I’m slow on the uptake because I usually have my head in the clouds or I’m glaring at some project and not thinking about anything else. But hanging out at pharyngula back in the scienceblogs days helped clue me in to the gender imbalance in tech. (It required a few privilege-checks and beatings)
It’s embarrassing, really. Being one of the privileged white guys with graying facial hair that dominate the industry, I didn’t see it. When I started my company in 1997 I hired mostly friends, which helped perpetuate the problem, but I will say I moved quickly to recruit for diversity – with some (but not outstanding) success. The deep-seated sexism in tech started to grate on my nerves more and more; once you start seeing it, you see it everywhere, and it’s really shitty. And it’s embarrassing. I started doing a few things, including a statement that I wouldn’t speak at conferences that don’t have an anti-harassment policy. I tried to loop a few other computer security bigshots into making a joint statement, but – surprisingly to me – I got pushback on “freeze peach” even from some of the old school types that I expected would be more progressive. Well, they weren’t good friends, anyway; I went it alone. [ranum.com] I had already been disappointed by my industry when I complained aloud about “booth babes” at conferences another issue that many bigshot security practitioners poo-poo’d [roth] while others noted [schw] – when my then-boss asked if I’d go to our booth at RSA I said I’d do it if he didn’t mind me wearing a miniskirt and stripper heels. Nobody has sent me to RSA since then, so the last time I did a talk there I had to pay my own way.
I’ve been doing a column for SearchSecurity since 2003 [search] originally as a “debate” column with Bruce Schneier (we mostly agree) but then it morphed into an interview column. For the last year, I’ve been interviewing almost entirely women. Nobody has caught on, yet. And, of course, they’re awesome – their trajectory into computing and security often mirrors mine: interested as kid, then got involved in administration or operation, and from there into security. I’ve found it really interesting, because, as PZ asks in his recent piece “What differentiates a good engineer from a clueless ignoramus?” [pharyngula] Experience. That’s it. Passion helps but mostly it’s a matter of experience, which is a matter of opportunity. Passion is also a matter of opportunity: after all, you can’t get excited about something until you realize it’s something that’s an option for you. You can’t get experience with something until you get the opportunity to do it – unless you’ve got wealthy parents who can drop opportunity at your feet.
From my interview with Diana Kelly (who is a top-tier consultant at IBM and, at IBM, walks on water): [full interview]
How did you wind up in security? What were you like as a kid?
Diana Kelley: [laughs] I was actually a typical nerdy — but book nerdy — kid. I had a big penchant for Gilbert and Sullivan plays and learned many of them by heart. One day, my dad came home with a Texas Instruments programmable calculator. I was about 9 years old — it was early 1970s at this point — and I absolutely fell in love with it. You could program this thing to do stuff. I made it calculate out Hello. Later, when my dad decided he was going to build his own Heathkit computer, I was the kid that got really, really excited about this whole ‘computer’ thing and wanted to work on it with him.
My dad was a research professor at MIT Lincoln Labs, and he had accounts on the PDP computer at Tech Square, and I got a kid account so I could dial in. It was actually a rotary-dial phone with an acoustic coupler — you wait for the beeps and the boops. I was in the middle of this incredible revolution on the ARPANET: you could send email to people or have chats, and there were games — I think it was called ‘Adventure.’
Yeah, I played that one, too. ‘There is a little dwarf here.’
Kelley: I was talking to people who were working on research with mice and IT, and I was just completely floored. It was the coolest thing that it all worked. I actually ‘hacked’ without knowing what I was doing: Nowadays, no 12-year-old would have plausible deniability, but in 1978 or ’79, I would say I did.
All I knew was that I couldn’t get to the manual pages of the system I was on, and I was talking to someone who said, ‘Well, you just don’t have enough access.’ I was a kid; how could I get access?
Well, the mucky-mucks had access, so I figured out eventually that there was a bug in the login and people couldn’t see what they were typing their password into, but you could set the terminal up to ghost their keystrokes and get their password after they entered it. I got an admiral’s account, I believe, and I was on one of the .MIL systems in D.C. I was able to read everything I wanted about how the system worked, and the next day there was a phone call to my father.
That one really hit me; I was a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan, too. And I was just lucky that I worked at a school where they had a computer. It was one of the first schools on the east coast that had a computer.
