Skip to main content

Kimberly Blessing

Giving Credit Where It's Due on Ada Lovelace Day 2014

3 min read

I haven't written a post for Ada Lovelace Day in a few years (last in 2010) and recent conversations have made one feel necessary. When the contributions and accomplishments of my female contemporaries on the Web are unknown to people just a generation behind, I get extremely concerned. After all, the making of the Web is the making of history in modern times. As I've pointed out before, we have the opportunity to document our times and lives unlike never before -- but data loss can occur. And it is.

Twenty years ago, when I was in college and learning how to create web pages, I pretty much had two sources of information: documentation written by TimBL and USENET newsgroups. But once I started working professionally, I realized that there was a wealth of information being printed on paper. And what I saw was that large numbers of these books on web development and design were being written by women.

Me and Molly HolzschlagMe with Molly Holzschlag

Women such as:

I wish I could tell you exactly how many books these women have collectively written -- I'm sure it's over 100 -- but quick searches of their bios and websites doesn't always make this data clear. Is it modesty? Do multiple editions make the numbers tricky? I don't know.

But when I mention the names of these women -- all of whom are still active online, many of whom are still writing (or speaking) about the web and programming -- to web developers today, I'm often met with blank stares. I'll have to mention that Lynda founded, (still!) one of the top online training sites, or that Jen co-founded the extremely popular ARTIFACT conference. I have to explain that Dori has helped run Wise Women's Web, one of the earliest communities for female developers online, and that we have Molly to thank for convincing Bill Gates and Microsoft to be more open about Internet Explorer development at Microsoft (there are so many articles to link to, but I want to link to Molly's old blog posts, which are gone *sadface*).

While my past ALD posts have been happy remembrances of people who've made positive impacts on my life, this post is written out of frustration -- and even a bit of anger -- that the contributions of these women are being forgotten or overlooked in their own time. Let's give credit where it's due. Comment or blog or tweet about the books written by these women that helped you learn your craft. Send them a thank you email or tweet. (In Molly's case, you can give to her fund.) Share this post or the links to these women's websites with someone who needs to learn about their foremothers. And just be thankful that women helped light the path for others by sharing knowledge about building the World Wide Web.

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

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day 2010

8 min read

My Ada Lovelace Day post is a two-parter: the first part, recognizing two women who inspired me in math and computing; the second, recognizing Milly Koss, an inspirational and accomplished female computer scientist.

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Learn more

Mrs. Smarkola, Miss Herrick, and the Dawn Patrol

Article about The Dawn Patrol From the Grace Park Mini News, an article about Dawn Patrol by yours truly, circa 1985.

I am so fortunate to have been raised in the 80s, during the emergence of the personal computer. My school, Grace Park Elementary, and my teachers were excited about the TRS-80s and Apple IIes in the classroom, and many kids had Commodore 64s at home. Our teachers saw us get excited about learning; we were having fun playing with new toys our parents never had.

Our librarian, Mrs. Smarkola, was one of my most favorite people at school. When I think of her, I always imagine her with a large book in hand, head down, adjusting her glasses, focused on her reading. But I also remember her running the classroom full of typewriters and computers which was across the hall from the library. She'd walk from computer to computer, typing commands, turning them on or off, inserting tapes or disks, making sure each computer had an instruction sheet or book for the next activity. Around the time of fourth grade, a few of those computers moved into the library itself, and the whole school used them to check out and return books -- under Mrs. Smarkola's watchful eye, of course.

My fourth grade teacher, Miss Herrick, was one of those teachers that all of the kids in school were afraid of. Kids talked about her being "hard" and "mean" -- but when I got in to her classroom, I was in heaven. You see, Miss Herrick loved math. I loved math. We were a perfect match! She frequently gave us math quizzes with long division problems, which I always aimed to complete first -- because the first to finish got to "play" on the computer we had in the classroom. I'd guess that I spent more time on that computer than anyone else, and I think I was also the classroom "computer aide," to help other students with it. (BTW, to this day, I love doing long division in my head when I'm bored.)

