Anita Borg interview, part I: Adventures of a Hippie Programmer

Excerpts from Anita Borg interview, part 1:

Anita Borg (1949-2003) was a pioneer in fault-tolerant operating systems who also founded Systers, the first mailing list for women in computer science, and co-founded with Telle Whitney the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. She was an irrepressible free spirit, and I felt privileged to be able to interview her in 2001. What follows are some of her life experiences in her own words.

On her parents as role models: “Their attitude about life was always that you should have a good time. … My sister and I feel absolutely blessed that we had parents that way. We both went in really different directions, but we both wound up really adventurous about what we did. They taught us that we could do anything we wanted, and if we failed, well, what the heck? You try something else.”

How she started working with computers: “I got married much too young, and my husband was two years older. He graduated from college and went to New York to graduate school. I quit school and was going to—in those days, you know: work and put hubby through graduate school. I didn’t know what I was going to do. What kind of job could I get without a degree or anything? A friend of mine said, ‘Get into data processing!’ [and I thought,] ‘Data processing? O.K.’ . . .
The first job I got was some kind of job where they were going to train me to do Fortran, and I was going to do something for them. I took the Fortran class, and then over the long weekend I went to Woodstock! When I came back, I got sick as a dog and turned out to have mono; I was sick for six weeks and lost the job.
The next job was ‘girl Friday’ for the data processing department of a small insurance company. I took the job because they promised that they would teach me programming and eventually I would become a programmer—which I didn’t. I did a bunch of programming work, but I was still categorized as a clerk and paid as a clerk. … I taught myself basic COBOL and started doing some programming, and then they put me to work, having taught myself this language. It was funny: I did a project, and they were complaining because it took so long; it took twice as long as they expected it to take. Now I know that only twice as long as what I said I thought it would take was a miracle, given that I’d never done anything like this before! . . .
About that time I got divorced, and I quit and went back to school [at NYU]. . . . I went back and decided to major in computer science, because I wasn’t ever going to depend on anybody else to support me again. It wasn’t clear to me that math was a major that was going to give me a way to support myself, but computer science was.”

On not letting graduate school take over your life: “I always felt weird. I always felt thought of as ‘not serious’ by the faculty. … Part of it, I thought, was because I was female, and part of it was because I had a very different attitude about what I was doing from a lot of people. I was told that I would never get a Ph.D. with my attitude. I had an attitude sort of like my Dad’s attitude about life, which was: I told them really clearly that graduate school was a five-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day job, and I was going to go have fun on the weekends. I was going to go ride motorcycles, I was going to paddle kayaks, I was going to do all the other stuff that I do. I had a relationship, I had a life. And who knows, you could get run over by a truck—why should I wreck my life to get a Ph.D.?”

Stay tuned for more anecdotes from the Anita Borg interview!

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