From my interview with my old friend E. Kelly Fitzsimmons: [full interview]
Kelly, let’s jump right into it — how did you start off as an entrepreneur?
E. Kelly Fitzsimmons: I started around age 7. I lived in the Florida Everglades — my mom is an artist, and she decided to leave my father and live down there. So I moved from Milwaukee to Florida when I was 6 years old, and it became very clear to me, early on, that my mother’s plans to make it as an artist were not going to work out and some money was desperately needed. I started selling coconuts and driftwood to tourists.
(Laughing) How did you get into higher technology after coconuts and driftwood? Your work has always been focused on tech to some degree, so I assume it’s your background.
Fitzsimmons: Always, always. I started programming in Pascal when I was 11 years old. I was a weird kid: I had dyslexia and pretty severe ADHD. I remember, as a kid, getting a present of a 2-XL Robot that would quiz you on trivia, and it ran off an 8-track tape. And I thought it was fascinating and took up programming — it was so exciting to be able to create something from scratch. That was how I got started. When I moved back to Milwaukee, my career really didn’t take off until I was in my twenties.
Usually, these interviews are a learning experience for me. I know I’m an old-school coder, but I didn’t realize Kelly started the same year I did, but she’s (ahem!) younger. Diana started coding a couple years before I did. Opportunity. These ‘engineer’ twinks at Google (most of whom I would consider ‘noobs’) may have been belly-bumps when Kelly was coding in Pascal.
Dyann Bradbury and I’ve known each other for about 20 years now, I guess. But I never knew her origin story. It turns out: Opportunity [full interview]
Was there anything you’d identify in your childhood that set you on a course for your professional career? How did you wind up where you are now?
Dyann Bradbury: Where I was raised, you grew up, went to high school, got married, had a job — only you were a farmer’s wife — and that’s it. Or you were a secretary or taught school. I happened to get a job at a bank when I was in high school, so I could go there and work in the morning for a couple of hours. I think it was 1979, and I graduated from high school in 1980 and was scheduled to be married in 1981.
I went in to the senior vice president of the bank and said, ‘I want to take some [college] classes; what do you suggest?’ And he said, ‘Why not learn about computers because everyone is going to have one on their desk in 10 years.’ I took ‘Intro to Computers and Data Processing’ and got so interested in it that I decided I needed to know everything there is to know about computers — everything from how the current comes in to the power supply, to how the software works. What sparked my passion was how the computer read the information — yes/no, on/off. I thought, this is incredible!
By then, I was working full time, I was married, and I was taking night classes. I took electronics classes — transistors and base-level stuff, [including] computer repair. They would give us a motherboard and [computer] case, a drive [and say,] ‘make it work.’ I took classes in networking from beginning to advanced.
I broke out of my streak last winter, and interviewed a venture capitalist. I thought it would be interesting to hear about that field; why venture capitalists are so busy looking for the next Mark Zuckerberg and ignoring all the Dianas, Dyanns, and Kellys – and she said some profoundly interesting things that made me lose what little shreds of respect I still had for venture capitalists: they see their job as sticking with what they know works, and hacky sack playing white ivy league boys are “what works.” In other words, she wants to perpetuate the system out of fear of failure and lack of vision. Meanwhile, venture capitalists tell everyone that they make their money taking risks. Ha! It was an interesting interview but the next day her P.R. agency called me to say we couldn’t print it. Oh, how did she become a venture capitalist? Opportunity.
Bill Gates was a lawyer’s kid, who went to a private preparatory school (like I did) that had a computer (like mine) when he fell in love with programming and started obsessively playing with the computer, his teachers excused him out of other classes. He’s not a dumb guy, by any means, but if he’d been poor, or black, or female, he wouldn’t have had that opportunity.
I you want to read about some awesome computing people, my columns are here: [Searchsecurity]
Baltimore, where I grew up, had effectively segregated schools. They used the full panoply of tricks: tying school funding to tax-base and reducing school bus vouchers. I was totally unaware of any of that, at the time, but later I wondered if my parents switched me to a private school because of Baltimore’s sad attempts to desegregate. Apparently I was “getting too good at playing poker and not good enough at history” and was “a bit of a trouble-maker.” Pfff!