools now starting at fifth and sixth grade, are we pushing change -- not just academic and environmental, but social! -- on them too soon, thus potentially losing more future scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians?

Kimberly Blessing

Extraordinary World

2 min read

The past 13 months have been a mixed bag of successes, failures, changes, growing pains, and learning opportunities. This time showed me who my real friends are and helped me realize what's truly important to me. Silly as it may sound, the eleven Duran Duran concerts I was able to attend during this helped greatly with the process of finding and re-centering myself.

Duran Duran aftershow bracelets

Now the tour is over and life must return to normal. I've come to learn that normal for me isn't what it is for others -- the expectations I have of myself leading an extraordinary life constantly drive me to seek out unique opportunities. For a while, there were people in my life who made me feel as though this was an odd way to live, and I was always apologizing for doing the things that I loved to do. But the events and activities of the past year -- and the love and support of friends -- have helped me find myself again, and have shown me that an extraordinary life isn't wrong. In fact, it's what my whole life has been preparing me for.

2009 is going to be a very interesting and exciting year!

My collection of photos and videos from Duran Duran's Red Carpet Massacre tour on Flickr

Kimberly Blessing

Web Conference Discounts

2 min read

I have a few speaking gigs coming up in May and June, and currently those conferences are offering some discounts. Register soon for early bird savings, and let me know if you'll be at any of my talks!

WebVisions - May 22-23 in Portland, Oregon: I'll be giving a talk called Web Site Optimization in Seven Easy Steps on Friday the 23rd at 2:45 PM. Register by March 31st (meep! very soon!) and the cost is only $180 for a conference pass, or sign up for a workshop for $375 and get the conference pass for only $130!

Voices That Matter: Web Design Conference - June 10-13 in Nashville, Tennesee: On Friday, June 13 at 10:15 AM I'll teach attendees about creating design and development standards in the workplace. Use discount code WDDSPKR to get $200 off any conference package. Early bird pricing is in effect until May 2nd.

An Event Apart - June 23-24 in Boston, Massachusetts: Standing between you and lunch is where I'll be on Tuesday the 24th at 12:15 PM; hear me talk about standards in the enterprise and then they'll let you eat. And you can get $50 off with code AEABLESS; with early bird pricing (through May 26) get an additional $100 off.

Kimberly Blessing

Already kicking ass in 2008

1 min read

I'm very honored to be featured as Christopher Schmitt's first interview of the year. Christoper is a stand-up guy, a great designer, and prolific author. We had a good chat about work and non-work stuff, and you can read the whole thing here!

And just in case you didn't notice, the line-ups for the 2008 An Event Apart conferences have been posted. Eric and Jeffrey asked me to speak to the Boston crown on June 23-24, and how could I say no? I had such a good time last year in San Francisco and it seems about time to take my message to the East Coast.

Wow, we're only eight days into the year... how am I ever going to keep up this level of ass-kicking for the remaining 358 days? Whewh!

Kimberly Blessing

Home, home on the Web

2 min read

So, I've redesigned my site. The old design was up for over a year, and I got many interesting comments about its "pinkness" -- funny, because to me it was mostly black text on a white background (with various hues of magenta for accent) -- but that's how people saw it. I guess it did serve to communicate that I have no problem with being seen as "girly" in the world of tech, but I didn't set out to make any particular statement by it. (My apologies to anyone who's disappointed by that statement, but I've got to be honest.)

This new design -- or the color scheme, I should clarify -- is very close to my heart. It's the same set of colors I used to paint my house in North Dakota, and since that house is being put up for sale, I wanted some way of remembering it. Plus, I knew I wanted swirly things in a new design. It didn't all come out exactly as I had imagined, but with tweaking over time it just might get there. The code certainly could use some work -- I made a number of design changes in the process of putting things together and the code reflects that bit of schizophrenia.

Despite all of that, I'm happy to see something new. The start of a new year, after all, is all about getting a fresh start, right? Comments on the design are welcome.

Kimberly Blessing

'07 and the Ragged Kimberly

2 min read

There are only about 12 hours left in the year, which seems about the right time to take stock of what's happened to me in the past 12 months and what's to come in the next 12.

Looking back, I can't believe all that I accomplished in 2007. Some of the highlights include:

And that list doesn't even include work accomplishments!

As I plan for 2008, I have a number of exciting challenges ahead: more writing, more speaking, more travel -- but also serving as a committee chair for GHC08, running a BarCamp, writing a CS1 course curriculum based on Web development, and more! But best of all, I'm looking forward to moving home to Philadelphia -- a slight change in plans, but a good one.

Into 2008, and into the Arena! (And if you don't get the Duran Duran references, shame on you!)