So many of us kids at Grace Park were interested in computers and learning, that our awesome principal, Dr. Joseph Fleischut, authorized a program called "Dawn Patrol" which was run by Mrs. Smarkola and Miss Herrick. For kids who signed up and got to school about 30 minutes before the opening bell, it was a time to use the computers, typewriters, and library. As you may have guessed, I signed up nearly every day. It may have been during Dawn Patrol that I programmed a TRS-80 CoCo 2 to play the harmony to "Yesterday" by The Beatles, so that it could accompany me as I played the melody on the flute. (When I got to perform at the district concert with the computer, it choked under the hot lights of the stage, sadly.) It also may have been there that I first attempted to program a Joshua-like AI from WarGames. I definitely spent time playing the Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego games there, as well as being questioned by Eliza. But what I remember with the greatest certainty (and the utmost thanks!) were the ways in which Mrs. Smarkola and Miss Herrick (and Dr. Fly, too) encouraged me, nurtured my passion for math, computers, reading, and learning, and always praised me for my accomplishments -- key factors which recent studies say are crucial to getting more women in to STEM.

Adele Mildred (Milly) Koss

Milly Koss and Me I was introduced to Milly Koss in September 2006 when a historical marker was placed at the site of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation.

Milly Koss "had a distinguished career of more than 47 years in all phases of computer technology, implementation and management, including applications design and development, software/hardware selection, database technologies and computer security." Her name is known to some -- but not enough, in my opinion.

Milly was raised in Philadelphia and attended the selective Philadelphia High School for Girls. She earned a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, at a time when schools were primarily giving spots to veterans. She graduated in 1950 with a degree in mathematics. In the early days of computing, women were seen as ideal computer programmers due to their "patience, persistence, and a capacity for detail." Of course, in order for a woman to get one of these jobs, she had to have a degree in math and not be married. Milly Koss qualified on the first point, but not on the second: she was engaged. The first company she interviewed with rejected her for this reason.

Fortunately, she was in the right place -- Philadelphia was home to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and, from the way Milly describes it, I imagine it to be a workplace much like any modern internet company -- except that 40% of their programmers were women. Milly interviewed with Dr. John Mauchly, who she described as being very nice, flexible, and open. He gave her a wonderful, exciting, creative job -- working with the UNIVAC.

Milly worked with Grace Hopper and was responsible for developing Editing Generator, a problem-oriented language for computer-generated reports, in 1952. Milly was interested in what "computers could do for programmers... how it could help programmers program." She also worked on sort routines for years, which she calls "the quintessential program for machines." She reminds us that today we should be grateful for that early work in automated programming, interpreters, assemblers, and compilers.

By the way, much of this she did while working part-time and remotely! According to Milly, when informed about her pregnancy, Grace Hopper told her to "take it home" -- meaning, the work. Milly would go in to the office one or two days a week, otherwise working from her dining room table. In an interview with Kathy Kleiman (who is the driving force behind the ENIAC Programmers Project), Milly said:

"What’s funny about that period, I’m not sure who my boss was. This was such an unstructured environment… Once I had a child they let me continue to work the way I wanted to. I inferred from that I was of value to them. Nobody lets you work that way unless they are getting value. I got increases. I got paid fairly well. Eckert & Mauchly was pretty good that way… There were no models, they didn’t care how you worked. There were no preconceived notions as to the way you could contribute. You did not have to be in the office…. We did not have huge management teams. We did incredibly new and exciting things and nobody had a problem.”

Milly later went to work for Burroughs Corporation, Philco, and Control Data Corporation, and Raytheon. At Burroughs and Philco she continued her flexible work schedule and would send her work in by mail! At CDC, she worked with early graphics algorithms and interfaces including light pens. Then Milly moved to Harvard University, where says she finally started feeling the hierarchy and loss of flexibility. She spent 27 years at Harvard, in multiple roles. She applied data management expertise to applications for the school and led an R&D effort to develop one of the first data warehouses, the Information Utility. She served as Associate Director of the Office for Information Technology and as the Information Security Officer for the university.

Milly retired in 1994. In 1997, she received a Pioneer Award at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. In 2000, she received the Ada August Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing. With her many years of contributions to the field, I'm sure she also inspired many people -- women and men alike.

Additional Resources