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the girl can't help it
she wants to be a techie
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

I wanna be a techie.

This is my new mission in life. It isn't something I've really sat down and thoroughly thought through, so this column will be more directionless musing than composed argument. Which should make it more fun to read anyway.

In any case, over the last couple of weeks, I've decided I really want to delve into the world of techdom. What do I mean by that? Hell if I know, frankly.

I tend to – and I think a lot of people tend to – treat "high-tech" as if it were this single entity, this body of knowledge that can be absorbed and comprehended if only it is attacked properly. More often than attacking it, however, people fear it. It. IT. A pair of letters that means one of two things, depending on who you ask:

a) IT (eye-tee): an acronym for Information Technology.

b) IT (iht): the giant disembodied brain in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

[Columnist's note: you may need to read the following paragraphs over a couple of times, trying each pronunciation, unless you're not one of those people who pronounces things in your head while you're reading, in which case, tell me your secret.]

People treat IT as this huge thing, this single thing, when they're afraid of IT. I'm not afraid of IT, but I still treat IT as an entity, because I find IT forbidden to me. IT is this ... thing. So the L'Engle allusion isn't a bad one. IT is a big disembodied brain on a table that runs everything the way IT wants things run. But once you learn the secrets of IT, as Meg Murry did, you can vanquish IT.

However, there it (IT) all falls apart. The secret of … wait, it doesn't fall apart at all.

Meg Murry vanquished IT by loving IT – or, to be more exact, by loving her brother Charles Wallace, whose body had been possessed by IT. (You have to read the book – it's not as cheesy as it sounds. Besides, I was, like, eleven.)

I, too, plan to vanquish IT by loving IT – or, to be more exact, whatever aspect of IT I can manage to get my arms around.

I've managed to get my arms around a certain aspect of it. This aspect usually tends to measure between six and six-and-a-half feet high, wear small glasses, and write code.

I am the Geek Diva.

To put it another way, my most aggressive foray into the world of high-tech so far is more a pattern than an educational path: a ten-month relationship with a Human Factors engineer; a couple of dates with a self-employed IT consultant; extended flirtations with several programmers; and the date mentioned in last month's column, a biomedical engineer. This is the most tech work I've done so far, unless you count working as a User (PCs, not PCP) Consultant in the computer lab in college. And I got the job in the computer lab, quite frankly, for being a girl. Thirty people worked in the lab. Two were women. I knew what E-mail was. They hired me.

As is often the case, I knew just enough to impress the people who knew nothing. I could retrieve crashed theses and reroute documents to another printer. I had a website, built from scratch, and it was all about me. (In 1995, this was novel. Now it is a sign of insufferable vanity.) I was tech girl. I had power.

In any case, my geek predilection aside, when I say I want to get my arms around an aspect of information technology, I don't mean the Human Factors guy or the IT consultant or the biomedical engineer. I don’t. (...anymore.) I mean that I want to understand, to comprehend, to gain expertise ... somehow, in something, from someone. But what, exactly? I haven't figured that out yet. As much as I might regard IT as something unto ITself, IT is made up of billions of little its, and I need to decide exactly which one to reach out for.

Because this was the problem with being hired for my girlness: I got looked down on. People would walk up to the desk where two User Consultants sat, look at us both, and turn to the man for information. Some would go out of their way to avoid consulting me.

And although I was being avoided for my gender, and I wanted to argue and claim You know, I'm just as qualified as he is, the fact is, I wasn't. People weren't right to avoid asking me for help, but if the question was challenging, chances were I didn't know the answer.

I don't like that feeling.

Somehow, I need to succeed against discrimination. But if I'm looking at IT, I'm not prepared. I'm not qualified. It would be criminal to inflict myself on a high-tech organization at my current level of knowledge, not that they would hire me with my low-tech background, nor keep me on long enough to discover the depth of my ignorance.

At the same time, on some level, I crave the challenge of succeeding in a male-dominated field. Perhaps this is because I'm naturally contrary. In college, I kicked around the idea of an engineering degree, not because I like engineering -- words are more my thing than numbers -- but because I didn't know a single woman who was doing so. So far my field (at present, proposal management) is not male-dominated. It is not terribly friendly to the young, but I know that I will not always be young.

I will always be a woman.

(Which should be a great relief to the geeks I haven't gotten around to yet.)


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


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